Baltimore, Just Below the Surface

Baltimore is an indescribable city, though you wouldn’t know it from all the national reporters who spin hundreds of woeful yarns, attempting to describe it. I’ve lived in Baltimore for most of my life, having moved here from Michigan when I was four — and 35 years later, I still can’t quite pin adequate words anywhere on its atlas of eccentricities.

I don’t purport myself to be an expert on the city. In fact, I always go out of my way to explain the various ways that I am not. First, I live outside city limits. And though I spent a couple of years producing a podcast about its history, that history was new to me then and it continues to evolve now — so much so that several of our episodes could use updates, check-ins, and amendments.

It’s the kind of city that defies narrative. It is what you’ve heard it is. It is nothing you’ve heard that it is. If you’ve spent time here, you did, indeed, see what you saw. Your eyes also played tricks on you.

Baltimore is an optical illusion. Baltimore is the most tactile, concrete place you’ve encountered.

As elusive as it is, every now and again, someone will manage to perfectly capture its essence. This isn’t typically achieved through writing. It usually happens in matter of seconds, in serendipitously timed cell phone recordings or a photograph shot in passing.

Sometimes, the moment is only in your mind. I once saw a man standing in the middle of a street, pointing finger-guns at the tires of passing cars. A police woman rode up and playfully bellowed into a bullhorn attached to her cruiser: “Quite playin’ in the street!”

He stopped right away, but I don’t think it was because of the volume of her voice. It felt, in that second, like he responded to her tone, firm and unmocking, stern but concerned, chiding and mildly amused.

It is possible that I’m projecting. Her tone is what I remember most. It isn’t one I hear city police use very often.

This was at least ten years ago. I still hear her sometimes. And I chuckle to myself over how Baltimorean an occurrence that was: a man, harming no one, lost in his own mind and a policewoman choosing to sublimate the power she could wield to punish that.

Another time, I heard an elderly Black man slur a stray line of the Star Spangled Banner as he traipsed through a strip mall parking lot on the Fourth of July.

“… Byyyyyy the dawn’s early liiiiight.”

This was at least fifteen years ago. I still hear him sometimes. And I chuckle to myself over how Baltimorean an occurrence that was: a Black man brimming with just enough patriotism for a single line of the anthem. That anthem was, of course, penned in this very city. At the time of its writing, this city boasted more free Black residents than any other in early America. And Francis Scott Key still thought it prudent to characterize this city as a place where “no refuge could save the hireling and slave.”

He was right, though. He is still right.

Every residual chuckle I have over a Baltimore-based memory leads me straight down a sobering rabbit hole. So much of what we experience here is merry. And so much of that merriment masks something systemic and sinister.

I hadn’t thought about this for awhile. You don’t. That dynamic is so tightly woven into Baltimore’s fabric that it is the fabric. It is forgone and, so, unconscious. You wear it. It wears you.

My most recent reminder came last night, when this appeared in my Twitter feed.

I dissolved into a giggling fit as I replayed it, then tweeted, “We can’t even convey to y’all how… workaday? prosaic? mundane? unremarkable? a sight like this is here.”

It’s true that this sort of thing is commonplace in Baltimore: the absurdist counter-dimension housed within one of the oldest states in America.

Local friends and strangers and I had fun with this footage on social media. We talked about how familiar it felt, how effortlessly it distills that which cannot be described. A city police cruiser with a young Black man on its hood.

A city police cruiser.

With a young Black man on its hood.

It didn’t take long. It never takes long.

“It’s weird because it’s a definite police state. But with pockets of genuine affability and rapport. There’ll be a moment like this and next week, they’ll ruin your life. Or end it,” I tweeted.

In the clip, those officers are in on the joke. So is the brother on the car. They are locked in a laughable symbiosis. They’ve achieved a brief understanding. But there is not true camaraderie with cops here. There can’t be, as long as corrupt as our current force.

“By most accounts, Freddie Gray was this kind of neighborhood goofball, very well known to the cop who chase and dragged him,” I tweeted.

There are any number of podcasts and write-ups on Black men murdered in Baltimore, where their previously “amicable” interactions with city police are well-documented. Patrolmen and the residents who live along their beat have always clocked each other. This is true in all poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods, though I cannot speak to the nuances particular to other cities’ clocking.

In Baltimore, they establish a caustic banter, one side issuing idle threats, the other volleying back with an unspoken promise of follow-through.

Their laughter overlays it. It is right below the surface.

This essay originally appeared on Medium.

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