“The Greatest City in America”

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Not many people other than folks who have lived in Baltimore would know this, but this is a frequent sighting on many a public bench in the city, as part of a public project following the city adopting it as it’s new motto in 2001, reading:

“Baltimore | The Greatest City in America”

When I started grad school there in the fall of 2003, I thought it rather nice to be living in a city that fancied itself thus.

I kid you not. Those engraved benches actually made me kinda proud to be living in Baltimore – even if it was barely 10 months.

I was there for the time it took to complete a Masters degree and find a job, any job, that was relatively close to my field of study in public health and environmental studies. But I was determined to find out as much as possible about the city that was going to be my home for that brief period of my life.

With the many places that I had lived in, I only realized the beauty inherent in those places upon leaving and looking back at the time I spent there. In writing this essay, as I revisited my memories of Baltimore I realized that it gave me a glimpse of urban America that was to stick for the rest of my life (and I use the term “urban” the way I grew up using the term, i.e. to indicate a city, rather than as an often offensive euphemism for black people).

The university I was studying in did give me a partial glimpse, inasmuch as the homes of settlers can give a partial glimpse into the lands and lives of the colonized.

Hopkins was not Baltimore and Baltimore was not Hopkins. Never the twain met while I was there. Yet, so too did the internecine spaces overlap just enough.

I had to necessarily leave one in order to truly see the other. But I had to be intentional about it since I was studying or working all the time and realized that I wasn’t actually seeing the city if I was cooped up in my department all day.

So I decided to chart out a few walking paths, each several miles long, using the Homewood campus as the radial center, in order to explore a little bit of Baltimore. It was a city that was so much and more. Looking back, I realize Baltimore was more honest than many other parts of America I had seen, prior to and following that time. It didn’t hide from the truth, didn’t try to shove it under the rug. It was simultaneously beautiful and painful in its uninhibited ways.

(I feel compelled to add that I had this assessment of Baltimore many, many years before finally coming round to watching The Wire. I continue to have it now after watching that brutally well-made show.)

I think it helped for me to come from India to try and make sense of whatever parts of Baltimore I was able to witness. The only assessment of Baltimore from folks talking about the city, especially those in Hopkins and folks from outside the city, seemed to be poverty and crime.

India too has crime, not to mention a lot of poverty. It has a lot of everything and poverty is surely one of them. Thus, the poverty I saw in Baltimore wasn’t anywhere near the same level of material harshness as that of the poorer neighborhoods and slums I observed during my childhood from within the car my family drove in and out of our middle-class neighborhoods in Bangalore.

But the poverty felt the same in both places.

And that is why I felt it helped for me to witness it as an immigrant from India. What I saw in Baltimore would be not unlike much of the rest of America I would witness. Like in India, the poverty in America felt structurally and historically induced. Like in India, it was deeply segregated along race, class, and caste lines. Like in India, and I suppose anywhere else, it reeked of injustice.

The houses and neighborhoods I was seeing were socially as far away from Hopkins as Bangalore was from Hopkins. The difference was stark. Houses were boarded up or crumbling. Roads were filled with potholes, as if the city had forgotten that this part of Baltimore, the much larger part, did in fact exist. Garbage left unpicked and overflowing in giant bins on sidewalks with large cracks in them. Panhandlers dotted every street corner, while numerous small businesses, legal and extra-legal, attempted to valiantly eke out a living. Not everywhere in Baltimore of course, but in enough neighborhoods with majority black communities to make one feel like something was off in a big way.

Ultimately though it was Hopkins itself that reminded me of the difference between Baltimore and Hopkins.

A brief sociological observation I conducted, out of sheer boredom, of privileged white grad students and their Indian hangers-on exemplified this.

My cousin had invited me for an evening of beer and burgers with some of his acquaintances. He was studying at a different campus, and asked if I wanted to join his colleagues and him for an outing. I agreed but soon regretted my decision as it turned out to be rather trite and deeply offensive to the soul.

When I was a lonelier, more wretched person – i.e. a fair chunk of the time prior to meeting my divine partner and soulmate, Sus – I generally went on outings with irritating, often bigoted and/or sexist men and their equally irritating/bigoted/sexist friends. In grad school, this meant that I tended to go bar-hopping with assholish, privileged, male grad students (I should know, I was likely one of them for many an outing).

This was one of those times.

The conversation was banal and superficial. It didn’t help that the entire evening took place in a loud sports bar patronized primarily by jocks and frat boys. The beer was insipid and the burgers were mediocre. My cousin, as was his wont when interacting with white folk, turned into a bit of a pandering clown.

As more beers got downed, one of the guys in the crowd, heartily egged on by my cousin, cracked a joke about black panhandlers in the city. I don’t quite remember the joke. It was told without the usage of the n-word or any other racial slur, which irritated me even more because that somehow gave it a pass with everyone at the table (though anything that gets a pass from that sorry crowd should always be viewed with suspicion).

The joke did however include the white-as -freshly-driven-snow joke teller’s attempt at pronouncing the word “fifty cents” a la the famous rapper, you know, without pronouncing the “f” and all – because, and this was supposed to be the funny part, that’s how black panhandlers pronounced it.

(Snobbish, racist assholes are one of the few subgroups of humanity who seem to derive great glee from being snobbish, racist assholes.)

