Summer in the City of Rednecks: Baltimore in the 1960s

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    Universal air conditioning was as slow coming to Baltimore as the color tv (gamely resisted by my parents until very nearly the 1980s, when they finally also caved in to central air). Except for the best movie theaters and certain expensive restaurants, air was rare; most places, like my parochial school classrooms, like the bank downtown where my father worked, like the vast beer halls where people crushed and consumed mountains of steamed crabs, placed these enormous industrial fans in the corners of big spaces, fans with blades as big as B-52 propellers. They didn't cool anything down, they just buffeted you with hot winds. The roaring hum they made, floating out of flung-open windows in schools and warehouses and office buildings all over the city, hovered ominously in the air like the rush of wings of an oncoming plague of locusts. Which, by the way, we had one summer, when the 17-year locusts came crawling out and invaded all of Baltimore, dropping into terrified schoolgirls' hair, crunched by the millions under the cars and buses, buzzing in the bushes and trees all night long, night after night, an absolutely Edgar Allan Poe racket.

    Poe's buried in Baltimore, you know. How too very apt. His grave was a scandalous wreck when I was a kid, but that made sense, since Baltimore, then a town of redneck citybillies, poor Negroes and Polack steelworkers, probably didn't count among its citizens 100 who'd read "The Conqueror Worm" or "The City in the Sea," though neither would've been inapposite. (Surely he was still living, and dying, in Baltimore when he wrote, "And when, amid no earthly moans,/Down, down that town shall settle hence,/Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,/Shall do it reverence." Hon.) We were only half-joking when we referred to ourselves as Baltimorons.

    One stormy summer afternoon I stood and watched a wrecking crew knocking down the old Catholic orphanage that sat on a vast, weedy field not far from my block. It was one of those moments when, even as a kid, you're aware that something epochal is going on, that you're watching the past end and the future come on. They were making way for a new Catholic elementary school, and an adjacent shopping center, and a tv studio. The orphanage, a tall Victorian hulk, had been vacated, boarded up and padlocked a few months earlier, at which points all the kids in the neighborhood started immediately to break in, the older kids to smoke cigarettes and bust up the fixtures and jerk off to girlie mags us younger ones would find in the rubble, which we explored with great fascination. You'd have thought it was Chartres, the way we roamed around and studied the joint. I remember trying to picture what it must have been like when the orphans lived in it?we, as neighborhood kids, never having played or consorted with, indeed having rarely even laid eyes on, those orphan kids, who were to us as mysterious as Mycenaeans. I have distinct memories of late afternoon sunlight splintered through the rips in the brown elementary-school-style window shades; of the rats who'd give us kiddie heart attacks when we startled them and they went scuttling across the toes of our shoes from shadows to more shadows; of the sad, exhausted smells the place had, the stinks of urine and broken drainage and mildewed plaster; and of one room, probably an infirmary, with black and white linoleum tiles that were all cracked and peeling up in curls from the underfloor making a creepy impression, like the room itself had caught some sort of disease. Forever after, when I hear that someone has "shingles," I involuntarily picture those peeling tiles.

    All of that had now been gutted by the wreckers, so that on this stormy afternoon only the shell of the building still stood, and that's what they knocked down as I watched, as majestically forlorn a spectacle as I've ever witnessed. Huge cranes, their latticed armature silhouetted by a lowering gray sky, swung wrecking balls?literal, old-fashioned, cartoon-quality wrecking balls?into the brownstone walls, punching great cascades of falling mud-colored bricks and slabs of plaster smoking with dust. As I stood there and watched they pummeled down the whole front wall, leaving a three-sided facade gashed open like a bombed-out ruin in one of the endless spools of World War II footage I'd imbibed by then. I remember you couldn't actually see any men working those cranes, just the cranes swinging those steel balls like gigantic mechanical elephants, and occasionally the dark flash of a rat scurrying out of the dust and into the weeds.

