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WORDS ON THE STREET

In the shadows of the Mechanic Theatre, Jerome Wright makes his living selling other people's books from the sidewalk. With an 8-year-old nephew leaning into the comfortable nook of his arm, Wright looks more like a weary baby sitter than a determined hawker. Especially on a summer afternoon, man and boy make a portrait of frustrated companionship.

"Demani," he says, "get the man a bag for his book. ... Demani, I need you to help me. ... Demani, come back here, where are you going?"

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As usual, the 63-year-old man musters patience, guides the boy through his chores and quietly melts into the bustling street scene.

Little known, overlooked or forgotten by many in this city, Wright is, however, a legendary figure to older generations of black Baltimoreans. As witness to crime, prison life and redemption on the streets, his three novels, the first written more than 25 years ago during a 30-year sentence in the Maryland Penitentiary, are generally considered classics today. But unless you know Baltimore - a particular African-American Baltimore - there would be little way of knowing that he is to Pennsylvania Avenue what Anne Tyler is to Roland Park, that he has been as much a spokesman for a particular Baltimore people, place and time as H.L. Mencken was for his.

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"Jerome used to come read to us in elementary school," said Andrey Bundley, now principal of Walbrook High School. "He could speak to our reality. His life experiences modeled what needs to happen."

Last Saturday night, Wright put away his modest folding table of books at the corner of West Baltimore and Hanover streets to join a dinner party in his honor at Coppin State College. Dressed in formal attire, the broad-backed book vendor was met by educators, bankers, lawyers, judges, social workers and even a few police officers and working-class folks who had gathered to celebrate his life and work. Henry Frye, the retired Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court - a friend - was there. Blessings came from Maryland's governor, Baltimore's mayor, the city council president, members of the state legislature. Testimonials, a book signing and readings spirited along for four hours.

"Inspiring, ingenious, irresistible ... " crooned Velma Speight, former assistant state superintendent of the Maryland Department of Education. "Using eloquent, sincere words, he has told his life story to church groups and schools and civic organization around the city. He has carried the message of black history."

The message is decidedly positive, precisely what organizers of the event - a civic group called The People's Plan - hoped to promote by honoring Wright.

"The recognition is long overdue," said professor Tyrone Powers, director of the Institute of Criminal Justice at Anne Arundel Community College, who helped organize the event.

The honoree, though clearly knowledgeable about the declared impact of his work, minimized the hoopla and attributed it, in some degree, simply to "nostalgia."

Wright's story, loosely chronicled by his novels, begins in 1940s Baltimore with a boy named Phil Avery finding his way through the familiar geography of mean streets. The book, Poor, Black and in Real Trouble recounts his boyhood - welfare, his mother's death, confrontations with racism, the easy slide into criminal life - and portrays a portion of the city in vivid detail. His adolescent haunts, such as North Avenue, Edmondson Avenue and particularly Pennsylvania Avenue, stir with life as his characters slip in and out of trouble, enjoying club life at the Royal Theater, the Fremont Pool Room and the Savoy Ballroom.

The Avenue was a breeding ground and a school combined. Above all, it nurtured our attitudes toward life and fed the fires of our hatred. ... It offered visual-aid courses in craps and numbers, petty thievery and pick-pocketry, and the whole range of sex from pimping to perversion. And if one wanted to pursue the chemistry of forgetfulness, there were countless instructors in the techniques of producing anodynes against the pains of reality, from hypodermic vein injections to the sniffing of 'snow.'

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Except for a few fudged dates and names, the story, Wright said Saturday night, is precise and true. "When I grew up, it seemed like I was hanging on The [Pennsylvania] Avenue every day of my life."

With only eight years of formal education but a successful practice as a thief and armed robber, he was sent to a juvenile corrections facility in Hagerstown for two years in 1955. He was 16 years old. There, he says, his criminal education advanced considerably. As soon as he was released, he returned to The Avenue, started running numbers and robbing small shops to cover payment when numbers hit. In 1959, police picked him up at a gambling raid and two witnesses identified him from an armed robbery. Even to this day, Wright claims he never committed that specific holdup, but acknowledges that "the law of compensation" caught up with him. He was sentenced to the Maryland Penitentiary for 30 years.

Angry and rebellious, Wright again fell into a gambling ring inside prison, but as he met old men who had wasted decades in prison, he contemplated his fate. He began to take courses in penitentiary classrooms led by inmate teachers. One year, the penitentiary offered a course in what was once called "the science of personal achievement" - specifically, the classic motivational exercises of Napoleon Hill, whose book Think and Grow Rich was the biggest selling self-improvement title at the time.

