It’s just before eleven on an already hot Saturday morning. Eugene’s here to help me with a backyard fence I’m putting up behind our newly renovated 107 year-old rowhouse. But at this moment he’s in our kitchen heaping spoonfuls of sugar into the cup of coffee Linda has poured him. He’s wearing my reading glasses, and the morning paper is spread out before him. I love teasing Gene.
“You comfortable? Anything else we can get for you?”
A big gap-toothed smile opens across his handsome face.
“Miss Linda’s taking good care of me. Say, Rich.”
“Miss Linda’s a soft touch,” I tell him.
“Say Rich, I was just saying that the Caucasians, (Gene always calls white people “The Caucasians”)they lived South of Baltimore Street and the African Americans, they lived on the other side, the north side.”
“Did they both shop on Baltimore street,” Linda wants to know.
“Yes, maam, they each had their own stores they went to,” Gene tells us. “Black folks had their own movie theater. Was right over there at Baltimore, I think it was Baltimore and Carrollton.”
“Nobody shopping there much anymore,” I say. Baltimore Street is just north of us, a block away. It has a Main Street sort of appeal with brick sidewalks, period streetlamps, and little storefronts with apartments above. But its day has long been over; it now resembles an urban war zone more than the bustling commercial strip it once was.
“Oh, they shopping, all right,” Gene says, laughing. “Shopping day and night, cars lined up like a traffic jam, looking for that boy and that girl. Dang.”
Boy and girl–also known as heroin and crack–are openly bought and sold from twenty-four-hour dealers lurking on numerous corners along this sorry street. Of course, Eugene would know all this. He grew up a few blocks north on Mulberry Street, a place where just about every inner-city calamity you can imagine (and plenty that you can’t), runs rampant through worn, broken, and abandoned rowhouses. Our Eugene is a bit of a shakedown artist, and the small chore is his domain.
“Those windows could use a little cleanin’, ” were the very first words I ever heard him speak. That he was a Muslim followed. His homelessness, crack addiction, thirty years in prison–this all came later. Gene reads the Qur’an in Arabic and travels with it in a plastic bag.
I don’t recall our realtor telling us as we toured this place those eighteen months ago that our endearing, layered in linoleum, historic rowhouse would come with stories and shakedowns from a homeless, crack-smoking Black Muslim. I’m pretty sure I would have remembered that. But neither had he mentioned that our hundred-year-old rowhouse stood at the crossroads of the American dream. Look around you, he should have told us. See all these rowhouses, abandoned and grand and everything in between? Urban storytellers. The face of our own history. As telling of the American experience and the human heart as any novel.
“Here’s my card,” is what Ken did say. “Call me at any of these three numbers.”
After years of changing addresses, we’d come to the moment of truth. Linda and I had finally reached the end. We needed a house, a home, a community. We were nearly fifty and engaged. Our comfortable tract home on a leafy street in Rockville was on a two year lease, with only a few months to go. We just weren’t sold on the suburbs. And so one August day found us crammed into a baking-hot vestibule with Ken, who was the listing agent for this particular house. Ken was fussing with locks, chains, and bolts. We stood behind him, sweating.
“How long’s this been on the market?” I asked him.
“Been about two years now,” he mumbled.
Ever curious, Linda asked, “Who lived here?”
“My great-aunt lived here for forty-five years. She left just before her ninety third birthday; a real character. We called her Nanna.”
Linda, whose loving heart knows no bounds when it comes to old people, heard all she needed. Her memory of our ride through shock-trauma neighborhoods alongside Nanna’s Union Square oasis was fading; her dream of country life, shelved. She shot me a sly smile. Here on the doorstep of a historic house, brimming with character and architectural detail, the charms of a sweet old person contained within, she stood ready. Rose-tinted memories of her own grandmother’s richly appointed home float to the
surface of her now-enchanted head. I met her look with my own. We don’t know anything yet, don’t go there.
“Here we go,” said Ken, as we swept into the stale hallway.
We’d had an inkling.
Forty minutes earlier, as we window-shopped the house while waiting for Ken, the neighborhood gadfly descended upon us. Sheer planned happenstance.
“And who are you?” asked our interloper. “I’m Karen. You’re looking at Nanna’s house?”
“Well, we have an appoint–” Linda tried to say.
“Come,” she interrupted, starting toward her own house.
