After a recent column on abandoned rowhouses, I heard from many readers, including Lisa Marr, a doctor in New Mexico. She grew up in Baltimore, but college and career took her away from here in the 1990s. Most of her Baltimore kin are gone now.
When she visits, she says, it’s via Google. She uses Street View from her desktop to travel back in time to the East Baltimore neighborhood where her parents and grandparents lived.
“Navigating the neighborhood,” she says, “crystallized into real form what I remembered as a kid, even though it's not technically ‘real,’ and often the Google images are out of date.”
And, when it comes to some Baltimore neighborhoods, often not very pretty.
“But vague memories became more real the more I looked around,” she says. “Of course, seeing these places and how they’ve declined is sad.”
The Google view of Marr’s childhood neighborhood shows two-story houses in varying states of repair and disrepair. Her grandparents’ rowhouse on North Bradford Street, one of the city’s “alley streets,” is a vacant lot now.
Still, that doesn’t stop Marr from going back via Street View. Her online scanning sparks memories and family stories. Here’s some of what she remembers:
“The sound of my footsteps echoing when I ran up the alley. I can still hear it. ...
“No central heat at the Bradford Street house. Just the grate in the middle of the first floor. So it got very cold in the winter, especially at night. ...
“The marble steps were scrubbed until they were alabaster white and were so cool in the hot summer. ...
“I remember walking to the Northeast Market with my grandmother, past the Bohemian Savings and Loan, and getting the best fried chicken ever. ...
“At the house on Bradford street, everyone would sing and play instruments when we got together. My uncle played the ukulele. My grandmother would turn over a wash basin, attach a pole into a hole in the middle, string it, and play it like a bass. Someone would turn over an Utz potato chip bin and drum on it. We’d sing, ‘Bill Bailey,’ ‘Worried Man Blues,’ ‘Sentimental Journey,’ and, ‘Let the Rest of the World Go By.’"
“My mother played hooky to go see William Holden promoting one of his films at the Hippodrome. After he was finished, he came into the audience and sat down, very near my mother, and she was breathless looking at him. ...
“My grandmother had a lot of sayings: ‘Don’t sing at the dinner table, you’ll get a crazy husband.’ … ‘Eat the burned parts, it’ll make you pretty.’ … When she wanted to go out, she’d say, ‘Let’s get out and blow the stink off.’ ...
“She always saw the positive. Every time we ate crabs (a communal event, when we talked the most about life), she’d say, ‘These are the best crabs I ever ate.’ Every Christmas tree was ‘the best Christmas tree ever.’ … My best childhood memories were in that house.”
Columns on the cruel ways the Trump administration has treated immigrants seeking asylum brought a lot of mail, including Elaine Elkin’s description of a transaction in a northwest Baltimore supermarket.
This happened in September, when Elkin and her husband, Sidney, were in the checkout line at the Giant in Reisterstown Road Plaza.
“The young man in front of us was carrying a 12-pack of Coke,” she writes. “The checkout clerk, very nicely, attempted to tell this person that he could get three packs of Coke for $10, but would be paying $7.99 for the one that he was checking out.”
It was clear that the young man did not speak English.
“My husband and I tried to use hand gestures to help him understand, to no avail,” Elkin says. “But the woman who had just checked out before the young man asked for his phone. She used the translation function to help him, and it worked. He went back to get another two packs of Coke. The line was backing up, but, amazingly, none of us were in such a hurry that anyone became annoyed.”
The young man returned to the checkout line, his arms full of 12-packs. Sidney Elkin gave him his shopping cart, then went outside to get another.
“This,” Elaine Elkin writes, “is the America that I want to see strangers and immigrants witness — a kindly store clerk who wanted to see a stranger get the most for his money, a tech-savvy woman who could help translate the situation, and two senior citizens who empathized with this young man’s plight of being a stranger to a U.S. supermarket.”
In the November episode of the Roughly Speaking podcast, film critic Chris Reed suggested a look at “The Report,” a new movie about Daniel Jones, the former Senate staffer who investigated the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. The film is quite good. In an early scene, Jones, played by Adam Driver, mentions his time with Teach for America in Baltimore. Indeed, Jones taught for three years in the 1990s in one of the city’s middle schools. Later, while at Harvard, he told the university magazine: “I don’t think I’ll ever have a job that’s as rewarding as teaching in Baltimore.” Of course, that was before he spent seven years doggedly pursuing the CIA’s monstrous and ineffective torture practices and notching his place in American history.