Who the Hell Am I? - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Who the Hell Am I?

In 1970, after dropping out of college in Washington, D.C., I moved to Baltimore where I lived in a row home still heated by a coal furnace on West Lombard St., just up the street from H.L. Mencken’s former home at Union Square. My row home was just a short walk from Viva House, the Catholic Worker kitchen for the homeless, established in 1967 by Willa Bickham, a former nun and Brendan Walsh, a seminarian.

On March 7, 2017, my friend Rafael Alvarez, a Baltimore novelist and writer on The Wire, and Baltimore Post-Examiner invited me to read for the opening of “Ralphie’s Readings” at the Bird in Hand, alongside Brendan and Willa who read from their book, The Long Loneliness-Baltimore Stories, written by Brendan and illustrated by Willa.

 

Who the Hell Am I?

Ralph asked for a poem.

No problem, I said.
Something about the working poor, he said.
You’ll share the podium with the Viva House folks.

Man, I thought. Now I have a real problem.

Who the hell am I to share a podium with Brendan and Willa?

I, who never shared any food with their kitchen,

I, who have, more times than I can count,
kept the window of my Ford F-150 up,
averting my eyes
from men and women clutching
grey packing-blanket serapes,
huddling at intersections
of pain and privilege,
lumbering forward in sneakers
bound in duct tape,
waving cardboard pledge cards
asking me to care.

Who the hell am I to share a podium with Brendan and Willa?

Years ago, I lived only a stretched-out fire hose
away from Viva House
but never lifted a helping hand.

Who the hell am I?

I, who boarded the commuter rail car
each morning in the county,
took my seat in the quiet car
where no one talked and most slept
while the train raced through
East Baltimore, past
16 blue-light street corners,
once productive
brick factories
where trees grow on roofs,
graffiti announces death.

I, who returned each evening,
to the quiet car
I who stayed silent, never
talking about the world we were
passing.

Who the hell am I to share a podium with Brendan and Willa?

On a clear February afternoon,
I drive to Johns Hopkins Hospital,
the cancer-industrial complex,
recalling wretched hours
wondering if my wife would live.

I pass The Dome,
It’s the zucchetto,
the skull cap
covering corporate arrogance
and medical magicians alike,
down Broadway,
humming Wilson Pickett,
counting scaffolds and workers
on ladders in funky orange vests.

U-turn at the railroad trestle,
tool up a wide alley and
look for the scene I studied
for so many years
from the window of my train,
the neighborhood we passed
on the quiet car,
but didn’t mention,
didn’t visit,
didn’t value.

I park below the embankment,
Below catenary wires and rails.
I cross a field, alongside
a pile of concrete rubble,
mattresses stacked two-high,
a blue plastic bottle of anti-freeze,
cracked strips of crown molding
coated with killing coats of lead,
a Coors Light can, a lone black work glove.

I walk behind
the strong backs of four row homes,
freshly-constructed,
painted in pastels
exuding hope in jarring contrast to
four burned-out siblings,
staircases turned to briquettes,
roofs long ago melted,
second-stories poised to collapse
like the rocks of eroded cliffs.

I walk around to their fronts,
East Preston St., the 1700 block.
The formstone faces of the scorched row homes
wear plywood masks.
They are easels, decorated in repetitive patterns,
purple and yellow,
an artist’s disciplined challenge
to the anarchy of neglect.

The pastel sisters rock
new red brick make-up,
accessorized by dwarf pines
in new pots on the sidewalk.

A young man
sits on a stoop.
He says fire engines
came back a couple weeks ago.
The block still burns in its rebirth.

I pace slowly back toward my truck.
Amtrak’s Acela Express,
165 bucks from New York,
creeps toward the Civil War-era
Union Tunnel.

The Sun’s archives tell me
the 1700 block was ablaze
three years ago, a setback
for developers and homesteaders,
a test of character
for the strivers and survivors.

The City experts argue.
Are there 16,000
vacant homes or 48,000?

But there’s no argument that
71 buyers out of 100
can’t even think about
buying the homes
experts deem to be habitable.

There’s no quarrel about the
30,000 people who will be homeless for
part of the year.

Nobody’s contests PowerPoints
flashed by young freedom fighters
at Baltimore’s Black Workers Center:
24 percent of white workers
take home less than $35,000 a year,
But 55 percent, of black workers, say it again,
55 percent of black workers
take home less than $35,000 a year, less than
35 fucking thousand dollars a year!

Men in skinny black suits tap
on their laptops
in the Acela Express’s deluxe dining car,
casting scant glances at the
mean streets.

But up on Broadway
and Preston and
Caroline, the advocates,
the demonized community organizers,
the disciples of Martin and Malcolm,
sit straight-backed,
face-to-face with the
Masters of the Dome.
They put the stats on the table.
They call out hypocrisy.
They wrench concessions.
Checks are issued.
Scaffolds go up.
Progress is made.
Hope stays alive.

I take a break from my writing.
My friend John Walsh,
the stalwart worker advocate,
yet another Walsh,
his heart bigger than Boston, has posted a
photo of Dorothy Day on Facebook:
“We must talk about poverty,” says Day,
because people insulated by their own comfort
lose sight of it.”

What would Dorothy say about demagogues who call sanctuary a crime?

What would Dorothy ask us to do?

And just who the hell am I to share a podium with Brendan and Willa?


About the author

Len Shindel

Len Shindel began working at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant in 1973, where he was a union activist and elected representative in local unions of the United Steelworkers, frequently publishing newsletters about issues confronting his co-workers. His nonfiction and poetry have been published in the “Other Voices” section of the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Pearl, The Mill Hunk Herald, Pig Iron and other publications. After leaving Sparrows Point 11 years ago, Shindel, a White Marsh resident and grandfather of seven, began working as a communication specialist for an international union based in Washington, D.C. He enjoys frequent weekends in Garrett County, cross-country skiing, kayaking, hiking and fly-fishing. Contact the author.
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