Mount Washington's walking man, at home in the neighborhood A Place for James

April 02, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

James plows his prizefighter's face with an electric shaver. He misses a clump under his lip. Then James covers his round, 4-foot-11 body in an army coat. He already has his walking shoes on -- dirty black, moon-walking shoes. Ballast for the walking man.

James walks out of here every day around 3 p.m. Today might as well be tomorrow or yesterday. All the same gig.

As he leaves the Chimes' residential home for the mentally retarded, James pledges to come back early to clean up the splintered pretzels and pencil shavings on the floor of his room.

His secretarial desk is the center of his universe. Here, he keeps his "papers," and the office supplies the staff gives him. His police badges are here, and a picture of a sea gull on notebook paper, cut from a nature magazine. James owns at least two briefcases; he likes to feel important.

"He's a man on a mission," says social worker Jennifer Lochotzki, who will walk along with us today.

As he heads for the door, James passes a screaming man in the hallway. The old man's wheelchair is turned to the wall. Outside, a man bellows at a visitor looking for James:

"Salabes? Yeah, the building right there," he says. "You can have him, man." He laughs too loudly.

First day of spring. James starts walking in his oversized shoes -- down the big hill on Thornbury Street to Smith Avenue and into the Village shops of Mount Washington.

Everybody knows James; no one knows his last name. James Salabes has been around for a vague number of years. The merchants, who give him odd jobs for even money, call James "neat" and a "fixture" who gives Mount Washington "character." We love "Officer James." He's the "mayor of Mount Washington!"

He's "harmless," they also say. He can get a little loud and get in people's faces. He can startle people, as he lumbers into Patrick's Hair Design where customers spend $80 on a perm and cut. The regulars know James has a home here. Once, the beauticians wrapped a towel around a napping James to disguise him as a customer.

Mostly, James wants to help out, somehow. Sweep the floor, answer phones. Maybe in another life he was a cop; James does collect police badges and loves to direct traffic in Mount Washington. Loves to flirt too -- especially with that great blonde who pulled up one day in the Jaguar.

Go, James.

"You're really doing a story on James?" the merchants say. "That's great."

James Salabes is a 63-year-old Chimes consumer. He is an only child and both of his parents are deceased.

Press release from the Chimes.

James talks as he walks. He talks about cars and vans and other modes of transportation. He talks to anyone who will listen about losing his keys and wanting to take the new van out. What van? In his mind, he's been driving all over creation and needs some decent wheels. He wants a pastel yellow Cadillac.

James doesn't drive anything, anywhere. He gets into the vans and the standard yellow school buses (the shorter version) and takes his daily, structured field trips to the zoo or park. Then, he's driven back to the Chimes, which is also a Mount Washington fixture. Since 1951, the house on the hill has been a good home for people who are mentally retarded. James isn't the only Chimes resident who has been seen and known in Mount Washington, but he's the most popular.

Mixed-bag neighborhood

Like other Baltimore neighborhoods, Mount Washington is the first to say it's special and different. Mencken summered here -- many of the homes were former summer resorts for the well-off. The Mount Washington Casino was a hot dance spot, and the Mount Washington Tavern was a former beer and soup joint before it got "yuppified," as old-timers say.

Mount Washington feels part country/part city. It's a mixed-bag of architecture, with Victorian homes living with new, brick homes. "A messier kind of Roland Park," says resident historian Taylor Branch. The catch-your-breath streets are cornered with saltboxes and patrolled by dogs of creative parentage. There's a landmark church (Shrine of the Sacred Heart). There's a shopping district: Mount Washington's funkified Village is a jumble of pricey salons, cafes, galleries, a sushi bar and an animal clinic where the old streetcar used to turn around. People with dough drop in the Stone Mill Bakery and buy a large loaf of five-grain, three-seed bread for $7.

On every corner, they know James. The relationship couldn't happen downtown. Too big and busy. James couldn't take hold of it. But small neighborhoods make the time and room. In Mount Washington, people feel comfortable around James. There's a rapport, an affection. Maybe he makes them feel safe, in some odd way. Maybe, James makes people feel nonjudgmental. Look here, we don't care that he is mentally retarded.

At the Mount Washington Tavern, regulars plunk down in all the shade and hard wood. They also know James' ways, know him right down to his clothes.

"Man must have 90 belts."

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