Wanting some fresh strawberries to serve a friend last Saturday, I drove from my home in Dickeyville to the Waverly farmers market. The experience was bittersweet: The market is near the eastern edge of Charles Village, the neighborhood where my husband and I made our first home — a fourth floor walk-up on St. Paul Street. Forty years ago, he and I could have been any of the young couples buying asparagus, poppyseed muffins or honey. And any of the toddlers lounging in their strollers could have been our first little boy. Doubtless last Saturday's toddlers also love to run in Wyman Park Dell and scoot down an alley on a riding toy — the good things in life never change.
But cities do.
In the more than a generation that's passed since my husband and I pushed a stroller up and down the streets of Charles Village, Baltimore has lost a third of its population, many of its industries and a substantial portion of its tax base. Its remaining citizens have withstood the erosion of civic services and the corrosion of confidence that this gritty old city would ever rise from the ashes left by the riots of 1968. From our vantage point on the fourth floor one morning, I counted 11 fires burning. And that was only in the west. Who knew how many burned in the east?
In the years that followed, we became haunted by a troubled past and fearful in an unstable present. As for future — well, the future seemed unimaginable. Like the character Dilsey in Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," we endured. Buffeted by events beyond our control, we simply endured.
More than 2,000 Saturdays have passed since the one before the horrible Palm Sunday when Baltimore exploded following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. More than 2,000 Saturdays of distrust, avoidance and false hopes.
And then came last Saturday, perhaps the one all those others had been leading to all along. Clear and cool and bright, it was the perfect day to drive across town for strawberries.
For the price of two basketsful, on my way home, I had my car washed by the men of Liberty Grace Church of God at the corner of Copley Road and Liberty Heights Avenue. A whole crew soaped, scrubbed, rinsed and wiped until, by the time I drove off the church lot, my car sparkled showroom clean.
Next, I went to Leakin Park, where my friend was working at the annual Herb Festival. Listening to the folk singers and wandering among the booths of plants and crafts, I realized the festival was simply another iteration of the conviviality I'd experienced at the market and carwash. To use a term from a bygone era, the three events gave off the same "vibe." The same communal spirit. The same quirky sense of enjoyment Baltimoreans derive from being together.
Maybe young parents at a farmers market, men serving their church by cleaning cars, and gardeners intent on finding a perfect pot of petunias don't signal a rebirth for this old town that's weathered so many losses. Maybe they aren't a firm enough foundation on which to build a spirit of hopefulness. Or a basis of optimism.
But at the market, the carwash and the festival, I no longer sensed the wariness that has fogged Baltimoreans' vision of our commonality for so long. Rather, I felt a fresh mutuality, a new, relaxed attitude toward each other. Within a single day and without leaving the city limits, everywhere I went, I got what I wanted and had a good time getting it.
Like the understanding of my longtime friend, the sweetness of the strawberries we later shared on my balcony, and the groundhog that toddled up from the Gwynns Falls to check out my impatiens, I had enjoyments given outright. None of them expected, but all deeply appreciated. And each bearing the stamp, "Made in Baltimore."