    The whole neighborhood was plagued with rats that summer, and we blamed, irrationally, "those damn orphan kids" for spreading them. One afternoon somebody's dog chased one of these rats up a drainspout. We could hear his toenails in there as he scrabbled for purchase. We positioned a trashcan at the bottom and banged on the pipe with baseball bats. Amazing what kids think of at moments like that. When the rat slid back out we trapped him in the can. We got a hose and started filling the trashcan with water, thinking we'd drown him. He swam instead, a rat big as a small cat swimming in tight circles in the trash can as the water level rose, dog-paddling, looking at us with black eyes. Spooked, we jammed the lid on and left him in there; you could hear him swimming around and scratching at the wall for hours and hours, a whole afternoon and then we all got called in to dinner and when we came back out he was still moving around in there, an incredible feat of endurance and the brute will to live. We put a couple cinderblocks on the lid and left him there all night. In the morning we kicked the thing over and his corpse came sluicing out with all the water.

    That shopping center that went up on one corner of the old orphanage's property became the home of Johnny Unitas' bar and restaurant, The Golden Arm. Unitas, the square-headed Colts quarterback, was among the handful of bona fide names Baltimore could claim in those days. Mencken, Poe, Blaze Starr the stripper, Johnny U. His club was the Baltimore equivalent of a celebrity hangout. Johnny U remained a hallowed Baltimore icon even after the infamous night the Colts were sold and snuck out of town under cover of darkness, scandalizing Baltimorons and leaving a stench of betrayal that probably still rankles.

    Next to The Golden Arm was a submarine joint where one of the neighborhood guys, a couple of years older than me, got a summer job behind the counter. One night two armed robbers lined up the staff and customers, I think it was seven people, on the floor and shot them, one by one, killing the guy I knew with an execution shot to the back of the head. He was 16, I think. The family, big, Irish, working-class, held the wake in the living room and bought the bargain embalming job from the funeral home down the road. He looked like a wax fruit in his open coffin, like you could stick a wick in his head and let him burn all night instead of burying him.

    Next to the shopping center, they built a new complex of studios and offices for one of the local tv stations, WMAR, best known to us kids as home of Bozo the Clown, who had a live Saturday morning kiddie show that was the epicenter of a vast and vulgar trove of urban myth among the youth of Baltimore for many years. I remember one tale, passed down from generation to generation of kids as absolute gospel, that involved Bozo trying to coax a recalcitrant kid in his audience into some stupid stunt or other, which ended when the kid growled (live on camera?I swear!), Ram it, clown. There was also a subset of off-color jokes regarding "Bozo's wife," a wholly invented character who took on a life of her own in kids' dirty jokes, as in "One time Bozo's wife was dusting the furniture, nude, when..."

    When they finished the new tv complex they had landscapers come in and lay down strips of sod all over a nice, big, flat expanse the bulldozers had smoothed out behind the building. The idea was that tv people, like the weatherman, could step out back and do some outdoor reporting there.

    A few blocks away, we kids had a problem. We played baseball and football on the tiny backlots behind our rowhouses. Each family had a plot of dirt about big enough to park a car on; lined up down the block, they added up to a long but ridiculously narrow baseball/football field for us. But the dirt sucked and with a hundred kids playing on it all the time no grass would grow, so we were always playing under conditions that were either muddy or dustbowl. We see these landscapers laying down yard-long strips of sod behind WMAR and conceive a plan. We stroll down there one hot, quiet afternoon with a couple of wagons?kids still had little red steel wagons in those days, and broomstick horsies, and coonskin caps, and all the rest of it?crawl across that field on our bellies, just like guys in the Army did sneaking up on Nazi bunkers, roll up strips of that sod, pile up two wagonloads of it and make our getaway, leaving WMAR's nice, newly laid lawn a scarred checkerboard of grass and naked dirt. Back behind our parents' houses, we laid that new sod, convinced our dads were going to be proud and delighted with our handiwork.

    Our dads came home, took one look and knew we'd stolen that sod from somewhere. Beatings and yellings ensued?and continued when all our moms tuned in WMAR's very popular teatime ladies' show, hosted by a downmarket Betty White type who wore Baroque silvery hair constructions on her head, and she's sitting out there sipping tea and discussing the perfect picnic basket with her guest ladies as dust devils danced on that scarred field behind them.

