Baltimore City Paper

A tale of heartbreak and hustle in 1979 Baltimore

After relocating from New York to Baltimore the year before, I'd finally gotten into the groove of my new city. As the brutal winter slowly turned to spring, I had made a few friends and wasn't homesick anymore. I had completed my sophomore year at Northwestern High School in June 1979 and turned 17 a week later.

Everything was perfect in my life, I thought, except for the fact that I didn't have a girlfriend. As a formerly chubby kid, I had lost a lot of weight since grade school, but I still thought of myself as the fat kid that girls liked to talk to but never wanted to tongue in the backseat.

A few days after the candles were blown out and the chocolate cake was devoured, I went to the North Avenue offices of a local youth program looking for a summer job. I was one of about 30 African-American teenagers assigned to clean the streets and alleyways.

We reported for work at 9 o'clock every morning before breaking off into four groups and leaving the office with push brooms and black plastic bags. As we worked, a radio was always playing. That summer, the streets were all about Michael Jackson, whose solo joint Off the Wall was going to drop in August. Jackson's soulful falsetto became the soundtrack of the entire season.

One hot July morning, as we swept up cigarette butts and broken glass on the sidewalk, the DJ played the Jackson cut "Workin' Day and Night," which became our official theme song.

It was impossible to switch on the James Brown-owned station WEBB or V103 and not hear the Hustle-inducing "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," the mid-tempo boogie of "Rock with You," or the infidelity anthem "Girlfriend."

Written by Paul McCartney, who first recorded "Girlfriend" with Wings for their 1978 London Town album, the words were pure saccharin, and I loved every corny moment.

It was during that time that a lanky dude with short-cropped hair named Ronny Johnson became my new best friend. Ronny's clothes were always color-coordinated down to the sneakers. He wore nicely ironed and creased Sunday slacks every day; I'm not sure if I ever saw him in jeans.

Ronny, who was a year or two older, became the big brother I always wanted. Every day after work, we roamed the Charm City streets, walking around through downtown and along the waterfront to Fells Point. One evening, we walked to Federal Hill, where the two of us sat under the stars, dream-talking about our future professions.

I'd wanted to be a writer since I was 6, and at that stage of my adolescence, I'd given up on wanting to write Batman and had recently written a piece about Led Zeppelin for the student paper. Although Ronny didn't drive, he loved cars and wanted to go to school to become a mechanic.

On yet another early evening, after Ronny and I played the "where we going to go" game for a few minutes, we began walking down North Avenue. As the sun was beginning to set, we walked past the best Korean cheesesteak spot on the planet, called KK's, which was across the street from the barbershop that once messed up my hair so bad, damn-near scalping me bald, I wore a hat for two weeks.

The neighborhood was filled with thriving businesses including a record store, a laundry, and more than a few bars. Turning the corner at Pennsylvania Avenue, we passed trash-filled vacant lots and crumbling buildings. Ronny told me once again about the Royal Theater.

"That was the spot back in my mom's day," he said excitedly as we trooped down street. "Everybody cool and black played at the Royal. Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Redd Foxx, The Temptations. It was like the Apollo of Baltimore. They tried to get the city to turn it into a landmark, but instead they tore it down."

On Howard Street, we walked past the Greyhound bus station, where I sometimes went to play pinball. The station was a perv paradise, but I simply ignored them and never used the public bathroom. Across the way was the Mayfair Theater and a strip joint called Bottoms Up. After zigzagging through the downtown streets for over an hour, passing Sherman's newsstand and Sunny's Surplus, we walked toward the water.

Harborplace was under construction, but different kinds of ships still docked there regularly. "Hey, brothers," a young black guy yelled at us. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

Ronny and I looked at each other and shrugged. Crossing the street, we stood in front of the stranger. He was a tall, lean dude with muscular arms and a well-trimmed beard. I just knew he was going to try to hustle a few bucks.

"What's happening, man?" Ronny asked.

"My name is Bradley. I'm a merchant marine and, well, we just came into the city tonight. But I don't know anything about Baltimore. I don't even know where to go."

"You want us to tell you where to go?" I asked, puzzled.

"No. I want you guys to just show me around, take me to a few bars. I got money, I'll pay for everything." At first, I chuckled, thinking maybe he was joking, but that cat was serious as my Aunt Charlotte's potato salad.

Ronny looked at him and said, "You want to go to the Block?"

"The Block?" the man repeated.

"Yeah, it's not too far away. It's where the strip bars are." The man smiled and nodded his head.

"Naked ladies?"

"Yeah, man. Naked ladies." Dude lit a cigarette and offered us one, but neither of us smoked. We began walking toward the peep shows, strip bars, and flashing lights of Baltimore Street.

