One thing about life in Baltimore: If you move here and make friends and come to know your neighbors, if you become engaged in the civic culture, if you accept the city's peculiarities, if you take time to discover what's good about the place, pretty soon — how soon depends on how hard you work at it — you start to feel like a native.
You become an Orioles fan and a Ravens fan, even a Blast fan. You soon find yourself rooting not only for those teams but for the whole city.
Baltimore can break your heart; a person's commitment to living here gets tested regularly. But you stick with it because you can't help it. It's a condition. Something about Baltimore gets into your bones, and you develop civic pride and hold out modest hope — because the alternative frame of mind would be unbearable — that the city will rise to a better place within your lifetime.
As time goes by, an outsider acquires knowledge, often more than the natives have, of amenities — an excellent bagel shop, a reliable place for crabs, a barroom that always welcomes you, a well-stocked liquor store that never alters its shelf configurations.
You mark the passage of time by noting changes big and small.
One day you're walking along Baltimore Street and you see nothing but broken concrete where the theater where you saw "Hairspray" used to be.
Or maybe you drive down Greenmount Avenue, expecting to be depressed, and suddenly there are new homes being built along several blocks.
Or maybe you notice simpler changes: How much a particular tree along your route to work has grown, or how much a brightly colored city mural has faded. At your neighborhood dry cleaner, the beautiful young woman who greets you at the counter was, not so long ago, a little kid hanging out with her mother at the sewing machines in the back of the shop.
Over time, you collect Baltimore things, make them yours, speak of them in the first-person possessive: My coffee shop. My diner. My pizza joint. My plumber. My barber. Some of these you hope to keep for life. It's part of what makes you feel settled, and really at home.
Of course, it can't always be. People change. People move. People die.
So it was with the people who cut my hair. I liked them all. But a good one left for the suburbs and, while I tried for a while, it just wasn't convenient to follow her there. One moved to Hawaii. One got a little too busy and pricey.
So, for a few years, I could not boast a barber. I could not say "My barber."
And then there was Nate Smith. I discovered him only five years ago, but we hit it off nicely. Nate was a native and showed no signs of leaving Baltimore, so I thought he would be my barber for life.
He was serious but good-natured. He understood my hair, respected what I wanted in a trim and worked hard at getting it right. We always had good conversations about sports, city politics, President Obama, the San Francisco 49ers (Nate's favorite football team), the Orioles, and where to get good chicken wings. We talked out some personal stuff, too.
I came to see the appointments as therapeutic — at a fraction of the cost of clinical treatments.
Nate was a teacher at Avara's International Academy of Hair Design on West Pratt Street, and he used me as a subject for his classes. When I took the chair, Nate gathered a small group of students, almost all of them black, to watch how he trimmed my white-boy locks. He took a lot of pride in it. He'd text me the day after an appointment to ask if I still liked the cut.
As a boy, Nate ran errands and did small chores for Cy Avara, the founder of the styling school, the other teachers and customers. That was 40 years ago. Nate practically grew up in the place, even lived in an apartment above it for several years. He learned to cut hair and eventually became one of Avara's instructors.
When the hair academy closed a few years ago, I followed Nate to his new chair at TGQ Cutz on Bellona Avenue, in the Govans section of North Baltimore. I didn't get there as often as I should have, but the visits were always satisfying and comforting.
I was shocked and saddened by the news, a week ago, that Nate had been struck and killed by a car on Belvedere Avenue. He was 49. Taken from us, just like that.
They are precious people, the ones who come into our lives and help and comfort us in ways large and small — the ones we come to call our own in the place we come to call our home. God bless you, Nate. Rest in peace.