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Charmed Life: An exploration into the heart of the people of Baltimore
My roommate delights in good coffee. I, the less perky half of our pairing, choose to indulge in good people. (Now, this isn’t to be misconstrued as taking me for an overly outgoing person. In fact, in foreign situations I become fairly quiet.) Our two passions have a common ground, which has resulted in the two of us scouring the streets of Baltimore for the perfect coffee shop.
At our usual rendezvous, The Evergreen, only a short walk away from Loyola, Alice pours over her French dictée, while I peer furtively over my laptop. On one particular day, a little boy held captive my attention. He was a rosy cheeked bundle of energy, no older than four or five. His overalls were caked in mud and one strap hung, unbuckled, like a useless third arm lolling around his kneecap. His piercing blue eyes shone through his dirt streaked face as he ran around the high topped tables shrieking, “Daddy can’t catch me! Daddy can’t catch me!” Daddy caught him. I wondered why his mother hadn’t accompanied them this pleasant spring afternoon. Maybe the two had played and puddle jumped and ran in the mud, just father and son for a day of male bonding. Or perhaps mom had to work; it was a Tuesday afternoon after all I deliberated. But maybe it was something darker. What if this little boy with his shock of bright blond hair didn’t have a mother, and what if his seemingly amicable father was without a wife? Their story could be tragic. . .Wait, this is morbid, why would I be thinking such a thing about two innocent patrons who happened to be in the panorama that was above the screen of my computer? Surely people try to fill in the blanks to people they encounter, but I question whether I do it to the extreme. Oftentimes I’ll create a story in my mind and come to a halt ten minutes later, realizing that I have written my own version of someone else’s history. It is not surprising when Alice and I leave the Evergreen four hours later and I’ve completed only a fraction of my homework.
To me, everyone has their own story, some sort of deep dark secret that they are hiding from the rest of the world. I suppose one could take this as and diagnose me with boredom within my own life and trying to live vicariously through those that I don’t know anything about. I can attest that I am quite happy with my own life, however, and am not seeking to fill a void, but am actually just curious. Also, every person I see becomes a subject. At once there are no boundaries or limits; as a writer everyone I encounter suddenly becomes fair game. Those who were once innocent passersby will now be pinned against paper, subject to my endless stream of consciousness that pours out of my fingertips.
I have only recently become so absorbed in the mysterious lives of others. Pinpointing its origin is actually quite simple: My move from suburban Connecticut to the mean streets of Baltimore, or the not so mean campus of Loyola College. You could sit in the park in my hometown and people watch, but if its variety in character that you thirst for, you won’t find yourself easily quenched. Guilford is a town of white, blue collar, upper-middle class citizens clocking in from nine to five. Every mother seems to shuttle three kids to soccer practice, sit on the PTA, and have a wardrobe full of Anne Taylor while Dad is the breadwinner who still loves to barbeque with the family on the weekends. By eighth grade I knew everyone in town, or if I didn’t I might as well have. Living in such a one dimensional environment is partly the reason that I chose to go to college in the city.
Take, for example, my first excursion to the Inner Harbor. It was a culture shock for sure. At first I was drawn to what I knew, and I observed only those who reminded me of myself and those that I had known from home. Slowly, like a giant sifter, those strange yet still familiar faces fell through the holes and the like the larger, grittier pebbles, those more interesting characters remained. My attention was drawn first to a one man band, who had set himself up with the water and horizon for his background. After following the tune of his harmonica and symbols between his knees it was primarily his outfit that struck me. Where did someone come up with such an ensemble? His red and black plaid vest was draped over a neon yellow t-shirt, paired with army shorts which had obviously been cut from pants. On his feet he wore battered old combat boots without any laces. This was the moment when I realized that I was naïve to city life. The instrument case propped open at his feet filled with change and the few generous dollar bills led me to assume his housing situation, or lack thereof. Of course I could’ve been wrong, but this thought only led to more thoughts stacked on top of each other like Lincoln Logs in my mind. My mind left the present moment and fast forwarded seven hours to when he would be looking for a place to sleep that night. Would he find anywhere to sleep? He probably would need to find something to eat too; with the change he gathered from his performance he could probably scrounge up a decent meal, so I hoped.
