The events unfolding in Baltimore–whether you call it a riot or an uprising–put me in mind of a lesson I learned in Baltimore eleven years ago on a broiling hot summer day when my heart and mind throbbed with fear.
There wasn’t much left of my rational brain at that point. Richard had been diagnosed with leukemia on June 30. He got blood and platelets the next day at the hospital where I work–just enough to get him healthy enough to fly. He took off that evening for Baltimore, for Johns Hopkins Hospital, where his treatment would begin as soon as possible.
I stayed behind for a couple of days to batten down the hatches and pack us both some clean underwear. I tied up loose ends at work, at home. I explained what was going on to everyone who needed to know, then I rushed north to Baltimore.
While Richard had been teaching at Loyola in Baltimore, I had fallen in love with the city. We rode water taxis across the Inner Harbor, dined along Second Street, walked the paths of Poe. So it wasn’t my first time in Baltimore by any means, but I didn’t know anything about the neighborhoods around Hopkins. Well, I knew one thing–“Don’t go there. It’s not safe.”
But now, in the world of leukemia, Johns Hopkins felt like an island of hope, the one place Richard might be safe again. His parents had booked us a small caregiver apartment at the Joanne Rockwell House, right on the edge of campus. Somewhere around Washington and Jefferson Streets. I tried to find it on a map this morning, but the building isn’t there anymore–replaced by newer digs.
A flight, a ride from BWI, dropping my things at Rockwell House, then hurrying to the hospital with my heart in my throat. Then the first slow hours of waiting in a room with Richard, the first few of the hundreds we would spend like that over the next 10 months. Waiting for a miracle in the worst neighborhood in Baltimore.
On his advice, I left before sundown, so I could make it back to Rockwell House. Luckily, Richard’s mom had left some food in the minifridge. The only store visible from my window was a corner liquor store, plastered with booze posters. A barren parking lot, owned by the hospital, gray buildings shuttered with plywood, and the liquor store. I felt like a traveler in a ship, looking out my porthole at a strange land.
Eight o’clock, nine o’clock. The summer sky grew dark. After so many days of panic and chaos, the time had come to be still. I stretched out on the narrow twin bed under the window and tried to let my brain and body catch up to each other.
Then just under the window, a few feet from my head, I heard several loud cracks. Someone shouted over the sound of POP POP POP POP from the parking lot below me.
This middle class white lady HIT THE FLOOR. With a quickness. I didn’t even watch The Wire at the time, but I knew what happened when you mixed a Baltimore liquor store, summer heat, darkness and shouting. I slithered across the floor then reached up to kill the overhead light. The cracking and shouting continued. I lay panting in fear on the linoleum floor and waited for the sounds of sirens. None came. I watched the window and waited for it to explode from a stray bullet.
Then a strange SCREEEEEEEECH cut the air, followed by more popping, but slower now. A green burst of light filled the window. I remember lying there on the floor and trying to make sense of it. Cop car lights aren’t green in Baltimore, are they?
In all the rushing to get to Richard, I had forgotten that day was the Fourth of July. And Americans shoot fireworks after dark on the Fourth of July. I eventually realized the sounds were firecrackers and bottle rockets and crawled up off the floor to watch out the window.
Those young men in the parking lot across from the liquor store that night were celebrating freedom the old-fashioned way–with some gunpowder and fire and laughter. An American tradition.
My tired brain, filled with fear and confusion, had heard gunfire and threats. That was what I expected to hear in that part of Baltimore.
So I ask you, when you watch the news, don’t just listen for what you expect to hear–look again.