The Fountain of Highlandtown

July 10, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez


I learned to live in the dark this year when I quit my job, sold everything I owned, and moved in with my grandfather.

My new life makes spending time with women more complicated than usual, even for a guy who one day decides to quit his job and sell everything he owns to go live in the dark.

But you can't give up. Grandpop would tell you that.

It's a fine summer night in Baltimore and I am walking from Grandpop's house to meet Katherine, who is young and beautiful and smart and almost completely unknown to me.

I haven't told her much about myself, hardly anything except that my grandmother died in the hospital where she works, that my grandfather stopped sleeping in their bed the day she passed away and that it would be better if I met her where she lives than the other way around.

I said all of this last week when I met her in line at the Broadway market. I was buying fresh fruit for Grandpop and she was picking up scallops and shrimp and pints of shucked oysters for a dinner party at her apartment.

Okay, she said, maybe we can do something, and she scratched her phone number across my bag of fruit.

And here I am, walking from the little Highlandtown rowhouse where my father was born and raised, passing bakeries and record stores and coffee shops, on my way to Katherine's apartment a few miles away, up around Johns Hopkins Hospital.

It's early (I had to get out of the house) and there is still a lot of early evening light as I walk down Macon Street to Eastern Avenue.

The streets jump with kids on roller skates, Saturday shoppers coming home with their bundles, and old women squirting down the gutters.

Middle-aged sports with slick hair and brown shoes with white socks wait for numbers and action; Greek men in need of a shave stand on the corner, bragging and lying to one another; packs of heavy-metal kids roam for drugs and kicks; and young girls walk by, dressed up for each other.

My eyes swim through the crowd and the margins of my mind are pinched with thoughts of Katherine.

What will she be wearing? What will she smell like? What hangs on her walls?

I think: How will the time pass between us?

If things go well, can I invite her back to Macon Street?

Fat chance.

The center of my mind is dominated by Grandpop.

He is driving me crazy.

Right up the wall.

I am afraid that it's not going to last long enough for me to get everything done.

Every morning at breakfast he says the same thing: "Why are you here?"

It's like he forgets that I am living with him between the time we go to bed and the time we wake up.

He tosses and turns all night on his little sofa bed downstairs, like he's being chased, and with the first break of day he asks: "Why are you here?"

And then: "It's morning, turn off that light. You think I'm a millionaire? No one burns a light in the daytime. How were you raised?"

Grandpop was so poor growing up in Spain that one summer he carved an entire bicycle out of wood, wheels and all, so he would have something to ride besides an ox-drawn plow.

It doesn't matter that he has had it good in this country for 60 years, that, in his own words, he eats "like a king" in America and can lock the front door to a warm home he has owned for twice as long as I have been alive.

It doesn't matter that he's got a good pension from the Sparrows Point shipyard and Social Security and more money in bank accounts he has forgotten than I have made in 28 years on Earth. None of that means anything if you are foolish enough to leave a light on in a room you are not in or you want to read or draw or scratch your butt by electric light before the sky outside has turned to pitch.

And there's no reason at all to use lights after night has fallen because at night you sleep.

Electricity, says Grandpop, is money and a poor man cannot afford to waste either of them.

Bent over and angry, pointing to an offending 15-watt bulb, he says: "You think I'm a millionaire?"

When I try to tell him not to worry about it, that I'll help him pay for it and it's only pennies anyway -- that we really do have it good in this country -- he says I can go live with somebody else if I want to waste money.

He says: "Why are you here?"

But he doesn't charge me a dime to live with him and eat his food and he doesn't say a word when I do some of the things I

have to do to get my work done.

Just as long as I don't turn on any lights.

God Bless America.

God Bless Grandpop.

I cross Eastern Avenue and dart between traffic into Patterson Park, where Grandpop used to play soccer way back when with other expatriates from around the world.

It's hard for me to imagine his legs strong enough to kick a ball the length of the park; he's barely able now to climb the steps in the middle of the night to make sure I'm not reading under the covers by flashlight. But up on the dusty shelves near the little day bed where he lays down at night and talks in his sleep like he's trying to make somebody understand, there are trophies to prove it.

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