Suburbs-to-downtown walk keeps pair in touch with life

February 07, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BEHOLD HARVEY Lipman and Saul Schwartz: It's their America.

For 10 years now, once a week, Lipman has left his home in northwest Baltimore County, just off Reisterstown Road, and driven to the Metro subway station on Old Court Road. There, he meets Schwartz, who's driven over from his nearby home.

From the Metro station, the two men begin to walk. In America, lots of people walk. But, when they reach Lipman and Schwartz's positions -- mid-60s, retired -- people usually walk around suburban high school tracks or sanitized shopping malls where they schmooze with others who are still making a pass at youth.

As Lipman says, "I decided long ago, I'm dying healthy."

He says this while chomping on what appears to be a double cheeseburger at the McDonald's in Southwest Baltimore's Pigtown, but leave that alone for the moment.

What makes the journey of Lipman and Schwartz different is geography. No suburban high school tracks, no shopping malls. From Old Court Road, they walk to Reisterstown Road and turn toward the city.

It's the beginning of a 13-mile trek downtown: through the ruins of lower Reisterstown Road above Park Circle, a brief turn to Mondawmin Shopping Center, and then across town via Monroe Street, with its patches of drug traffic and poverty and urban edginess, until the final push along Pigtown's Washington Boulevard and then east toward the Inner Harbor.

"Everybody thinks we're out of our minds," Lipman says. "They say, `What, you walked downtown?' Like my wife, Marcia. She and everybody else thinks we're crazy. But walking around a mall's too boring. I tried walking around the Greenspring Valley Golf Course, but it got monotonous. I kept finding golf balls. I've got 18 dozen golf balls still sitting in my car. Titleists, all kinds. I needed something different."

"The same with me," says Schwartz. "My wife, Susan, says I'm crazy. She's worried we'll get hurt. But you know what? We've been walking 10 years, and we've never even been threatened."

And there is the nub of the story: In this ghettoized metro area, where people settle into ethnic pockets and worry about those who are strangers, and envision neighborhoods strictly as the stuff of newspaper headlines, Lipman and Schwartz see themselves as neither crusaders nor fools. They're just out for a nice day's walk and think various communities -- racial, economic, geographic -- are more than the stuff of police blotters.

"This is two old white men walking through West Baltimore at least 350 times and never felt threatened," Lipman says. "And never stopped by police, either, telling us we shouldn't be there. We've seen police cars with their lights on, but where they're headed, who knows?"

"Crime," says Schwartz, "can happen anywhere. You can't live in fear."

They're not oblivious to their surroundings, though. Monroe Street's gotten its share of bad press over the years, but it's lower Reisterstown Road that's the real eyesore, with once-charming homes burned out and boarded up, trash in vacant lots and too many young men on street corners with no apparent jobs.

Lipman and Schwartz grew up in Northwest Baltimore and recall better times.

"To see all those alleys with trash everywhere," Schwartz says, "is so sad."

"The deterioration of property," says Lipman, "is pretty upsetting. Things get older; nobody pays the money to maintain them."

But their weekly odyssey is not a trail of tears. People have generally treated them like any other citizens: They're friendly, they'll exchange occasional banter about the weather or Lipman's garish sweat suits (or the cap he's wearing, which jokes, "My wife ran off with my best friend, and I miss him.")

Lipman was a medical technologist at Sinai Hospital for 36 years before retiring three years ago. Schwartz was a federal employee for 30 years. When he retired, "my wife got sick of me hanging around the house." So he works part time, doing deliveries for a messenger service.

In the city, they'll have lunch at the Inner Harbor or nearby. Last week, they dined at the McDonald's on Washington Boulevard in Pigtown, eating burgers because "the place ran out of salads." Then they walked over to the subway stop near Lexington Market and took the train back to Old Court Road.

"We're just two guys out for a walk," says Schwartz. "And Harvey talks a lot, so it passes the time."

"Me?" says Lipman. "This guy can't get a word in with his wife, so he talks all the time with me. We talk about the weather, we talk about the stock market. And the great thing is, we can say the same thing every day because we're too old to remember what we said yesterday."

He's laughing as he says it. Life's interesting if you let yourself get out a little and see America.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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