Courtland Avenue's holdout The legend remains: Elbert R. "Al" Harden, who has lived in Towson since 1969, has witnessed the gradual destruction of his neighborhood.

November 07, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Sitting on the porch of a vintage Towson bungalow, sipping beer and resting his bum leg, 69-year-old Elbert R. "Al" Harden watches Baltimore County crews transform six more houses into a parking lot.

So goes the neighborhood, but it doesn't seem to bother Mr. Harden -- the last resident of Courtland Avenue, in a part of central Towson that was built about the time of World War I but now is taken over by county government, business and professional offices.

A half block to the north are two county parking garages. Across the street where houses gave way to the gravel parking lot, a new Towson police station will rise in a few years.

Mr. Harden, who has lived here since 1969, said the gradual destruction of old residential Towson, south of the county courthouse, doesn't bother him. He said he is not upset about his solitary status.

"I already bought a grave," he says matter-of-factly. "Got my funeral all paid for. I know I'm going."

Mr. Harden, who can hardly walk because of a construction injury, is outspoken, clever, observant and mostly independent, and seemingly content with his meager lot. He is a character out of Towson's agrarian past, a big, tanned, gray-haired former farm worker and carpenter with a faded tattoo of a dancing woman on one arm and an ever-present 16-ounce beer in one hand.

Despite his isolation and sometimes prickly temper, he has a devoted circle of friends who stick by him, bringing cooked meals, calling on birthdays, helping him shop and get medical treatment.

H. Francies LeBrun, an insurance and real estate broker who owns several of the remaining old buildings, is Mr. Harden's landlord, providing him a cramped basement workshop-apartment rent-free and a small weekly salary for occasional chores and watching Mr. LeBrun's properties.

Mr. LeBrun acknowledged that Mr. Harden can be troublesome to tenants he dislikes.

Once, when a business tenant declared he was moving if Al didn't, Mr. LeBrun made his feelings clear: "I'm not throwing him out. We just try to live with him."

A farm boy raised in mountainous southwestern Virginia during the Depression, Mr. Harden came to Maryland during World War II for naval recruit training at Bainbridge and returned after his discharge in 1945 -- a medical discharge, he says, "because I couldn't read or write."

It is too late to learn now, Mr. Harden says, but "I can count, though."

Despite living in the midst of county government, he takes no advantage of programs and services for the elderly, illiterate or the infirm -- although he gets a $437 monthly Social Security check and receives medical care from the Veterans Administration.

He goes a block north most days to get a hot dog from a street vendor, and buys used clothes from a nearby church.

Mr. LeBrun says that in his prime, Mr. Harden was strong as an ox and sometimes just as stubborn -- but he is also resourceful, and appreciative of the help. Mr. Harden bought an electric cart and built a wooden ramp to get it outside.

Everybody who knows him seems to smile at the mention of Al's name. He is a character, they all agree, and the stories are legion.

There was the time Al Harden supposedly caught a fleeing county jail prisoner in a headlock until sheriff's deputies arrived. He got a framed certificate for that from the late Sheriff Charles H. Hickey Jr.

Then there was the time years ago when he went to meet friends for a deer hunt in Cockeysville -- by bus. The driver was taken aback at the sight of his early morning, shotgun-toting passenger.

Lisa Keir, an aide to Towson's County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, said she was upset to hear that Mr. Harden was drinking beer again. It isn't good for his bad leg, she said. But Mr. Harden says, "I got to take something to calm my nerves."

Hanlon Murphy, another friend, said Al doesn't take proper care of himself and that his prickly personality, while entertaining, tends to keep people at arm's length.

When Mr. Harden dislikes someone, the message can be pretty clear.

Mr. Harden said he hasn't talked to a brother in Cockeysville for 16 years because of a decades-old family dispute. He has been married three times, he said -- the last wife leaving in 1954 and returning to rural Virginia.

Mr. LeBrun credits Mr. Harden with keeping intruders -- human and animal -- out of the buildings. He traps pesky squirrels, and has them taken to rural areas, to prevent rodent damage to the old houses.

At night, Mr. Harden watches country music and dancing on cable television, and listens for the nearby Towson police precinct shift changes -- marked by a loud, brief blast of sirens.

"I try to live a good life," he says. "It's good enough for me."

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