Since childhood, Don could understand his brother Charlie even when others couldn't. And most couldn't.
They invented their own sort of sign language as kids when it became obvious Charlie, five years younger, was born deaf. But it went beyond those made-up signals -- somehow they understood, they got it, when it came to each other.
"Charlie and I had a special communication," Don Christensen, now 46, says. "I don't even know if I can describe it to someone else. We just knew how to indicate to each other where we wanted to go or what we wanted to do.
"Charlie looked to me, like, if things got too frustrating, either with the kids outside or with my folks trying to get him to understand something. I was the one to step in as the intermediary."
Understanding and being understood was a lifetime struggle for Charlie. Deaf and speechless in a hearing and speaking family, and a hearing and speaking world, Charlie was like a foreigner in his own country. He signed fluently, but that only took care of half the equation. Few hearing people can sign -- and even Charlie's family learned to do so only at basic levels -- so misfired messages and unexpressed feelings constantly shadowed him.
But Charlie had been going to counseling sessions on Tuesdays, his family said, and that was helping with the immense frustration that daily life presented him.
In fact, that's where he probably was headed, his family later surmised from his meticulously notated calendar, around noon on March 7. He was waiting for a bus several blocks from his apartment in Northwest Baltimore when two youths approached. not entirely clear what happened, but a witness has said they started picking on Charlie.
It wasn't even a robbery attempt -- Charlie's wallet was found on him. In any event, Charlie is believed to have picked up a bottle and either thrown it at the youths or held it up to defend himself. One of the youths pulled out a gun and shot him in his left leg,
striking a major artery. They ran off as Charlie, bleeding ferociously, fell to the ground unable to call out for help.
A good Samaritan, Johnny Dow, stopped, and he remains haunted by Charlie's final, frustrated effort to communicate. Charlie, he believes, tried to sign: Take my belt off and use it as a tourniquet. Johnny Dow didn't understand and vainly kept trying to stanch the bleeding until the ambulance came and took Charlie to Sinai Hospital, where he soon died.
It's hard to imagine what the silence and the fury must have been like for Charlie during that last hour.
"He had to feel so scared and so alone," his youngest sister, Catherine, says.
Charlie was shot within blocks of the place he had moved to precisely because it promised the opposite: safety and a sense of community for deaf people. He was among the first tenants when the Louis W. Foxwell Sr. Memorial Apartments opened in 1982, rising eight stories high atop a hill on Greenspring Avenue.
The apartments were designed specially for deaf people, with flashing lights as doorbells and with television monitors to let residents visually communicate with the front desk and security guards downstairs, as well as with other tenants.
For Charlie, it seemed ideal, a place to live independently in his own apartment but in a building filled with other people who spoke the same language and shared the same experiences.
"Hearing [persons] I just don't understand," Charlie was quoted as saying, through a sign interpreter, in a story about the Foxwell Apartments in The Evening Sun on Dec. 29, 1982. "Hearing can't sign."
The 154-unit building is named after a hearing man who devoted his life to working with the deaf. Louis W. Foxwell, a minister, was born to deaf parents and learned sign language early on. He became pastor of Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore and once successfully assisted police in a stand-off with a deaf man.
But on April 2, 1974, Rev. Foxwell himself was shot and killed outside his home by two youths who also fled without taking his wallet. He was 58 years old.
Beset with controversy
It's impossible to know what Rev. Foxwell would think today of the building that bears his name and is meant to honor his memory. But surely he would have hoped for something better for the deaf than a building that has been beset with controversy from the start.
Numerous deaf activists fought plans to build the apartment complex, predicting it would become a "ghetto" and "dumping ground."
Rev. Foxwell's son and namesake, also a minister, ultimately succeeded in getting the monument to his father built, but, within a year of its opening, it was already in trouble: Rev. Foxwell Jr. was accused of failing to provide the counseling and vocational services to tenants that the state was paying him for.
Mr. Foxwell still denies misusing public funds, but ultimately abandoned his deaf-services organization, resigned the ministry and moved to Florida, where he publishes a magazine. He agrees, though, that the apartments have woefully failed to live up to the original vision.
