Trying to capture Christmas on rainy Baltimore streets

December 25, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

I UNDERSTAND why Jerry Fleming, a Delta Air Lines pilot from Georgia, would stand in the rain in downtown Baltimore on Christmas Eve to look at the old B&O Railroad building.

I appreciate why, on the same day, Jeff Grutkowski would make like the narrating angels in It's A Wonderful Life and call for extraordinary measures to keep Sonny Singer from being discouraged.

And I am certain that the best 20 minutes of my Christmas Eve was spent in the rain with a panhandler named Alfred.

And I think I've finally come to realize, here in the land of mixed rewards called midlife, that you can walk around all day in the rain, looking in store windows and chatting with strangers, and never be able to capture -- in one sentence or one thousand sermons -- the essence of the Christmas season, and that it's easier to put fog in a bottle than to hold Christmas in your hand.

Sermons and songs, stories and Scripture -- all of these things bring us close. But there's something else out there, in the darkest season of the year, that rekindles the light in all of us -- even the jaded, the bored, the homeless.

I believe Christmas was what Jerry Fleming tried to find yesterday morning. Between flights for Delta, Fleming stayed overnight at a downtown hotel, then went to Lexington Market for breakfast, then to Charles Street. He stepped out of the rain and gazed up at the B&O Building, 97 years old and one of the most impressive towers in the city. "My father used to work there," Fleming said. "He was a railroad executive." And Gerald Fleming's son used to travel downtown from Randallstown to meet his father for lunch, and sometimes lunch was at the old Playboy Club on Light Street.

The elder Fleming died two years ago on New Year's Day.

I've done what Jerry Fleming did in his free time between flights yesterday. I've stared into the past, searched in the fog for my father and other absent friends and relatives. Triggered by sight or sound -- a song, an ornament, an old building or house -- your mind in an instant fills like a crowded room with the faces of people you miss. It happens a lot, but particularly during this time of year.

People change. They die, get divorced, move away. The world runs at white-knuckle speed. So at Christmas you want to stop and walk back a few miles to see if something -- just one thing -- could possibly be as it always was.

The other night, Jeff Grutkowski and a group of friends made their annual pilgrimage to the house at 3205 Woodhome Ave. in the Parkville area. This is Sonny Singer's place, one of the Baltimore area's most robustly decorated holiday houses. Sonny has been dressing it up with all manner of handmade items -- including animated reindeer on the roof and a train garden in the rear yard -- for 48 years.

Sonny's wife, Dorothy, died of cancer in August and, though facing his first Christmas without her, he decorated the house again.

And yet, the man is discouraged.

"For some reason," Grutkowski says, "the crowds have stayed away this year. And now Sonny is ready to pull the plug, literally, on everything. He doesn't feel like enough people care."

I spoke to Sonny yesterday and verified Grutkowski's concern. In good years, Sonny said, up to 30,000 people visited his street over the two weeks before and two weeks after Christmas. Only a fraction of that comes now.

"If you could get the word out and help get enough people to visit Woodhome Avenue over the next few days, I'm confident Sonny would see it as a sign that people do appreciate his efforts," says Grutkowski, who wants to keep the lights on. "It's people like Sonny Singer who make this town a great place to live, despite all the crime and drugs and despair. We need people like Sonny, and now Sonny needs us."

I understand Grutkowski's desire to help a discouraged man, especially in these short, dark days of winter.

So I gave it up again for a panhandler yesterday morning -- a few bucks in an empty Burger King soda cup that a 41-year-old homeless man named Alfred held in the rain on Calvert Street, in front of the city courthouse. A few feet from the panhandler, a young woman in a wedding gown stood -- her gown gathered up and off the wet pavement, a pile of white satin and chiffon in the fog and mist -- poised for courthouse matrimony, little sisters attending her.

This day it did not seem enough to drop money in Alfred's cup and keep walking. He wanted conversation, and so did I, and the rain didn't seem to matter.

"I'm full-blown," Alfred told me at one point, a reference to the AIDS that has sapped his body and left him disabled, unemployed, homeless and hungry.

"Aban ... ban ... abandominium on Chase Street," he stuttered when asked where he lived. "Sometimes if it's not too cold, I sleep on that bench over there."

We spoke for 20 minutes, and Alfred told me all about his life. He didn't seem to mind all the questions, despite the rain, and there was an honesty, even an innocence, about him. He never asked me for more than I'd given, and I never heard him use Christmas in his pitch to others for donations. In fact, he didn't seem to have an awareness of the holiday -- or a willingness to acknowledge it.

Our conversation ended only because Alfred had more work to do. There wasn't much action at the courthouse -- more rain in his cup than coins -- and Alfred needed to find another place to ask for money. So I quietly wished him a merry Christmas, self-conscious that such an expression might ring empty, even phony, for a homeless man.

But I am pretty sure he heard me, and I am pretty sure Alfred smiled before he turned to walk away.

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