'Mayor of the Falls Road corridor' was warm presence in many lives

November 14, 2009|By Arthur Hirsch

The long and unconventional life of Charlie Barber ended quietly a week ago in his room at Stella Maris in Timonium. Although disinclined in life to ask for much at all, the soft-spoken man had asked for a glass of water, received it and soon after slipped away.

He was by some accounts in his late 90s, by others more than 100. This biographical detail, along with others, remains vague. Homeless but not homeless, a presence in the lives of many people while not tied to family, occupation or property, Mr. Barber lived from one moment to the next, taking what fate brought his way.

It could be a breakfast, then another breakfast the same day, several lunches strung together in an afternoon or a free drink or meal offered by a restaurateur. Until about five years ago, he was a part of the scenery at the upscale Green Spring Station in Lutherville.

"Everybody knew him," said Helene Clapperton, manager of Craft Concepts, who said he was never known to ask for help. "They'd all stop and talk to Charlie."

He worked for a time at the old Windy Valley diner in the 1970s and lived upstairs. He lived in a goat barn where the Johns Hopkins Health Care & Surgery Center now stands at Green Spring Station, then in an unheated trailer in the parking lot. He picked up a few dollars doing jobs for storekeepers or helping shoppers carry packages to their cars.

"He had touched so many people over the years," said Brigitte Manekin of Hunt Valley. "He was really the mayor of the Falls Road corridor."

Brigitte Manekin and her husband, Donald, encountered Mr. Barber one winter evening in the early 1990s at Green Spring Station. As they were leaving Harvey's restaurant, they spotted the slim, elderly man curled up on an outdoor bench. The next day, she asked a storekeeper about the man on the bench and gave Mr. Barber a slip of paper with her phone number on it - in case of emergency. A few nights later, she returned with a pillow and blanket.

Not long after, he came to live with the Manekins, finding a warm place to sleep at night, a dining table at which to take his meals, a family that embraced him as their own and daily transportation to Green Spring Station.

"We have a friend who called Charlie the luckiest man in the world," said Randy Gerwig, a friend of the Manekins'. "He fell asleep on a park bench and woke up at the Manekin house."

"He was like the grandfather for all of us," said Brigitte Manekin, whose husband's family established Manekin LLC, a giant of the Baltimore commercial real estate scene.

Their son, Thibault Manekin, 30, eldest of four children, recalled how Mr. Barber brought the family closer together and changed their way of seeing the world.

"It was eye-opening," Thibault Manekin said. After getting to know a man who once was homeless, he said, "You don't walk down the street and ... look at people the same way."

Mr. Barber's move to the Manekin household was not without some resistance from Donald Manekin's father, who was concerned about whether it was safe to bring a stranger into their home.

In a Baltimore Sun article published in November 2000, Donald Manekin said they could soon see that Mr. Barber was harmless. There were times when they thought about having him live in a shelter or community program, but Mr. Barber did not want to leave and lose his independence.

"There is no system in place to deal with guys like Charlie," Donald Manekin said then.

"He would never ask for anything," Brigitte Manekin said Friday. He just wanted to be left to find his own way.

Mr. Barber moved three times with the Manekins, from homes near Falls Road up to Hunt Valley. Every morning, they or one of their friends would drive him to Green Spring Station, and in the evening they would pick him up and bring him home for supper.

The man of northern Baltimore County would remain in the place he had spent his life and knew as if it were his own backyard.

Mr. Gerwig recalled driving with Mr. Barber on several fishing expeditions to Prettyboy Reservoir and hearing Mr. Barber call out the names of the next back road and the next. He had spent his younger days working on farms there and could tell stories about who was a good boss and who was not, how things were in a time long past. He liked to talk about the prodigious walking feats of his youth, claiming to have walked to Washington and to Frederick.

"To sit with him and have a drink with him was just a wealth of folklore," Mr. Gerwig said. "He had such a way of telling a story."

Mr. Barber enjoyed his beer and his bourbon, but he was not particular about the brand. Neither was he fussy on a fishing trip, or even particularly interested in the fishing. Just let him sit in the stern of the little boat and quietly smoke a cigarette, watching the scene drift by.

Mr. Barber never married, Brigitte Manekin said. He would say that because his father died when he was quite young, he had his mother and sister to take care of, and that was enough. He left behind no close relatives.

After he broke his leg early in 2008, it became increasingly difficult to care for him at their home, Brigitte Manekin said. She arranged a room for him at Stella Maris, where he had lived since July 2008. She said he did not complain, but it was clear he was not happy with the arrangement. He would go home with them for weekend visits and kept asking when he was coming home to stay. Over time, he lost interest in eating.

Brigitte Manekin was visiting him at Stella Maris a few hours before he died. Asked the cause of his death, she said she was never told. She referred to an e-mail her daughter Lauren sent to family and friends: "He died of ... well I guess the doctors will say, 'Free Will.' He'd maybe say, 'just gotta go out now.' "

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