"It's a broken dream," Mr. Foxwell says flatly.
The apartments never became the deaf community that he envisioned: There simply weren't enough deaf persons to fill the 154 units, Foxwell's management said, so within the first year it began allowing elderly and handicapped people who qualified for HUD's Section 8 low-income housing subsidies to move in.
"The hearing people came in and they ruined it," says Bob Greenlow, a deaf friend of Charlie Christensen who moved into Foxwell with him in 1982 but no longer lives there. "The deaf population dwindled, and there were more hearing people."
Today, the deaf don't even comprise the majority at Foxwell Apartments, just 43 percent.
With hearing people making up the majority of its tenants and usually all of its staff, the Foxwell had become an anachronism. Even as it was being built, the thrust of deaf activism was moving in a different direction: away from the paternalism of the past, when hearing people took it on themselves to care for their less fortunate deaf brethren, and toward more of a civil-rights stance of self-determination and full access to what everyone else enjoyed.
This new attitude drew worldwide attention in 1988 when students at Gallaudet University in Washington, shut down the campus until officials finally named a deaf person as president of the school. Their stirring message was as simple as it was convincing: Gallaudet should be run for and by the deaf.
Today, the movement has grown to the point that it defines deafness not as a disability, but as a culture. Deafness is not a medical condition to be "fixed," the activists argue, but something more akin to being an ethnic minority, with its own language and identity and culture.
Born in 1954, Charlie Christensen was caught somewhere in the middle of this shift in attitude. He was both too old to be entirely of the era when good-works types defined for deaf people what they needed -- and what they would get -- but too young to fully benefit from the emerging deaf-rights movement. By the time the Gallaudet students won their battle in 1988, for example, Charlie was already in his 30s.
While Charlie didn't attend Gallaudet, in his own way, he seemed to be fighting some of the same battles. At one point, he refused to go to church with his parents any more because there wasn't a sign interpreter.
And, he lived independently, taking buses rather than asking for rides and working at a job rather than relying solely on Social Security. Even as the Foxwell Apartments moved further away from its original intent as a deaf community, he remained there. It was affordable, it was familiar and it was his home.
"Home" could be a fluctuating concept: Since childhood, Charlie straddled the hearing and the deaf worlds. When he was 9 years old, Charlie began attending and boarding at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, returning to his family's home in Towson on weekends.
No one in his family is deaf, not his father, Don, a retired Black & Decker machinist; his mother, Marie, a retired cashier at Towson High; older brother, Don Jr., or younger sisters Anna-Louise and Catherine. And while they communicated as best they could, it became obvious early on that Charlie would do better among other deaf children and adults at the Frederick school.
"That was his own place. That was his home," his sister Catherine says now.
Charlie's family learned to sign a little -- Don Jr. says his father became quite proficient at it -- but it was like learning any foreign language: If you don't use it, you lose it. And the Christensens had two days to use it and five days to lose it.
"It was frustrating for him," Charlie's father says. "He would be signing so fast, and we wouldn't understand him, and we'd have to get a piece of paper for him to write down what he was saying."
Even if his family could make out some of what he was signing, they couldn't answer back as fluently. Often, they had to resort to "finger-spelling" e-v-e-r-y w-o-r-d o-u-t, l-e-t-t-e-r b-y l-e-t-t-e-r rather than signing entire words or concepts.
Then there were the efforts, some misguided, to "help" Charlie. Don Jr. remembers when his mother was encouraged to try to teach Charlie to sound out words. Hours upon hours were spent -- wasted, he now believes -- getting him to say the simplest of words, like "Mama."
For Charlie's siblings, childhood was marked by seemingly constant disruptions: Every Sunday, they piled into the car for a three-hour-round-trip to Frederick to bring Charlie to school, every Friday they made the same trip again to pick him up. And there was the confusion, wrenching really, of having a sort of part-time brother, bonding with him, only to have him leave again.
"I guess I understood on an intellectual level that it was for Charlie's benefit he had to leave to grow," says Don Jr. "But I kind of felt like he was growing in ways that were apart from me."
