CHUCKIE is why I love Baltimore. He wears deadbeat clothes and he likes to drink, but he shows up to work every day, makes his mortgage payments on time, keeps food on the table and pays the utility bills ahead of the cutoff notices.
Chuckie has problems, but he faces them without complaining. "My 16-year-old daughter is knocked up," he says ruefully, "but what are you going to do?" He looks around his neighborhood, a decaying area along Annapolis Road, and says, "This used to be real nice along here, but now the streets are full of junkies. Oh, well."
So he has another beer and thinks about it but doesn't let it get to him. "It's just the way things are going today, and it'll get better soon," is his reaction to drug-based crime. "Besides," he adds, "what can you do about it?"
Because of his upbringing, Chuckie often sounds like the worst Southern racist in the world; he uses the word "nigger" in about every third sentence. But he has black friends and co-workers and is about to have a black grandchild. And Chuckie will love his grandchild deeply and try to make his or her life happy, without regard to complexion. Chuckie's racism is only mouth-deep. When asked about it, he shrugs it off with a grin. "Half the blacks I know are more prejudiced than I am," he says, "but when we need to get along, we do. We ain't no different. We all have the same problems."
Once you learn to ignore the implied bigotry that comes out of his mouth, you'll find that Chuckie is one of the most tolerant people on Earth -- and one of the nicest. He'll as easily help a black man in trouble as he will a white man, without thinking about skin color for a second. Chuckie, and guys like him of every race, are the ones who help stranded motorists, clean up neighborhood parks and return lost dogs to their owners, whether or not we give them credit for their efforts. They don't expect fame, and they don't expect to get rich, no matter how hard they work or how many lottery tickets they buy.
Chuckie, for one, doesn't even want to be rich. "What would I do with a million bucks?" he asks. "I got food and a place to stay and clothes to wear. If I won the lottery or got rich some other way, there are babies out there who don't have food and who got no place to live. If I get a lot of money, I'll give it to them. How could I keep it for myself when all those people need it worse than me?"
Baltimore has thousands of guys like Chuckie, black and white, running around wearing old Army field jackets. They have untrimmed beards and homely faces. They work too many hours for too little money. They sit in the cheap seats at baseball games and hope the ticket prices don't go much higher, because they can barely afford to go to games now. They worry about bills and never save any money, but they always get by. Somehow.
New York doesn't have enough people like Chuckie; I know, because I have lived there. Baltimore has plenty, and that's why it's a beautiful town. The Inner Harbor glistens, and Mount Vernon is lovely when the flowers bloom, but without Chuckie wandering around to enjoy the scenery, these places would be nothing. "I love to walk around the harbor and look in the stores and watch all the people," he says. "Of course, I can't afford nothing they sell there -- that's all tourists who buy that stuff -- but I love to watch everyone and to sit on the benches by the water."
I envy Chuckie this unadulterated pleasure in life. The last time I drove him home from Fells Point, two Federal Hill yuppies tried to jump in my cab ahead of him, even though he was already opening the door. "Go ahead and take them, too," Chuckie said. "It's on the way. Make a few extra bucks."
The yuppies sat in the back seat, talking of grandiose investment schemes. Chuckie, in the right front seat, laughed as he listened to what they were saying to each other and said, "It all sounds great to me. Go for it, you guys. If Baltimore is going to be a better place because you think you can make a million dollars running around doing your deals, I'm all for it. Good luck."
Many Federal Hill yuppies are fine folks, I'm sure, but Chuckie is special to me in a way none of them will ever be. I need him in life to restore my faith in the human race and to remind me that there are lots of people out there who deserve praise they never get. So consider this my personal paean to Chuckie, who symbolizes everything that's great about Baltimore better than all the brochures put out by all the civic booster groups this town has ever known.
Robin Miller drives a cab in Baltimore.