Strangers – or neighbors

Can Baltimoreans still interact with people they don't know?

November 22, 2009|By Calvin Goldscheider

My wife and I and our dog attended my aunt's funeral recently. We drove from our home in Washington early Sunday morning to the funeral home and then joined family and friends at the cemetery. My wife and I were both born in Baltimore (delivered by the same obstetrician), but she left when she was 1.

I have deeper roots. I left Baltimore for college over half a century ago, then went on to graduate school and a career in universities in the United States and abroad. But I know Baltimore - my parents were born there and lived their whole lives there; my brother and I both grew up in Baltimore; my sister and her family, and my son and his family, and other relatives live there. We have been in Baltimore many times for joyous and sad occasions.

Like cities everywhere, much has changed in Baltimore over the years. Neighborhoods have expanded, some have deteriorated, and many have altered racial and religious compositions. Forest Park, where my father grew up and where I lived as a teenager, is among many neighborhoods that have changed. East Baltimore and the downtown area where my mother was raised have been transformed. But despite much that is new, I can still relate to the transformed Baltimore and to the people who live there.

On the way home from the cemetery, I was driving to visit my cousins and may have taken a wrong turn (or so it seemed). New houses and unfamiliar streets disoriented me. I decided to stop and ask for directions.

I saw a lone middle-aged man walking in the direction we were headed. I asked him where a major thoroughfare was and whether I was going the right way. He responded quickly and helpfully - yes, we were headed in the right direction; in just a few more blocks we would be on a street that we would recognize. I thanked him and was about to drive away when he asked whether he could join us in the car, since he was walking the same way. He added, "I see you have a dog in the back seat, but I could squeeze in."

I thought that one good turn deserved another. He joined us for a few blocks, noting that some people aren't very kind any more and would perhaps not have agreed to take him. He hasn't done this very often himself, he added, and he used to leave his windows and doors open, but no more. We agreed that things have changed as the tensions between strangers have increased, as has the distrust and fear.

Our brief conversation ended as I told him that I was a Baltimore native, as were my parents; he seemed skeptical since I didn't sound like a Baltimorean (and perhaps didn't behave like one either). I left him off at the corner and he blessed me and I in turn blessed him. I thought how nice it was that, despite our obvious racial and socioeconomic differences, we could relate to each other without concern and as neighbors.

I wondered: Was I being naive? Perhaps I should have been more cautious and less trusting. I did feel good about reciprocating and being kind to strangers, as my family had been over the years. Maybe I had underestimated the pains of racial conflict and segregation over the last decades and given too little thought to the violence that has often erupted - not to mention the deep fear and distrust that have often resulted.

I asked my relatives who live in Baltimore what they would have done. They were stunned, almost horrified. Not only would they not have let a stranger in the car, they would not have even asked someone on the street for directions. They would have gone to a public place instead. They were thankful that we were not robbed or hurt - or worse.

But to me, this experience with the stranger paralleled many that I had growing up in Baltimore, when I thumbed a ride home from school or from downtown to the safety of my segregated, white neighborhood. Things have changed even as some things remain the same.

As the stranger/neighbor left my car to go on his way, I thought that perhaps he would continue to help a stranger out who asks for assistance, and Baltimore would be a better place for that gesture of kindness and trust. We often tell children, "Don't talk to strangers." Perhaps now that we are adults, we should emphasize the importance of helping out strangers and making them our neighbors again.

Calvin Goldscheider is professor emeritus of sociology and Judaic studies at Brown University and a scholar in residence at American University in Washington. His e-mail is calvin_goldscheider@ brown.edu.

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