City's streets were a kind of vibrant classroom Learning: Stepping out for a walk meant meeting life face-to-face, in all its varied richness.

September 05, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

YEARS AGO I received an instruction in the geography, history, economics and social studies of the city of Baltimore.

This teaching -- really a parallel instruction -- was not the kind we had in school. It was the type you assimilate from your elders on the days -- and more often the weekends -- when we took off by foot, bus, streetcar, taxi, family car and, once a year, boat.

I learned the truth about Baltimore, gobbling up its foibles, curiosities and eccentricities as they were patiently explained by my family.

Time after time, we encountered the city's peoples -- the old shoemaker, the woman in the corner confectionery store, the cranky bus passenger. We accepted them precisely as these people conducted themselves, not according to the directives of some social engineer. It was a great show of social theater -- especially on cold winter days when the customers lined up at the Belair Market on Gay Street to buy skinned muskrats for Sunday supper. I became addicted to rye bread by comparison-shopping the bakeries of East Lombard Street.

If, at age 6, I witnessed a police raid on an illegal gaming operation, so what? (My late mother claimed that I developed a fear of animals by watching a bloody cockfight in Timonium at about the same age. That cockfight was in the living room of one of my parent's friends.)

We did a lot of this city-countryside traveling, small and ordinary expeditions that were anything but dull or dreary. And as part of my life's education, these sessions provided a viewpoint far different from the books, papers and homework of a normal 1950s school.

Some of the best treks were merely on foot, all around the corners and neighborhood byways of Waverly and what we call Charles Village today. There was one auto in the family, and my father used it to get to work.

Most days, we traveled as our neighbors did, on foot, using our shoe leather. There were six of us children, and my mother pushed a sturdy, steel-framed, wicker-body baby carriage as we plowed through the fractured alleys of the old neighborhood -- down Guilford Avenue or up Calvert. Along the way we looked at backyard pigeon coops, fish ponds and rose gardens.

One day an obviously senile woman appeared on a rickety back porch. She was dressed in a night gown. And she realized she had an audience. She smiled and broke into a delightful ragtime version of "Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay." Her voice was fine and clear. Then, she turned and went in the kitchen door.

The destination that was the most effective in holding the interest of a half-dozen children was 26th Street. There, depressed in a deep cut, were two pair of train rails. We got exercises in patience as we waited for a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train to pass -- then got to classify it as freight or passenger and to count the cars. (We secretly prayed for a train wreck. It never happened, except for one Sunday and that rail pileup was across town. My father drove us over to see it.)

When headed off to the Greenmount Avenue-Gorsuch Avenue shops in Waverly, we took a truly ancient route: colorful Vineyard Lane, a 19th-century thoroughfare-survivor that cut alongside the neighborhood's surviving 18th-century mansion. This was a particularly overgrown and tangled part of our world. It was here that I learned about old houses, crab apples, honeysuckle and walnut trees. I was shown the ripples and purplish tint of old windows. I learned the difference between a gas street lamp and its electric counterpart. I was instructed in the difference between a cast-iron balcony and one made of aluminum.

On these strolls, you realized that Baltimore was ever changing. I heard a constant conversational refrain that so-and-so had once lived here, in a certain house, but had since moved on to another address. I also discovered that venerable institutions like the Orioles were ever on the move. One of our favorite recreation spots was the site of the old, old Oriole Park along 29th Street. Its wooden grandstand burned six years before I was born, leaving behind a natural playing space. The 1954 Orioles were of course eight blocks away at Memorial Stadium.

Another time we drove what seemed like a day across town to Caton Avenue and the Mary Sue Candy plant, where my father's friend Nathan "Cherry" Kramer produced tons of hard candy all year round and, in season, chocolate-covered Easter eggs. This was the first assembly line I'd ever seen. Visiting the Mary Sue plant was much better than the fabled "I Love Lucy" episode of similar subject matter.

My grandfather, Edward "Pop" Monaghan, bought us tickets for the Army Corps of Engineers' bull and oyster roast, the autumn event where I learned to bypass oyster stew while requesting the fresh (i.e. uncured) ham. Part of the afternoon was spent on the corps' launch, which toured around the still-busy-but-aging harbor, then untouched by urban renewal. It was the first time in my life that I saw the red-dust-covered Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point, then Baltimore's largest employer, located on a tract of land tightly off-limits to public inspection.

These trips taught me plenty. So, whenever I hear that a city is no place to raise a child, I chuckle. To me, there was no better spot.

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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