A Few Simple Steps

Sitting 'out front,' Baltimoreans meet, socialize, gossip -- and watch over their city.

Cover Story

September 29, 2002|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN STAFF

Before television and air conditioning, before cell phones and computers, before we needed to take our problems to "therapists," go online to "meet" people, or learn "techniques" for relaxation, there was the stoop.

And after all those things, the stoop remains: a simple series of steps -- wooden, marble, concrete or brick -- that, while decidedly low-tech, while never intended to do anything more than get you up to the front door of your rowhouse, have become both multi-purpose tool and social phenomenon.

Haircut? The steps are perfect for that. The cutter takes the top one, the cuttee sits two down and the trimmings are gone with the wind. Escaping the heat? Just plant your rump on a cool slab of marble and enjoy the breeze. People-watching? Meditating? In search of friendly conversation?

The steps, in Baltimore, are the place -- to commiserate, pontificate, socialize, philosophize, reminisce, daydream, get high, pray, gossip, cool off, stand guard, unwind, pitch woo, play ball, do hair, talk trash, or do nothing at all.

Some might suspect step-sitting to be a lost art -- a victim of air conditioning and television, a casualty of an era in which leisure time seems to be vanishing and fear of violence growing.

They obviously don't get around much.

Every night, in dozens of Baltimore neighborhoods, thousands of residents leave their houses, but not their homes. They go out the door and down a step or two, and they are where they want to be. There may be bullets flying. There may be virus-carrying mosquitoes looking for a meal. There may even be something good on TV.

But they choose the steps.

It's not practiced everywhere. In the ritziest rowhouse neighborhoods, step-sitters -- steps, not stoops, is the preferred terminology in Baltimore -- are a rare sight. In some, like Federal Hill and Canton, newer residents have turned to rooftop decks, where -- as opposed to seeing life at street level -- they can, in relative seclusion, enjoy a panoramic Inner Harbor view.

But steps are different. Steps jut right out into the sidewalk. Steps don't just allow social interaction, they encourage it. Come as you are. No appointment necessary. Take a load off. Sit a spell.

Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Pigtown

There's the 15-year-old hooker. Over there's the six-months-pregnant hooker. Down there's the hooker that once got picked up by a stretch limousine with California license plates and tinted windows.

And look at that sunset.

Karen Conley can see it all from the front steps of her Formstone-covered rowhouse near Washington Boulevard and Bayard Street, where she sits every night except the three she goes to church.

Her west-facing brick steps look out over Carroll Park, and her home is just a few doors down from a corner that -- nearly around the clock -- is dotted with prostitutes.

She wishes she could help them, and wonders how.

"I've given them water and cigarettes when they go by. I've talked to them and hugged them and tried to let them know somebody cared about them." But their drug addictions, she says, keep them trapped in the life. "Drugs are just literally eating up people."

A 42-year-old factory worker, Karen sees the hookers when she leaves for work at 5:30 a.m. She sees them when -- after eight hours of putting tops on glass vials and putting them in boxes, thousands a day -- she comes home in the afternoon. And she sees them, and much more, when, after serving her family dinner, she takes -- as she has since childhood -- to her front steps. There, she watches her 10-year-old son play, chats with neighbors, ponders life, talks to God and gets an eyeful.

"No matter what it is," she says, "you stay here long enough and you'll see it."

Compared with some other parts of the city, the steps of Pigtown teem with life, a reflection partly of income level, partly of mindset.

In Pigtown, where many homes lack air conditioning, you can see entire families sitting out, often on steps accessorized with lawn chairs, the occasional piece of upholstered furniture, even plastic kiddie pools. You can see people sitting on steps outside to watch TVs that are inside.

But escaping the heat that builds up in brick rowhouses is not the sole, or even primary, objective of step-sitters anymore. Karen, who has lived in the house on Bayard Street since 1991, has window air-conditioning units. She doesn't sit out to cool off. She sits out to sit out.

"I just can't stand sitting in the house," she says. "Wintertime is bad enough. As soon as it gets warm enough, I sit out. A lot of people are too scared to come out anymore, but you can't live your life in your house."

Indoors may be safer -- "Hit the floor!" her 10-year-old son, C.J., says when gunshots are heard, something she thinks he learned from TV -- but indoors, in Karen's view, is not where life is happening.

On the steps, you can be out in the world, but still at home -- perched, as it were, on the edge of your nest, seconds away from safety.

In some neighborhoods, that's not enough.

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