"So where you coming from?" I asked. I knew very little about the Merchant Marines beside the fact that my favorite science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany had been one.

"I've been all over the world, man. Africa, Italy, Japan. This last trip, we was in Turkey. Got some good weed and hash over there. You guys want to try some?"

"Naw, we're good," Ronny answered. Although we both liked puffing cheeba, Ronny had rules about smoking with strangers.

Although I'd passed near the Block in the past, I never had the nerve to venture inside the sleazy doorways. As we got closer to the street, I became excited when I saw a giant red sign hanging over a storefront: Baltimore News and Sex Center featuring private video, peep booths, and newspapers.

Focusing my eyes on the rest of the neighborhood, both sides of the street were nothing but strip clubs, bum bars, and the greasy-sausage joint Polock Johnny's. The Block was the liveliest street I'd seen since arriving in this "hard town by the sea," as Randy Newman once wrote.

In front of each club was a barker attempting to lure customers in with their street poetics. We passed strip clubs with Runyonesque names like the Gayety, the Tic Tac Club, the 2 O'clock Club (home of Blaze Starr, a dusty sign in the window read), 408 Club, the Diamond Lounge, and Circus Bar. A block away was the police headquarters.

Cautiously I walked inside one of the bars. The cigarette smoke was so thick my eyes began to water as I made my way across the chipped linoleum floor to a barstool. Ronny sat down on my left side and Bradley was on the right. A gold-colored strip of flypaper hung from the low ceiling, covered with insects.

A blue-collar cadre of trash collectors, postal workers, and subway-tunnel diggers were gathered at the old oak bar, talking amongst themselves. The burly men barely paid attention to the skinny white woman dancing on the small stage behind the bar.

Swaying in front of the mirrored wall with a sad smile, the stripper slowly shimmered in a sequined dress, long black hair flowing down her back. "Three Buds," Ronny screamed over the electro-soul of "Heart of Glass." In those days, the drinking age was 18 and most bartenders didn't give a damn about checking ID.

The white, middle-aged barmaid was an overly made-up floozy who batted fake eyelashes and smiled with nicotine-stained teeth. At the end of the bar was a mixed-race gaggle of women in various stages of undress. Nursing watered-down drinks and bad attitudes, their faces were hard as steel.

Behind them was a curtained-off lounge area. Occasionally one of the dancers strolled out of the room followed by a customer. "That's where you can take one of the girls for some private time," Ronny said, "if you know what I mean."

"I know exactly what you mean," Bradley laughed. I, on the other hand, was baffled.

"There is a price for everything and it's not that much," Ronny replied.

After the dancer left the stage, the MC announced, "Now, prepare yourself for one of our featured dancers. Can we please get a warm welcome for Coba!" With her perfect makeup and retro-beehive hairstyle, Coba looked like a honey-colored Ronnie Spector as she smoothly slinked onto the stage dressed in a flowing black-and-red polyester dress and matching heels.

Unlike the other dancer, who bumped and grinded in a detached and distant style, Coba's soulful movements revealed an obvious love for rhythm and a passion for her job.

Like hibernating bears, a few of the men awakened from their slumber. "Yeah, baby, do that thing," somebody screamed as Coba turned her back, rotated her sweet ass, and slowly unzipped the dress.

By the end of the first song, Coba shimmied out of her dress and revealed shapely legs in black fishnet stockings. Her fleshy body was covered in a black-and-red corset. In front of her, the stage floor was covered with money.

Staring at her vibrating hips, the flutter of her fingers, and the bounce of her cleavage, I was on fire. Throughout her passionate performance, Coba occasionally glanced at me as though trying to figure out my story, knowing that I was too young to be down with the blue-collared crew.

Stepping off the stage onto the cigarette-burnt and -scarred bar, she expertly sauntered the length of it without knocking over anyone's drink. As she danced in front of me, I sat and stared. While everything about her, from eyebrows to her gold-painted toes, was neatly trimmed, I couldn't help but notice the wildness of her pubic hairs sprouting from the top and the sides of her panties.

Shoving a fistful of singles into my hand, Ronny said, "Give her a tip." With light-green eyes that reminded me of a cat, Coba seductively stared as I placed each bill into her garter. Although my hand shook nervously, Coba winked and smiled.

"Looks like you have an admirer," Bradley teased as the barmaid replaced my empty bottle. Coba ended her set by busting out of the corset and revealing the prettiest crimson-tasseled breasts on the planet. "You should go buy her a drink."

"Get out of here," I said, feeling the heat rise in my face.

Ronny chuckled. "You're a knight in shining armor, my man." Looking over my shoulder, Ronny tipped his chin. "If I were you, I'd get over there before someone steals her away."

