Attachments ~ A Brief Tale of Home and Homelessness
© Richard Pelletier
The question rolled around in my head for months. “What the hell happened here?” A whim and a prayer had delivered my wife and me into a fixer, a rowhouse on Baltimore’s Union Square. Built in the mid 19th century, the Square was courtly and a little frayed, but it had aged well. Not so much gentrified as cared for. Quintessential Baltimore. For over sixty years H.L. Mencken had lived in a rowhouse on the square lending it considerable cachet. His house, once a museum, had gone quiet. But what on earth had happened to this place?
Surrounding Mencken’s genteel oasis, were neighborhoods just ripped apart. In nearly every direction were rowhouses – once beautiful – now shuttered, broken and empty. A block away was Baltimore Street, running east to west. “That there’s an old dividing line,” said a new friend Eugene, who grew up just north of it. “The Caucasians lived to the south; African Americans to the north.” For a long time whites wanted it that way, inertia and fear sustain it now. The street itself was an inner city cliché, failed businesses, gangs of brothers working the drug trade, a few holdouts selling furniture and liquor. Such was our new neighborhood, or at least one part of it. But what actually did happen to the corner of the world that gave us Mencken?
This working class Baltimore enclave gave birth to a voice that was second only to Twain’s. But these neighborhoods were now unreachable, out of radio contact, on the dark side of the moon. You only had to look at the houses.
Nineteen fifty-three. Bertha and John Worsham bought the house that nearly fifty years later would become ours; a seventeen foot wide, 1896 rowhouse with oversized mullioned windows and ten foot ceilings. Union Square became home. Back then it cost four-thousand dollars. John worked at the nearby railroad. Bertha raised their two children, Linda and Jack. Bertha’s sister lived across the street. Three years later, H.L. Mencen, their famous neighbor and Baltimore’s favorite son died in his bed four doors away. For a good long while 1524 Hollins Street had been the most famous literary address in America. Of an estimated ten million words, Mencken’s last were these: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”
We came, we saw, we fell hard. Bertha had somehow found us. Her fixed-income fixer, replete with stories of rowdy card parties, brief encounters with Mencken, and rattan butterflies tacked to her bedroom wall were more than enough for us. Her great nephew Ken was the realtor and storyteller. We stood in a contact paper kitchen with brown metal cabinets and linoleum floors and took it all in. “They had a hell of a good time right in here, whopping it up, playing cards, just carrying on,” he told us.
Bertha, a tried and true Baltimorean, attached to that rowhouse for forty-five years, had covered it with paneling, carpeting and eagles. Even the claw foot tubs had eagle decals. She left just shy of ninety-three. She died soon after and the forlorn rowhouse with the faux brick and mortar paint job was put up for sale. The homeliest girl on the block sat empty for two long years. Until.
“Seventeen feet wide and attached?” My father was on the phone from his easy chair in New England. “The hell kind of house is that?” My mother, never one to be outdone, asked, “Are there black people living there?”
For years blacks had been crammed into segregated neighborhoods on the city’s west side, where Union Square stood. Zigging and zagging around the Square was a jagged color line: Pratt Street, Fulton and Baltimore Streets. You knew which lines you could cross, and which ones you couldn’t. But white realtors smelled opportunity. Fulton Street, just west of Bertha’s, was black on one side and white on the other. Blockbusting realtors put a single black family onto the white side of the street. Panic selling took hold and whites lost homes and equity, black folks were sold over-valued properties and realtors cashed in. It opened a decade’s long perfect storm of social implosion, mass exodus, real-estate fraud, job loss, crack, crime, and finally, some revitalization. You only had to look at the houses.
Down the street the Hollins Market has hung on. It’s one of those sacred places not long for this world and all the more precious for it. Barry Levinson used it in Avalon. The tin roofs, butchers, bakers, and fish mongers are frozen in a kind of Baltimore time warp. Mencken’s mother used to shop there when it was two hundred stalls cracking and popping with life. It’s a little smaller now. I ran into Eugene there the other day as I ordered a $2.50 cheeseburger. Eugene is a sweetheart and a pest and has an uncanny ability to stay buoyant despite being homeless and addicted to crack. His birthday had just passed, so I bought him a Pepsi and a slice of strawberry cheesecake. “You know I just love them sweets,” he told me, silly with pleasure. We chatted a little more, caught up on some news, and Gene smiled and said good-bye. “I love you,” he told me, “with the grace of good God Almighty.”
There are days when Eugene reminds me of some of these rowhouses, beat up, and worn down but full of sweet promise, waiting for that twist of fate, for that certain someone to climb the marble steps, fling open the doors and fall in love.