Miserable conditions in rural Lothian


March 04, 2001|By Norris P. West

CAN YOU imagine, even for a second, living in a house without running water?

Carting plastic water bottles from a firehouse for cooking, cleaning and eating at home?

Heating water on the stove for baths?

In your wildest nightmares, can you even consider having to bear winter's cold or summer's heat to go outside to the bathroom?

Such was life in 19th century America and even part of this century, but there was a reason someone invented indoor plumbing.

Somebody knew that getting water from a faucet and watching it go down the drain was one of the best inventions before sliced bread.

We thought we'd overcome the seemingly primitive conditions of outhouses, just like the Western Hemisphere appeared to have conquered polio.

We haven't. One of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation still has pockets where running water does not flow to some homes.

One of these pockets is in Lothian, a rural town in southern Anne Arundel County, we found out last Sunday in a story by Sun reporter Scott Calvert.

These conditions are intolerable. A house without indoor plumbing these days falls way below the minimum standard of humanity.

Now, I have some memories of staying in a place with no running water. That was about 30 years ago and, fortunately, for only a few weeks during summers at an aunt's rural Eastern Shore home.

Only for a while was it fun pumping water from the well outside and bringing the heavy bucket into my aunt's shack.

It was never fun -- believe me -- bearing the stench and unsanitary condition of the home's rural outhouse, especially on hot days, but there was no choice.

I'm glad to report that my aunt has had running water for some time now.

That anachronistic experience gave me a true appreciation of running water, especially the water that runs through the toilet tank.

So I had much empathy for the Hollands, the Wallaces, the Messengers and other families Mr. Calvert profiled in his story. Some live in Lothian, others live in Carroll County and Harford County.

The inconvenience these people withstand is awful. Cornelius Myers, an 87-year-old Carroll County man, sometimes must shovel a path through snow to reach his bathroom. Curtis Wallace, 44, walks to a friendly firehouse with empty jugs, fills the containers with water and returns them to his family's Lothian home for cooking and cleaning.

More than the inconvenience the health threats of cholera are frightening.

The story pointed to a state law forbidding property owners to rent homes without indoor plumbing. That should be natural law or even a commandment in any industrialized country.

We should never have stories like Ida Holland's.

Ms. Holland lives in Lothian, a town that is proud of its Confederate history, as evidenced by the statue of Confederate soldier Benjamin Welch Owens, unveiled two years ago. The 37-year-old woman rented the country shack to "escape" drugs and possible violence at an Annapolis public housing development.

The pursuit of happiness should forevermore come with indoor plumbing.

Even in President Bush's vision of limited government, a safety net is essential. Someone should make sure that no one freezes to death, starves or goes without running water. Government can't relinquish the job of safeguarding those who need help the most.

As it turns out, however, government -- at least a government official -- is very involved in Ms. Holland's housing matter. Her landlord is Christopher T. Wilson, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Board of Appeals.

Mr. Wilson ought to know better. His rationalization that "the fear of getting your throat cut is a little worse than having to tote water" certainly doesn't wash. If he really thought he was doing Ms. Holland a favor, because rent is dirt-cheap at $125 a month, he shouldn't chair the Board of Appeals or any other county board.

There's no easy solution. Ms. Holland probably will have to return to the housing project. If she owned the house, she might qualify for a horribly marketed low-interest state Indoor Plumbing Program loan.

As a renter she's ineligible. Besides, it might be difficult for someone paying $125 a month in rent to repay a $10,000 loan for plumbing installation.

In an ideal world, the landlord, the Lothian community, county government and state government would come together to elevate Ms. Holland's living conditions to the mid-20th century. In an ideal world, they'd find a way.

But in an ideal world, she would never have endured such primitive conditions.

Norris P. West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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