Turning around, I saw Coba standing at the end of the bar, counting her tips and chatting with the barmaid. After almost knocking over the bar stool, I slowly walked over to Coba. Wearing the long dress again, she looked up and gestured for me to sit.

"Well, if it isn't my number-one fan," she said as I sat beside her.

"I'm not sure about all that. It seemed like you have a lot of admirers." From a distance I thought Coba might be in her late 20s, yet beneath the dusting of her foundation were a few wrinkles; on her forehead was the indented ghost of an old scar.

"Those guys are just bored. They're here almost every night. You, on the other hand, I've never seen." Tenderly, Coba caressed her smooth hand against the side of my face.

"You buying the lady a cocktail?" yelled the bar chick over the roar of some rock song. "That'll be 10 dollars."

A minute later, she put down a glass of juice. Coba sipped from a small red straw.

"I really enjoyed you up there. You could be a real dancer."

"I am a real dancer," Coba declared, pouting with the arrogance of a prima ballerina.

"I'm sorry, I didn't really mean it like that."

"I know what you meant. What are you doing here, besides hurting my feelings?"

"My friend Ronny, the guy I was sitting next to, he bought us here. The other guy is a merchant marine we just met. He needed somebody to show him around the city."

"So you guys brought him here?" Coba smiled. "Lord Baltimore would be proud." In all of my 17 years, I hadn't seen any naked women who weren't on the pages of Playboy. The longer I sat in that stool talking with Coba, the deeper my sucker ass fell in love.

For the next few months, I became a regular at the strip bar. Once, while waiting for Coba to take the stage, I was scared to death when some suit-wearing jerk strolled in the joint and screamed, "This is a raid." My heart jumped 10 feet out of my chest as I imagined my mother refusing to post bail for her perverted son. "Just kidding, just kidding."

When summer ended and classes started back, Ronny went to trade school and I started journeying to Baltimore Street by myself. Most of the guys I knew in school were coupled-up or at least having sex every now a then; I was stuck between my love for Coba and a hard place.

Years later, I'd joke that I didn't have sex in high school because I didn't want to get someone pregnant, but the real deal was my own fear. In my mind, it became more natural to save my money and go the strip club.

Coba was sweet as brown sugar, and she was the first woman I ever kissed with tongue. It was awkward in the beginning, but Coba guided me patiently to perfection. One night, I paid her 10 bucks to give me a hickey on my neck, because I wanted my homeboys to think I had a woman in my life.

Whenever I walked through the aluminum-and-glass doors of the club, the other dancers teased her. "Your boyfriend is here," they'd say, laughing. Yet if Coba was ever annoyed by my presence, she never let it be known. Sometimes I bought her red roses, sometimes she let me finger-pop her, sometimes we sat in the back booths and practiced kissing as "Rapper's Delight" roared from the speakers.

Finally I got the balls to ask Coba out on a real date. I was tired of all that strip-club stuff. I wanted to see her in the light as flickering candles reflected in her eyes as we sat across from one another at some Charles Street eatery. Listening to my invitation, Coba smiled.

"How does Sunday sound? Maybe we can go to brunch or something."

"That sounds good. Here, let me give you my number." Coba scribbled her digits on a dirty napkin. "Call me before you leave the house. I can't wait. It's going to be fun."

For the next four days, I thought about my upcoming date constantly. In my mind, one minute we were having a romantic dinner and next, I was putting on the moves like Billy Dee doing the wild thing.

Come Sunday, after shining my shoes and getting dressed in a suit, I decided to call Coba. After dialing the number slowly, the phone finally rang. Yet, instead of Coba's velvety smoothness, there was the gruff, gradated hardness of a very irate black man. "Hello!" he screamed.

"Can I speak to Coba, please?"

"Who the hell is this?"

"Can I speak to Coba, please.

"I said, who the hell are you?"

"This is Michael?"

"Yeah? Well, what do want with my woman, Michael?"

Feeling as though Ali had slugged me in the jaw, I was silent. It had never dawned on me to ask Coba if she had a boyfriend or husband. This dude sounded as batty as the logo on a Bacardi bottle. Hell, now that I thought about it, I never even asked what her real name was. Meanwhile, this dude on the phone sounded like someone whose nickname was Monster.

"Sorry," I said. "Wrong number."

"You damn right it's a wrong number."

Cradling the phone, I felt like throwing up. Sitting on the edge of the bed, looking like I was going to junior prom, I laid back and closed my eyes. Fifteen minutes later, I released a big sigh but refused to cry. Instead, I went downstairs and played Michael Jackson's version of "Girlfriend" a million times. Preferring pop songs to a broken heart or a smashed face, I never saw Coba again.