Click to Subscribe
▶  More from Harm City
Landing in Harm City, 1981
How the Ghetto Got My Soul #1

At 18 years I had arrived in Baltimore one step ahead of a lawsuit, which, my father’s lawyer had told me, was the price I would pay for the parents of the guy I had hospitalized pleading with the County Magistrate not to advance my case for prosecution on two felonies: "assault with a deadly weapon" and "attempted murder." I was moving into town from out-of-state to begin a new life, free of violence, and idleness. I was here to work.

In actuality I harbored a crackpot idea that I would just stay in Baltimore long enough to make the money required to relocate to Mexico. I then wanted to work my way down through Central America and along the spine of the Andes with no particular aim in mind. Such are the thoughts of violent boys who improbably graduate from adolescence without a plan.

I knew for certain that I was to quietly work, and do nothing to upset my mother, who had been shielded from the details of my brush with the law, and the other idiot’s brush with death. I would not be fighting, or boxing, or socializing—just working. That was, as soon as I could find work.

Grandpa Kern picked me up from Mom’s apartment in a bedroom community and drove me to within 8 miles of the city line. I had dressed in someone’s slacks, someone’s button shirt, and a pair of dress boots Dad had given me, which were a size too big and zippered up, not laced. Grandpa looked at me, “Walk down this road until you get a job. Stop in every business and ask for a job. Then walk back to your mother’s.”

The suburban businesses that I entered to apply for work on the approach to Baltimore City, no longer exist. I do recall the older people being nice about having no openings, particularly an older man at the Ridge Lumber Company, who told me, “Keep asking and someone will give you a chance.” Eateries, salons, florists, gas stations, bars and other places at which I had no idea what I could possibly do, all had no openings. Then, just inside the city line, I came to a veterinary clinic. The veterinarian was busy, and seemed harried. He took a personal interest in me and inquired with what I understood as a middle-eastern accent, “You experienced tech?”

“What is a tech?”

He shook his head and continued, I noticing blood on his white coat, “Experience with animals?”

“Raised some dogs, killed some rabbits and crows.”

He looked at me, after making some notes on an application, and then slid it across the desk with the pencil, saying, “You can start today?”


He looked at me from under his thick dark brows and said, “Fill this out and start today.”

He disappeared through a doorway and I began to fill out the application. Then the animal wimping, whining, and screeching came, definitely canine. I looked around and it occurred to me that these places, like doctor’s offices, with receptionist desks, generally had the receptionist to go with the desk. I did not see myself as the receptionist. The sounds that came from the back took on a mournful horrific quality. I then imagined myself as an ‘Igor’ type character pinning some animal to a table, while Doctor Start Today did what he did. I could not get out of there quickly enough.

A mile and a half later I failed to land a job as a used car salesman and noticed my ankles were blustering in those loose boots. I turned around and decided to hit every business on the opposite side of the road out of town. I stopped in a few small shops and then came to a city food market. It was busy, there were carts that needed racked up outside, and I felt confident that these people might have an opening.

At the courtesy counter I stood and filled out an application with what scraps of information I had from Pennsylvania. As I was copying my mother’s address and racking my brain for references an older lady approached me and shook my hand, introducing herself as the owner. Her name was Miss Betty. Miss Betty waited patiently for me to complete the application, took it, scanned it, looked at me, and then began asking me questions about my job history, which consisted of landscaping, ditch-digging, sanding dry wall, and working in a print-shop bindery.

Miss Betty described the type of work that would be expected of me in a supermarket, and asked me if I could handle it. I answered affirmatively. She then began to quiz me as to how I had gotten to her store. When I told her I had walked, she said, “You walked ten miles?”

“Well, my granddad told me he walked fourteen miles to work one way, every day, back in the thirties.”

She smiled, “I have a temporary opening for you.”

She waved over an older tattooed man who had a lit cigar smoldering in his mouth, and wore an apron like it was a uniform, “Larry, this is Jim. He will be starting with you tomorrow."

The man nearly bit through his cigar, “But Mister Len hires the men.”

One of the lady’s eyes lit in a piercing way and she leveled her finger at the man, “Lawrence, that is between My Husband and I!”

“Yes Ma'am. He then glanced sideways at me with hands on hips and groused, “I’ll keep him away from Big Joe,” and walked off.

Miss Betty then turned to me with an indulgent smile and reassured me, “One of our men was hurt on the job. He will be out for six weeks.”

She then shook my hand and said, “I would like to advance you bus fare for the week.”

Cognizant of the fact that I landed this job based on my willingness to walk, I declined in some inarticulate fashion that I cannot now recall. She insisted, however, and pressed a dollar and some change [15 cents I think] into my hand and said, “Very well. You may walk home. But I want you fresh for work tomorrow. This will get you here. We open at eight. You will clean the lot. Be here by seven.”

I was now employed in a strange town that seemed friendly enough. At the outset of my two-hour walk to Mom’s place I left the bustling store wondering, “Who in the hell is Big Joe?”

To be continued with, Is You Stupid, White-boy?

How the Ghetto Got My Soul

Nice Day for a Funeral

Add Comment
BobSeptember 5, 2018 3:01 AM UTC

This sort of can-do attitude is what made America great. I worry about the excessively high personal expectations of young whites. The sense of entitlement.