Learning to live with Baltimore

City Diary

January 10, 2001|By JONATHON FUQUA

BALTIMORE STIRS UP in me moments of tremendous affection and enormous hurt. Recently, though, it reminds me of reconciliation and the honest voice of my 4-year-old daughter.

In years that seem both long and short, I've come to perceive this city in so many dissimilar ways that I can feel perpetually adrift. There is so much to care for and so much to love. However, in one short drive downtown, disillusionment can pulsate beneath my skin like an ancient, inflamed scar.

In my nearly 10 years here, I've seldom returned from a trip excited to be home. Frequently, miles outside of town, I dread my approaching life.

A worrier, I envision my house either burned or robbed. Sometimes, I imagine an enormous bill waiting that will leave us bankrupt. Blocks from our neighborhood, I feel a darkness descend as my heart begins to flutter from an undiagnosed murmur.

And yet, once home, the natural rhythms take over, and our old rowhouse seems to fold its long walls around us. Our neighbors ask about our trip, and our daughter requests that we slide a movie into the VCR. As we sort The Sun papers by front-page disasters, my wife and I look at each other quietly, familiar with the rituals of re-entry.

A few days after Christmas, while driving home from my mother's house, I visited with my father for the first time in 14 years. Our conversation was both hesitant and superficial. However, after charming a man seldom impressed by others, my daughter rose up in her chair and studied his aging, unfamiliar features before softly asking, "Grandpappy, were you really mean to my daddy?"

For a moment, an awkward silence fell upon us, then my father answered, "Yes."

And so she begins a long, honest bid at reconciliation. In a similar way, she's helping me mend my relationship to Baltimore.

Drifting into town, I can see how my daughter is calmed by views that are perpetually odd to me. Row homes lined up like railroad cars welcome her back. These buildings and their neighborhoods are the familiar backdrops to lovely memories for her. They're the houses of friends who she knows and cares about. The narrow, potholed alleys and blowing garbage are as regular as the shallow lines on her palms.

On 28th Street, she asks me how people see through wooden windows, the plyboard sheets tacked to so many residences.

Playfully I answer, "I don't know. What were they thinking, huh?"

My daughter laughs as the rough roadway rattles our car. Joking, she says, "I can't figure out how they see who's at the door."

Five blocks north of this cross-town artery is the hospital where she was born. My wife and I went on our first date about 30 blocks south. Shortly after, we fell in love in Charles Village. A lifetime later, we bought our first home alongside Lake Montebello. These are the finest days of my adult life, all of them in this city.

With our luggage piled on the floor, I glance out the front window of our house, thinking that I've seen my neighbor's dog flash by, chasing a Frisbee. I consider my mother's warmth followed by my father's blurry face, and I shake my head. What I thought was a mutt is actually a large brown bag tumbling in the wind.

This is our town. There are days when I celebrate every idiosyncrasy, and others when those same peculiarities make me want to cry. Regardless, when people ask my daughter where she lives, she tells them proudly, "Baltimore."

Turning from the window, I halfheartedly question if she'd like to move, and she tells me, "No, Daddy." She is let down with me for even wondering.

In bed, I remember this and think it's time to come to terms with the city.

The following morning, jogging in the cold air, I roll over my daughter's words when something golden catches my eye. Raising my gaze, I look off through the bare branches of trees and, far away, I see the sun glinting against the edges of old and new buildings downtown. I imagine the distance and all the people in between, and I resolve to reconcile my emotions with this place that has so much loveliness and inhumanity. As with my father, my daughter's voice beckons honesty.

Baltimore City is home.

Today's writer

Jonathon Fuqua, a writer, is author of "The Reappearance of Sam Webber" (Bancroft Press, 1999), a winner of the 2000 Alex Award and a pick by several organizations as best book of the year for teen-agers. He lives in the Mayfield neighborhood of Baltimore City.

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