Christmas in Baltimore 2009

Will Steacy, Boarded Up Windows, Baltimore, 2007, From the series We Are All In This Together, Archival Pigment Print, 24 × 30". Courtesy of Michael Mazzeo Gallery.

The funeral came off without a hitch, in spite of the snow. It was as dignified as we could have hoped for, and no one at the altar mentioned what had happened.

I had parked my rental car on Argyle Avenue, a bit more alert than usual. In Atlanta, just after Thanksgiving, two men had robbed me of my station wagon and wallet at gunpoint; now, two days before Christmas, I didn’t want to invite fate’s wrath a second time. I was back home in Baltimore.

At the end of the 1970s civic boosters had tried to improve the city’s image by giving it the name “Charm City.” Teenagers, the real victims of a forty-year cycle of surreal open-air shootings, stabbings, beatings, and narcotics use and sale, renamed the place “Harm City.” I footed through the slush toward the church, marveling at the irony. My generation had considered Atlanta a great promised land, the Zion of prosperity, the chance for a life nestled in the grassy suburbs away from the crumbling brick and mortar of our youth. Being robbed at gunpoint there made me want to go home to Baltimore for Christmas, not only to see my mother and reconnect with the familiarity of home, but also for the greater security of Harm City.

When my two little sons settled down to play by themselves during my visit, I passed a few hours reading one of my college books, A Hazard of New Fortunes, a William Dean Howells novel about the seductive powers of Gilded Age society. When he was finishing the book, Howells wrote a letter to his friend Henry James in which he worried that American society was “coming out all wrong in the end, unless it bases itself anew on a real equality.” Despite the impressive rise of President Obama and the “real equality” he registers, I fear an American society coming out all wrong too. And I feel compromised, just like Howells, whose next sentence in his letter to James is, “Meantime, I wear a fur-lined overcoat, and live in all of the luxury money can buy.” Americans in general and black Americans specifically live in an era of unparalleled access to power and bling, but, like Howells, some of us “tingle with shame and horror for what we are doing.”

The homegoing took place at a historic African Methodist Episcopal Zion church on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the 1920s, when my grandmother sparked her family’s exodus to Baltimore from a little tobacco town in southern Virginia, “the Avenue,” as it was then known, was home to scenes of great African American optimism and Jazz Age prosperity. It was the legendary destination for most of our ancestors who migrated from the rural South during the World War I era, a migration that sputtered to an end for that part of the city shortly after World War II. Concerned about their appeal to the younger crowd, the AME Zion in the 1970s rebuilt the church in an Art Deco style of sharp angles and finished the exterior in rough-edged cement grooves. The optimism of the durable modernist structure remains, but the neighborhood surrounding it washed away. The most obvious culprit is heroin. There is also residential segregation, the collapse of the market for skilled labor, and the destruction of public schools, but these are not as visible as what bubbles on the street corner.

Years of architectural revision and neighborhood decay aside, the minister of the church produced a soloist who sang a manly, conservatory-trained tenor that crescendoed “All is well!” and brought the crowd to its feet. The minister, a tall, powerful-looking man, then topped this performance in elegance and carriage with a sermon that quoted Frederick Douglass and parsed the distinctions among ethics, passion, and duty. He did all this in immaculate English; he’d completed his training at Yale.

Heroin, and the police’s response to it, have claimed several generations, and our task at the church was to try to get home to God one of our lost brethren. A bright childhood friend, a boy with a mocking adolescent wit, a student at one of the venerable Catholic high schools for boys, had lost his life. Our families live next door to one another on the same block. We had the same childhood and high school friends. We suffered many of the same enemies. A week before, Chris had battled police officers and been slain. Because of my own relationship with the local police dating back twenty-five years, I believed immediately that he was the victim of trigger-happy whites with badges.

I wasn’t shocked by Chris’s fate, as I hadn’t been shocked when a small young man produced a pistol and started shouting “Give up the check!” at me in November. But both times I was deeply saddened.

My homeboy is buried at a cemetery with a swan lake where we used to take our girls at night because it was a park with a lake and it was just over the line in Baltimore County. “The County” meant safety and comfort to us. Two days after the funeral, my closest friend, David, and his older brother—first cousins to the deceased—and I take our children sledding at the bucolic swan lake, in the park facing the cemetery. I had attended the funeral above all to support David, who is like a brother, and his uncle and aunt, Chris’s father and stepmother, who still live next door to my mother. David and I ran after girls together, faced terrifying bullies and more terrifying gunmen, and waded through the rivers of alcohol and drugs. We have been shot at together. We arrived at plateaus of stability in our own lives for reasons we can’t be completely certain about. It had something to do, though, we are both sure, with the murder of our comrade Donald Bentley in 1989. My own pursuit of moderation, or balance perhaps, also had something to do with the loss of my father six months later.

