Enthroned atop a milk crate, his toenails painted purple, the musician slaps away at a six-string guitar with only four strings, rattling out a love song to a Baltimore street.
A week after restaurant patrons ran for cover during a gunbattle on North Charles Street, the return of Bruce "Guitarman" Timmons to his sidewalk stage there was one of many signs Tuesday that life is back to normal for one of the city's most historic and funky neighborhoods.
The Mount Vernon area has been loved for decades for its bohemian atmosphere and ornate architecture that hasn't changed much since F. Scott Fitzgerald drank at the Belvedere Hotel in the 1930s.
But even some of North Charles Street's most ardent supporters worry that the growing nuisance of panhandlers and drug dealers is discouraging the nighttime foot traffic crucial for the survival of Baltimore's cultural center.
At about 9 p.m. July 27, police officers were fired upon by one of three people police were trying to question about suspected drug dealing near Charles and Read streets, authorities said. This sparked a running gunbattle that wounded John Allen Mac Jr., 19, of Southwest Baltimore and sent bullets into the facade of Gampy's -- the Great American Melting Pot -- restaurant across the street.
Police charged Mac, who was shot in the arm and briefly hospitalized, with two counts of assault with intent to murder.
Officers say they were trying to halt drug dealing in a generally safe neighborhood, where this year 24 percent fewer major crimes have been reported than in the same period last year.
Timmons, 50, a blues guitarist who plays in front of the Mount Vernon Super Mart several times a week, recalls leaping down a stairway when the shots rang out.
"Hey, man, I used to smoke grass when I lived here back in the '70s," says Timmons, who sports high-heeled sandals, dreadlocks and a large pinky ring. "But you could never cop drugs on the corner. You didn't have guys running into buildings getting stuff. That's new. The dealers are moving in on us here."
Jack Elsby, co-owner of the upscale Brass Elephant restaurant at 924 N. Charles St., says he's seen the number of pedestrians fall off slightly in recent years and an increase in panhandling the past six or eight months.
No `vanilla box'
Elsby says he's optimistic about the neighborhood's future, however, because it boasts architecture and fine restaurants that cannot be matched by the boring "vanilla box" of Harborplace at the Inner Harbor.
"But I personally think the police could be a lot more visible in this area at night," said Elsby.
During a 9-p.m.-to-1-a.m. tour of North Charles Street from Madison to Eager streets, a Sun reporter and photographer saw only two police officers -- both in their squad cars.
It was a lively evening. Cross-dressing go-go dancers gyrated wildly in a pub, well-dressed patrons drank at tables with candlelight near the Washington Monument and a mayoral candidate ducked into a tavern to stump for keeping bars open later.
Panhandlers approached one visitor seven times -- one of them asking for money four times.
Sgt. Scott Rowe, a Baltimore Police Department spokesman, said discouraging panhandling is a "sensitive subject," because asking for money is a constitutionally protected right.
"It's difficult, because for it to be illegal, it has be aggressive panhandling -- for example, someone blocking your path," said Rowe. "The American Civil Liberties [Union] isn't so fond of us arresting panhandlers."
This particular summer night on North Charles Street goes like this:
9 p.m. The headlights of cars swing around the brightly lighted Washington Monument, making fragments of recycled glass in the pavement glitter.
As a pair of men head into the Mount Vernon Stable bar, a guy with his hands in his pockets loiters near the scene of last week's shooting. He talks periodically with a guy on a bicycle who circles up and down the block much of the evening.
9: 15 p.m. A gaunt man wearing ripped jeans and dark blue shirt with a stretched-out neck leans against the wall of a parking lot beside The Helmand restaurant. "Can you help me with a few dollars?" he asks.
The man follows the passer-by across the street and asks again, this time approaching with his hands out.
"Come on, buddy. When you come out of the store? Can you help me out?"
Again, "Not today," comes the reply.
9: 45 p.m. A middle-aged man wearing a red open-collared shirt sits on the iron stairs of a rowhouse, a plastic bag full of what appears to be electronic circuitry at his feet.
"Pardon me, sir, I don't mean any disrespect," he says, reaching up. "But I just got out of jail and this other guy was kind to give me some cigarettes. Can you help me out with a few dollars?"
"No, sorry, not tonight."
"Pocket change. I only want to make a phone call," he says.
"Just your pocket change," he persists.