MY BABKA ONCE told me how everyone in Baltimore was her oldest friend, even before she came to America.
A man who lived down the street in Highlandtown planted red geraniums between the cracks in the orange brick pavement. He let me pick them in the summer to fill the slim glass vases in my babka's parlor. Their petals drooped in September and clung to the crocheted curtains she had brought over from the old country.
I walk with my mother down South Curley Street past the rows of white marble steps that gleam like melting snow. A woman stands in her doorway with a blue scarf tied around her hair. Her face is old and worn, with creases that fall from her forehead in soft patterns like the tangled roots of a tree. She smiles and the corners of her eyes crinkle like tissue paper. I've never seen her before.
Patterns of water and brick
I saw a girl at the harbor, staring in open-mouthed awe at the white sails gliding like moths across the water. She was from the west and had never seen the patterns of green water against warm red brick. She asked if the ocean was as beautiful elsewhere. I told her it wasn't.
When I was nine, the man who owned the deli on the corner let me paint his window screens. The colors dripped and ran in swirls of yellow and red that Picasso himself could have never dreamed. He laughed and said that one day my art would hang in the BMA. The screens are still there, proudly on display above the street.
From the peak of Federal Hill, buildings rise like trees from the criss-cross of streets, outlined in rosy hues of morning sunlight. The golden dome of City Hall shines like a star. Their reflections waver in the bay, corrugated by wind. I sit there with my pen and paper, watching people fill the brick pavements around the harbor. They come and go in my poetry.
In the summer, I catch the bus to the harbor and meet Babka by the fountain. We walk to Harborplace and stand by the railing of the balcony. Boats slip soundlessly through the water, flashing out silent rhythms of orange light. The buildings light one by one, casting bright shadows across the streets. Their windows still burn, perfect yellow squares.
I turn to Babka, my face shadowed by the purple sky, and ask her why out of all the cities in America did she come to Baltimore.
A man walks by and tips his hat, a baseball cap with the orange patch of an oriole bird. "Beautiful evening, isn't it?"
Babka smiles at me. I know that she has never seen him before. She whispers her answer into my ear. I watch the man's retreating figure as it turns the corner onto Calvert Street and fades.
I'm beginning to understand.
Melissa Borgerding is a student at the Carver Center for the Arts and Technology. This essay was the top prize-winner in the Ad Club's "Why I Love Baltimore" contest for high school writers.
Pub Date: 2/19/97