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Mount Washington's walking man, at home in the neighborhood A Place for James


James plows his prizefighter's face with an electric shaver. He misses a clump under his lip. Then James covers his round, 4-foot-11 body in an army coat. He already has his walking shoes on -- dirty black, moon-walking shoes. Ballast for the walking man.

James walks out of here every day around 3 p.m. Today might as well be tomorrow or yesterday. All the same gig.

As he leaves the Chimes' residential home for the mentally retarded, James pledges to come back early to clean up the splintered pretzels and pencil shavings on the floor of his room.

His secretarial desk is the center of his universe. Here, he keeps his "papers," and the office supplies the staff gives him. His police badges are here, and a picture of a sea gull on notebook paper, cut from a nature magazine. James owns at least two briefcases; he likes to feel important.

"He's a man on a mission," says social worker Jennifer Lochotzki, who will walk along with us today.

As he heads for the door, James passes a screaming man in the hallway. The old man's wheelchair is turned to the wall. Outside, a man bellows at a visitor looking for James:

"Salabes? Yeah, the building right there," he says. "You can have him, man." He laughs too loudly.

First day of spring. James starts walking in his oversized shoes -- down the big hill on Thornbury Street to Smith Avenue and into the Village shops of Mount Washington.

Everybody knows James; no one knows his last name. James Salabes has been around for a vague number of years. The merchants, who give him odd jobs for even money, call James "neat" and a "fixture" who gives Mount Washington "character." We love "Officer James." He's the "mayor of Mount Washington!"

He's "harmless," they also say. He can get a little loud and get in people's faces. He can startle people, as he lumbers into Patrick's Hair Design where customers spend $80 on a perm and cut. The regulars know James has a home here. Once, the beauticians wrapped a towel around a napping James to disguise him as a customer.

Mostly, James wants to help out, somehow. Sweep the floor, answer phones. Maybe in another life he was a cop; James does collect police badges and loves to direct traffic in Mount Washington. Loves to flirt too -- especially with that great blonde who pulled up one day in the Jaguar.

Go, James.

"You're really doing a story on James?" the merchants say. "That's great."

James Salabes is a 63-year-old Chimes consumer. He is an only child and both of his parents are deceased.

Press release from the Chimes.

James talks as he walks. He talks about cars and vans and other modes of transportation. He talks to anyone who will listen about losing his keys and wanting to take the new van out. What van? In his mind, he's been driving all over creation and needs some decent wheels. He wants a pastel yellow Cadillac.

James doesn't drive anything, anywhere. He gets into the vans and the standard yellow school buses (the shorter version) and takes his daily, structured field trips to the zoo or park. Then, he's driven back to the Chimes, which is also a Mount Washington fixture. Since 1951, the house on the hill has been a good home for people who are mentally retarded. James isn't the only Chimes resident who has been seen and known in Mount Washington, but he's the most popular.

Mixed-bag neighborhood

Like other Baltimore neighborhoods, Mount Washington is the first to say it's special and different. Mencken summered here -- many of the homes were former summer resorts for the well-off. The Mount Washington Casino was a hot dance spot, and the Mount Washington Tavern was a former beer and soup joint before it got "yuppified," as old-timers say.

Mount Washington feels part country/part city. It's a mixed-bag of architecture, with Victorian homes living with new, brick homes. "A messier kind of Roland Park," says resident historian Taylor Branch. The catch-your-breath streets are cornered with saltboxes and patrolled by dogs of creative parentage. There's a landmark church (Shrine of the Sacred Heart). There's a shopping district: Mount Washington's funkified Village is a jumble of pricey salons, cafes, galleries, a sushi bar and an animal clinic where the old streetcar used to turn around. People with dough drop in the Stone Mill Bakery and buy a large loaf of five-grain, three-seed bread for $7.

On every corner, they know James. The relationship couldn't happen downtown. Too big and busy. James couldn't take hold of it. But small neighborhoods make the time and room. In Mount Washington, people feel comfortable around James. There's a rapport, an affection. Maybe he makes them feel safe, in some odd way. Maybe, James makes people feel nonjudgmental. Look here, we don't care that he is mentally retarded.

At the Mount Washington Tavern, regulars plunk down in all the shade and hard wood. They also know James' ways, know him right down to his clothes.

"Man must have 90 belts."

"He gives people traffic tickets," says another man at the bar. "Always has his clipboard," another drinker says about James.

"We give him some finger food sometimes, but we're careful because of his diabetes," bartender Stan Wilson says. "We take him home some nights."

Anthony Paul Sartori (Tony) also takes James home. Tony owns a salon, where James naps or answers phones or talks about vans. James is the only person from Mount Washington whom Tony invited to his wedding. That says something. James still talks about the reception.

"James is a fixture . . . he's . . . got it! James is the Mount Washington Rain Man," Tony says, beaming.