"The guy who taught the Napoleon Hill course said it would enable you to achieve anything you wanted," Wright recalled. "I said, bull."

But it was the turning point of his life. He recounted its effect later in his second novel Second Chance:

Each word was like a rebuilding of his mind. With consistency, he practiced these teachings in his everyday encounters with inmates, guards, and even with the warden. ... The most impressive thing that he remembered was a phrase that he heard an inmate say when he had first arrived some years ago, 'Anything the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.'

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Within a few years, Wright was using those simple words as a daily guide. He passed a high school equivalency test and started college-level courses offered through the University of Maryland. After a fight with two inmates who tried to steal cigarettes from him, in which he beat the men with a hammer, Wright was placed in solitary confinement for three months. In that dark solitude, the first book took form. Two-and-a-half years later, his former principal from Carver Vocational High School, Sol Perdue, came to speak at a "social awareness class" at the prison, and Wright handed him the manuscript.

"He didn't believe I'd written it," Wright remembered. "He said, 'Couldn't be yours, not the way you screwed up in my school.' "

The principal read it, however, was awed and promised to put it in the hands of Harlem Renaissance author Waters Turpin, who was also a Morgan State College professor. Unfortunately, Turpin died before he could find Wright a publisher, but by then Wright had proved himself to the parole board and, after serving nine years, was released from prison. He went back to The Avenue with the beginnings of a college education, a completed manuscript and a new attitude. Lacking a publisher, he said, he used work-release funds from prison and, for $4,500, published the book himself.

"The 10-word phrase I used was, 'If it is to be, it is up to me,' " he said.

A story told by one of the speakers Saturday night, which Wright insisted is not apocryphal, has it that he rented a decrepit pick-up truck and drove to Vantage Press in New York to get the first 1,000 copies of his book to sell. When the truck broke down in the Lincoln Tunnel on the way home, he decided to start peddling copies to stalled motorists. "I was truly 'poor, black and in trouble,' " he joked.

Back in Baltimore, he went directly to his friends on Pennsylvania Avenue and to every store where he'd once fenced stolen property and hawked his novel. "The negative spots I used to hang out at," he said, "I turned into positive spots for selling my book."

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While he plowed the profits back into the publication of more books - he estimates he has sold more than 15,000 copies by hand over the years - Wright also ran a car wash, opened a taxi service, enrolled in sociology courses at Morgan State University and wrote Second Chance.

Eventually he parlayed his jail experience into becoming a counselor for a halfway house for ex-convicts on Lanvale Street. When he had saved enough money, he bought the building and took over as the center's director. In 1982, after several years with the center, the Reagan administration eliminated federal funding for the program. Still, for several years he managed to keep the operation afloat with proceeds from his book and meager profits from the Community Bargain Store on North Gay Street, where he sold furniture, used clothes and appliances donated by friends and supporters.

Even as the center struggled, according a story in The Sun in 1982, Wright was selling buttons he had stamped with the uplifting sayings of Napoleon Hill and a few words of his choosing: "Damn Reagan. I'm going to be stronger." Men from the center also joined him selling toothpaste and other toiletries on street corners - particularly to office workers from the Department of Social Services on Guilford Avenue - until financial problems and trouble with failing former convicts forced him to quit.

That, as they say in the writing business, is all back story. For the past 10 or 12 years, he says, he does "just what you see me doing now," selling books by African-American authors from his bookstand. A publisher in California, Holloway House, keeps his books in print. He touches lives in the quiet way of his example. He peddles his novels to those he thinks will most benefit or understand, at conferences of black educators, fraternities and sororities, professional associations. And, hope against hope, he continues to write black filmmakers, expecting that someone may look at his stories someday and option them for the screen.

These were the stories told and retold Saturday night at Coppin State, stories the event's sponsors hope will make their way again into the troubled neighborhoods and into the hands of children who, like a young Jerome Dyson Wright, are still too often tempted and shaped by the mean streets.

At the moment, however, in the shadows of the Mechanic Theater, the corner where he lumbers around helping customers to the latest novel by Terry McMillan, filling orders for a poetry collection by Tupac Shakur and introducing passing youngsters to a clutch of classics by African-American authors, the street is anything but mean. It is a respite. An education. A kindness. An invitation to self development.

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"I wouldn't change anything about my life," he says, while his nephew again worms his way into the curl of a gentle man's heavy arm. "I keep being positive, keep trying no matter what I have to do."


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