Pigtown by Blue Light
Third Place, Fiction
There was some minor fanfare. The local news showed up. The Channel 13 van parked illegally in front of the fire hydrant, but none of the cops seemed to notice. There was a cruiser parked on the bus stop, so it wasn’t like the police had room to talk. Some presumably important people stood in front of the pole, smiling too widely and jockeying for position. In the background, locals poked their heads out of windows or stood on their steps. The folks at the bar set down their beers and came to see what all the commotion was about. Young men in baggy jeans and long, usually white T-shirts tried their best to fade into the background. Some slipped into the alleys or ducked into houses. There was too much going on. For a brief moment or two, the local pharmaceuticals market went on break.
“What’s going on?” Charlene asked, leaning out her door. She was wearing her no-place-to-go raggedy shorts and a Kools T-shirt, so she wasn’t inclined to actually come all the way out and sit on the steps. She just wasn’t that kind of person. One of the girls from up the street, Candy, glanced up at her.
“They’re putting in a camera.”
“I heard it was a spotlight,” the girl beside her put in. She sucked deeply on her cigarette and eyed the crowd across the street warily. Both girls moved restlessly and, finally, the girl with the cigarette moved off, disappearing around the corner.
Watching her go, Candy rolled her eyes. “Told her she needs to clean up,” she said. “Ms. Charlene, you got a cigarette?” She scratched absently at her stomach, visible where her bright pink shirt failed to meet the top of her jeans.
“Come on, I’ll get you one.”
Candy came up the steps, but Charlene slipped back inside and shut the door before she could come inside. She grabbed the pack off the couch and shook one out. Opening the door again, Charlene handed her the cigarette, catching a brief whiff of sweat and dirt from Candy’s lank blond hair and the overlaying smell of some too-sweet perfume. Pulling her lighter out of the pocket of her shorts, Charlene handed that to Candy as well. Candy’s hands shook slightly as she held the lighter, and Charlene spotted a bruise on the inside of her right arm. Charlene thought about asking her what happened but changed her mind. It wasn’t her business.
Around the cigarette, Candy asked, “Can I use your bathroom? I really have to pee.”
Charlene shook her head. “My daughter’s in the bathtub.”
Candy stalled for a minute but finally seemed to realize that this was as far as she was going to get. “Thanks,” she said as she turned away and headed back down the steps. Charlene watched her make her way back up the street, skinny in her tight jeans and shirt that didn’t even bother to try to cover her sagging, bulging middle. Like a lot of the women milling around, Candy looked anywhere between 20 and 50, her face hardened and haggard, hair dirty, clothes too tight. Charlene shook her head. She had been living here long enough to remember when Candy was in high school, sneaking a cigarette after she got around the corner from her mother’s house, smearing on eyeliner and dark red Wet N Wild lipstick to try to look older. Then she got hooked up with Junior, and he got her hooked up with whatever he’d been selling. Probably crack since Candy didn’t have track marks up and down her arms and still had most of her teeth. Now Candy was earning whatever money she could hooking and sleeping on any available couch. Junior had disappeared after getting picked up for selling drugs. Charlene figured he was somewhere in one of the jails.
At least Candy’s mother wasn’t around to see her daughter roaming up and down Washington Boulevard, trying to look like she wasn’t doing what everyone knew she was doing. Ms. Petrysyk had passed away from cancer right before Candy turned 20. Maybe it was her spirit looking down on Candy that kept her from turning up dead in some alley.
Charlene thought about lighting up a cigarette, but her chest had been feeling tight lately and she was trying to cut down. Anyway, if she lit one up, everyone around her would start asking for one. She’d only given Candy one because she knew her but, even so, she made damn sure Candy did not make it past the front door. Charlene still couldn’t figure out how Candy had managed to steal two whole, big bottles of shower gel when all she had on was shorts and a T-shirt.
Across the street, the small crowd that had gathered around the tall pole with the blinking blue light started clapping. Cameras went off, and one of the TV news cameramen ran out into the street to get a shot, paying no attention to the line of cars coming down Washington Boulevard. Luckily, he didn’t end up on the hood of the black SUV that slowed down at the last moment so the driver could hang his head out the window and rubberneck.
The man who ran the corner store, Buddy, came over, puffing on his cigar. He looked up at Charlene. “This is supposed to keep those bastards from standing on the corner, trying get some of these worthless bastards out of here.”
Charlene nodded. She didn’t understand why he didn’t just close the store. He’d already been shot, and the local stickup boys hit him at least once every couple of months. The last time he’d called the police on somebody, later that night someone had broken his windows and door. It wasn’t like he made any money anyway. Most of the time, he was either hanging out his door, yelling at people, or across the street at the bar. But if he was too stubborn (or stupid) to stop wearing shorts in the winter, he was definitely too stubborn to close the store and move into some nice senior apartment.
