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Desperation, fate and the job fair; Luck: A West Baltimore man almost missed opportunity's knock. But then a strange thing happened.


Jeff Powell almost didn't make it to yesterday's job and housing fair at the Baltimore Convention Center.

It wasn't that he didn't want to go -- God knows he needs work, and so does his wife, Keisha, 12 weeks pregnant with their third child. He also needs a new place to live, big enough so their other two kids can move back from Keisha's mother's house and they can be a family again.

He needs it so badly that when he couldn't come up with bus fare to get to the convention center, he set out to do the one thing he swore he wouldn't. The thing that had gotten him stabbed and shot and jailed years earlier.

Monday night, he left their small rented room in West Baltimore and walked to a nearby corner. Pee-Wee the drug dealer's corner. He knew his old acquaintance would give him drugs to sell for bus fare.

He was standing beside Pee-Wee when a police car pulled up and an officer commanded: "Come here!" Powell dropped to his knees, trembling and praying, as the officer stood over him. What would happen to his family if he got locked up again?

But something very different happened. Something that allowed both him and Keisha to make it to the opportunity fair at 10 a.m. sharp, when the doors opened.

Powell sees the hand of the Lord in it, something he says he witnesses more and more often these days.

After all, what else could explain everything that happened at the fair sponsored by the Center for Poverty Solutions?

How when Keisha, digging through piles of donated clothing, lamented the lack of kids' coats -- and a volunteer pulled a whole stack from under a table, including one that would fit their 2-year-old son?

Or how when they went to eat the hot turkey supper provided by the fair's organizers, dessert was carrot cake -- the very thing Keisha had been craving for weeks?

When he saw that, Powell carried to their table not one or two, but three generous slices that he set in front of his wife.

They're like that with one another, Powell and Keisha. She feeds him from her plate when she discovers a tasty side of sauerkraut; he offers her his coat when she shivers, even though her jacket hangs just on the back of her chair.

Ask why their marriage works so well, and they answer with a cliche: "Never go to bed angry." And yet, their connection is clearly deeper, more tightly woven than that.

She is pregnant. He is suffering morning sickness.

"I tell her all the time she taught me the meaning of love," Powell, 39, says softly. "I thought I had been in love, until I met her. Until I met her."

It's why he gave up drugs. It's why they are trying to build a new life now.

"I am so motivated, being here," says 27-year-old Keisha, looking around the convention center's wealth of tables with signs advertising Temporary Housing and Dental and Employment. "It's not like I haven't worked or don't want to work or want to be on welfare. It's just hard sometimes to grab hold and get on your feet."

In her arms are bags filled with coats for their children, and gloves, and a black skirt and black blazer that fit her perfectly. She now has a uniform and can sign up with the catering company that used to employ her. Powell holds more bags still, heavy with a used leather coat that a friend can patch up, and brochures on temporary housing. And, wrapped in a napkin, is the piece of carrot cake his wife couldn't finish.

They walk out of the convention center and head toward the bus stop. They have money enough to ride the bus home, but not because Powell sold drugs.

Had the police car pulled up five minutes later, it might have ended differently.

But Powell hadn't yet asked Pee-Wee for drugs. So the officer cuffed Powell lightly on the head, like a naughty child, and sent him home.

Yesterday morning, Powell found an acquaintance at a nearby store and asked to borrow a dollar. He explained that he needed it to try to find a job. The friend pulled out the money.

Then something happened, the sort of thing that has happened to Powell more and more often these days. Other patrons -- people he didn't even know! -- began reaching for their wallets and change purses too, and pressing money into Powell's hand. He stood there, stunned, then counted it up: $6.

It was enough for Powell and Keisha to get to the fair. Enough for them to grab hold and, maybe, get on their feet.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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