Marooned residents find common ground

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fifty-seven rowhouses, one street. That's the 1400 block of Patapsco St. in South Baltimore, a blue-collar bastion now in transition, as they say.

Lawyers live next to longshoremen, recent college graduates near recovering dope addicts. Saab convertibles vie for curb space with old Chevys. One Formstone house has a "Pray the Rosary" sign in the window; a brick house being renovated displays building permits.

Even the pronunciation varies. To old-timers, it'll always be "Patapsico," hon.

One thing everyone has in common is the street. Except that last week there was no street, just deep snow between white lumps that had been cars until the biggest storm in 132 years struck a week ago.

For days the block was marooned, like most in the city. A day after the snow stopped, The Sun went to see what would happen on Patapsco between Gittings Street and Fort Avenue.

Bruce Heath would be the first to break out (in a Jeep), Alison Galassi the first to stake out a parking space (with an orange chair), Keith Ryer the first to clean his roof (by the brawn of pal Moose Myers).

Geoff Leszczynski would be soothed by Irish coffee at Sean Boland's pub. An impatient Jerry Murphy would offer $20 to any city crew willing to swing down the block. Anna Beaudet, 80, would revel in her first walk in days.

There would be griping about how "the yuppies" piled snow but also encounters that made neighbors of strangers. And there would be general agreement: The block was on its own, because city plows would never appear.

"I ain't never seen a plow come down here," Ryer, a disabled former railroad worker, said.

What a shock he - and everyone else - was in for.

Day 1

The snow fell so hard Sunday that the downtown skyline that normally dominates the view to the north vanished behind a white wall, and the next day, people ventured out to wonder at it all.

On Tuesday, it was time to start digging. Drifts of 3 feet and higher filled the street, making a mockery of stranded sport utility vehicles.

But the people seemed happy. Heidi Reimer stood in the middle of Patapsco tossing a football to her chocolate Labrador retriever, Bailey. "I've met more people in the past two days," said Reimer, a 27-year-old Deutsche Bank lawyer. "Everybody's standing around, shoveling. Everybody's been drinking, so they're friendly."

It took a snowstorm of this magnitude for her to find out that her house once was Sonny's, a corner store. Local teen-agers, including her neighbor Jim Henwood, now a longshoreman, used to drink beer out front. Sonny didn't mind, Henwood said, because of the free security.

By midday the sidewalk was passable. Not so the street, and no one dared try.

Then Bruce Heath made what looked like a prison break in his son's Jeep Wrangler - the wrong way down the one-way street. He nearly made it to Fort Avenue, where 4 feet of snow stopped him cold.

"Ain't doing too good," grumbled Heath, who has lived on the block 27 years and works in shipping at Locke Insulators. He had to be at work the next day and wanted to blaze a trail.

He climbed from the Jeep, borrowed a shovel from a man walking by and began digging, bad heart and all. Suddenly a crowd formed, like an old-fashioned barn-raising.

Four strangers began hacking at the snow. At 12:40 Heath punched through, triumphantly.

"Boy, I tell you," he said. "Saved by the people."

A similar scene unfolded when Melissa Baker, who works at a day spa in Hunt Valley, made an ill-advised attempt to drive her gray Volkswagen Passat.

A half-dozen residents formed a shovel brigade. Defense Department mathematician John Webb was there. So was self-proclaimed "tattooed white trash" automotive student Peter Johnson. Engineer Eric Ober, too. The scent of kitty litter and car exhaust was everywhere.

All of the help overrode any frustration Baker felt behind her sunglasses. "Much worse things are happening in the world," she said. "And look at all the unity it brings out."

Leszczynski, an estimator at a contracting company, missed that excitement. He'd been over at Sean Boland's on Light Street for Irish coffee and was in a cheery mood.

"Fortified," he said.

Day 2

The buzz started early Wednesday morning and spread quickly up the block of two-story houses, a mix of brick and Formstone but all simply adorned, with few flourishes.

Fed up, Jerry Murphy, a welding supply salesman, wanted to hire a contractor to dig out the block. A city worker had spurned his measly $20 offer, and he did not expect a city plow, even though the road was hardly narrow by South Baltimore standards.

Cross Street Market, three blocks north, was back open, along with the cafes, restaurants and a CVS pharmacy, which sits at Fort and Patapsco in the old A&P; supermarket space. So no one would starve. And 80-year-old Anna Beaudet, a fixture on the block for 46 years, was able to resume her walks, gingerly.

