Bullet robs the infirm of a caring presence

This Just In...

March 23, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

THE WAH HUNG Chinese Carryout sits, almost invisible with its faded sign and its windowless faM-gade, at the sharply angled intersection of Montford and Gay in East Baltimore. To look at it, you'd be surprised to hear that such a hole-in-the-wall place in such a ragged, littered edge of the city was still open for business. But it is, and Saturday night someone with a handgun shot a customer named Towanda Harris there, and she died after midnight. Several miles away, in Dulaney Valley, people who knew and loved Towanda Harris cried and prayed.

Some of them will attend her funeral today.

Elderly people who are residents of Stella Maris, where Harris was a beloved geriatric nursing assistant, were shocked by the news of her death. "Devastated" is the word Sister Louis Mary, the president emeritus of the nursing center, uses. "These old folks and their families are crying."

"My father is a large man who had a stroke and is paralyzed on one side," says Melissa Gordon, who lives in Pikesville. "And Towanda showed my mother how to lift him, how to get him in his wheelchair. Towanda had a wonderful personality. She was really good at what she did, and she really cared."

The Stella Maris nurse manager, Jean Brooks, adds more praise: "Fine young woman ... strength of character ... compassion, commitment ... empathy for her patients and their families ... a sense of humor ... respected people ... treated folks with kindness. ... Wish I had 100 more like her."

Harris was 40 years old, sister of another Stella Maris nursing assistant and the single mother of two daughters. Five days a week, she traveled from her home on the east side of the city to her job on Dulaney Valley Road in Baltimore County. She cared for elderly people who could not care for themselves. A lot of them probably knew little about her - where she lived, how she lived. They only knew her as this wonderfully enthusiastic woman who could smile through a difficult job.

"She was Employee of the Month," says Sister Louis Mary. "She was cited for her willingness to go beyond the call. She wouldn't say, `That's not my job.' She would say, `Whatever the residents want, that's my job.'"

Saturday night, Harris, a sister and a friend went into Wah Hung to place an order. Apparently, her two companions were outside while Harris was inside the place for a few minutes, about 9 p.m., and two men came in. One pulled a handgun and shot her in the stomach. Detectives suspect that the men tried to rob Harris but cannot say for sure. They have no suspects.

Sunday morning at Stella Maris, news of the death spread through the unit where Towanda Harris worked, and the staff and residents gathered and prayed for her. "We have a picture of her here, and flowers, like a memorial," says Sheila Saunders, a secretary and friend. "There's a book, too, and many people have come by to sign it."

Many times the people who die violently in the inner city are known but to their families and friends there. Their deaths seem to occur most often in the sad, broken neighborhoods where the drug dealers rule, and there's a chilling indifference - or weariness - in our reaction to these killings. Too many of these deaths do not resonate much beyond the neighborhoods and families in which they happen. This one did. In this case, there is grief and outrage transcending borders and blood.

A bonding of cultures

Betsy Murray, Irish-American, met Kenny Carter, African-American, at the SuperFresh in Timonium a week ago today. Murray was there looking for powdered buttermilk. She asked Carter, a SuperFresh employee, for help finding it.

"He offered to check the computer to see if they'd ever stocked such an item," Murray says. "He found me in the aisle and said they never had."

Murray thanked him, sighed and said, "I need it to make Irish soda bread."

Carter wheeled around and said, "Maybe you can help me. Do you know all the words to `Danny Boy?'"

Carter then explained - as he did to me yesterday - that, in his role as a SuperFresh community relations specialist, he's an entertainer, of the joyous-spiritual type. To this end, he often dresses as a green bell pepper. (That's right - green bell pepper. He has the custom-made costume, hat-with-stem and all.

"God told me I'm gonna be a vegetable," Carter says, and he chose the green bell pepper because ... well, that's a long story for another day, my friends.)

As a pepper, Carter sings a message of goodwill and healthful eating at store events, schools, hospitals and churches.

Saturday, St. Patrick's Day, he was due to wear his green costume and help collect donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association outside the Timonium store. He wanted to sing the most famous Irish song.

"I don't know all the words to `Danny Boy,'" Murray told him. When she was young, she thought the song too sentimental and preferred more militant tunes. Over the years, her view of "Danny Boy" changed, and now she appreciates the song in the context of Irish history.

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