Somewhere in the city, a diary waits to be found

City Diary

May 10, 2000|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

THE OLD pirate Steve Bunker told stories of waterfront dirtballs who'd show up at his Thames Street salvage shop to sell their grandfather's engraved pocket watch. Outside the family, the timepieces weren't worth much and Bunker, angry that someone would unload an heirloom for a few bucks, would try to talk the customer out of it. He lobbied in vain.

Unloved diaries don't even make it as far as the pawn shop.

I was thinking about the title of this column - City Diary - while hiding out at the Kelmscott book shop on 25th Street.

As a novitiate in the priestly cult of J.F. Powers, I tracked a copy of his 1962 novel, "Morte D'Urban," and found this epigram: "The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another ..."

Where are such diaries, the private thoughts of ordinary Baltimoreans who thought they were going to experience one narrative but lived another? Grandpop's pocket watch may be worth a couple of beers, but what about cousin Theresa's memories of her girlhood?

I bet most wind up in the trash.

"The other day I came across one of those blank, hardcover notebooks you buy at stationery stores. A pregnant woman had started using it in the 1970s when she was having her first baby," said Al Cunniff, a local book collector who fishes "from the stream of life that flows through yard sales" and wrote about pop music for the News American back when Mott the Hoople was making records.

"I couldn't not read this diary - only the first four pages were filled," said Cunniff. "The very next entry was from the 1990s. The woman had rediscovered her own book 20 years later and the mystery of what her child would grow up to be was solved. I guess she lost it again. It saddened me."

I sometimes find notes written from one kid to another in the alley behind my Macon Street rowhouse; magical, urgent scribbling: "Amber, meet me behind the tree at the end of the block after dinner."

Once, when a neighbor and I let ourselves into a nearby vacant house to set off scores of bug bombs, I found a purple, spiral notebook from a previous tenant filled with hope and worry for her young children and alcoholic husband. The entries trailed off as eviction neared but at least the memoir was saved from the pile of the diarist's furniture that wound up on the curb.

And this past January, while cataloging the contents of Chester Rakowski's narrow roost at 130 E. Gittings St. in South Baltimore, I found a two diaries in the attic written in pencil by an adolescent girl during the Carter administration.

One was a hardbound "Kahlil Gibran Diary for 1976" and the other a red plastic "pocket minder," used by traveling salesmen to keep their schedules straight.

The girl's name was Karen and on Aug. 27, 1977 - the 12th anniversary of the day the Beatles met Elvis Presley in Hollywood, an event apparently unknown to her - she wrote: "Today is Margie's birthday. We had cake and ice cream. She got five dollars from her mother."

What are such things worth?

Not much, apparently. I tracked Karen down in White Marsh to say I had found her childhood musings and she exclaimed: "Really?" I remember those!" But never bothered to come and get them.

I keep Karen's diaries on a small shelf next to the purple notebook of the young Highlandtown mother who couldn't make ends meet; the World War II memoirs of a born storyteller named Analeis and love notes to Jack Kerouac I stole last summer from the writer's grave in Lowell, Mass. Sometimes I write my own thoughts in their margins.

The Maryland Historical Society on Monument Street has hundreds of homespun diaries in its stacks, stuff like J.T. Wilson's 19th century reports of cholera and fire engines but nothing close to Mok Hosfeld's "visual diaries" of his pilgrimage to the Yucatan.

"I don't even date the entries except for the beginning of a notebook and the end," says Hosfeld, a Charles Village poet who'd like to read the diary of a guy he knows who fills aquariums with combs he finds on the street.

In a half-dozen years of cleaning out attics, basements and garages for books to sell at his Rendezvous shops around town, Clifford Panken stumbles on personal diaries every six or seven months.

"I'm just too busy to sit down and read these things, and I don't feel inclined to interpret somebody's handwriting," said Mr. Panken. "I pop them in an envelope and mail it back."

Last Saturday, the good people of Wilhelm Park in southwest Baltimore buried a time capsule in front of the neighborhood church at Cowan and Wilmington Avenues; a big plastic pill not to be opened until 2100. All sorts of things went down in the hole, but not, it occurred to me while staring at the crowd, a single diary of a citizen of Wilhelm Park.

The next time you hire somebody to clean out the basement, be sure to check the books first. If a diary is rotting among the pulp, photocopy the pages before burying it next to the goldfish in the back yard.

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