This man counted blessings, not toll of addiction, blight

February 25, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This one's for Sidney Carter, who appreciated better than most of us the tattered little blessings life had bestowed upon him.

"God is good," he used to say all the time.

"Uh-huh," I'd mutter in a tone somewhere between polite and patronizing.

"He has blessed me," Sidney insisted.

"Who are you kidding?" I asked him one afternoon.

We were eating lunch at the old Homewood Deli on St. Paul Street that day, but Sidney was having trouble because his dentures didn't fit. This was the least of it. He was broke, as usual, and getting by mostly on medical disability. One lung was long gone, and diabetes was doing him no good, and his lion's heart was starting to wear itself out.

"Blessed how?" I said. He was a devoted Sunday church-goer, and I am a devoted skeptic about casual references to heaven, but we usually did a comfortable little separation-of-church-and-state verbal dance around the subject.

"He's blessed my life," Sidney said, nodding his head solemnly.

"How?"

"By letting me live this long."

Well, OK.

He made it to 61 before his heart gave out the other day, so we'll let him get the last word. He made it past poverty, and he made it past an early heroin addiction that he quit 35 years ago and never went back to, and he made it through all the roadblocks put along his way for the crime of being born black a little too early in the American experience.

Which is how we met and became friends, when Sidney walked out of the ashes of the 1968 riots into the beat-up little barber shop that isn't there anymore at Greenmount Avenue just above North.

The place was a hangout for those considered invisible by the outside world, and a graduate school for a young reporter just starting to get his real education. Richard Winborne stood there every day cutting hair and gently explaining the world in a voice that was all upper registers. A one-time beauty named Posie would show up, strung out on heroin, in dresses that seemed to have wilted over her wasted frame, and tried vainly to use sex to make a little spending money. There were the guys who ran numbers, and those who shot craps out in the alley. They were all people whose skin color had given America license to hold them back, and so they had created their own underground economy and lifestyle because that's all that was open to them back then.

Sidney was one of the young guys, and one of the most hopeful. He was big and strong and wore an Afro haircut and had a voice that rang out. Those were nervous and hopeful days. In that damaged neighborhood, in that post-riot era, the world seemed full of possibilities. The riots were considered a starting point, a signal that the old, legally oppressive world was gone forever.

Overnight there were federal anti-poverty programs popping up, with all these alphabet soup names and urban keep-the-peace jobs for those previously shunted aside. Sidney got one of them, a position working with little kids, most of whom had no fathers at home. You want a picture of God blessing Sidney? It's summer afternoons when those children instinctively gravitated to him, and clung to him, and fed off Sidney's heart and his energy and his optimism.

He'd been part of that first full generation of the city's heroin users. Unlike many, he was strong enough to beat it and had never resorted to violence to support it. But the stuff had taken a toll on his body. In his 20s, he was spending too much time in hospitals. Who knew how much of it was residue from the drug days?

He tried helping others who were addicted. He blamed politicians who ignored drug trafficking until it was too late - but he didn't limit the blame. Sometimes we drove along Greenmount Avenue after dark. The sidewalks were filled with people, and there was music in the air and plenty of good cheer.

But the hour was quite late, the kids often untended, and there was school the next morning. The city's homicide count was burgeoning, and sometimes the victims were kids in the wrong place.

"So then they'll have one of those candlelight vigils," Sidney said one night. "What is a candlelight vigil? It's 10 minutes on the other side of the war zone, that's all."

Across the years, he still clung to his vision of God's personal blessings and was still trying to be optimistic about the world around him. The day after Sidney died, I went down Greenmount Avenue to North again, and remembered the hopes of the post-riot days, when make-work jobs were beginning to open up but so was the heroin traffic.

Around the neighborhood now you still have the burned-out rowhouses, the liquor stores with people standing out front in the middle of the day, the doorway that leads to nothing but an empty shell of a building with trash strewn about inside. Here you have people standing in the cold at bus stops, the 24-hour bail bond operation, the exterior of buildings bashed in, as though by some berserk fist. Here you have the drug traffic that has turned so violent over the years.

The old barber shop where I'd hang out with Sidney is gone now, replaced by a carry-out food operation. The alley behind it is filled with trash. I remember Sidney's optimism, long ago, that things would get better now. When he sits down with the God who blessed him, I expect Sidney and he will have a few things to talk about.

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