Neighbor free with favor when flakes were down; Surprise: Identity of the mystery shoveler has been revealed.


THE BACK ALLEYS of Baltimore have always been among my favorite locations for news gathering. One windy day this week I hit pay dirt while hoofing along the one that parallels Charles Street.

There, at the Council Thrift Shop's loading dock, I ran into my neighbor Charles Ensey, who lives at the Normandie Apartments, three doors north of my home.

Ensey asked if I wasn't late for work -- a telling observation at 9: 30 in the morning. I replied, "Guilty as charged." Then I shot him a question. Could he be the mystery person who shoveled the snow from my walk on the morning of Jan. 8?

Indeed, yes. It had taken two months to solve this urban riddle. Who was that figure wrapped in a heavy coat who cleaned the sidewalk and lengthy path that runs from my front gate to the back alley? It turns out it was this neighbor.

Ensey is the building superintendent of the Normandie, a curious 1915 apartment that houses a collection of amiable and neighborly tenants. The place made the news a while back when a Warner Brothers film crew thought its looks were atmospheric enough to use it as the background on a crime series pilot. Its stacked-up porches overlook St. Paul Street and -- at a distance -- the downtown skyline.

In the warm weather months the Normandie's steward is all over the property with his power lawn mower. Occasionally when I've seen him around (or heard the motor's grinding sound), I've asked him to give my tiny back lawn a trim because his mower does a better job than my battered push model. Another time some of my trash bags went haywire in the alley and I needed some help to clean up this mess. He was a good sport about this domestic calamity.

Ensey really helped me out two months ago when I made a quick weekend trip to Chicago. I arrived back from BWI very late to find my quarters all cleaned and shoveled after one of Baltimore's famous unscheduled snows, a snow that got started about 12 hours after I'd departed BWI.

Baltimoreans are famously averse to traveling. That sense of fear and trepidation only grows more acute on the way home from the airport. Whenever the cab turns the corner I expect to find my house in flames or smashed in by an MTA bus. But that night, I found my homestead better than when I left it.

It speaks well of this city that my mystery snow shoveler wasn't ringing the doorbell for payment of services rendered. No. The Normandie's superintendent said nothing, asked for nothing.

Many neighbors offered their suggestions after I wrote a column about the phantom shoveler. More than a few fellow churchgoers offered their tips. I figured whomever was owed a snow shoveling fee would eventually come forward -- especially as the days grew brighter and longer and the world of the city exits winter hibernation. Ensey said he wasn't worried about the money. He knew me and knew I wasn't going to skip town.

The two months of not knowing my secret shoveler have provided me with a little time to think. As welcome as it was to return home without an icy pavement, it was better to know that my neighbors had been keeping an eye out -- and had taken the initiative too.

In a city that so often takes a terrible drubbing for all sorts of urban upheaval, it is reassuring to know that there are people there to do you a real favor -- and that when you wander around the town's alleys, you just might run into old friend.

Pub Date: 3/13/99

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