The Shifting Beat

Even as Casimir Potyraj patroled it in the 1960s, Belair Road was ever changing forever. These days he looks back with fondness--and sadness--at a time and place long gone.

February 27, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Every two weeks, like clockwork, Casimir Potyraj eases into his silver Saturn station wagon and drives to the Hair Harvest barbershop in Parkville. There, he orders the usual - a trim around the ears and a little off the top.

With each visit, he rekindles his past by gabbing with his barber, Terry Scordo, and the shop's owner, Jerry Sadler. They recount stories, pretty amazing ones actually, of life in the 1960s along Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore.

"Terry and Jerry are two of my boys who made it off the road, who did OK with their lives," says Potyraj. "Most did, but many didn't."

Potyraj (pronounced pot-a-RAY), 76, is a retired Baltimore City police officer who for most of his 31 years on the force walked a beat or drove a patrol car in the community near Erdman Avenue, now known as Belair-Edison. It was a time before cops became "pigs" and "enemies of the people." It was when a cop in Baltimore, especially one who walked a beat, knew everything - names, addresses and, in some cases, criminal records - of those he engaged.

Nicknames were big on Belair Road. Among the characters Potyraj kept track of were Mouse, Crazy Pierre, Balloon Head, Flash, Baseball Bob and his beloved sister Sea Hag. Potyraj had a nickname of his own. To Scordo, Sadler and hundreds of others now scattered far and wide, he was known and feared as "Wyatt Earp," a moniker borrowed from the popular '60s television series. It was a fitting nickname for this man with the laser eyes who attempted to keep the corridors of commerce free of teen-age gangs.

On old Belair Road, the cry "Here comes Wyatt!" would scatter any group of kids up to mischief or worse.

"I was stunned when he first walked into my shop a couple years ago," says Sadler. "Instinctively, I wanted to run, all these memories came rushing back at me. He was this giant and I was just a punk kid.

"Cas tried to keep you in line," he adds. "He knew everybody's name, where you lived and after a while, it just didn't make any sense to run from him. It seemed that Cas was everywhere in those days."

Still, one man could do just so much.

In the 1960s, Belair-Edison was a proud, working-class community where it wasn't unusual to find some parents working two jobs to send their kids to private high schools and college. The brick row homes were filled with Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles and others from the "old country."

"Parents didn't really know what was going on," said Potyraj. "On the streets, it was trial and error for their kids. It got pretty vicious sometimes."

Times were a-changing

Potyraj collided head-on with both a youth revolution and an urban upheaval that was changing the social landscape across the country. In the 1950s, places like Baltimore, Philadelphia and St. Louis were at the zenith of their populations. Baltimore then had almost 950,000 residents; by the 1980s, that number had dropped by nearly 200,000.

In the '60s, teens on Belair Road were rebelling, and the streets, pool halls, basement parties and dances crackled with a new energy, music and uncertainty about the future. After high school, most would leave their favorite Belair Road haunts behind. For some, there was college or a job in the shrinking steel and auto plants; for others, prison or Vietnam. One guy became a television star, others bank presidents and attorneys. Others never left.

During this struggle for adolescent identity, Belair Road had more than its share of distinctive personalities, wild behavior and premature death, all centered around the regular hangouts - Read's Drug Store, Vilma Bowling Alley, Arundel ice cream parlor, White Tower, a pool hall and a couple of sub shops.

"Beckett could not have dreamed up such characters," says Rick Christ, 57, of Baltimore, who grew up near Belair Road and is now an engineer with a global corporation.

Andrew "Kitsy" Baker was one of those characters. Now a retired Baltimore steelworker, the teen-age Baker sometimes gave Potyraj fits. One night, with the Vilma lanes packed with league bowlers, Baker and his cohorts rolled about 1,000 B-B's down the circular stairs leading to the lanes. It became so dangerous to walk that the alley had to close.

"Wyatt was tricky," Baker recalls. "He would hide and grab us but he never took us in to the stationhouse" for minor sins like hanging on the corner.

On another night, Baker's pal Bobby Brown, a tall, unpredictable street fighter with fists like ham-hocks, stole a bundled rose bush from the A&P and hurled a perfect spiral into the chest of Vilma co-owner Ed Newman.

Months later, Brown would make the news and shock the community. One night while high, he grabbed a knife and told his parents he was going to kill his brother, Jimmy, who lived nearby. Mrs. Brown tried to reach Potyraj to intercede, but couldn't. Potyraj found Bobby Brown's body sprawled in his brother's azalea bush, killed by a shotgun blast by Jimmy in self defense, police said.

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