I really didn’t understand the joke. It was’t particularly funny. It was extremely offensive, yet all of them guffawed loudly.

I didn’t say anything to counter it or challenge it. I just smiled my plastic smile, stress-ate my greasy burger, and got back to wishing for the evening to end quickly so I could go back to the solitude of my basement room.

There was something revolting about the entire optics of the episode. All the folks who laughed at the joke were studying at a rich private university. It was an all-white crowd, barring my cousin and myself, two middle-class Indian internationals who were temporarily let into the club for one evening. Some might say that shouldn’t matter, but at the time I felt like it did and still do. The chap cracking the joke wouldn’t have done so if there was a black person in the group. The farcical norms of political correctness would have held sway (although evidently they could be bent a little to accommodate a couple of wannabe coconuts).

It did not sit well. Something was deeply unsettling about it, and it made my stomach turn. To say that it was a manifestation of deep racism, socially instilled and structurally induced, is of course true, but still doesn’t capture the visceral revulsion I felt at that time.

I was equally repulsed by my cowardice because I failed quite breathtakingly. I failed my black brothers and sisters. I didn’t do right by them and I didn’t do right by me. I went with the flow, satisfied with the discovery, but not particularly interested in making any intervention.

The joke those guys were laughing at was about people and neighborhoods they had probably never visited despite literally being around the corner from where they worked and studied.

I realized then that if I were a black person, I would be more than a little angry. I would have been angry because of the way my history was airbrushed out of significance and the struggles my community faced were nonchalantly dismissed as pettiness. I would have been angry because of the way my community was being painted with such a broad brush by institutions that had a significant and sinister role to play in the subjugation of my people.

But I would have also felt angry because the handlers of that brush were so fucking blind to beauty.

On one of my walking trips, I chanced upon a small watering hole that I ventured into. Raw music emanated from the dimly lit stage, the sharp lilt of the guitar accompanied by the deep, raspy voice of an old black man in a suit, accompanied by two other, equally weathered musicians, a drummer and a harmonica player who also provided backing vocals. The audience consisted of couples and small groupings of friends, mostly middle-aged black folk, with beers and shots, either chatting with one another or mesmerized by the music. A few of them stared at me, at first with a little suspicion but then with an indifferent acceptance the moment I smiled at them. Smoke covered the room.

I sat by the bar, ordered a Colt 45 since it looked like the cheapest drink on offer, and listened.

I don’t know how long I sat there. I lost track of time because the music didn’t seem to be playing by the same rules as pop or rock concerts played by. More mellowed out and organically attuned to the crowd, not dominating the scene, but rather just providing mild dopamine-inducing comfort.

“Little taste?” the bartender asked me.

“Um…I’m sorry?” I said.

He smiled.

“Can I get you another drink son?” he asked, this time pronouncing the words more carefully, still smiling.

“Oh, yeah…sure…I’ll have the same please” I replied, awkwardly returning the smile.

“You’re not from around here, are you brother?” he asked me warmly, handing me the can.

“No…I’m not.” I replied. “I’m uh…I’m from India.”

“India! Damn…with elephants and shit…you a long way from home. What brings you here?”

“Um…I’m doing my Masters at uh…at Hopkins.” I said, a little hesitatingly.

“That’s great! Education’s so important…and you guys really study a lot, don’t ya?” he said, chuckling a bit.

“Well…” I replied, relaxing a little bit but not knowing what to say. His warmth was difficult to be nervous around.

“I got a nephew in college.” he said, without missing a beat. “Out here studying criminal justice.”

“Oh yeah? Where?” I asked

“University of Maryland, Baltimore Couny.”

“Where’s that?” I probed further.

“Not too far from here my man! The place where some of us black folk have a chance to get into college.” he said.

I smiled a little wryly. I was a little ashamed of where I was studying. I had been able to leverage my privilege from thousands of miles away to a university that most folks living in the same city as that institution couldn’t even dream of going to.

He was gracious about it though. Didn’t show me anything but warmth and a good-natured spirit.

“We gotta try though, you know what I mean?” he continued. “Can’t let the white man keep us down.”

I nodded.

He kept going, happy at the affirmation I was giving him.

“Yep…he sure do like his money. Man, I got no beef against white folk – water under the bridge – but, damn, why they gotta love that green so much man? Why they got to love them dead presidents so much? Sheesh…”

I was beginning to really, really like this wise handler of spirits and alcoholic beverages.

His short rant over, he tried lightening up the conversation.

“So…you a blues man huh?” he asked me, giving a quick wipe down to the weathered bar.

“Oh, yes…love the blues…and jazz too. Really great forms of music. This is the first live band I’ve ever been to though.” I replied.

“You shittin’ me! Man…this is one of the best live bars in the country. People say you gotta go to Chicago or down to New Orleans, but we got some of the best music in the country right here in Baltimore son! Tell you what my young Indian brother…you come here any time you want, and I’ll be sure that you won’t ever have to pay the cover, a’right? This drink’s on me.”

And so saying, he refused payment for the drink I ordered. The musicians got back on stage for another session, and everyone settled back down in their seats.

I smiled, grateful for the experience.

I think it was about then that I realized that Baltimore far richer than a place like Johns Hopkins University could ever fit within its sterile framework.

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