Resistance was futile. For thirty minutes we toured the grand and splashy driedflower emporium that was her home. She came at us like a glossy gossip magazine. Names and places flew by like strobe lights punctuated by mini-editorials, all delivered with a sassy, conspiratorial zeal.
“Look, I know pretty much everything that goes on around here,” she happily told us. “Some folks find that amusing; others don’t. But that’s the way she be.”
“You have to have a passion for these houses,” Karen advised us. “Or they’ll eat you up.”
She flattened me with this–H.L. Mencken had lived next door nearly his entire life. I had no idea.
“You’re kidding!” I said.
“Right next door, hon.”
Linda was looking for clues to our upcoming tour.
“So what’s it like down the street?” she asked Karen.
“No way,” she replied. And then she laughed.
So there we were. A closed-up house smell. A grand staircase. Cobalt blue carpeting. Stale yellow linoleum. A walker, a cane, a shopping cart. Religious magazines. Powder blue drapes. Those tacky vertical blinds. Eight-foot windows. A chain lamp. Textured ceilings. A faux fireplace. A paneled dining room. Paneled bedrooms. Peeling wallpaper. Enough linoleum to surface the new millennium. Fifties? Sixties? Seventies? All present and accounted for. The house was an irresistible blend of Catholic patriotism and terrifying homemade home improvements. Eagles were everywhere. Even the claw foot tubs had eagle decals. Virgin Mary medals lay on a crusty second-floor windowsill; just above on a lonely wall were two rattan butterflies nailed in mid-flight. Plumbing problems abounded. All in all, a staggering, eye-popping mess. A huge, sunny, and quite inexpensive eye-popping mess, with wood floors, high ceilings, and on a nice little park. And, of course, Mencken.
“I’m liking this house,” I whispered to Linda, who was busy channeling Nanna and didn’t respond. Ken remained blessedly quiet (what could he say?) but suddenly opened up in the spectacularly awful kitchen.
“Whole Worsham clan gathered right here, on Saturday nights,” he told us. “Had a hell of a time whooping it up that crowd. Forty years of card parties in here.” He shook his head at the memory of it, gleaned from boyhood visits and storytelling relatives.
The basement. Enough scrap iron for a battleship. Hidden among stacks of old galvanized pipe was a worn copy of Bertrand Russell’s screed against the virtues of hard work, In Praise of Idleness–a delicious irony for anyone facing a house like this one.
Our tour of Karen’s house had served as inspiration and measuring stick, and Linda had a running inventory of sins. “So why’d they take all the good stuff out?” she wanted to know. “Shouldn’t there be a hearth in the kitchen and a skylight upstairs? What happened?”
“Had to, I guess, I really don’t know,” Ken told her.
“I wish they hadn’t taken all the best parts out,” she sighed.
But in spite of all that is missing, there was something strangely ineffable present. This house felt good to us, as if we belonged here. It had hit us both early. “It does feel really good in this house,” Linda said, as we summed up in the dining room.
“Nanna must have been a sweetheart.”
She’s brilliant at this sort of thing. I don’t discount it, though I entertain myself silly teasing her about it.
I was stunned at how big this would be. “It’s a ton of work, Ken.”
“The thing I tell people is that you could work on it while you live here,” he replied. Sure, and you could marry Barbie and sell real estate together.
“I don’t think so,” said Linda.
“We’ll have to think long and hard,” I told him.
“Sure, take your time. Here’s my card. You can call me at any of these three numbers.”
We made two more visits. Linda’s 22-year-old daughter Janet came through. Home for the weekend from college, she remained tight-lipped as she moved from room to room. Linda and I talked it to death and consulted friends. One friend told me, “I wouldn’t,” when I told him where the house was. Then he gave me the name of a contractor. My eighty-year-old mother asked me, “Are there any black people living there?” My father, a former part-time realtor wanted to know, “The hell kind of house is that, seventeen feet wide?”
Just after Thanksgiving, we closed.
Derrick is on the top step of our house, giving Linda and me a little social geography lesson before resuming work inside.
“This right here?” he says, looking out around the square. “This is cool. You’re okay here.” He points north toward Baltimore Street and beyond. “Over there? Vietnam. Totally freaked out. Bad stuff.” He ought to know, having grown up here. Along with his boss, Hank, Derrick is at the beginning of a long renovation project. He’s first in a long line of workers who ask us, “What made you buy here?”
