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Up In Baltimore
Flood #2: August 1956, Penn Station
His first sight of Baltimore was the giant gutter that the trained rolled through, just concrete walks above gravel and rail and tie, with concrete, steel-lipped stairs going up…and up he went after a good look around, everybody milling upward and crossways acting as if they didn’t know him from Adam, that he wasn’t a person at all, just this invisible post that they walked around with some unerring sense that permitted them all to avoid a thing without actually seeing it.
Within what seemed but short seconds, but may perhaps have been minutes, the train was loaded, the conductor man pulling up the metal place stepper and slamming the steel door shut. There he stood, in clean clothes he had just changed into in the bathroom on the train, holding his bag of clean and dirty clothes down at his right side, all of a sudden stark alone in this concrete gutter beneath this big city as the train rolled outward to wherever it went.
He stopped as he began to step, suddenly conscious of the twine holding up his pants, knowing that he would so stick out as a country fella. He patted his left front pocket where his two dollar bills were, and then patted his right front pocket where the two quarters were, neither of the back pockets thickly threaded enough to trust with money. His shoes were scuffed, granted. His hat was made of decent straw and would do. The shirt, his whitest t-shirt, was the only clean one he had left and his button shirt was out of the question for this fierce heat, so it stayed where it was at the bottom of the bag, just above his work shoes and overalls.
He was sure nervous.
Up he went, up them forty or so stairs, through the big wooden doors and into the empty waiting hall with wooden benches lining the walls and the center, polished from innumerable seated butts he supposed.
Out towards the front door he went, past a very large and smartly uniformed negro police officer who glared down at him as he twirled his large baton. He began to hesitate, at a cross roads of sorts, with the hallway to left and right going to desks, and all these glass doors in front.
“Go on, boy, any one will do. Just push,” came the unkind and impatient voice of the negro policeman.
He did as he was bid and stepped out into the hot glare of day, under the late afternoon sun. He had, next to the quarters in his pocket, a matchbook written with Aunt Bell’s address. As he considered who to ask, a man’s voice answered, “For a nickel I’ll shine your shoes and direct you on the way.”
He turned and saw an older negro sitting on a whiskey crate, with a slanted shoe shine box and a chair before him. He went over to him, took a seat and set one foot up on the shoeshine box, on the little foot-shaped handle and said, “Stoddard Alley.”
As the man worked away he said, “Good that you can read. A lot from down south can’t and have hard a way to go, maybe end up shining shoes. You make a right here on Charles, take it north, until you get to North Avenue. You do not cross North Avenue. They don’t want you up there. You make a left by crossing Charles and walk along the south side of North Avenue, headed west, until you get to McCulloh. There you make a left and follow that south east until you get to Prestman Street where you make a right, and there you will be, at Stoddard Alley.”
“Next shoe, boy—got me a well-heeled man commin’.”
He put his other shoe up on the shoe-shaped handle and marveled that this one looked almost new, just like that, and began to dig for a quarter as the old man continued, “The gang over there will recruit you if they can. Get you a job at Lexington Market or working for Mister Baines, a grocer there about. There you go,” said the man as he snapped his black rag, took the quarter and placed two dimes back in the boy’s hand.
That was it, shoes not looking old at all and the twine belt worse-looking now than ever, Israel was on his way with his bag over his left shoulder, his right hand ready for what might come of the day.
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