At 78, William Edward Chambers cherishes his connection to the neighborhood and its residents

Making the rounds with Pigtown's mayor

Maryland Journal

April 10, 2006|By RONA MARECH | RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTER

Most people from Pigtown have at least one nickname, some have two or three. There's Peanut and Little Bits; Peaches, Teeny and Dogman.

Then there's William Edward Chambers. He's known as Bus, Mr. Bus, Shad, Shadbo and Sheriff, but when he slowly walks down the street whistling church hymns, many people who call out to him address him simply as the mayor. The mayor of Pigtown.

Chambers knows the seven blocks he calls "my Pigtown" like he knows every note in those hymns. He knows the men on the corner, the tales, the tragedies, the two-story rowhouses, the alleyways, the clotheslines, the flowerpots, the trees and the shady front porches, from South Carey to Bush Street and from Washington Boulevard to Cleveland Street.

If affection could make you king, then Chambers has undoubtedly earned his title, and just about anyone who lives in one of the 173 homes in this resilient little patch of the city will tell you that.

"Mr. Bus, he loves Pigtown," says neighbor Katherine Turner one warm and cloudy morning. She had come out in her house dress when she heard Chambers whistling and ushered him through her back gate and into her spotless kitchen.

"He stays on top of things and if you got a problem, you go to the mayor and he'll straighten it out," Turner says. "Ain't nobody gonna take his place."

Almost completely white-haired at 78, Chambers is unmistakable as he ambles through his domain in a baseball cap - usually a blue one with gold lettering from the American Legion - raising his hand high in greeting and occasionally stooping to pick up garbage. When he hoots or lets out one of his slow chuckles, the cluster of creases around his eyes deepen and he reveals a swath of even, white teeth. He punctuates many of his sentences with a drawn-out mmmhmmm.

Chambers has long been a force in Pigtown, joining myriad community groups and helping to keep the neighborhood clean. "When people throw trash in the street, I'll be raising hell," he says.

He sweeps the streets most mornings - it used to be every day - and for his service, a "big wheel" from the school district presented him with a certificate in 1997. That's when he was dubbed the mayor, and the nickname stuck.

Chambers' family has lived in Pigtown since at least 1879, when his maternal grandmother was born there, and with a little handiwork he can connect to most of his neighbors through his family tree. Other than one 90-year-old, he figures he is Pigtown's oldest resident.

His father, Papa Goose, who died at 100 in 2002, was a longshoreman. He also had a coal, wood and ice business and a small store on Bayard Street where he sold milk, bread, candy and the meanest snowballs in the city.

Chambers is walking while he's reminiscing, waving, calling out "Hey, baby" to the women and lifting a crooked arm at the passing cars.

"The kids know me, the drug dealers know me, the police. Everybody knows me," he says.

He has a story or two or three about everyone he sees. This one used to sing in the church choir until she got throat cancer, that one is a teacher, someone else bought her house for $149,000.

He points out the Wayman's AME - the stone church where he sings in the choir and serves as the chairman of the board of trustees - and the mural that rises over the horseshoe pit. On a hot summer day, as many as 30 men will gather there to barbecue and hold tournaments, he says.

It's quiet as Chambers makes his way down a concrete alleyway, past clothes hanging out to dry, a creeping cat and a row of slender, tidy backyards.

There, under sparkling chandeliers dangling like bats from a tree, is what Chambers calls the Clubhouse.

His friend Harold Harrod, a garbage collector, has always salvaged old furniture and other knickknacks city dwellers have left at the curb. About 10 years ago, Harrod's wife told him she couldn't stand it any longer. So Harrod hauled his chipped, rickety treasures to this half-hidden lot and created a gathering spot where the old-timers - men only - could drink beers and talk about old-timer things.

There are carpet fragments Harrod constantly sweeps and replaces when they get dirty, as well as chairs, clocks, lamps, a gold-trimmed phone, a coffee pot, a monkey figurine and another of an eagle. An American flag is draped around a tree; a giant television stares back blankly.

"This stays out here," Chambers says. "And nobody touches it."

The tour resumes and his conversation floats back and forth through time. He occasionally halts wispy descriptions of a ball field or an old factory to explain that the places are decades-old.

"I be talking to people like they know what I'm talking about," he says, chuckling.

Then he has moved on again, to the trolley cars, the cobblestones, the workmen climbing ladders to light the street lamps and the sweet scent of Sunday mornings.

"Everyone knew you were in Pigtown, because you smelled homemade rolls being baked and everyone's radio was on Wings Over Jordan," a gospel show, he says.

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