FIFTY YEARS ago today, my mother and my father and I, exiles from the Bronx, N.Y., arrived in the city of Baltimore with a few suitcases and some secondhand furniture and found ourselves so pleased that we never looked back, lest we be turned into pillars of New York neuroses.
"New York?" my mother was saying the other day. "It's like it never happened."
She spent the first 25 years of her existence there, but never mind. New York is the spiritual mother country, but this is America down here, the place where our lives took hold.
"Bal-tee-more?" the Bronx, relatives used to tease. They'd pronounce it that way when we'd travel up the Jersey Turnpike to visit them after we'd emigrated. It was their good-natured poke at what they imagined to be pure Hicksville, when they imagined it at all.
"We have Broadway theaters," they would remind us. As if their lives were a constant round of Manhattanite cultural hot spots.
"We have the Apollo movie theater on Harford Road," we would mutter back, as if we hoped to do better one day.
"We have the Yankees and the football Giants," they would boast.
"We have Unitas and the Colts," we would reply later on, shutting them up for about 15 years.
Fifty years ago, we had the good fortune to set up house in the Latrobe Homes, the government-subsidized projects that allowed us to get by on $120 a month in GI Bill money while my father finished up his schooling, which had been interrupted by the war.
We arrived when the iceman still made daily home-delivery rounds, and so did the guys in the Bond Bread and the Cloverland Milk trucks. Women hung their laundry on clotheslines in the courtyard and didn't worry about it disappearing. Paperboys from The Evening Sun and the News Post hopped onto buses at red lights and sold newspapers for a nickel apiece, and hopped off before the light turned green on - them. And one day my father came home with something he called a television set.
When you walked to P.S. No.20, below North Avenue off Harford Road, the big kids were playing buck-buck against the elementary school brick wall. If kids found a little extra money, they'd go down to Gay Street to buy crab cakes for 20 cents apiece, or walk up to the Apollo Theatre on Saturday afternoons and see a double feature for a quarter.
We moved out to Northwest Baltimore in 1953, to Crawford Avenue not far from Rogers Avenue, into a little bungalow my father purchased by standing by his checkbook and feigning solvency. The house cost $11,990, and the mortgage payments were $90 a month.
I learned this arithmetic many years later; my parents never discussed money with me -though there was that moment of pride in the late 1950s when my father was starting to make a few bucks in the real estate business and my mother whispered conspiratorially to me, "We're really middle class now."
"What do you mean?"! asked.
"Your father got a raise. He's making $7,500 a year now."
That was enough to afford a brand-new black-and-white TV set to watch "Pinbusters" on a Saturday evening, or the old "Little Rascals" movies presented every night by Officer Happy, or the "Romper Room" program my brother Mitchell would watch and wait for Miss Nancy to call out his name as she gazed through her looking glass.
On summer evenings, the grown-ups sat on front porches and chatted with neighbors while waiting for a sweet break in the heat.
"Shh," my father would say, wanting everyone to appreciate the moment. "A breeze.
The houses weren't air-conditioned, so we could hear sounds coming through open windows as we played ball in the street: snatches of Orioles games on the radio. Sometimes we'd ride bikes over to the Little League diamond at Conlon Field, near the Forest Park Golf Course, to pretend we might be the next Brooks Robinson.
We lived on Crawford Avenue' for nine years and discovered only later what a wonderful thing was happening: A lot of the kids in the neighborhood, and more in the schools where I went, would stay in Baltimore. We're still friends.
There's something special about friendships you make before anybody's learned how to hide.
Got my first job in journalism when I was attending the University of Maryland. Interviewed with John Steadman in the sports department at the News American. It came down to me or a fellow from Montgomery County.
"I'll take you;" Steadman told me, "because you're from Baltimore."
The hometown advantage paying off. They sent me out to cover the Howard Park Little League that first summer, and nobody had to tell me how to find the diamond - at the old Conlon Field where I'd played a decade earlier.
To watch a new generation of kids was a flashback to my own childhood.
And a few years after that, I would bring my children to run through that same grass.
Baltimore can be a pain in the neck, as I occasionally mention in this space. But you come to a strange place early in your life, and you settle in, and sometimes, if you admit it, find yourself feeling terrifically blessed.
And remember how three of us arrived here, three generations and 50 years ago today.