Even more peculiar than my inclination to create fantasy lives for others might be the fact that those fantasies that I create them for stay with me for a long time. I’ve thought of that man with his harmonica and symbols countless times over the past year. I always wonder whether or not he finds a place to sleep. This is odd, I know. For all I know he could be married, have children, a house, and just not take to having matching outfits, but in my mind, he is Baltimore the music man. On many accounts, I think of the tragic little boy who has to live without his mother, while in fact he may. In some ways my fantasies are the opposite of fantasies, in that I really hope that they aren’t true.
Not always do my thoughts turn toward the macabre. This happens mostly when I pass a person who clearly has a story. There’s an air about them, a certain mystery they’re never willing to disclose to anyone, not even in their most intimate circles. At times it’s so thick around them I want to jump inside their minds, dig around and pull open the files and read what their neurons and synapses hide inside them. I walk by and can just tell that they’re living some sort of fabulous life and I want to come along for the ride to see what it takes to gain such a unique presence.
There is a woman walking towards me on the sidewalk down on St. Paul Street. Tucked under one arm is a large black portfolio case bursting with paintings and other artwork, and in the other she holds tight a fishbowl, complete with fish. Adding to the already peculiar sight were her white overalls (or should I say once white overalls) that she wore over a faded green t-shirt. They were splattered watercolors, speckled with tempera, and splashed with acrylics. Those overalls were the culmination of every work packed tightly into her case and to this day I am dying to see inside of it.
The main distinction between this woman and the rest of the shuffling streetwalkers that morning was not her unwieldy accessories or her eccentric outfit, but the fact that she looked genuinely happy. It was her cheerfulness that made me realize the lack of it on the faces of the rest around me. What was her secret? It was starting again. . .Where was she going? Maybe she was a starving artist about to make her big break, selling her first painting for a huge payoff. Or could she be a famous painter that I, the embarrassedly unworldly college student, had never heard of? Was I in the presence of greatness, or just great enthusiasm? And in the seconds it took for me to build up this vision she just as quickly passed me and was gone. It was then I realized the vastness of population; of the billions of people whose lives we will never know, and the thousands, perhaps millions that will cross our paths, however indirectly, that we will only catch a glimpse of. On that day, I caught a glimpse of happiness, or so it appeared. I believe she was genuine, but I’ve also seen first hand how a grinning exterior is only a warning sign for a mess on the inside.
Growing up in Guilford, there was always an unspoken competition. In middle school my friends and I fondly referred to this competition as the Better Homes and Gardens Club. Thinking that we were so clever, we aptly appointed this name to all the families (including some of our own) who seemed to be trying to present themselves to be the model household. Two of my good friends especially exemplified living in a Better Homes and Gardens family. I’ll call them Susie and Johnny Smith for anonymity’s sake. The Smith’s were your classic case; the next door neighbors you wanted to be like but knew you never could. At first glance they were perfect. Gigantic three story house, immaculately furnished and decorated; mom headed PTA, dad headed major corporation; Susie and Johnny (very popular, mind you) were straight A students and were involved in almost every school activity. Unless you were an insider you would have no idea the chaos that went on in that seemingly pristine house. Whenever we hung out, I’d always wondered why Susie was such a good cook. I later found the reason was her mother, who I saw laying passed out on the couch next with a bunch of scattered bottles of grey goose and cigarettes littering the imported carpet. And her luxurious spa vacation with her girlfriends I had heard so much about? In reality she was drying out in some rehab center in New Mexico. No doubt driving her to such a state was Mr. Smith, who was doing little to conceal the fact that he was sleeping with his very young and very gorgeous intern. It’s no surprise then, when their children’s lives started to follow suit. What child’s wouldn’t with no supervision, an unlimited cash flow, and a house bursting with alcohol. They soon became the leaders of the Guilford High School party circuit when their high supply was met with an even higher demand. You wish that this sort of story had a happy ending, but it is the hard truth that for some, it is easier to pretend than actually fix their problems.
Maybe this is the reason I never take anything or anyone for face value. I have seen people who have the perfect glitzy exterior; only to be decimated inside by gluttony and excess. Their life is a fairytale to everyone except themselves. They are praised almost to the point of idolatry and imitated by those who know absolutely nothing about what hides behind their disguise. Ever since I’ve realized that the mask is usually there, it’s been my mission to uncover it, or at least try to guess what is actually there. It is coming to Baltimore that has really jumpstarted this undertaking. With such an eclectic population, I was surprised to see the lack of masks.
