The suburbs hold no appeal when you love your big old house and friendly neighbors

February 23, 1997|By JACQUES KELLY

THERE'S A SENTENCE occasionally uttered by people who don't know me very well. It goes something like, "Oh, are you still living there?"

The words, "still" and "there" are accentuated in a way to convey a sense of disbelief (sometimes haughty) that anyone could still be living in Baltimore City, especially in one neighborhood for so long.

Yes, I still live on Saint Paul Street, and my father still lives around the corner on Guilford Avenue.

The pair of us like big old houses, and we like the kind of neighborhoods that people who blurt out those still-and-there words shot out of ages ago.

I am sure some of these people mean well when they insert a note of pity in their speech about living conditions inside the city line, well below 33rd Street. On the other hand, I would consider it a domestic death sentence to live in some of the places where my concerned friends reside.

It's just that I happen to like old Baltimore houses with beamed dining-room ceilings and parquet floors and oak banisters and stained-glass windows in the bathroom. Yes, the plumbing can be uncertain, but purple glass made in the William Howard Taft era has its compensations. I also like real porches and a cellar big enough that you could go to a flea market every weekend, buy all the junk you want and still have room for more clutter.

And this place hasn't been fashionable any time in my lifetime. Residents began seeking better addresses than Charles Village (or its older, frumpier name, Peabody Heights) when the mortar joints were still wet on their rowhouse walls.

One of the sadnesses of living here has been to watch people move away, often in search of the better address, the better school, the better something. Sometimes they find that greener pasture. The more honest ones will tell the truth.

There are reasons to like this neighborhood that go far beyond Edwardian houses. You have real neighbors.

Thursday a week ago, I was taking the laundry to the dry cleaners. Of course I was on foot. I haven't driven a car since 1967, and that experience was not terribly successful.

I walked along the alleys, which, in mid-February, were filled with cast-off Christmas packing boxes.

It was paper recycling day to boot. I soon learned which of my block mates shopped at the local stores and which ones dropped their coin at the fancier greengrocers and select butchers.

There is one thing about garbage collection day in a city neighborhood. There are no lies in the alley. I often learn more on one of my alley walks than I did at the soda fountain of the much-missed Ragland's drugstore, an institution that once flourished at Guilford and 28th.

On the way to the cleaners, I ran into Manny Velder, a friend who is a retired Baltimore City school system English teacher.

"I've heard you've been to England. Tell me the plays you saw," the professor asked.

That pop quiz out of the way, I descended into the little basement of the Standard Cleaners, where I ran into another neighbor, a woman christened "The General" by her daughter, ** Audrey Eastman, and my late mother.

The General, who is really Dorothy Weidner, was formerly the Charles Village postmistress and before that, a loyal Glenn L. Martin employee. As a great-grandmother, she observed, assessed and issued commentary on parcels brought into her basement substation on Charles Street near 25th for many years.

She looked at the post-New Year's clothes mountain I was lugging and remarked, "Letting a lot of your clothes get dirty, aren't you?"

"Guilty as charged," I replied.

After all, what could you say to someone who had known my family before I was born, someone who had the apartment across the back alley from the yard where my grandmother and her sister would hang their Monday wash at 4: 30 in the morning. The General had a flawless crow's nest to observe my family's laundry habits in the "Dewey Defeats Truman" era.

The General and I chatted. I asked whether she still took several buses to get to Eastpoint Shopping Center from Saint Paul and 29th Street. "Oh yes," she said.

She then trotted home, on foot, of course.

I did the same.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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