The children enjoy themselves with abandon, and my 4-year-old son fits in easily and accepts avuncular guidance from two men I have known my entire life. My boy even surprises me by thoroughly embracing a plastic box top as a makeshift sled. It’s curious, because although we certainly had carts of plastic store-bought toys in the 1970s, it was still an era when boys coveted makeshift toys, especially go-carts and stickball bats. I have been worried about Nathaniel fitting in with other black children, because so much of the environment I provide for him in Atlanta is lily-white, even though he lives in a city with a large and flamboyant black middle class.

My old homeboys from the neighborhood honored our man down, the source of a week’s worth of news coverage praising the use of lethal police force. Chris was armed when he died and the police claimed he shot at them. There were, it seemed to me, different tiers of men at the homegoing. About a dozen of his mates from Hagerstown, where there is a state penitentiary, made their way to the left side of the church, away from his parents. The majority of the crowd were relatives and friends from the neighborhood. There were about eight or nine of us born in 1968, one or two from 1969, and then eight or nine from 1970, his year. Chris’s brother’s group from the middle 1960s was there too. The 1970 guys who had been in his class were the most deeply emotional. A couple of them had been running the streets together when he died. Despite some solid elements in his upbringing, Chris had spent virtually all his adult life behind bars, and had said he was not going back to prison.

In the church, after I took a last glance at Chris, I passed CB, an impressively sized man with a lion’s mane of hair. I asked about his older brother Sean, my classmate, who’d had a child with a girl I knew from church. Surprised to see me, CB smiled through his tears and shook my hand. “Sean locked up but he be home soon,” he said. David used to give me the same update about Chris; Jason, further down our block, would say that his uncle, who had murdered his girlfriend, was due home any day. CB’s brother Sean is, just like Chris, an intelligent, winning, sensitive, and slender young man. I loved visiting with the group of outgoing, clever, oddly amusing guys and redbone-fine sisters along their street, sheltered by a canopy of marvelous oak and maple trees. Like me, they all grew up firmly middle class.

Harriet Jacobs once wrote that beauty was a slave girl’s curse, and to paraphrase a famous Louis Farrakhan speech from 1990, intelligence for a black boy is its own kind of curse. My favorite running buddy Courtney from P.S. 66, my old elementary school where I was the pet, who wouldn’t always let me run with him, apparently was unable to do much with his great gift. I heard once that he was in Sing Sing, in New York, which maybe for a Baltimore guy is a certain kind of achievement.

When I’d walked into the church, I’d greeted Rock, another classmate of mine from 66 who had lived on my block, and who had conquered his checkered past. Rock gave me intimate details about what led to Chris’s shooting, the kinds of things people who serve prison terms know. I’ve never told Rock that, shortly before he lost ten years of his life, he shamed me away from drugs.

During the funeral I sat next to another old friend from my block. In high school we had an exclusive club that used to throw parties at nightclubs downtown. Now an Iraq veteran with a bad back—he slipped a disc lifting corpses—he works as a correctional officer at a state facility in Anne Arundel County. I asked him if he selected a prison in the southern part of the state to avoid having to deal with an inmate population from our old neighborhood, which is typically housed in Jessup, Hagerstown, or at the Eastern Shore. He said no, but I had my own thoughts. Throughout the viewing of the body, he bantered and giggled and talked about people from where we grew up. His mood was light, but he saw it as a duty to be there, as did a few of Chris’s other friends who had become police officers. He checked his watch, because he was on his way to a food shelter to prepare Christmas meals for the needy. Chris was a loose affiliate of our group, which later lent itself, after college didn’t work out for much of our crew, to a kind of loose-knit brotherhood in nod. My buddy, the officer, moved away from partying after a car accident nearly took his life and left him in an intensive care ward. I got away to college.

The twenty-five-car funeral procession to the cemetery was joined along McCullough Street and Liberty Heights avenues by gutsy African American drivers gaining advantage in the rough jousting of cars through the city streets. It struck me as willful heedlessness, as if the land held nothing sacred. The cortege led us inadvertently through the old neighborhood. We drove down Liberty Heights and I recognized the old Our Lady of Lords yard where we played football, and the barbershop at Edgewood where Mr. Barnes and Mr. Ratliff expertly tapered our fades; the “bars”—cut-rate carryouts—where we first copped malt liquor and fortified wine, and the stoops and alleyways and corners where we tried ourselves. Further down Liberty Heights we passed more of the churches. The last time I stood in All Saints it was for Donald’s nighttime funeral. He was born the same year as Chris. I noticed the fast-food restaurant that people said Chris robbed back-in-the-day, which became a Johns Hopkins health-care community outlet, which has now been bought by Leroy Dyett, the neighborhood undertaker.