"Oh, I love my walks," she said, bundled up in a scarf on the sunny day. "I go all down the market, up Light Street, over Fort Avenue."

But many on the block drive to work, and a number of cars sat where they were before the snow.

Now Murphy's - and the block's - hopes rested with a guy named Nick, the man who plowed his sister's driveway in Pasadena. For Nick to bring a small front-end loader might cost $400, but many on the block were ready to help.

"We're in," said Julie Figueroa.

Residents of other blocks had found a third way: Everyone just grabbed a shovel. It happened on parts of Marshall and Clarkson streets nearby and on Cloverhill Road in North Baltimore.

Why not here?

"That sense of community hasn't quite gotten established," Figueroa said. "I don't think it's a lack of interest, but a lack of rallying the troops. I think people would respond if someone provided leadership."

Asked about Clarkson, Ryer offered two reasons between sips of the Pepsi he drinks from morning to night: "They've got a smaller street. And better neighbors."

Not that Ryer dislikes his neighbors. He says hello to all but knows relatively few. There are old-timers - Heath has been there 27 years - but most have come in the past two or three years. Some houses have fetched more than $150,000 and rents of $1,200 a month.

Henwood, who at 40 again lives in the home he grew up in, hinted at some tension when he complained about snow piled in the street. "Probably some yuppie down the street," he said.

He spoke fondly of the day when Miss Ann sold snow cones from her home across the street, when Old Man Ray sat on his steps till midnight drinking beer.

But some of those "yuppies" learned an old trick: marking off parking spaces. Alison Galassi, a first-grade teacher at Federal Hill Elementary School, put an orange chair where her Subaru had been parked.

"This being the worst storm in history, this warrants it," she said before going shopping.

Not everyone got out. Bob Mullineaux Jr. had less faith in his Chevy Cavalier, so he missed work again Wednesday. A recovering heroin addict, he is determined to stay on track and wanted to be on the job as polyurethane technician.

"I want to go to work," he said. "It's driving me crazy."

Sherry Ryer, Ryer's daughter-in-law, was also stranded. She and her two children could not get to Virginia, where Ryer's son, Joshua, is preparing to go overseas for eight months with the Navy.

"Being with family gets you through," said Sherry Ryer, who added that she tells her children, Sarah, 5, and Joshua Jr., 3, "Daddy's like Superman; he's saving the world from the bad guys."

And then came Murphy's bad news. No Nick.

"He turned me down," he said. "We're hung out to dry."

Day 3

Thursday dawned warm and sunny, meaning one thing: Patapsco Street was turning into the Patapsco River. But even as pools of water formed, snow remained - enough to snag the undersides of cars.

As on previous days, the only city plow in sight was out on Fort Avenue - so close but so far.

Worried about the snow on his roof, Ryer went up there to see. Because of his bad back - he has had so many surgeries he told the doctor to "put a zipper in" - he relied on his boyhood friend, Richard "Moose" Myers.

Myers dutifully shoveled off the 12-foot-wide roof. "Snow is like grandchildren," he said, his face glistening with sweat. "It's fun having them for a while; then you give 'em back."

On the street, Murphy and his wife, Pamela, moved snow so water could flow down the gutter to the drain. "I thought they'd at least run a plow down," Pamela Murphy said. She wanted a tax rebate "for doing city work."

Ryer, who had gone down the block to chat, shot back, "When's the last time you saw a plow?"

A little after 5 p.m. he got his answer: A big city plow truck rumbled onto the street, stunning Ryer, Murphy, Heath and everyone else.

People came out of their homes. Some cheered. Henwood, nursing a draft at Light Street Station, hustled down to see for himself. Galassi grabbed Ryer's video camera.

And then the plow got stuck.

"Now they know what we've been going through the last five days," said Ryer. "Kinda ironic, don't you think?"

Galassi trained the camera on the truck as it sputtered out of its rut, then got stuck again and nearly smashed Heath's blue pickup truck. Then it pulled away, plow in the air. "And in the end," Galassi narrated, "we're back where we started."

Day 4

But this story ends happily. In the wee hours Friday, a city plow truck returned. David Hopkins followed in a salt truck at 10 a.m., helping to free a car.

"That's what the mayor said - if you run across anybody stuck, try and help them," Hopkins said.

Ryer had a hard time believing it all. He soon left the block, finally able to drive his daughter-in-law and his two grandchildren to Virginia.

"Actually this is the most help I've seen the city give streets since I've lived here," he said. "All in all, I guess I'm, uh, happy with them."

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