City charmed him, then snuffed his light

This Just In ...

October 30, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

A MAN LIVES his life well. He fills his mind with light and wonder. He appreciates the finer things, and learns a trade that exploits his love of beauty. He becomes a craftsman of high reputation. He makes many friends. He travels extensively, even around the world twice, always coming home to Baltimore. He survives street muggings. He survives cancer. He survives heart surgery. He knows, better than many, that life is worth the fight. A doctor tells him, as if he needed telling, that his health is good; he should go out and enjoy himself.

And so, in the 76th year of his life, the man keeps making plans.

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, his plans included a steak dinner with old friends at Shula's, one of Baltimore's many new restaurants.

And then someone came along -- someone who holds life cheap -- and beat the light out of him. Just like that.

There might have been more than one who brutally beat Joseph Vowels in the little shop where he practiced his upholstery craft, at the corner of East Biddle Street and Guilford Avenue, along one of Baltimore's many social fault lines. From the side door of his shop on the eastern edge of Mount Vernon, Vowels could look across Guilford Avenue and over the Jones Falls Expressway and see the imposing prison complex and, beyond that, the rowhouses of some of the city's saddest neighborhoods. He reupholstered furniture for the affluent of Worthington Valley, Ruxton, Homeland and Guilford within easy walking distance of the bitterly poor of East Baltimore. He conducted his craft in the city of paradoxes, where often just one long block separates those engaged in the good life from those caught up in poverty, drugs and desperation.

Joe Vowels understood this paradox, of course. He remained in Mount Vernon, despite warnings from hoodlums who'd robbed him on the street, because he loved city life. He had friends in Mount Vernon. He loved his post-rowhouse condominium at St. Paul at Chase. He had his business, a short walk from where he lived. He had his reputation.

Over the years, Joe Vowels had made draperies, cornices, chair coverings and cushions for wealthy clients who owned grand homes. He had recovered countless pieces of furniture for the shops on Antique Row. "He could handle anything, he was a genius, really," said James Judd, at his antiques shop on North Howard Street. "All the dealers on Antique Row used him at one time or an other. You remember the Chambord [restaurant]? He did that. And when Harry Gladding owned the mansion [now part of the Walters Art Gallery] on Mount Vernon Place, he did all of that. And he was a lovely person. Everyone who met him loved him. When I heard what happened, I cried. ... He just did a job for me. He put a lining in a French notions box."

Also recently, Vowels reupholstered six wing chairs for a historic building in Annapolis.

I was told this the other night at Johns Hopkins Neurological Critical Care Unit, where in a room with electronic monitors his friend, Robert Snyder, tried to introduce me to Joe Vowels.

"Joe," Snyder said, leaning over his friend. "Joe, can you hear me? Joe? It's Robert, Joe. ... Joe, it's Robert."

Vowels did not answer. He lay in bed, his swollen head locked in a beige neck brace, his eyelids purple. His arms lay dormant at his sides, under a sheet. His chest moved gently. With the help of a machine, Joe Vowels was still breathing, a week after the beating, but there was virtually no other sign of life. He was comatose. The friends at bedside -- Snyder, Jack Knapp, Joe Moran and Robert Luzius -- all spoke of Vowels' condition immediately after the beating as monstrous. His head was swollen to almost twice its size, they said, each of them obviously still in shock from the sight. Luzius wept.

"I cannot find words to describe how angry and sick I feel," Knapp said.

Someone came into the upholstery shop the afternoon of Oct. 21 and attacked Vowels. Police figure it was between 2 p.m. and 2: 30 p.m. A customer who'd come from Timonium with chairs for new upholstery found Vowels standing, dazed and unresponsive, in the shop. She alerted police.

"All of his customers wrote checks," Knapp said. "There was no cash in the shop."

So the robbers got pocket money from Joe Vowels. And his pinky ring. It's likely they beat him, then took the ring. "He would never have given that up. That was his mother's engagement ring," Knapp said. "He'd had it made into a man's ring."

Now there's charcoal fingerprint dust on the white side door of the upholstery shop at Guilford and Biddle, marking it another dark corner of the city.

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