    When the civil rights movement came to Baltimore in the early and mid-60s, of course it came in the summertime, when tempers were shortest. When I was a kid, Baltimore was basically a Southern, segregated city. Neither as Southern nor segregated as, you know, Selma; Baltimore's large populations of rednecks and Negroes managed to keep mostly out of one another's way in a steady state of mutually intolerant exclusivity. Even though the city was about evenly black and white (blacks would later be predominant, as whites cravenly abandoned the city), it was very clearly divvied up into white areas and black ones. You could live your life almost entirely in either white or black Baltimore and rarely have a personal interaction with someone of the other persuasion. Under this de facto segregation of the races, things remained relatively, if falsely, peaceful. Baltimore was a crime-riddled city then as now, a city of armed thieves, murderers, drunks and drug addicts. Over my years there I was robbed once at gunpoint, knew a couple of people besides the submarine-shop kid who were shot in holdups, had numerous of my apartments broken into, had my car stolen more times than I can count, knew half a dozen people who were raped, etc. etc. But there was not a lot of what you'd call today hate crimes or racially motivated violence. It's just a violent town, period, a dangerous rattrap where there's violence to spare and it spills out in all directions.

    I can still shock people when I tell them of a game supposedly played by Baltimore's worst rednecks?the evil citybillies, worse than the hillbillies from whom they were descended because life in Baltimore had made them meaner, harder, more criminally crazed and substance-dependent. It was, we were told, called "nigger baseball." At night they'd be driving around, and if they saw a black person walking by the side of the road they'd lean out of the moving vehicle with a broom or a bat and bap them on the ass?or, according to the ugliest version, the back of the head.

    That may have been another urban myth?citybilly culture was as unknown as black culture was to kids from my end of town, in our lower-middle- and upper-working-class mostly Catholic mostly Irish rowhouses. I do remember being in the bleachers of the old stadium once when a drunken redneck leered at my sister, who was eating chocolate ice cream, "You look like you been kissin' on a nigger baby." And I remember the summer when the owner of our swim club decided?I guess inspired by George Wallace, who was quite popular among the Baltimorons?that he was going to make a stand against the tide of desegregation. It was a members-only club, but not exactly an exclusive one; if my folks could afford full family memberships it could not have been very expensive, and on hot summer days it seemed like half of white Baltimore was crammed into the joint. But it was just that: white. And the owner was going to keep it that way. One day we drove up to the front gate and he'd had two large cages set up on either side of the entrance. If any Negroes tried to get in, he announced to all the local news media, doing a redneck Mussolini, he and his staff?a crew of big-armed, tattooed citybillies more suited to a carny than a swim club?were going to throw them in those cages. You know, like the animals they were, etc.

    It didn't last, of course. There were court injunctions, I think he may have done some symbolic jail time in protest, embarrassed customers slunk away. But it was a classic Baltimoron move. Later, Baltimore would have its race riots (another classic Baltimore move: if everyone else was having race riots, damn it, we were gonna have one too, oh yeah, Baltimore's as bad as Detroit) and blockbusting and busing and all that, and the whites would mostly flee to the burbs, only returning when the harbor became Harborplace and they could drive in, park right next door to the air-conditioned tourist complex, and drive back out by nightfall.

    Then again, I remember one hot Saturday afternoon in the summer of, I guess it had to be 1972, which would've made me 20. I was in the car, windows down, and I had the radio on to one of the great black radio stations Baltimore had. The disc jockey had a name like Fat Daddy or Big Daddy and a voice deeper and more rumbling than Barry White's. He was spinning soul and r&b singles, then this song came sliding out into the hot summer air, slow and sexy and slippery, different from everything else he'd been playing, quieter, with this guy sort of talk-singing lyrics that seemed to be all about hookers and drug addicts and such, and when "the colored girls" sang the doop-doops I just thought this new song "Walk on the Wild Side" was one of the coolest songs I'd ever heard. When it faded out there was this unusually long pause, just dead air and static, which seemed appropriate, and then the DJ's whale-deep voice came back on and he purred, "That was so good...I'm gonna play it again." And he did, the first and last time in my life I've heard a commercial radio DJ play a single twice in a row. He got it?and so did Lou, and, I'd like to think, at least in that moment, so did I and maybe a few other white guys who happened to be listening to black radio on that hot summer afternoon in Baltimore.