It’s summertime, summer school is over, and this is the time when I tend to get restless and glum. I work best when I’ve got stuff to do, so if I’m not careful, unscheduled time can get the best of me, stealing from me this valuable time to let my mind range freely, read new things, and make new connections. I’ve learned this over the past zillion summers, so I make sure to schedule things work, writing, and relaxing-related. Today’s schedule featured a bike ride over to the Be Free Floating in West Baltimore for my second trip in their sensory deprivation tank.
I lathered on the sunscreen and headed out and down the hill, taking a right on Oliver and another right on Mount Royal to get around MICA–going west in Baltimore isn’t easy. I climbed up and down, watched as the fancy of Bolton Hill eased into the regular of Marble Hill and the quick blight of Upton. I took a left on Calhoun this time, because I’m reading a book about the Colfax Massacre, one of the bloodiest attacks on freedmen during Reconstruction. Meredith Calhoun owned the big plantation where the massacre took place, no relation to great defender of slavery John C. Calhoun, or James Calhoun, early mayor of Baltimore for whom I’m guessing the street is named. I thought about these layers of Calhoun as I zipped by the two schools and the park that line the street. I took a right on Lexington, because I’m often on Lexington over by the market, and I wondered what this side of Lexington looks like. It was my favorite sort of day, pedaling around a neighborhood I don’t know well, making random choices about when and where to turn, heading in the general direction of a serious treat.
I had just crossed Stricker Street when I heard the pop-pop-pop sounds of gunfire, and saw a man in the street ahead of me shooting his pistol at a row home. It took me a minute to understand what was happening–MAN WITH A GUN–and then I turned and pedaled the other way as the man took off, the car that was parking zoomed out and headed away, and several other folks went running. I’ve heard a lot of gunfire in my years of living in cities, but I’d never seen it up this close. Guns are scary.
I took a right on Stricker and watched as unmarked police SUVs drove out of alleyways and a tow truck waited to tow some vehicles from behind a building. I went up to a police officer and said, “I know this is going to sound silly, but did you guys hear gunshots?” Yep, he said. We’re canvassing the area. I told him I saw the shooter, and the cop looked at me incredulously. You saw him? I did, and he took down the details, and as he did, I felt myself describing half of Baltimore City: Black man, jeans, t-shirt. Here I was, giving a description that would justify police officers pulling over most of the people I saw on this bike ride, because pretty much everybody I saw in the neighborhood matched that description. It all happened so fast.
And then I was back on my bike, heading south and west and south and west, thinking about the layers of life I simply cannot see from my bike seat. There were cops everywhere the second those gunshots sounded, and they seemed not the least bit surprised. No neighborhood should be that used to cops and guns.
I locked up my bike at the corner of West Pratt and Ackworth, called the ladyfriend for a quick pep talk and check in, and headed inside for my hour in the sensory deprivation tank. I was a bit shaken, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to settle in and relax, nor was I sure I should be able to do that at all. I was a restless bird for the first chunk of time, and then somehow I found myself in deep relaxation, a drip of consciousness in an endless universe, the very best feeling. When my time was up I took a shower, got dressed, and sat with the woman who helps run the place. We talked about the neighborhood, how business has been down since the uprising. People drive to the neighborhood, see it, and then don’t want to park their cars, so turn around and head back. That’s the worst answer to the complexity of issues facing West Baltimore ever.
I snapped this picture as I got set to get on my bike and head back home. They’ve got furniture, appliances, and God here on this corner, amongst other things. It’s a neighborhood. I took the long way through it and other as I made my way north, through Upton and Gilmor and Sandtown-Winchester. I passed by the Penn-North Kids Safe Zone–that place was hopping–took a right on North Avenue, and then a left until I was back at Druid Hill Park, almost home. I stopped at a park bench around the water for a snack and to breath in and out for awhile. So much beauty in the city today, amidst it all.