A middle-aged black man flagged cab 1914 in front of the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street. His destination was Northeast Market in East Baltimore.
While driving across the Orleans Street Viaduct, he said, "From a distance Johns Hopkins Hospital looks like a city in itself, rising through the ground with those tall, majestic buildings reaching to the heavens."
"Hey, they think it is," I said.
I've been in the taxicab business about 35 years and have witnessed tremendous growth in the Johns Hopkins network, not only at its hospital in East Baltimore but also in its acquisition of several other properties around Baltimore City.
"It's a massive complex consisting of about 40 buildings and most are connected by either overhead walkways or underground tunnels," the man said. "They have a massive security force with police and video cameras strategically stationed throughout the hospital campus."
The man said he lives just north of the hospital off Broadway and has been active in his neighborhood organization for years. "The hospital has planned 50 years in the future, having purchased blocks of real estate over time," he said. "This move has contributed to the discomfort of many East Baltimoreans. Relocating has been rough for many having to uproot throughout the city and surrounding counties. For some, their adjustments were hard, living away from family, friends, and old neighborhoods."
Sometimes it appeared to me and my passengers that the resident doctors and their families were living in a fenced-in compound away from East Baltimore's immediate environment. I guess it's understandable but in reality it was segregation.
But I know there is also a lot of good. Not only do people come from all over the world to Hopkins, but also from some of the poorest parts of the city.
As I drove, I recalled an encounter that shook me to the bone. I had just dropped off some passengers who I picked up at Perkins, a public housing project, at Baltimore and Highland streets. I was en route to Hopkins' taxicab stand, driving westbound on Fayette Street approaching Lakewood, and cars were slowing because a black man about 30 years old, with a young baby in his arms and a 3-year-old boy barely keeping up, was dancing around the traffic in the middle of the street.
The man was hysterical, crying, his speech slurred and tears and snot streaming down his face. Motorists slowed, rubbernecking, but just kept on driving. The man was at the cab's window holding this limp child.
"What's going on?" He was extremely excited, but I looked at the child and realized that he appeared not to be breathing and I yelled, "Get in!"
We traveled fast, going through three red lights toward Hopkins' emergency room. Again, I asked what happened.
"How the FUCK do I know, just get me to the goddamn hospital ASAP."
"Mister is the child breathing?"
"I don't know!" He was really screaming, hollering and acting extremely desperate. I told him to lay the child down on the back seat, blow intervals of air into his mouth, and apply pressure to the chest. While he did it, he said, "Just get me to the fucking hospital!"
Mind you, it was about 5 p.m. during rush-hour traffic and Fayette Street was jammed. The traffic signal at Wolfe was red, passengers were boarding an MTA bus at the corner, and the cab was four car lengths back in the westbound outside lane. He screamed at me. "Go around the goddamn cars!" The cab was angled over into the eastbound lane.
"Mister, I just can't do it."
Wolfe Street is one way south, the bus was blocking my view, and we were four cars back from the light: couldn't do it, can't do it, won't do it. We could have very easily been involved in a serious head-on collision. Indeed, just then a car came speeding around the corner.
At wit's end, he jumped from the rear right door of the cab running, child in arms and the 3-year-old boy following. This wild, ignorant-acting, frantic, scared man was doing what he knew to save his child. I sped up and slammed on the brakes after the light changed to swing the door shut.
My curiosity was at an all-time high, so I returned to the hospital later that day. After I told my side of the story, the receptionist said the boy was OK and that he was out of danger, but wouldn't tell me more. I sighed with relief and was thankful that he was alive. Hats off to the father!
But I didn't mention the story to my current fare, who said he'd been in East Baltimore all his life. Instead, we kept talking about the tension between the good that Hopkins provides and the kind of displacement that it required, with so many people who were forced out of their neighborhoods. To many, this was the only home they knew. It's hard to imagine watching your home imploded with dynamite and having to relocate wherever there might be a vacancy. The separation from family and friends is hard, in addition to severe transportation problems and the problem of food deserts in some neighborhoods.
The flipside of the coin is the economic growth in conjunction with the hospital. Fells Point and Canton along with Hopkins have developed as people become interested in returning to the city and want to live within walking distance to their jobs, restaurants, and entertainment.
It's like the tale of two cities with people walking and strolling, corner businesses, joggers, and dog parks. There are no longer vacant houses in those areas seen through the windshield of this cab. It reminds me, as a native Baltimorean, how the entire city used to be.