Amid luxury, a remembrance of the lowly

December 26, 2004|By Dan Rodricks

PRICES AT Spinnaker Bay, the luxury condominium complex under construction in Harbor East, between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, begin in the $600,000s, but they've moved well into the millions, and one of the bricklayers working on the site says he's heard some outrageous prices for a penthouse. All of this is believable when you stand on Lancaster Street, by the bench that Jeff Leishear called home, and with your back to the harbor look up at the place.

Leishear was a 46-year-old street man with a serious drinking problem who slept on the bench. During the last year, as Spinnaker Bay rose above Lancaster Street, he and the band of homeless friends who hung out in Harbor East had a front-row seat for the evolution of a stunning new Baltimore waterfront.

The old port of Baltimore industries disappeared long ago, and now hotels, offices, restaurants and trendy stores seem to be opening every month. Spinnaker Bay is a $90 million project. Its residents will have a concierge service, an elegant clubroom, a rooftop terrace and swimming pool. The condos range from 1,400 to 4,000 square feet. Millionaires will live there.

And Jeff Leishear, the homeless man who slept on the bench, will have left his mark on the place.

He became a friend to some of the construction workers as they arrived each day for work. Craig Wagner was one. There was something about Leishear he liked, particularly when Leishear wasn't drunk.

"He was a good dude, and a smart dude when he wasn't drinking," says Wagner. "A lot of the guys got to know him pretty well. We saw him every day. He used to put cones out in the morning to hold parking spaces for us, even though at 6 a.m. it wasn't hard to find a place, and he'd feed my meter for me during the day. He stayed right on the bench on Lancaster Street when the weather was good."

And sometimes Leishear slept near a Dumpster in Little Italy. He was a short, slight man with a beard. He looked to be in his late 50s, the aging process having been accelerated by booze and the street. His name, Jeff, and the word love were tattooed across his knuckles.

Some guys called Leishear "Blue," but Wagner preferred to call him Jeff or Jeffrey. He and his wife, Alice, brought him food, and last summer they took him out on Wagner's boat.

"My wife made steak and eggs for him, and guys brought him food, even crab cakes, and once I made stuffed shrimp. He just couldn't believe it, he couldn't believe that anyone cared about him," Wagner says. "We gave him spaghetti once, and he wouldn't eat it himself until he shared it with the others [also homeless] first."

"You couldn't help but fall in love with him," says Alice Wagner.

"We used to talk in my truck sometimes," says Craig Wagner, who works for Baltimore Masonry Inc. "We tried to get him to go for help with his drinking, and once he said, `I think I wanna get cleaned up,' but ...

"He talked about Vietnam a lot. He got upset when he talked about that."

Wagner said Leishear claimed to be a Vietnam veteran, but we both decided that a man born in 1958 was probably too young to have served in that war. Didn't matter to Wagner, anyway.

"He was a friend, he really was."

And the men who worked on Spinnaker Bay made no harsh judgments about Leishear, according to Wagner. He was what he was, and accepted that way.

A few weeks ago, Wagner says, Leishear experienced seizures and spent a few days in a hospital. When he returned to Lancaster Street, he was weepy and upset, and he expressed fears about his health.

Wagner arrived at work on Tuesday, Dec. 7, to find that Leishear had died during the night on the bench on Lancaster Street. He had been pronounced dead by paramedics at 3:55 a.m., according to police. The state medical examiner's office confirmed Leishear's death but not its cause. Police notified his next of kin.

"We were gonna go down there Christmas Eve, bring him some food and have a kind of tailgate party," Wagner says. "It doesn't feel the same down there without him. All his [homeless] friends seemed to have disappeared since he died."

Spinnaker Bay has a distinctive brick exterior, with bands of stone. As the workers prepared to lift a cornice into place, to crown one of the millionaires' penthouses, Wagner took a black marker and wrote, "In memory of Jeffrey B. Leishear" on a face that he knew would not be exposed. The bosses and workers -- ironworkers, bricklayers and laborers, and lift operators and the guys from Otis Elevator -- signed their names to the stone. Then they hoisted the stone and set it in place.

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