Howling at the gate


I WAS FREED FROM Boys' Village, in Cheltenham, on June 10, 1960, after almost two years there. I was 13. My elder brother Brian picked me up at the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

"We have to go somewhere," he said, giving me shopping bags. Great! I thought. We boarded a bus. He would not speak of our mission and avoided my eyes.

We left the bus at Greenmount and Oliver street, before a large building. A sign read "Department of Social Services." We walked to a rear alley. A long line of people, black, as we were, and poorly dressed, were there. Although puzzled, I said nothing. But something felt wrong.

To distract me, Brian spoke of happier things: girls, sports, school, the paper route I would help him with. Yet my unease remained, like an insistent wolf howling at the gate. My joy at being free slowly seeped away.

Cars idled in the alley. Drivers called out: "Hey! Y'all goin' my way when you come out?" And: "Hey, girl, you with me today?" the "girl" was my mother's age. Some drivers wore greasy rags on their head, to keep their artificially straightened hair in place. They were "A-rab drivers" -- unlicensed cabbies. They sought to drive the shoppers home.

Brian and I entered a large, low-ceilinged, brightly-lighted room. I saw ceiling-high shelves stacked with boxes, bags of white powder, cans. Brian told me to open my bags. Employees worked swiftly, perusing people's papers, asking questions. They yelled to other workers that the "customers" were due beans, eggs, peanut butter, flour, lard.

"Customers" hurriedly packed these items into bags, pillow cases, boxes. Some people put newspapers atop their bags. A lady saw me watching her; embarrassed, she looked away. Children were sullen, anxious, confused. No one wanted to be there. The loud voices and exaggerated gestures communicated shame: They laughed to keep from crying.

Three bags each

Brian gave a paper to a worker. She studied it and called out. Other workers brought boxes, bags, cans. Brian and I packed them into our bags. He paid no money. We each had three full bags.

A-rabs hailed us and were ignored. We had to walk half a mile to North Avenue. Our transfers were only good if we took buses there. We had no money. We walked through the alleys with the heavy bags. Their handles cut our hands. I often had to set mine down. Brian waited patiently.

I was bewildered. Sweat poured from me. I felt, sticky, dirty, clumsy. My hands ached, burned. Every yard seemed to have a big dog; all of them seemed to want me. As if led by a mad conductor, they took turns hurling themselves at fences, their eyes murderous, their jaws wide, their teeth curved, stained, Draculean. Fences sagged outward as the monsters sought to get me. They ignored Brian, maybe because he ignored them. A huge man roared: "You messin' with my dog, you little hoodlum? I'll put him on you, he'll rip your meat, hear?" I heard.

Brian reached the alley's end first. What a day! Falsely accused, insulted, threatened -- on the day of my release, at 13. The sky offered no message of hope. Salvation seemed a distant star.

A lady with hair like Medusa's, clad in a shapeless housedress and flip-flop shoes, yelled from a back door: "Boy, get that welfare food to your Momma and stop messin' with people!" I trod on. My hands, arms and back hurt. The blinding sun made spots dance before my eyes. My formerly clean, neat clothes were wet, sticky.

Welfare food? I knew that word. Guys at Boys Village used to tease each other with it. I looked at the stuff in my bags. No! My family on welfare?

We reached the bus stop. A crowd stood there. Brian and I were anxious to get home. My family had moved to Braddish Avenue from Druid Hill Avenue. I also had a new sister. People gave us pitying looks. I experienced a whirl of confusing emotions.

The bus was crowded and we stood, our bags before us. People looked at them, at us, and away, embarrassed. Miles later, we got off. I did not know the area. Overhead were a bridge and railroad tracks. Brian led me up a steep hill, down the tracks, down an alley. We entered a tiny yard.

Mother, smiling shyly, welcomed home her prodigal son. Mother and three of my four sisters unpacked the bags. Daddy was at work. Quite a pile of food it was. It was true: We were on welfare. The jokes I had made about it brought a bitter taste to my mouth. Mother watched me. She wore the same kind of housedress as that harridan in the alley. I smiled quickly, lamely, lest she see my distress. But she saw.

Even now the memory retains a painful clarity -- like howling dogs hurling themselves at the fences of my mind.

Nathaniel Johnson Jr. is a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institute in Hagerstown.

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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