Marooned residents find common ground

Stranded: In battling the snow, people on one block of Patapsco Street get neighborly and win their freedom.

February 23, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Fifty-seven rowhouses, one street. That's the 1400 block of Patapsco St. in South Baltimore, a blue-collar bastion now in transition, as they say.

Lawyers live next to longshoremen, recent college graduates near recovering dope addicts. Saab convertibles vie for curb space with old Chevys. One Formstone house has a "Pray the Rosary" sign in the window; a brick house being renovated displays building permits.

Even the pronunciation varies. To old-timers, it'll always be "Patapsico," hon.

One thing everyone has in common is the street. Except that last week there was no street, just deep snow between white lumps that had been cars until the biggest storm in 132 years struck a week ago.

For days the block was marooned, like most in the city. A day after the snow stopped, The Sun went to see what would happen on Patapsco between Gittings Street and Fort Avenue.

Bruce Heath would be the first to break out (in a Jeep), Alison Galassi the first to stake out a parking space (with an orange chair), Keith Ryer the first to clean his roof (by the brawn of pal Moose Myers).

Geoff Leszczynski would be soothed by Irish coffee at Sean Boland's pub. An impatient Jerry Murphy would offer $20 to any city crew willing to swing down the block. Anna Beaudet, 80, would revel in her first walk in days.

There would be griping about how "the yuppies" piled snow but also encounters that made neighbors of strangers. And there would be general agreement: The block was on its own, because city plows would never appear.

"I ain't never seen a plow come down here," Ryer, a disabled former railroad worker, said.

What a shock he - and everyone else - was in for.

Day 1

The snow fell so hard Sunday that the downtown skyline that normally dominates the view to the north vanished behind a white wall, and the next day, people ventured out to wonder at it all.

On Tuesday, it was time to start digging. Drifts of 3 feet and higher filled the street, making a mockery of stranded sport utility vehicles.

But the people seemed happy. Heidi Reimer stood in the middle of Patapsco tossing a football to her chocolate Labrador retriever, Bailey. "I've met more people in the past two days," said Reimer, a 27-year-old Deutsche Bank lawyer. "Everybody's standing around, shoveling. Everybody's been drinking, so they're friendly."

It took a snowstorm of this magnitude for her to find out that her house once was Sonny's, a corner store. Local teen-agers, including her neighbor Jim Henwood, now a longshoreman, used to drink beer out front. Sonny didn't mind, Henwood said, because of the free security.

By midday the sidewalk was passable. Not so the street, and no one dared try.

Then Bruce Heath made what looked like a prison break in his son's Jeep Wrangler - the wrong way down the one-way street. He nearly made it to Fort Avenue, where 4 feet of snow stopped him cold.

"Ain't doing too good," grumbled Heath, who has lived on the block 27 years and works in shipping at Locke Insulators. He had to be at work the next day and wanted to blaze a trail.

He climbed from the Jeep, borrowed a shovel from a man walking by and began digging, bad heart and all. Suddenly a crowd formed, like an old-fashioned barn-raising.

Four strangers began hacking at the snow. At 12:40 Heath punched through, triumphantly.

"Boy, I tell you," he said. "Saved by the people."

A similar scene unfolded when Melissa Baker, who works at a day spa in Hunt Valley, made an ill-advised attempt to drive her gray Volkswagen Passat.

A half-dozen residents formed a shovel brigade. Defense Department mathematician John Webb was there. So was self-proclaimed "tattooed white trash" automotive student Peter Johnson. Engineer Eric Ober, too. The scent of kitty litter and car exhaust was everywhere.

All of the help overrode any frustration Baker felt behind her sunglasses. "Much worse things are happening in the world," she said. "And look at all the unity it brings out."

Leszczynski, an estimator at a contracting company, missed that excitement. He'd been over at Sean Boland's on Light Street for Irish coffee and was in a cheery mood.

"Fortified," he said.

Day 2

The buzz started early Wednesday morning and spread quickly up the block of two-story houses, a mix of brick and Formstone but all simply adorned, with few flourishes.

Fed up, Jerry Murphy, a welding supply salesman, wanted to hire a contractor to dig out the block. A city worker had spurned his measly $20 offer, and he did not expect a city plow, even though the road was hardly narrow by South Baltimore standards.

Cross Street Market, three blocks north, was back open, along with the cafes, restaurants and a CVS pharmacy, which sits at Fort and Patapsco in the old A&P supermarket space. So no one would starve. And 80-year-old Anna Beaudet, a fixture on the block for 46 years, was able to resume her walks, gingerly.

"Oh, I love my walks," she said, bundled up in a scarf on the sunny day. "I go all down the market, up Light Street, over Fort Avenue."

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