The last good time
When Charlie's friend Bob Greenlow talks about their years at the School for the Deaf in Frederick, there is a last-good-time sense to his reminiscences.
"In Frederick, it was really cool," Bob Greenlow says through an ++ interpreter. "A group of us, we would go to stores, to movies. When we got out in the world, things were so different."
The living room of his apartment is decorated with graduation pictures -- with his long sideburns and ruffled tuxedo shirt, his image screams Class of 1973 -- and a rendering of the red brick school that for 128 years has served deaf children of Maryland. It's a smaller version of a drawing that Charlie had on his bedroom wall at the Foxwell Apartments.
Charlie was equally fond of his years at the deaf school, and it was hard adjusting when he returned home after graduation, his brother says. From an environment where almost everyone else was deaf, he was back to a world where almost no one was. Add to that the fact that he was a young, single man who didn't drive and was living at home with his parents.
"Sometimes he got angry," Bob Greenlow says of his friend's interactions with hearing persons. "Charles would tend to get angry and lose patience. That was Charles."
After graduation, Charlie went on to learn a trade, developing woodworking skills at a vocational rehabilitation center in Virginia, and, at the time of his death, had been working at Tables by Goldfingers, a Baltimore furniture-making company. And he eventually was able to move out on his own, first to a complex in Owings Mills, where a deaf services organization had rented 12 units for its clients, and later, to the new Foxwell Apartments.
Bob Greenlow lived first in Owings Mills and then Foxwell with Charlie, but grew disenchanted with Foxwell.
"The cops were there all the time," he says. "There was trouble there."
Others who either lived at the Foxwell in the past or know people who currently do say they believe there are drug problems there. The police say they aren't aware of such problems, but do get called there occasionally for mostly smaller crimes -- fights, disturbances and the like.
Charlie occasionally would complain about, say, another tenant bothering him, his family says, but he didn't indicate such problems were serious. Mostly, Bob Greenlow says, Charlie kept to himself in his own apartment, and rarely went out at night for fear of crime.
He regularly visited his family back in Towson, but such gatherings had to be prearranged since neither Charlie nor the Christensens had the telecommunications device for the deaf that allows them to make and receive phone calls.
Perhaps because it was difficult to have spontaneous talks or meetings, Charlie just loved holidays. His mother laughs remembering how he used to start dropping them notes before his birthday, "Don't forget, June the 26th!" They always had a crab feast, and Charlie could put away a dozen on his own.
He never forgot other holidays either, sending his mother and sisters cards for Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and anything else Hallmark could come up with.
"It was his special way of keeping in touch with each of us," Catherine says. "That, and clipping coupons that he thought I could use, for cat food. Because I have a cat, any articles he saw on cats, he would cut out for me."
Outside looking in
While Charlie was a part of all the holidays and weddings and gatherings, his deafness continued to create a gulf that wasn't easily bridged. While he was physically at the family events, often, conversations would swirl around him without involving him.
"He was kind of on the outside looking in," his brother says.
As they became adults, and as their parents aged, there was a concerted if unspoken effort among the Christensen siblings to somehow connect with one another, and especially with Charlie.
"I don't exactly know why, but at one point I knew it was important for me to connect again with Charlie," Don Jr. says.
Four years ago, they hit upon a project that they could do together: They would each start saving cans and then meet one Saturday a month to take them to a recycling plant that paid cash for them. Then, they'd use the money to buy savings bonds for college tuition for Don's three kids.
It stretched into a daylong event, what with the errands they'd run afterward and dinner with Don's family. It sounds odd, Don says, but it became a great experience.
"They would be like two little boys coming back from playing all afternoon," Don's wife, Cathy, says.
It's an apt comparison. Don remembers that when he and Charlie were kids, they used to love going to the movie theater on York Road in Towson on Saturdays and watching some sort of action-oriented flick that both of them could enjoy.
"Me and Charlie would go Saturday morning and stay all day. We'd sit back, the movie would start all over again, and we'd stay and watch it again and again," Don says.
