She wears the key to her Baltimore rowhouse on a chain around her neck, but for now it unlocks only misery.
Martha Fields, 72, opens the door at 123 Parkin St. and peers into the cluttered remains. She'd like to make it home again -- and asks the city to help, by reducing a $37,000 lien that strangles her dream.
She doesn't want charity, but a chance.
Now, the city is giving her case, and others, another look.
Fields' is one of about 20 cases the Housing Department is reviewing as a result of a three-part Sun series that told how a city campaign to shore up or demolish decaying houses spurred many owners to flee their stakes.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke directed his staff last week to look into the treatment of people, such as Fields, who say they were victimized by a housing department they had hoped would help them.
A housing spokesman said yesterday that officials were reviewing the case files "comprehensively" and planned to meet at midweek to discuss them.
To date, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III has maintained that the owners were responsible for the mess they're in. First, by not keeping up their properties. Second, by not paying the bills for city repair or demolition work.
By yesterday, Fields hadn't heard from city officials. But she'd like to speak with them.
"Whoever is in charge should give the working person a break," said Fields, a $2-an-hour volunteer home companion to the elderly. "We are waiting for the city to turn me loose from these liens."
She's working with a banker, Greg Gering, whose firm is willing to provide a loan for repairs if the lien can be eliminated or reduced substantially. He said he has gotten encouragement but no promises.
If the money comes through, Fields said she'd be out every weekend helping fix up her home. In the meantime, she pays her grandson $10 a month to clear clutter from the back yard.
Twenty-five years after she bought her house, it is a dank shell -- with peeling paint, a discarded Cheerios box, disconnected water heater squatting in the living room and gaping holes that offer a view to the roof.
Fields' troubles began more than a decade ago, when a leaky roof forced her from her home. After neighbors complained, a city crew showed up in the spring of 1990. Fields thought they were there to spruce up the house so she could return.
They put on a roof, installed a new front door, repaired the windows and blocked the back of the house. And, she said, they cleaned out her possessions.
"I can never understand for the love of me why they took all that stuff away," said Fields, her eyes widening. "There was no reason for those thieves to do that to us."
The city billed Fields $11,775. Today, pushed by an interest rate of nearly 20 percent, the debt is more than $37,000.
Fields said she has periodically asked the city for a payment schedule, but has been turned down. In 1992, she turned to Schmoke: "I need your help before I become one of the homeless," she pleaded in a handprinted letter.
Today, she rents a house around the corner and walks by 123 Parkin every day on the way to a bus to work. She spends three afternoons a week with an elderly woman in Irvington, and two with a woman on Myrtle Avenue. Fields is on Social Security.
She reaches into a folder of important papers for an award the city gave her five years ago. From the Division of Family Support Services, it cited her for "outstanding achievement and accomplishment" in the city's Senior Assistance Housing Program.
But these days, she often feels compelled to get away. Most nights, she ventures to the suburbs -- to walk around shopping malls, to stop into Popeye's or another fast food place for a bite.
"I hate to come down here in this misery, so I just go somewhere and relax," Fields said. "But if I had a home to live in, I wouldn't worry about going anyplace."
In the last few years taxes on the house have doubled to more than $850. In 1996, she got a slight discount for paying early.
She said she's gotten some comments from friends since her story was in the paper.
"They called me a celebrity," Martha Fields said. "I say, 'That's a sad way to be a celebrity.' No, I'm not going to sign any autographs. I'm in misery. I'm not a celebrity."
Standing inside her home, she adds: "I'm just happy with life -- until it comes here."
Pub Date: 4/15/97