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Third Eye

Peep This

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 1/1/2003

When I moved to Baltimore in 2001 to take a job as a staff writer at City Paper, it soon became clear that Charm City is no fool's paradise. There's little easy living here, and even less easy money--at least not like that I'd witnessed as a reporter in yacht-filled southern Florida, or in central North Carolina, where high-tech companies outnumber pine trees in some areas. Don't get me wrong: Those places have their share of poverty and crime. But those things, for whatever reason, are a shadowy subtext that doesn't affect public perception.

But I didn't come to Baltimore expecting La-La-Land. I came in search of thick, provocative, diverse stories to tell--and good-googamooga, I hit pay dirt. There's the always-twitching political scene, astounding public-education woes, petrifying rates of substance abuse and incarceration, progressive-to-radical community groups, and a stupefying maze of neighborhoods where people who can really throw back a drink fill corner pubs and lounges. (Most thong-clad Floridians sip their drinks, and in the heart of the Bible Belt, God-fearing folks take nips--albeit lots of 'em--of what are commonly called spiked beverages.)

Working my new beat, I discovered that Baltimoreans are basically a friendly lot who make one thing patently clear to newcomers: No punks allowed. That, despite so many reasons to tremble: Vacant eyes among the young and neglected; the missing teeth and limbs of junkies; the pimps loitering near neighborhood high schools; the crumbling buildings and slow, slower, slowest economy. At times it seems doubtful that most addicts will ever heal, that city schools will ever excel, that the masses who fill jails as if compelled to answer an altar call, will ever return.

In the words of Erykah Badu, "Damn, y'all feel that?"

Journalists feel things when they're out there sniffing out stories. But we get paid to think, to question, to turn over the proverbial rocks so we can--aha, gotcha! --hip readers to something insightful. If we are good, and lucky, journalists can write stories that spark changes in public policy; that help advance cultural understanding; that can maybe help galvanize the public into a full-throttle antiwar movement. (We alternative journalists, despite our native cynicism, are hopefuls who like to think big.)

I love journalism, but here's the rub: In Baltimore, I feel the job more than I have any type of intellectual or socio-political or anthropological grasp on it. This city, unlike others I have worked in, reminds me of home--in a way that is both endearing and eerie.

I'm a product of Detroit, during its Motor City/Motown heyday in the 1960s. There, like here, immigrants from nations far and wide sculpted local commerce and communities, and black power was a visceral thing that had damned-if-do-or-don't consequences. Eventually, political and economical gains sagged beneath the weight of riots, the Vietnam War, and throngs of people reverently consuming white powder like a daily Eucharist.

In the late '70s, I left Detroit like the proverbial bat out of hell. Had been there, done that. The T-shirt was totally faded. Everybody has their own way of trying to escape pain and despair, and mine was to move on--literally.

Fast forward 25 years, and I'm looking into the eyes of former City Paper editor Andy Markowitz, telling him with a smile how Baltimore reminds me of where I grew up, and how seamlessly I'm sure I'll fit in. I don't tell him that the two days I spend interviewing feel like my own Sankofa experience, where I am forcibly yanked into a horrid past that demands a reckoning. For years, I've been wandering outside the realm of how utterly harsh urban life can be, and how miraculous it is that in the midst of that, people love and heal and celebrate and hunker down.

For me, personally, Baltimore is a serious reality check.

North Avenue? Shut up. Highlandtown? Fuhgedaboudit. Hampden (where a white man refused to rent me an apartment for my own safety)? Ridigulous. Federal Hill? Bougie nights. City Hall? Wilding out. Three months on the job and my senses, reportorial and otherwise, were overwhelmed. "You have damn good eyes and ears," Markowitz would tell me later during a quasi-job review. My struggle, we both knew, was that I was having a hard time relaying those skills to readers while doing a largely straight-no-chaser news job.

I could have continued on as a staff writer, but this fall I accepted a fellowship with the Open Society Institute to do a citywide writing program for youth. It was that "feeling" thing again, an opportunity to help others explore their writing potential and develop their eyes and ears. The venture, I knew, would augment my Sankofa journey, though, it was never intended to replace my work in journalism.

So please let me to introduce you to Third Eye, a column designed to bring you the best I have to offer: my senses. Don't get it twisted--we'll explore current events, analyze this and that, and even turn over a few rocks along the way. But this is also a space where we'll chill out on porch stoops, wonder in waiting rooms, shop til we drop, and occasionally throw back a stiff one while giving Baltimore a fresh spin.

I'll be seeing you.

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More from Afefe Tyehimba

Here's Looking at You (5/19/2004)
...I've gradually discovered that my heart's got issues when it comes to whatever place I call home.

Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.

Om (5/5/2004)
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

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