"I found," he says, "that the interaction we had when we recycled on Saturdays, that brought me back to the beginning with HTC Charlie. When we could sit in a movie theater and watch the Three Stooges or whatever, and it didn't depend on words, but on actions. Here it was, an action-packed Saturday again. It was straightforward, it was facts and figures, how much did we do this month."
In other words, there weren't the confusions and frustrations that could boggle the rest of Charlie's life. Charlie reveled, Don says, in clear, goal-oriented routines, which made his job as a quality control inspector at Goldfingers furniture so perfect for him.
"He was the last person to inspect everything before it left the warehouse," says Otts Sobel, who with her husband David owns and works at Goldfingers. "Charlie didn't miss anything. If it could be let through, he gave a thumbs up."
The Sobels hired Charlie five years ago through an organization called People Encouraging People, whose services include job placement. Charlie took two buses and got to work every day at least 45 minutes early, rain or snow or shine. He shared his lunches with a cat that strayed in one day and stayed, and managed to communicate what he needed with hand signals and notes.
"I can't say we've ever had anyone better in that job," Ms. Sobel says. "We really miss him."
The Goldfingers staff was among those stunned to turn on the news last month and learn of Charlie's murder. Police have yet to make any arrests, although Baltimore homicide detective Marvin Sydnor says he remains optimistic; a witness has offered some information, and tips continue to come in even now, more than a month after the murder.
The crime struck a chord even among those who didn't know the victim, and they've written or called Charlie's family to express their sadness and outrage.
At the funeral, all the different parts of Charlie's life converged: He was so private, his family and friends say, that they knew little or nothing about the other parts of his life.
A group of Foxwell tenants showed up for the funeral, as did co-workers from Goldfingers, staff and clients of People Encouraging People and former classmates from the School for the Deaf. And after checking first to make sure that his presence wouldn't upset the family, Johnny Dow, the stranger who stopped to help Charlie when no one else would, also attended.
They buried Charlie together, and, for at least this one day, there was no breakdown in communications: The family hired a sign interpreter and, after the emotional services, she refused to accept her usual fee.
"No, no," she told them, "it's for Charlie."
The physical work is done. Charlie's parents have cleaned out their son's apartment at Foxwell, shaking their heads over how he seemed to have saved everything from the autographs of his beloved Orioles and former Colts to scraps of notes and bits of receipts.
But the emotional work continues -- the making sense of a senseless tragedy, the wrapping-up of a life, the need to tally up the triumphs and the failures, the good times and the bad.
Don Jr. finds himself thinking back to this past Christmas season, turning it over and over in his mind. He seems to be searching for some clue, some moral to the story, something that will let him bury his brother with the knowledge that, in the end, Charlie was happy.
For some reason, Charlie was anticipating Christmas even more than usual, planning what he'd buy for everyone. Don took him shopping, he carefully selected his gifts and wrapped them beautifully.
But then there was one of those fights that threatened to spoil everything. It was like a bad game of telephone, where the original message gets hopelessly boggled as it wends its way through all the players. Don Sr. called Don Jr. and asked him to mediate.
Don went to Charlie's apartment, and Charlie began signing furiously, scribbling notes and unleashing a torrent that Don could only catch bits and pieces of, like "Dad mad. No Christmas. Don't care."
They went back and forth, Don thought he understood what the problem was, and thought he'd defused the situation.
"But then, he turned me off. This really scared me. I saw him go completely blank, like 'I'm tired of this world,' " Don said. "He dropped the paper and pencil, he walked away from me, went into his bedroom, laid down on the bed and just turned the world off. It scared me. It was this hopeless feeling."
Don pulled him off the bed and into the living room, and hugged him. "He stood there kind of lifeless. I hugged him again, and he finally hugged back," Don says. "I think he understood that we all wanted him to be there for Christmas and that nobody harbored any ill feelings for him."
Charlie did come to the family Christmas party, and it all ended happily, at least this time, Don says.
"Somehow it happened that Charlie held his presents back, the ones he was giving and the ones he was getting," Don remembers. "Everyone else had opened their presents, and then he sat there in that chair and gave out his presents, which were absolutely fantastic, and he opened the presents he got. Everyone was happy. And I'll remember it as Charlie's best Christmas ever."