'She gives respect' and owns her east-side corner


November 27, 2008|By PETER HERMANN

The corner of East Baltimore's Milton Avenue and Biddle Street has two liquor stores, a convenience store, a church, blowing trash, a police surveillance camera, kids peddling drugs and idle men worn from age and disability catching up with old friends and old times.

Today, it is to have turkeys. Six of them, to be exact. And four hams. And plenty of other food set up on donated tables in front of one of those nondescript corner shops that sells malt liquor in 40-ounce to-go cans and seems to proliferate in impoverished neighborhoods, as common as boarded-up rowhouses and vacant lots.

According to the sign, the store is called "Kay's Liquor and Convenience: Grocery, patent medicine, beer, wine, liquors."

Its owner is anything but typical.

This is Michelle Ha's corner. She already feeds the people who come to the monthly Eastern District Community Relations Council. She puts on a crab feast for the officers and the residents and hangs photos of everyone happily mingling on the wall outside her bullet-resistant glass.

The "stop snitching" campaign stops here.

And today, Ha is having Thanksgiving on the corner. "Somebody has to do something for these people," she says.

Ha has been here for a decade and at another spot on East Preston Street for 10 years before that. She lives above the store and rules the corner with a stern determination and a respectful demeanor.

When she tells young drug dealers to get off her corner, they move. When she calls the police, they come. When a neighbor has a leaky basement, she calls a cop, and the Department of Public Works suddenly appears. When she tells the city's housing department she wants to buy a vacant rowhouse and convert it into a club for older patrons, they promise to make it happen.

She holds court on the street corner as often as she stands behind her counter in a cluttered back room with wooden shelves bending under the weight of vodka, gin and beer, and stocked with everything from chips to cold remedies.

"Hey, shorty," Ha welcomes a customer.

"Number 17," he answers

"You becoming a gambler?" she jokes, handing him a lottery ticket.

The line is steady for a ticket off the corner.

Ha regales another customer with a story about her 10-year-old son, Sean Chang, who just got another trophy for playing golf. She takes out a copy of the local paper in Southern Pines, N.C., which has her son spread over the front page of its sports section.

East Baltimore is no place to hone golf skills. Ha's husband moved with Sean to North Carolina so their son could perfect his game. Ha visits every three weeks but keeps her son's trophies on a table by her cash register. She tried living in the suburbs once but hated it. Too quiet. Too green.

"In Baltimore, I feel alive," she says.

Stand outside her shop, and you quickly realize that Ha sees things differently than most. Out of despair, she sees hope. From the troublemakers, she sees promise. "These are my people," she says. "I love these people. When I'm not around, they look over my shoulder. We look after each other. They have made me laugh. They have made me cry."

I found Ha when I rode with Eastern District Officer Adrian Amos, who laughed as he slowed his squad car in front of Kay's. He's used to hearing from Ha, and he said he tries to help her out. It was Amos who told me about the clubhouse she's trying to get, noting the problems when drug dealers and seniors claim the same turf for different reasons.

Residents such as Carl Washington, 58, complain that it's the police who can't or don't care to discern the difference between a teenage dealer and a senior citizen. "They tell everyone to go," he says during a recent visit to the store.

A police car slows, and the officer asks if everything is OK. It is, and he drives off. Ha has managed to bridge a divide - she embraces the community and the police. "If it wasn't for the Police Department, I couldn't stay here," she acknowledges - and she makes no secret about helping both.

Explains East Baltimore resident Carl Williams, 56: "She gives respect. She gets respect."

And so today on Thanksgiving, Ha will join the legions of others giving away free meals. The corner will never be misconstrued as a formal dining room filled with the laughter of children and the banter of relatives relaxing in front of a roaring fire.

Many of the older men here are alone; they have each other and the liquor store, and maybe soon permission will come from the city for Ha to buy and renovate the vacant rowhouse to give the men a place of their own to play cards and drink beer and while away the time.

For now, the corner will have to do. And while it lacks tablecloths and fine china, no doubt the stories from the neighborhood folks will be just as entertaining, and as full of laughter, as any fireside chat.

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