In his previous existence, Randy DeVoe lived the good life. At 15, he was playing a neighborhood game of soccer, the way kids do, when he was kicked in the head while diving to block a shot. For the past 12 years, unable to move his body below his neck, unable to speak beyond a loud, poignant cry, he's seemed abandoned by good fortune, and also by the city of Baltimore.
He lies in a hospital bed at his family home on Broening Highway, off Boston Street between Canton and Dundalk, on TC sunlit street of rowhouses that looks charming from the outside. Looks are deceiving. Randy's got a loving family gathered around him, but he lives in a city whose government agencies have looked the other way.
"We've called the city over and over," says his mother, Pat DeVoe, "but they say they can't help."
She looks down at her son, stretched across a big bed that takes up most of a living room. There's a TV set and a stereo nearby to help Randy pass the hours, and the room is brightened with photos of Baltimore Orioles and family snapshots.
It's about as comfortable a setting as any family could make for a person in Randy's straits. After the soccer accident, surgeons removed a blood clot at the outer part of his brain. He slipped into a coma for three weeks. Since 1983, he's had almost no control of his body below the neck. He has some feeling, but almost no voluntary movement. His ability to talk is limited to a monosyllabic cry, and he communicates nonverbally as best he can.
"With this," says his mother.
She holds up a large card with the alphabet on it. When Randy wants to talk, someone in the family points to letters on the card. Randy rolls his eyes up to indicate yes, down to indicate no, until a word is spelled and then words became fragments of sentences and eventually communication is made.
Out of such give-and-take, small pleasures are taken: Yes, he'd like to watch the Orioles; no, he doesn't want to be fed; yes, he likes the bright rings his family has placed on his fingers, which once helped throw a ball or steer a pencil across a page.
But now he's missing an exquisite pleasure that once brought a bit of the outside world to him, and the city of Baltimore has said it can't help.
Randy wants to sit in his back yard.
He used to do it every balmy day. His family would roll him out to the back porch and let him soak in the rays of the sun and feel the air on his skin. There are flowers in the little back yard, and grass, and a statue of the Virgin Mary.
His family brought Randy out there until a couple of years ago, when rats began to show up all along the alley, and Randy DeVoe, unable to move his body, couldn't be taken outside anymore.
"Everybody around here has bought traps," Pat DeVoe says now, waving up and down the alley. It's a pretty incongruous sight. The alley's clean. Trash cans have tight lids. A couple of houses across the alley look unkempt, and there are a few little pieces of trash in the alley, but as these things go in the city of Baltimore, this alley's a showpiece.
But still the rats come.
"I talked to the Housing Department," says Randy's father, Bob DeVoe, "and a woman told me, 'If they're in the alley, they're our rats, but if they're in your yard, they're your rats.' How do you deal with that?"
"I'm afraid to put Randy out," his mother says. "He's defenseless. I don't even like to go out after dark myself to put out the trash. People up and down the street have put out traps, and they've put out bait. The rats are taking the bait, and then they're running off. My husband saw one so big he thought it was a cat. Sometimes you find dead ones in the alley or in a yard and you think, OK, it's gonna be OK. But then there are more. It's disgusting, and it's frightening."
Yesterday, Patrick McHugh, superintendent of the city's Rat Rubout Program, said it is the city's policy to "bait city-owned property and public streets and alleys where there is a rat problem. Private property, we'll assist and instruct people in how to bait. If there is no success, we'll try to assist further."
Told that the DeVoe family has been trying to get city help for the past few years, McHugh said, "The city government is a large, inanimate being." He sounded apologetic.
He said he would send inspectors to the DeVoes' alley "in the next day or two."
Randy DeVoe is waiting.