Because Nanna’s middle-class American-eagle, Catholic-card-party rowhouse spoke to us, I want to say. Bertrand Russell, H.L. Mencken, and the Virgin Mary–would you turn that down?
“It was a hell of a bargain,” I told him, and, at fifty-four thousand dollars, it was. And so it began. Our contractor, the cheerful and devout Hank (“I’m a good carpenter, not a good businessman”), greeted me with RICCCHAAARRRDDD!!!!! every single day for four and a half months, until he had to tell me we were twelve thousand dollars over budget. The sweet, boastful, and in-over-his-head Derrick has a teardrop tattoo beneath his left eye that means “killer” on the street, but on Derrick it’s just for show. He’s hopelessly accident-prone but has Olympian stamina. Covered in soot from head to toe, he carries Nanna’s pulverized bathrooms out of the house in hundreds of back-breaking trips. He loans us Hank’s tools and coaches his eager weekend warriors on how to do this thing or that. “Just follow what I tell you, and you’ll be all right,” he instructs us.
Beneath our hands and theirs–a host of subs, daily-draw plasterers, a “foreman” whose car is awash in empty beer cans, skilled veterans, and disappearing laborers–Nanna’s eagle-plastered, decades-in-the-making temple of home-improvement kitsch turns to rubble.
Beneath the paneling, wallpaper, and linoleum we found a true American home. Built by nineteenth-century real estate speculators using English blueprints, our house and hundreds just like it were bought by professionals and immigrants in what were then the suburbs. The house on Union Square was on the outskirts of town in 1896 and, on its maiden voyage, sold to Zippora Ella Edwards and Sarah E. Conner for a mere twenty-five hundred dollars. Fifty-seven years and several owners later came John and Bertha (Nanna) Worsham on March 27, 1953. For the princely sum of four thousand dollars, they signed the deed and stepped into their new life.
But the sky was going dark. Paralleling Nanna’s forty-five-year stay, many an American city (Baltimore is an exemplary case) suffered a long and well-documented eclipse. At a rate that rivaled the historic migration by southern African Americans and whites to the cities in the forties, white and black middle-class Americans began their long outward exodus. Assisted by the mortgage tax deduction, rising incomes, and strong feelings on race and class, millions chose to live unattached, thank you very much, from their new (and often struggling) neighbors. A fifty-year exodus does not a pretty path make. Into the breach slid redlining, property flipping, drug dealing, money-laundering slumlords, and shell corporations in search of write-offs. Baltimore saw a stunning decline. Vast tracts of blown-out urban ghost towns appeared, racked by murder, heroin, and crack. A real estate reality show, all too real. Look around you…
But all was not lost. The enduring appeal of the rowhouse, with its winning ability to shelter dried-flower-loving, sidewalk-sweeping guardians of neighborhood decorum, the bouffant hairdo set of John Waters’ hometown, and virtually everyone in between, black or white, meant survival. Urban architecture’s stepchild was nothing if not resilient. As we scraped away the years, ripped out paneling, busted open a long-closed back stairway, and re-plastered, we inched our way home. Just as Hank had warned us, we found a few surprises. In this trying place–this urban cocoon, beautiful, maddening, and storied–we found home. Much to our delight, we found a real community–that gaggle of good friends, acquaintances, and annoying neighbors that makes city life the pageant that it is. We found Eugene, as worn-down and resilient as the neighborhood that produced him. We found his suppliers, hawking death and destruction all around us for five dollars a vial. And we found some history, a page from the American story.
It was our first spring in our sun-filled living room that we said our vows. Mencken’s fountain gurgled sweetly in the park, drowning out the past year’s rehab flare-ups over switch plates and paint colors. The minister broke up the small gathering as he painted a picture of Linda and me as an old rowhouse couple, fixtures in the neighborhood, watching the world drift by and change. Hank and Derrick had moved on. If our many friends and visitors were to be believed, they left behind a much-admired product. Hank did a couple more jobs in the neighborhood to mixed reviews and then hightailed it out to the suburbs, where he prefers to work. Derrick hasn’t been seen for months. One night in my third-floor bedroom, I heard strange voices through the wall. I leaned into the plaster. Prayers. Not just any prayers. Serious prayers. Urgent and pleading and insistent. A “get down here and help now” kind of prayer. A chill ran through me, head to toe. As the sky went dark over Union Square that night, it felt like a prayer for the whole city.