Once I was home, I didn’t look at the police reports or the newspaper stories of what happened. I was unable to spend much time with Chris’s family; it seemed as if words were a tepid remedy for sorrow. I remembered the moments when our innocence began to fade. I was again walking from the no. 28 bus stop on Liberty Heights, past Chris’s mother’s house on a summer day in my young manhood. Chris, his brother, their cousin, and some of the fellas from their block were around a picnic bench passing a quart of beer and a joint. This is the common man’s Arcadia, commemorated in lyric after lyric since before Geoffrey Chaucer’s time. The evening of drinking ended with our running a G on an older woman, a quintet that she initiated. Chris was only 16 and he accepted the boon with a savoir faire that I could not muster. I don’t think I saw her face among the crowd at the funeral.

I was once briefly jailed for a motor vehicle offense. If you are black and locked behind bars in America, you rapidly lose the distance between what you have done to land in the cell and what is happening to you and the way it is being done to you on account of your race, on account especially of who you have been, where you have lived, who your relatives and friends are, right down to exactly how common your name is. No one wants to accept this in a country based on upward mobility and the hope of individual distinction, but it is a fact: blackness still causes the distance to evaporate between who you are and what you have done and what the society has made you.

There was a funny twist when I gassed up at a filling station down the street from my mother’s house on the way out of town. Since the proprietors seemed new to me, I asked where they were from. For a time I’d thought they were Korean, but now I noticed that the man looked Indian. I asked if he was Hindu, since it was the eve of the great Christian holy day. The cashier said no, he was a Buddhist, but since he looked like whatever I had in my mind for an Indian from southern Asia, and since he was working at a gas station in what had been redefined as the inner city, I was filled with a bit of insolence and continued my queries. Are you from Nepal? Tibet, he said, on the mountains near China.

I wanted the Tibetan Buddhist to know that our natural curiosity and our observation of the immigration patterns to these places we are locked into were not dead. The last time I got gas and returned to the Plexiglas window to purchase Utz and Tastykake snacks, I let the Tibetan Buddhist know that I had had the opportunity to have contact with the Dalai Lama; in fact I had helped him cross a street with several other monks. I wanted to see, I guess, if I could arouse his engagement with the complex humanity that emerged from the subway stop at Cold Spring Lane and Wabash Avenue, an intersection of laboring black American life where families’ dreams go up and come down. He opened his mouth to register something between surprise and amusement, and said there had been problems with the Dalai Lama. A man beside me was asking for Kool cigarettes, and since I didn’t want the customer to become impatient on account of what was really only an indulgent whim, I left the young Buddhist without learning more. Outside, a white teenager driving a luxury car was serially asking the African American patrons of the gas station for a dollar. In a gray hoodie and jeans, not weighing 120 pounds, the gaunt white boy looked ever so much like a heroin addict from a good family, not in the worst possible circumstance yet but approaching it quickly. I told the boy that I couldn’t help him.

On my way back to Atlanta I stopped at Colonial Williamsburg with my children and my mother and sister. The preserved Virginia town bustling with the living story of our national origins is the kind of experience that I want my children to have chiseled into their earliest memories, right at the joint of their sense of what it means to be Americans. Of course, the going-back-in-time-at-Colonial-Williamsburg experience is highly bizarre for us because we descend from the enslaved, and though you do see an occasional black historical interpreter, slavery and Africans are definitely erased from Colonial Williamsburg. Fifty-two percent of the people in the town during the colonial era were enslaved Africans and first- and second-generation Creoles. By my count about nine of ten tourists here are white, and the Colonial Williamsburg trustees seem to have decided that whites aren’t interested in visiting a place that doesn’t mainly represent them.

We paid an extra ten dollars apiece to visit the restored colonial governor’s mansion. My sister, a colonel in the United States Army, was disappointed when I asked the historical interpreter about Lord Dunmore’s relationship to his slaves. It occurred to me that he might have had some ties to them that shaped his famous proclamation of freedom that caused five thousand blacks to flee the patriots for the British. She thought it was a kind of impolite game that I was playing with white people and the situation; calling attention to slavery in an audience of whites made her uncomfortable. The interpreter responded a bit defensively, and correctively too, as if it were impossible for the owner of the forty-seven human beings who worked in the colonial Virginia governor’s mansion to have been influenced by them. But she did later, in a kind of preemptive strike, insert the enslaved in her narrative on bric-a-brac and chamber pots. In a way, my sister is further along than I am in her Americanness.

