On a hot summer night, when it was 90 degrees on Barclay Street in east Baltimore, we’d sometimes sit outside well into the morning. It was too hot to be inside. Especially on the upper floors of our three-story house. In fact all the neighbors sat outside on their porch front (no porches) metal chairs. They visited from house to house within their own blocks.
Sometimes Miss Nellie Logan would come up the street from her house to our house at 2303. She and my grandmother had been friends for more years than I could possibly know. They were girlfriends. I always giggled when I heard them say that. I thought girlfriends should at least be girls, not old ladies. But I never laughed out loud. And I never asked the question.
They were happy with their time together. They wouldn’t have as much when the weather got colder. They’d wave at Aunt Grace and Uncle Walter Maxfield across the street. And Les Andrews and his family in that corner house. They’d talk with Miss Mary Mitchell who lived next door. They’d speak to Joyce Richardson’s mother who always took at least one stroll down the block as the evening grew older. Joycie was my best friend. I didn’t know her mother’s first name. We didn’t know a lot of first names and we dared not ask.
Sometimes we’d run into the corner store that was actually next door to our house and get a cold treat – an ice cream sandwich, a soda or a candy bar. The owners of the store were Joe and Bella Zemlak. They’d been there my entire stay with their children Barry (Bernard), Marsha, the eldest and Margie, the baby. They were also members of the community. They watched after us. They made sure we were safe. They told our parents if we caused trouble. They took us home to our parents if we acted up in the store.
The family up the street that raised a bunch of foster children. The family on the other side of the street that had endless children and grandchildren – The Auggins family. I believe the matriarch was Miss Virginia. We played with her grandchildren – Gary and Patricia, Terry and her brother.
Everybody knew everybody.
We were beneficiaries of a team of folks who knew it was their duty to provide safety and security for all the children in the neighborhood. Not just theirs. All the children. Not every adult meant us well. But the ones who didn’t were few and far between. And those who were caught were stealthily dealt with by the men of the village. Soundly. Directly. With no room left for doubt.
It was in no means a perfect community. We were directed to be seen and not heard. That was a hard habit to break. We waited to speak when recognized, especially when adult conversations were going on. We certainly did without some things some times, but basics were pretty much always available.
There’s got to be a way for us to go forward, not back, to a time and space within which we learn to speak to each other; to know each other’s names. Where we look out for ourselves and for the families, especially the children who live in our vicinity. Where we share those things we need and those we have in excess. Where children can feel safe enough to refuse the attraction of gangs that offer unnecessary support. Where people can be community to each other, family to each other, without reservation. Surely we can!