The back alleys of Baltimore: skinny lanes trailing throughout the city creating wild and secret ways to get from here to there. Some are crowded with trashcans, cars, porches, and patios, while others house nothing but the towering backs of business buildings. A few back alleys steam from direct sun and others chill and darken from shadows. Several back alleys become busy with traffic as Baltimorians escape delays on main roads, yet many back alleys remain quiet footpaths for humans and the occasional animal.
I don't travel the back alleys too often. I usually stick to the main roads because they are where the grocery store, newsstands, cafes, and my other weekly errands lie. It is easy and direct to travel by main road only and I like people watching as I walk. It makes sense for me to take the main roads on an everyday basis, and yet I always look down the back alleys as I pass by, curiously wondering what is happening in them.
On days when I do let my curiosity get the best of me and I travel through these back alleys, I am never disappointed. I once saw two women shouting and gesturing wildly at each other about rent, and "He said, She said." They argued on and on, neither one willing to give up the fight, looking like two hens picking at the same piece of corn. Another time, I saw a dead rat squashed into the pavement, its life quickly ended by a speeding car. Countless times I've glimpsed beautiful, hidden gardens filled with wisteria and ivy and brilliant pops of colorful blooms. These humble gardens become luscious oasisses in the dry, pavement-filled alleys and provide a welcome reminder of nature's presence in the city. I've seen unshaven and unshowered guys emerging from a narrow apartment for a smoke at four in the afternoon, dark sunglasses covering what I know are bloodshot eyes. Other times I've noticed tiny balconies crammed with barbecues, tomato plants, plastic chairs, and citronella candles: the city dwellers' successful substitute for a backyard. Many days I've seen the homeless unapologetically scrounging in trashcans for discarded items they can use. Our trash really is their treasure, and they take almost anything. The homeless almost always say a friendly "Hello" as they don't' bother me and I don't bother them.
I'm usually in a hurry as I walk through back alleys, places to go and people to see. Yet on my last back alley trek, I stopped mid stride, struck by a small act of kindness. Two paperback novels lay on the pavement, carefully placed by a caution cone for extra visibility. I stopped to read the titles and found that the books were fairly new and in good condition. Not buried in a trashcan, not covered in coffee grounds, these books were purposefully and neatly displayed in the alley for someone to take, read, and enjoy. Such a kind decision by the previous owner to offer their books to others before tossing them in the trash. Tossed in the trash they would have little chance of being read, but placed on the street they could be used and recycled.
This small act of kindness stirred my heart. I thought of how a homeless person could take one of these books to the park, and then spend a carefree afternoon reading it. I thought of how a student could grab one book, take it home, read it, and then pass it on to another student at the end of term. Or maybe someone feeling lost and alone would find these books in the alley and feel cared for once again. I didn't take either of the books, but I did take a picture of them because I wanted to celebrate how kind people can be to each other, even to strangers walking in their back alley.
I'll never know who ended up taking those books. When I walked by there a few days later, the books were gone, and only the caution cone remained. It's always an adventure going off the beaten track and through back alleys (especially in Baltimore), but it's an adventure I urge you to try. I think that if you do, you'll end up seeing some interesting things and if you're lucky like me, you might just witness an act of kindness in a most unexpected place.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
First day of Spring. My husband and I walk home from the Inner Harbor on a Tuesday night. It is warm and breezy and we have spent the evening waiting in line at Rita's for free water ice. A hundred Baltimorians wait with us, and by the time we are finally clutching paper cups filled with mango ice, the Circulator has made its last rounds for the night. Shoot, we missed the bus. Oh well, no big deal. We just have to walk home as we have done many times before.
Eating our water ice, we begin marching home. Cars shoot by us, it is still light out, and the city is fairly busy as people go out to or come home from dinner. I revel in the soft night air and the fact that I can finally wear sandals again. We walk past the entrance to the Galleria (a fancy shopping mall) and spy shoppers darting out of its gleaming doors with glossy bags strung over their arms. Some of these shoppers hail taxis while others take to the sidewalk and trudge home on foot.
Coming to an intersection, we decide to take North Charles Street home. We walk on North Charles all the time because it's a busy street filled with restaurants and shops and much to do and look at. Making a left turn onto East Lombard Street, which leads to North Charles, we are met by two Korean girls running frantically towards us. I look past them towards the end of the block and see a group of five girls running in the opposite direction after a guy. The five girls run in the middle of the sidewalk chasing this guy, while another guy on a bike rides furiously in front of them on the street. It is apparent that the guy running and the guy on the bicycle are a team who have just robbed this unsuspecting group of girls.
The girls scream, curse, and yell, "Thief! Thief! Stop him!" and desperately run after the pair of thieves. Unfortunately, these thieves have a huge head start over the girls and when the whole group disappears around the corner, the girls are way behind the thieves. Should we chase after them too? No, there is no way we can catch up. We are just close enough to witness, but too far away to help. Though we don't see the actual robbery occur, it seems that this pair of thieves must have a definite method for stealing from this large of a group. I guess that maybe the thief on foot has stolen the purses or bags and then handed them off to the guy on the bike. Whatever their method of stealing is, they have a plan this team of two, and it is grossly successful.
I am sickened. I cannot believe we have just witnessed a robbery on a main street, when it's light out, from a group of five girls. One or two girls together is plausible, but a group of five? Do people really get robbed in such large groups? Apparently. It disgusts me that this pair of thieves is trolling the streets looking for people to rob. The two Korean girls who have practically run into us are panicked and frightened. They have barely escaped being robbed themselves. We gather together and discuss what we should do. I contemplate grabbing a cab, but we don't have any cash. Be rational, I think. The chances of us being involved in another robbery tonight are probably low. We can make it home.
We ask the Korean girls if they want to walk back with us. They nod yes, and the four of us quickly cross to another street. We pass a Dunkin Donuts just a few hundred feet from the robbery. A Baltimore cop walks out of the door with a steaming coffee. Darn it. If only this cop could have waited a few more minutes before getting his caffeine fix. Maybe then, if he had been outside instead of inside waiting in line he could have stopped the robbery. Yet I don't blame him, I've needed a coffee too. But darn! This cop was so close by. My husband tries to tell the cop that we've just seen a robbery. For some reason the cop doesn't seem to hear us and gets in his car. I hope he will hear about the robbery on his radio. I comfort myself by telling myself that the robbers will meet justice one way or another.
We make it back home without incident. The Korean girls walk with us almost the whole way, never talking directly to us, just walking closely behind us talking amongst themselves. They drift away once we near their home and we don't say goodbye because there is no need. We share a silent gratitude for keeping each other safe and go our own ways.
Why share this unpleasant story? I have debated sharing it because it exposes a hostile side of Baltimore that I know will make many people worry and/or deter them from visiting the city. Yet, I have to admit that seeing this robbery blew some of the glitter off of the streets and revealed a dingy, hard layer beneath. I wish I'd never glimpsed this hard layer, but now that I have, I can't forget it's there.
It is not my intention to make Baltimore seem like a scary place. I still love this city and I still see the glitter. I just can't only write about the pretty and ignore the ugly - it wouldn't be truthful. What I can do is try to paint an honest portrait of the city and hope that the highlights will outweigh the shadows.