By a chance of fate, even after moving 300 miles from my hometown of Guilford, Connecticut, I found myself in the Guilford district of Baltimore. Staying true to its name, this Guilford seemed to be the exact same type of place: Big houses, golden retrievers, and, I assumed, the same problems. As I began to explore the campus limits I found what I was looking for, even though I hadn’t even known that I had been in search of something. The people on the outside were raw. Even though I knew nothing about them, I could tell they weren’t holding back. Instead of making things clearer however, the lines became even more blurred. As a writer, this is when everyone became my subjects. The Guilfordites, of both realms, held little to my interest. From what I could tell, their mostly vapid and materialist lifestyles were by no means as intriguing as the lives of the people they held themselves above. I had caught on to the façade and was ready to move on.
After careful observation the first few weeks of school I made an important discovery. The more open a person is, the more complex they are, and the more there is that I will probably never know. As I write, the greater picture is not what is most important to me, but rather the small details. I know this is backwards thinking, but let me explain. Let’s look to the poverty-stricken in Baltimore as a case in point. The cycle has continued for decades with no end in sight, but is this simple understanding sufficient? Or is it necessary to understand what such poverty is built on and why pulls those afflicted deeper and deeper instead of allowing themselves to climb out. Shouldn’t we know what their lives are like, even if we don’t think it affects our own? Without understanding the details, the big picture crumbles in on itself with nothing to stand on; it is without any support. Why has it become acceptable to walk past a homeless person on the street and not wonder why, to not be bombarded by your own mind with questions? How did their life take such a turn for the worse, how do they have no one to support them, how can such poverty take place in such a powerful and forward nation? I am only left with the question as to which is the greater tragedy, the circumstance, or the answers that are not there no matter how much I care to speculate.
It is when I write that I probe these sorts of questions because they need to be asked. The misfortune that comes with endeavors such as these is there are not always answers; the bigger picture is not always there. For others it might, but I do not find this to be daunting. It is what I look for: mystery. What fun is it being given all the answers when I can go looking for them myself? It is the basic essence of rhetoric; it is proposing a question, and finding your own answer. There may be any different number of routes to come to an answer, or more interesting, the realization that there is no answer. Perhaps that is what I have learned the most from my experiences in Baltimore. No matter how much I like to hypothesize about any given individual I may pass, I will never be sure of anything. The thought is altogether humbling; I know nothing. It takes a moment to come to terms with this almost offensive notion. Isn’t the reason I have come to experience Baltimore in the first place because I attend the very competitive Loyola College? I must know something. Well, I know never to end a sentence in a preposition, the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, and that Edward Albee’s The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia? is a seriously disturbing piece of literature. So academically speaking, I’ll consider myself relatively sound. But when it comes to others, I still know nothing
I know nothing just as others know nothing. It is not a flaw in character, it is merely fact. Besides a select few, how much do you really know about a person. The answer is only what they allow to be known, what mask they choose to wear on any given or, or whether they choose to wear one at all. It is up to me to decide how to interpret their pretense. Sometimes I may be right on the mark, but I am undoubtedly wrong on most accounts. That is not even the important thing, whether I am correct in my hypotheses or not, but rather the creative cogs in my mind doing what they do best: turning everyone into a subject of my own interest. The freedom from right and wrong is the most liberating feeling in the world.
Write what you know. That has always been the advice handed to me. Instead, now I write to understand. I come into contact with my subject and observe from every angle, formulate each question that will lead me to some, any level of comprehension. Even if it seems like everything is exposed, there is always something deeper, Baltimore and its people have shown me that over the past year. This wonderfully unique city has helped me to discover how to write and that maybe it might not be the ability to find the answers, but asking the right questions that really counts.
Alice and I trek past Johns Hopkins University, which is a considerable walk from Loyola. It is even more considerable with a messenger bag zipped tightly to its bursting point with heavy, unwieldy textbooks. About a mile further, down a side street, we reach our destination. We have arrived at a new coffee shop who’s name I don’t even remember. While its name may elude my mind, its ambience has never left me. It has been a long journey from our customary Evergreen Café but the search is half the fun. I sit down at a booth and open up my laptop. People are bustling around the crowded tables shouting fancy coffee orders and chatting with friends. I took my usual stance behind my computer screen, in search of my next subject. I don’t get any work done today.