“You open?” a kid leaning on a bike asked, pointing at the store. His white T-shirt flapped around his bony body. He wore baggy jeans that almost touched his ankles. His calves poked out of the bottom like pipe cleaners. His Afro was a wild hedge. Charlene shook her head. Back when she was growing up, a black man took pride in his Afro and would spend hours to get it perfectly even. Now it was cornrows or bushy, matted-looking messes.
Buddy waved absently at Charlene and headed for the store. He eyed the boy suspiciously, but, with all the police and cameras across the street, Charlene figured he was safe. There was a sudden burst of hammering from down the street, and Charlene looked to see that the workmen had gone back to work. There were now six freshly rehabbed houses on the block. The Formstone was gone, the windows replaced, and the steps polished. Only one had a real estate sign in the window, and the price on the paperwork was $230,000. The price on the house directly across from Charlene’s was $100,000, even though it hadn’t been rehabbed. There was a letter from Charlene’s landlord on the coffee table telling her that her rent was due to go up $100 in the next two months. He hadn’t given her an eviction notice, but this was as good as one. She’d worked out a deal with him but figured it wasn’t long before she got a yellow notice on her door. She’d started packing, though she wasn’t sure where she was going to go just yet. She’d put in her paperwork at the Housing Authority, but they took forever.
The blue light flickering on top of the pole suddenly flashed brightly and then stayed on. There was more clapping and more pictures. Things started to wind down. The light went back to flashing. The news crews climbed into their vans and the important people headed for their cars. Charlene watched as a small knot of people in varying types of suits gathered on the corner, nodding vaguely in her direction.
“Those the kind of people they want in here,” Pops from next door said. He came outside and sat down on his steps. He wore his baseball cap, as always, and managed to look dignified despite the huge black T-shirt and sweatpants he wore. Probably something his daughter bought for him. “People getting put out so whitey can take back the city.”
Charlene nodded. She tried not to be racist, had tried to teach her kids that skin color didn’t matter. Pigtown was too mixed, and the one thing everybody had in common was that everybody was working going on poor. It was just as likely to be a white guy sticking you up or getting hauled off in a paddy wagon as a black guy. Even so, you knew which bar you were welcome in and which one you weren’t.
But sometimes Charlene had to remind herself that just as many white people had gotten put out as black so that the landlords could take back or sell their houses. When the white people two houses up got put out, they managed to rent another house around the corner the next week. She knew things wouldn’t be that easy for her.
“It’s for the rich people,” she told Pops. “Only rich people have the money for these houses.”
“And all the rich people’s white, just like in Federal Hill. And over there in Canton. They kicked all those crackers out so Hopkins could come in. Now all those doctors and shit got those houses. Little rowhouses, and they want thousands of dollars for ’em.”
Charlene let Pops go on, watching as the last of the little media circus packed up. The last of the police cars pulled off. Before they were even completely out of sight, the local dealers were making their way back to their spots. People who had something better to do ducked back inside or returned to sitting on their steps. People that didn’t returned to roaming, some with the telltale trembling, jerking movements of the junkie looking for a high. The only people apparently interested in the camera and its wavering blue light appeared to be a couple of bar patrons who, now that the police were gone, drank their beer openly on the sidewalk while talking and gesturing up at the pole.
Buddy poked his head out and yelled, “You’re on camera. Go back inside before you get locked up!”
Some people waved him off, but others took the advice and returned to their stools inside. The police had started getting on people for sitting on steps, standing too long on a bus stop, and having open bottles of beer even if they were on their own steps. Buddy shook his head and closed his door. The bottom area was still taped where a large crack hadn’t been repaired.
Charlene finally decided that, since there was nothing else to look at, she might as well go find something to eat.
Later that night, lying in bed, Charlene thought that she could see the flashing blue light through her window. She knew that she probably couldn’t since the light was in the next block up. But she imagined that she could see the blue light reflected on her ceiling. Finally, she got up and looked out her window.
Washington Boulevard is never really empty, but it’s a different kind of business that takes place at night. There’s not even a token effort to hide what’s going on. She leaned out and could see the blue light shining on the building across the street from the camera, casting its glow over the bar, which looked busier than usual. There were people standing around outside, though there were no beer bottles visible. Instead, people were sipping from plastic cups.
The girls were out, though Charlene noticed that they moved quickly past the camera and stayed mostly on the side street. The boys went about their business, though they also seemed to be trying to stay away from the camera, and they glanced over their shoulders a little more. There was some kind of signal and some people scattered, while others sat on nearby steps, trying to look like they weren’t doing anything. A police cruiser made its way up Washington Boulevard but didn’t stop. When it was gone, things got reasonably back to normal.
Charlene figured that there was some sort of central command office where some bored officer was watching all of this. Maybe when someone moved into one of the overpriced houses, they’d start sending the police out whenever some lesser person even thought of sitting on the highly polished marble steps. But in the meantime, it was business as usual, only this time illuminated by a pretty blue light courtesy of Baltimore City.
Yawning, Charlene climbed back in bed, pulled the covers up, and tried to figure out how she was going to come up with $1,000 in rent.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201