One Sunday in the City

PRISCILLA LEE MILES

September 21, 1992|By PRISCILLA LEE MILES

I used to go into housing projects all the time. I was the nurse for School 164 and I had to see if a child was sick when it did not show up in school for a week or two. I grew quite attached to some of the families, especially those in which the mother was sincere in her struggle against every odd in the world to give her kids a decent chance in life.

But those were the days before there were drugs and two to three daily shootings. So when the phone rang one Sunday morning and a man told me his wife had found my stolen pocket book in a dumpster and he lived in the project on the corner of Pratt and Caroline Streets and I could come pick it up, I called the police. The man had said I could bring someone with me.

The police said:

''It could be a come-on. Go to the nearest phone and call 911 when you get down there. The officer on duty will go to the project with you.''

It was a beautiful day. I began to regret the tired old furniture and filth I expected to see. The cop met me on Pratt Street and we went into the courtyard. He knew some of the old people who were sitting around on the benches, so we had some pleasant greetings. We found Number 218 and rapped on the door.

''I told ya on the phone I was a Cajun,'' said the guy who opened the door. ''I don't care who knows it. And I don't care who you brung with you.'' He looked at the cop and then he let us into the apartment.

I was stunned. It was charming! There were pretty slipcovers on the sofa and chairs, pictures on the walls and an interesting plate collection around a kitchen shelf. ''It's very attractive,'' I told the man.

He smiled. ''My wife likes things nice.'' He handed me my red canvas shoulder bag.

''Most of these places are trash.'' The cop was nodding his head as he looked around.

My pocket book had been under the seat of a friend's car which had been stolen the night before. I had left it there so I would not be mugged going into the Peabody.

''Probably kids wantin' a joy ride took the car,'' said the cop as I checked over my cards and checkbook. ''They chuck these kinda things over.'' Everything was there but wallet and money. I put the bag around my neck.

My host said he was a house painter and he began to relax when the cop and I were friendly. He told me he had fallen off a ladder several years ago and suffered a head injury. It left him subject to unpredictable seizures so he can't do too much anymore, except he tries to work occasionally part-time. Some of his customers have given him many of the ornaments which decorate the place. I didn't ask him why his wife was going through the dumpster, but I did try to give him a small reward which he did not seem to want to accept.

Finally, he said he didn't have a telephone so he took it to help pay for the call he'd made to me from the booth on the corner.

The old people had not moved from the benches in the courtyard, so the cop and I had more pleasantries with them as we left. I told him I did not envy him his job, and he thanked me.

It was still a bright and beautiful Sunday even in the inner city. The streets were quiet and empty. I felt good knowing there can still be civility, and charm and pride inside a project. I looked at the wonderful green steeple on top of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church as I drove toward the beltway and its bell began to ring. I wondered what in God's name we could do for the inner city to keep the peace that was there at this special moment.

Priscilla Lee Miles is the author of ''Historic Baltimore: Twelve Walking Tours.''

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