The body on Clinton Street

Robert E. Hecht Sr.

July 29, 1992|By Robert E. Hecht Sr.

I'M a jogger, an urban jogger. I canter on the streets of Canton, my neighborhood in East Baltimore. Jogging removes the horrible guilt I would otherwise feel if I didn't do it and it gives me a wonderful opportunity to scavenge, a lifelong pastime from the alleys of my youth. While my mind and body tend to be atrophic, my scavenger instincts remain acute.

As a seasoned scavenger, I know that success turns on pure luck. Scavenging is not for the impatient, and most of my jogging forays are fruitless. Typically, I find money, usually coins, but I've picked up currency, too, all the way up to a sawbuck. There are other things like fugitive Frisbees which, like stray puppies, cry out for new owners. A few months ago, I found a truly rare trove. I found a body.

It was a Sunday morning. I was running my Clinton Street course. Clinton Street at this point is not a stroll in the park. The wharves, warehouses and oil tanks of its busy port-related past remain, but the neighborhood is only a ghost of its former self. On weekends it is virtually deserted. It was a beautiful morning. I took off my shirt and put myself on cruise. Then, about 300 yards from Boston Street, I saw it.

It was supine, at a right angle to the curb, bare feet hanging into the street. It was very still. I stopped. This wasn't lost change, my mind registered. "This is a body!" It appeared to be that of a young boy, perhaps 10 years old, hair closely cropped, dressed in very short denims and a tank top. What to do?

First, determine whether the little creature is dead, I told myself. So I bent over the still form and, like a practiced thaumaturge, commanded it to rise. No response. Face pallid. No movement. I grasped a hand and shook, meanwhile repeating the command. Not a flutter of an eyelid. I shook even harder. There was slight movement of the right knee. I kept shaking and shouting until the eyes opened and I drew the body into a sitting position. There was no vocal response, just a zombie stare. I wondered if this child had been drugged and dumped here. How could I summon help from this deserted place?

Finally, I lifted the body to a standing position and made a startling discovery: It was not a boy. It -- she -- was a woman, probably in her early 20s. I asked her several times how she came to be there, and when at last she spoke, I was sorry she did. She let loose a stream of sounds, most of which were unintelligible, the rest unprintable. Mon petite femme used more obscenities in one breath than I'd heard in six years of Navy duty. This profane peanut was very much alive!

Suddenly I saw a police car heading south on Clinton. Good, I thought, I'll turn this over to the authorities and get back to my run. I waved, signaling the need for assistance. He waved back and drove by.

My discovery turned and launched a second barrage of low language, this time because I had attempted to involve the police. Didn't I know he would lock her up? I hadn't thought of that. I was only trying to help her, I said.

Progress. We were conversing now. Although still foggy, she said she was staying with a cousin nearby. Why wasn't she with her cousin now, instead of sleeping on the sidewalk with her feet in Clinton Street? Because her cousin had thrown her out. Assuming authority I didn't have, I said, "Well, you're going to have to go back and ask her to take you in again." I said we would go together.

As we started down the street she castigated me again for not minding my own business. I told her I'd thought she was dead; she hadn't been moving. Looking down, she scolded, "The street ain't dead and it ain't movin'!" Touche encore! How could I refute such cogent logic?

As we proceeded toward Boston Street, I tried to steer her bare feet away from the glass shards in our path, but she seemed unconcerned. We must have looked like the ultimate odd couple: a feisty feminine gnome and an old man dressed only in shorts and running shoes. Yet there we were, in search of a bed for milady to sleep in.

She became more communicative and less combative, telling me that it would be better not to confront her cousin face-to-face before telephoning first. I said I carried no money. Without a word, she pulled several folded dollars from her pocket and handed them to me. I suggested she keep them until we reached a place where we could get change.

We reached Boston, a busy thoroughfare, and a most remarkable thing happened. When it came time to cross, she signaled her acceptance of my escort by placing her hand in mine, like a well-trained child, and I held it until we completed the crossing.

We finally found a small neighborhood store, and she went inside while I waited. She came out with cigarettes and some change for the phone. We headed for a nearby public phone, and I thought about what further role I could play. The answer came quickly.

She was all together now. As the quarter dropped down the slot, she turned to me and said softly, "Thanks." I had been dismissed.

The entire episode had lasted only 20 minutes. No names were exchanged; it wasn't necessary. I knew who she was and who she came to be. She was Aldonza when I found her and Dulcinea when we parted. And I, I was the knight-errant, the Man of LaMancha, pushing onward to further quests, jogging and scavenging in the realm of Canton.

Robert E. Hecht Sr. is a retired Baltimore bank executive. This was written for the Renaissance Institute, a learning community of older men and women at the College of Notre Dame.

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