Out of the Past
This sad Formstone storefront is my personal motherland, at least in this country. Seventy years ago, my grandfather ran a dry-goods store here. He raised four kids in this building, including my dad, who learned his merchandising skills in this corner store that now serves moo goo gai pan to go.
This is a place where a hometown writer might lament the passing of the neighborhood. Except I never knew this neighborhood. My grandfather died long before I was born. My father moved out long ago. With no family ties, there was never any real reason to go back, yet on rare childhood occasions, my dad pointed the place out to me from the family car.
And so, I’ve long had a yearning to visit this corner, knowing full well that nothing notable would come of it. But so what? The draw for me had less to do with nostalgia than wallowing in the strangeness of facing lost history—in the form of a plain rowhouse on one of the city’s bleak marble-stepped streets.
This awkward, disjointed relationship with the past—the great void of abandonment that comes to all things and places eventually—was a constant presence during my Charmed Life stint. Time is brutal to collective memory. While, officially, Charmed Life shines a light on local quirks and characters that would otherwise escape notice, I have secretly pretended that the column is a history book for the future.
In one encounter after another while working on this column, I could feel the tug of time on people as they recast their younger selves, explaining the critical moments that define them today.
I could feel the strange workings of time when, say, Ernest Burke said that for a quarter century he thought that his years in Negro League Baseball were long forgotten—until he spied his own picture in a book (Charmed Life, March 26, 2003). Recognition by the sporting world of his past contributions to the game soon followed.
I could definitely feel something walking the trails in Leakin Park with Jastrow Levin, who, at 92, was trying to hike up a hill while recalling how, as a boy, he would get a ride home on a cow, courtesy the West Baltimore park’s caretaker (CL, Nov. 28, 2001).
These sudden bursts of historical clarity were what I looked for, my secret habit, an ulterior motive behind the reporting.
Walking up to the Chinese carry-out on Milton Street, I anticipated no great discoveries, yet I hoped for something tangible. The odd, singular feeling that hung in the air, heavy with the scent of soy oil, justified the years of procrastinating, putting off this encounter. The guy behind the bulletproof glass told me to go talk to the landlord, two buildings down the street.
On the way out, I looked for anything that would have been in the background of my grandparents’ lives during the Great Depression. I recalled a story my father told of my grandfather pulling the canvas dust covers off the store shelves each morning, knowing that by midday the place would be full of well-dressed salesmen chatting away, but not selling or buying anything, because nobody had any money.
But there were new tiles everywhere, on the walls, on the floor. The ceiling was fresh drywall. The place looked like it had been plucked from a mall food court. There was no stained glass above the windows—the walls had been bashed open to create a large window front with drop-down security gates.
It’s a strange feeling: having no reason to be in a place that should be a personal pilgrimage spot—but it’s a real feeling, the kind of experience I’ve asked dozens of people to give up in interviews. Journalists are bound by the whos, whats, whens, and whys, but my goal was, and is, to capture the feeling that always pervades such interviews, a sort of strange music that you can’t hear but can sense. Like standing in George Korzec’s hardware store on Washington Street and listening to how he escaped Germany’s Ohrdruf Concentration Camp to eventually come to Pigtown, where he had his shop for decades (CL, June 4, 2003). At last I was putting myself through the same process.
I tracked down the landlord of my family’s history working on a property next door on Monument Street. Unlike my grandfather’s corner store, this property had some nice original trimmings—tin ceilings, good ol’ Baltimore baseboard, and the original door front—all of which ignited hope that perhaps upstairs above the carry-out I might find a room that escaped the renovator.
With his drill in his hand, the landlord listened to my explanation, but he said there was nothing to see. Everything had been gutted.
I wanted to push the matter further, tell him, “Look, man, just give me five minutes to wander up there.” But I let it go. This was all I was going to get out of this little journey.
When it came to Charmed Life, there was never much in the way of marching orders. Personally, I wanted to grab as many people as I could who would probably never be covered in the media until they died, or they did something “newsworthy,” or they closed down their old stores. By then, it’s too late. And after each story is finished, I’m always haunted by the dread that, somehow, there was more that could have been discovered if I had just prodded a little further.
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Horse Sense (2/11/2009)
Baltimore City and B&O Railroad Museum Team Up to Construct a New Stable For Displaced Arabbers
Feeling Blue (1/21/2009)
Some People Are Born Freaks. Jim Hall Turned Himself Into One.
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