Brown would be one of many young people to die in that era, Potyraj recalled. Wilson Hill, 16, hanged himself in his back yard on Christmas Eve in the early '60s. Jimmy Hardy was killed in a car; his young wife committed suicide. One 14-year-old kid whose name people can't remember today died from alcohol poisoning. Two brothers from an Italian-American family both died of fatal heroin overdoses. At least six from the area died, and many more were wounded, in Vietnam.
For even the toughest cop, it was a lot to handle.
Lessons of life
But by the time Cas Potyraj was assigned a beat on Belair Road, he had far more worldly wisdom than the craftiest thug or slickest teen. It all came the hard way.
Potyraj was one of seven children born on Elliott Street in East Baltimore. He was a scrappy kid who avoided the cops himself as he ran the streets of his neighborhood. His father was an alcoholic, he says, a laborer who worked when he could. "My father spoke about eight languages but it didn't do him any good because he could hardly speak English," says Potyraj, seated at the dining room table of the Overlea home he shares with Vera, his wife of 52 years. The couple has three grown children, all white-collar professionals, and one grandson.
He says he picked up his devotion to work - he never missed a day in 31 years on the job - from his mother. She toiled in a Highlandtown packing house during the day and as a charwoman for an insurance company at night.
Potyraj dropped out of the 10th grade and worked in a broom factory and later as a riveter before joining the Navy in 1943. Assigned to a gun crew aboard the USS Arkansas, he earned four battle stars in Europe and in the Pacific. For a few months after the war, Potyraj cooled his heels in San Francisco as a member of the Navy's Shore Patrol - a job that inspired him to later join his hometown police force.
Early on in life, he says, "I felt like I came out of the gutter, like I was shunned because we were trash. My father was no good, everybody knew him and what he was. It was awful to carry that around as a kid.
"But the war changed me," he says. "I was never afraid after the Normandy invasion. Never."
For most kids on Belair Road in the 1960s, it was possible to side-step the pitfalls of life there while still enjoying its peculiar ambience. "The road" in those days was deliciously Baltimore.
"Belair Road was part of who I was and am; it helped define us," says Nicholas Koras, who grew up on Edison Highway near Elmley Playground and who now resides in Palo Alto, Calif. "I learned how to smoke cigarettes and be cool there. You met contemporaries who had eclectic tastes in music like Miles Davis or Sinatra, read writers like Kerouac. It was all part of the search."
Adds Kathy Laws, now a social worker in Albuquerque, N.M.: "Belair Road was our Petri dish. Like most teens, we were not discriminating in our choices."
Stories from those who were there - most of whom can recount narrow escapes from Potyraj's chases - are endless. They tell about "typical" Friday nights, for instance, with some kids making out atop burlap sacks of peat moss in front of the darkened A&P while others, like "Crazy Pierre," had their faces buried in a bag of glue, huffing hard toward Nirvana. Always, it seems, there was a fistfight.
Maybe a hundred kids were hanging out, some awaiting a guy from Gay Street, a hustler known as "B.A.," a hotel elevator operator-turned-pill pusher. Those waiting for B.A. were a diverse group: Guys with pointy-toed shoes and high pompadours called "drapes." "Squares" in Jack Purcell tennis shoes and Frank Leonard lacrosse shirts. And "nice girls" with feathery pixie hairdos whose eyes became languid after eating a couple of downers or chugging a six-pack of Pabst in the park, often provided by experts in the Baltimore art of "porching" - stealing cases of beer from rowhouse back yards.
To Potyraj, working Belair Road then was simply a matter of enforcing the law.
"Women were afraid to go to Belair Road because of all the kids hanging around. And there were older guys hanging up there, too, guys who were burglars and drug guys who had been in prison. I had to make it safe. Most of the kids weren't bad - but they were headed that way."
The Baltimore News American published two front-page series in the early 1960s that captured the growing problem of drug abuse on Belair Road and across the city. Teens were sniffing paint and glue. Others took pills or drank codeine-based cough syrup. One teen had died from glue and another lost a lung. The paper's stories prompted the legislature to pass a law banning glue-sniffing and selling model glue to minors.
A year later, the paper wrote about the widespread sale and use on Belair Road of cheaply sold "goof balls" and "pep pills" - barbiturates and amphetamines. Heroin, already a favorite among some older junkies on the road, would show up by mid-decade in increasing amounts.