The last time I saw Chris alive I was walking into my mother’s house with my sons. It was May and we had just come from the airport for my mother’s retirement party. She had worked twenty-five years for the Baltimore County Division of Social Services, her last five years as an employment and training counselor, helping social assistance recipients prepare résumés. I thought then that Chris would put the touch on me; I wanted to give him something because I knew he was having a hard time finding work, but I could smell wine on his breath and I thought fresh dollars might have burned a hole in his pocket. I just dapped him and grinned and went into my mother’s house with the kids.

A year before, when I had seen Chris’s older brother Jimmy, I had given him something. I’d run into him around the way, on a bus stop at Reisterstown and Belvedere, a kind of crossroads of the northwest Baltimore ghetto. Since the time I was in high school, Jimmy has always called me “the Genius,” and in that same manner he greeted me from his pew during the funeral. When I talked to him on the bus stop in 2008, I was making the rounds of the neighborhood in the car of a man I had known growing up, a convicted felon, whom I knew had just picked up a package, from another black man in an alley, that he kept in the waistband of his shorts under his white T-shirt. It is easy to fall into old patterns, and all it takes is an afternoon.

At the gravesite the old crew walked the casket from the hearse to the bier under the direction of the ditcher, who was roughly the same age, complexion, and slender build as the man who lay inside the casket. He gave us sincere directions to load and unload the dolly and to get the weight of our burden into the ground. I was standing at the front, closest to this man in a hooded sweatshirt, and he seemed intoxicated to me—the word I would actually use is “nice.” It was a cold day, bitterly cold, and the man was insulated against this lonely world, digging into the snowy hillside. It was obvious that the ditcher was only recently home from prison. I could hear it in his speech, his practiced country manner intended to mimic sobriety. I could see it in the sparkling quicksilver behind his muddy eyes that yearned for the numbing rest from all known pain in a bag of dope.

On the snowy hill, we learned that the funeral sermon of the profoundly dignified AME Zion minister was impromptu. He had substituted for Chris’s real minister, who’d been stuck in traffic. His extemporaneous talent astounded me. At the gravesite, Chris’s preacher, a man who knew him well, arrived to offer a benediction. But the graveside prayer was not short; naturally it was the sermon he’d been unable to give. He warmed a Bible under his arm, and his full-length camel hair coat swung open while he paced back and forth along a piece of pine board covered by a runner of green all-weather carpet. Turned backward on his head was a baseball cap with the logo jesus saves, and as he opened his mouth to address us, I got the impression that, like Chris, he had been institutionalized at a time when he needed better dental care. He was not a Yale man. These two facts alone would have disturbed many of Chris’s family, elegantly dressed and shod, driving exclusive automobiles. But the trouble was more explicit. The earthy minister moved immediately to the heart of the matter, which had been avoided: Was our beloved burning in hellfire for having lived the life of an outlaw, a highwayman? Who was responsible for having made him into this man, or, rather, precisely how responsible was the assembly—his parents, his comrades, some of them felons, some still frosting with numbness?

There was a dynamic between the two ministers: one expertly shielded us from the evil, and the other called it forth in order to defeat it. The Ivy League man knew that the congregation preferred not to have its wickedness exposed; the uneducated prophet insisted that we touch the flaws of our beloved, assured us that salvation was still reserved for him, and demanded that our own transgressions be addressed.

I found that I was seared emotionally by this rough-and-tumble, spittle-spewing man, who swung about most unsteadily on the scaffolding between the earth and the suspended coffin. At the peak of his ministerial fury, he shouted that God told him in the early morning that Chris had made it to paradise. He looked skyward and cried that Chris’s mother “Raised him right!” and never condoned his wrongdoing, that she put him out when she thought he was not looking hard enough for work or that he held weapons or kept up his ties to the hard lost men.

When it was over, my peers kissed the casket and laid flowers and lingered in silence.

There is something larger here, I know. There is something larger about the presidency of a black American man who admitted that he had sniffed illegal street drugs and who demoted the “drug czar” from a cabinet-level position to signal an end to the Twenty Years War. There is something more profound about a year—2009—in which I found myself on the ground in Virginia where my last ancestor walked in chains; on the wrong side of the barrel of a .25 automatic held by a black hand in Atlanta, not so far from where a Spelman coed and an Olympic gold medalist had been felled by gunmen; and at the funeral in Baltimore of an old friend shot four times while exiting an appointment with his probation officer in the city of our birth. But I am not sure what it is, or that it has not come out all wrong in the end.

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