Open doors

James is not an idiot savant, like the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie "Rain Man," but he's no dummy either. One night, Tony wanted to give James a ride home in his new Jeep, but Tony couldn't work the remote control to unlock the doors. Brand new car, and the man didn't know how to get in. . . .

"Tony," James said, "just use the key."

Other merchants also mother James. They record his quirks and movements from their storefronts.

"James is always out there with his whistle, directing traffic," says Sandye Jurus, owner of a Mount Washington jewelry shop. "But I think the police took the whistle away from him." Her son Mark chimes in. "He loves raw onions, used to buy bags of them. But I think they made him stop eating them."

Around the corner at the Desert Cafe, Gigi Gaulin eats lunch outside because the weather is perfect. Gigi, a holistic veterinarian (treats the whole dog?), knows James, all right. James is always talking about trains and whether they are on time. Every day is a new dilemma for James, Gigi says.

"The story I got was that James worked as a city bus driver and one day he snapped."

The man went berserk one day driving a city bus. Another story is that James' mother left a ton of money to the Chimes, so it could take care of James. She might have even started the Chimes.

His mother was not involved with starting the Chimes School -- financially or otherwise. James never held a regular job, but he did go to work with his father where for the most part he sat in his father's office.

Press release from the Chimes.

Sody and Carlyn Salabes owned an antique store down on Howard Street in Baltimore, where James must have sat, for the most part. James lived at home until he was 21.

Then in 1953, he began the rest of his life living at residential homes for the mentally retarded around the state -- Rosewood for 10 years, Henryton Center for 17, and then the Chimes, since 1981. His parents hired Baltimore attorney J. Darby Bowman to be James' court-appointed guardian after their death. James' father died 10 years ago, his mom seven.

Mr. Bowman checks in on James about every two weeks. He knows about his jaunts into the Village. "He's not in jail, so he's free to go where he wants or where he's welcome," Mr. Bowman says.

James is now freely walking Newbury Street. He does want to get back early to clean his messy room.

James usually stays out until around 8 p.m. He either walks home or someone gives him a lift. He misses the group dinner, but the staff saves him a plate. He likes to eat alone and doesn't socialize much with other residents. "That's something that has always baffled us," says his social worker, Jennifer.

James plows into the Mount Washington Market and Deli. Owner Kenny So lights up at the sight of James in his Mickey Mouse shirt, army coat and black shoes. "Get your picture taken with Officer James!" Kenny says.

A place to rest

Someone buys James a Diet Coke. He takes a seat in the white patio furniture. Daryl Burchfield, who works in the store, rushes over. "He looks like a monk today," Daryl says.

Because James talks a lot about driving the van, customers often wonder whether this man is really on the road. Fun to see the scene play out every time, Daryl says. And James can be loud and a nuisance sometimes.

"We're used to him," Daryl says.

For a long moment, everyone in the store stares at James drinking his Diet Coke alone in the patio furniture.

What could he have been in life?

"He's so good with people . . ." Daryl says, "he could have been . . . a hotel concierge!"

James is a very unique person. He is one of three Curtis Hall residents who are independent in the community.

Press release from the Chimes.

It's all uphill from here.

"Let's use the van, the new one," says James, tired of walking.

He rests against a parking meter on Newbury Street. He mutters a few damns, catches his breath, and walks by the Desert Cafe. He asks a woman there if she needs some sweeping done. No thank you, she says. James walks by the animal clinic. "I wouldn't mind having a cat. They said when they get them in, they'll give me one." The Chimes' residents aren't allowed to own pets.

"I'm going to take the van out anyway," James says, now on Smith Avenue, a quarter mile from his home.

He slowly passes each No Stopping sign, Chesapeake Bay Drainage grate, bare shrub, house number and picket fence. He passes three kids playing Robin Hood in a back yard, jumping each other, shooting rubber arrows. He says he doesn't remember his childhood. Remembers his parents, though.

"My dad was real tall. He wore a badge. He didn't want me crossing the street in front of a car. I got to look both ways, look hard," James says.

"My mom was real tall, wear glasses. She could have been a nurse."

So, you do remember them?

"Yeah, then they left. I haven't seen them since."

At the foot of Thornbury Street, James stops. He says he needs new underwear. Peanut butter -- he loves it, but it makes him gain weight. And, of all things, he remembers someone taking him to a Colts game.

"They're going to have the Colts before long, about four weeks." Like everybody else in Baltimore, James is waiting for the Colts to come home.

Now 100 yards to the gates of the Chimes and to his messy room. Jennifer says, "Let's go," and then: "Will you carry me?" James grins and says no.

James walks in his black, moon-walking shoes. "It's a big hill, all right. I know it is."

Up, up Thornbury and now take the little left into the school grounds. "I'm just trying my best on this hill," James says. "OK, we did it."

He's back home. Jennifer congratulates him, reminds him about tidying his room. James bugs her about giving him more office supplies for his desk. He says he's got a bunch of staples hiding. The walk has worn him out.

Next time, maybe we should take the van.

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