Making A Good Life In A Piece Of Hell

COMMENT

January 24, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

We are sitting in the parking lot in front of the Pioneer City Food Market, watching the sun go down over the little piece of hell Kalem Mateen calls home.

His five young children are indoors by now; they know to be inside a half-hour before dark, before the nighttime cast of characters starts to materialize. They are already coming out of the shadows -- bored-looking young people in hot cars shaking with sound, girls and boys looking for a dark place, troublemakers, drug dealers.

"Don't worry," Mr. Mateen tells me. "Nobody's gonna harm you yet."

l The Mateens have lived here since 1980 in one of the modest, dun-colored townhouses typical of Pioneer City and its nearby ,, twin, Meade Village. In 12 years, "the flavor hasn't changed," Mr. Mateen says. "This is hell here."

He's right.

The average family lives on $18,000 a year; many depend on federal housing subsidies and school free lunch programs. There are those who do make more -- up to $25,000 or $30,000, monumental incomes in a place like this -- but they don't know how to use their money to make substantial changes in their lives. They spend it on fancy cars, $150 tennis shoes, clothes, jewelry.

The dropout rate is high, the amount of teen-age pregnancy a disaster. Drugs and crime are constants. The police are in town for some disturbance every day, every night. In 1990, they responded to 3,042 calls in Pioneer City alone.

In a community in which most households are headed by women, Mr. Mateen is an oddity.

"When I come back from the market," he says, "neighbor children stand in the door and look. When I walk my children to the bus stop, they look with wonderment and amazement. From their body language they are saying, 'I wish I had that.' There's nobody else here like me."

He doesn't look that different. With his worn green corduroy coat and gray cap, he's actually dressed worse than most of the people going in and out of the food mart. He smokes. He doesn't have much work.

What distinguishes him from the rest of the people around here is that he's happy. He has a life. Unlike most everybody else around here, he's got a formula for a decent existence in Pioneer City: Put family first. Believe in something besides big cars and expensive tennis shoes. Use your ability to control how the outside world affects what goes on behind your own four walls.

I ask when he's getting out of Pioneer City. He says he isn't.

"This is hell here, but only if you make it hell. Once we break the plane of my house, all this out here becomes non-existent. Look, I can't walk up to anybody selling drugs and say, 'Look, I have children, I don't want you selling no drugs.' But what I can do is tell my children, 'Stay away from people like that.'

Kalem Mateen is no saint. Twenty years ago, he would have been doing his level best to make Pioneer City badder than it is. He was addicted to heroin. Chased women. Was homeless, at one point. "My life," he says, "was a field of destruction. I never cared for anybody."

His wife, Aqueelah, changed everything for him. He became committed to her, and, when they started having children, to them. Now he walks them to the bus stop every day. Picks them up. Supervises their homework. He sees himself as their "navigator," telling them whom to stay away from and whom to respect.

Last week, he was named to a committee to supervise plans for a desperately needed multi-service center the county wants to build behind Van Bokkelen Elementary School. If it's ever built, he'd like to work there, as a sort of "navigator" for the whole community. He thinks he has something to offer these people.

He does.

He's one of them, yet he's found a fulfillment they don't have. And he knows why.

It's not the place; "from here to Beverly Hills, it's no different," he says. It's not a matter of money, either; the folks with the big cars aren't any happier than him. It's a matter of managing your five senses well enough to avoid what's bad for you and figuring out what's truly important.

"People resent my positiveness," he says. And they envy it, too.

As long as they do, there's hope.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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