At the intersection of despair and glory

May 06, 2001|By Jed Kirschbaum

ROUTE 40 runs jarringly through west Baltimore past deserted landmarks and hotels long beyond disrepair. It is Franklin Street as it crosses Eutaw Street. A traffic light dictates the ebb and flow. Lives come and go unnoticed.

It is an all-but-forgettable intersection. On its corners stand a camping supply store, a sports clothing store, a hi-tech company advertising its ability to determine paternity and a jammed parking lot set off with a black iron fence.

Recently, the lives of two men crossed here at different times on very different paths. The intersection's tempo changed April 23 when one of the men, the new heavyweight champion of the world, Hasim "The Rock" Rahman, chose to celebrate his homecoming in these grayed surroundings.

If he had been from New York, it might have been a large, organized event of anointment in a grand hotel ballroom. But in Baltimore, Mr. Rahman arrived at an intersection where his rented car had to double-park to disgorge his entourage. His left eyebrow flashed bright with three strips of tape where his skin had been split by Lennox Lewis. Adhesive battle ribbons, a warrior's badges, appeared burnished in the sun.

It was a Baltimore mouse-that-roared welcome at the intersection in front of his friends' clothing store, the H.O.B.O. (Help Our Brothas Out) Shop. Everyone smiled, wanting to get close to this new legend, this good man who had beaten the odds. One of their own.

He came home to cameras and reporters, but also to family, friends, the faithful and curious passersby. Two Mormon missionaries and several denizens with alcohol on their breath waited with failed and future fighters, with babies and businessmen.

The medley of street celebrants flowed in sight of an upper-floor window of the Franklin Center, just west of the intersection. The center is home to many with disabilities. The window had been that of Luther Bridges, known in the neighborhoods as Buddy Ice. He would have had a great view of the festivities, had he lived.

Buddy Ice died just days before Mr. Rahman's triumphant return. His system couldn't fight an infection in his paralyzed lower body.

He was no saint. He had been shot after an argument over a junkie's attempt to buck a line of drug buyers that Buddy Ice was tending. Cutting in line violated his sense of what was right. He forced the man out of line. His sense of decorum got him shot, crippled and left with an attached bag to collect his body's waste.

The Sun's medical writer, Jonathan Bor, wrote in August about spinal cord injuries to Buddy Ice and others that provoked letters from Debbie Allender of Glen Arm and Mark Elliott of Baltimore City.

Ms. Allender wrote: "These criminals, hurt in their line of `work,' continue doing what criminals do best -- desecrating the values that made our country great."

Mr. Elliott wrote: "The Sun may have reached a new journalistic low by trying to elicit sympathy for these people."

The streets lured Buddy Ice, swallowed him and wouldn't spit him out. He said he thought the only way to get ahead was on the criminal side of things after failing at "honest" jobs.

More than once he told how he'd like to talk to kids about how he had gone wrong, to let them see him to understand just how wrong. But he was realistic. They probably wouldn't listen.

Mr. Rahman, the center of loud congratulations above the waves of traffic that day at the intersection, had been luckier. His fists raised him, kept him from being swallowed.

The young harbor thoughts of indestructibility, ideas that things cannot come crashing down, ideas for those whose future could be in wheelchairs.

In a methadone program, Buddy Ice had started to think about going back to school, of making something of himself. Sometimes he would work with friends in wheelchairs in the alley, coaxing them to fight hard to raise themselves up out of their chairs to avoid the dreaded sores on inactive, unfelt skin.

He had been proud of his apartment. He had plans to make it a special place with nice things. The dining room table was set with china and silverware for some future dinner party. Posters of rap stars and celebrities were taped to his bedroom walls. He hoped to meet Little Kim someday. A dusty silk bouquet, a get-well gift, sat on his window sill high above Franklin Street and the intersection.

If things had been different, Buddy Ice might have seen the return of the champion from his window. Below, a gracious Mr. Rahman signed everything people could find to push in front of him, all bathed in the glow of his success.

The two men followed different paths to the same intersection. Mr. Rahman cleared his path, avoiding obstacles that might have tripped him. More than thorns along Buddy Ice's path inflicted wounds that wouldn't heal, patched with dressings that bestowed no hero's honor.

Both in their twenties, one came to be honored. One came a bit sooner to die.

The intersection today is its normal flow of unseen lives. When I come upon Franklin and Eutaw, I remember Buddy Ice and the world champion. May Buddy Ice be at peace.

May Mr. Rahman prosper on the world's stage. May his mentors have wisdom and those who would take advantage of him be few and far away.

May we all notice those other Buddy Ices out there; they may be at the next intersection we come upon. May we try not to damn them on our way through.

Jed Kirschbaum is a photographer on the staff of The Sun.

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