Hello, Baltimore!

The following is another vignette from my forthcoming book, COWBOY FROM PRAGUE:

“Holy Christ! What have we done?” I cry out after pulling over to the curb on a long, wide, endless street, lined on both sides with hundreds of little houses which seem to extend out to the horizon. The structures are identical, with only a few color variations distinguishing them one from the other, and with three marble steps connecting each of them to the filthy street below.

Just a few weeks before, in the spring of 1962, Sue and I had sat on the floor of our apartment on San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica, two blocks from palm-tree-lined palisades that overlooked the expanse of the blue Pacific. Spread before us on the floor of our living room had been a map on which we located the places where we would be working and the apartment my parents had picked out for us when they visited the city that soon would be our new home.

“Look at all that water!” Sue had exclaimed, as she pointed to the blue swaths that dominated the right-hand portion of the map of Baltimore. “It looks just like Southern California! We’re going to love it there!”

Now, after nearly three years of having spent most of our free time on the beaches of Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, and Malibu, and then having driven three thousand miles with most of our possessions in the back seat of our powder-blue Volkswagen Beetle, we enter a place which could be called “Hell,” rather than “Baltimore.” There are no palm trees, no movie-star mansions, no gaily-colored buildings, no cheerful flowers or shrubbery. Even on this warm, sunny, June day, the predominant color is gray.

“Let’s keep going until we get to the water,” Sue suggests after minutes of silence, as she peruses the map we had examined back on the west coast. “I’m sure things will look a lot better.”

We find Pratt Street, park the car, and set out in search of that blue stuff on the map. Surrounded by ugly brick warehouses, we find it. Like the rest of the city, the water is gray, except for the multicolored flotsam bobbing up and down near the seawall: papers, rotten fruit, old tires, and dead fish with their white bellies exposed to the stinking air. When we spot a rat attempting to board a ship tied up alongside one of the warehouses, we run like hell from the scene.

Our next task is to check out the elementary school at which Sue had accepted a teaching job for the fall, sight unseen from our perch in sunny California. When we pull up in front of the two-story brick building in a blighted area called Westport, Sue gasps.

“My God!” she whispers as she stares at the broken windows and the filthy words sprayed on the school’s walls. “You’re not going to teach here,” I say without hesitation.

“Thank you,” she replies and kisses me lightly on the cheek. I can feel her tears on my skin and silently wonder how we are going to survive without her teacher’s salary. Yet, without hesitation, I step on the accelerator in order to get out of the area as quickly as possible.

The following day, it is time to check out my new place of work. We get on the newly-opened Baltimore Beltway and head southeast. After driving through the Harbor Tunnel, we exit the freeway and enter Dundalk. The blue-collar town within a city is nothing like Westport, but it is not Santa Monica, either. “Charming” is not an adjective I would use to describe it. We pass the Lever Brothers soap factory and drive by a large General Motors truck manufacturing plant. Following the disappointment of our first day at the Baltimore waterfront, I do not expect sandy beaches and volleyball courts where we had seen blue water on our map. Nevertheless, I am about to be shocked and overwhelmed.

As we turn right onto Broening Highway, there spreads out in front of us one of the largest factories I have ever seen. Beyond the large building with a “Western Electric” sign, what seem like hundreds of smaller buildings are scattered in every direction. Through a fence topped by barbed wire, I can see huge coils of cable stacked among the structures. Workers are scurrying around on bicycles and on foot, dodging fork-lift trucks, each seeming to be going in a different direction. Across the street, a huge parking lot filled to capacity seems to spread toward infinity. It, too, is surrounded by a fence more suited for a federal penitentiary, or perhaps even a concentration camp. I notice that the two electrically-controlled gates are locked in the middle of the workday, as if to keep the prisoner-workers from escaping. From the car window, I imagine a scene inside the factory walls reminiscent to those about which I had read in books about pre-Industrial Revolution sweatshops.

“So, this is why I earned two engineering degrees and am about to start work on my doctorate,” I say to Sue. “To work in a goddam prison!”

I am despondent. I am trapped. Unlike Sue, who will rescind her teaching commitment, I cannot say “no thanks” to Bell Labs and go find another job. Mother Bell, as parent company AT&T is known, had paid our moving expenses and I had signed a letter agreeing to take the job. The company had also prepaid my tuition at the University of Maryland for the fall semester. Quitting before starting to work would mean having to pay AT&T money we did not have. So, just as I had to do many times before in my life, it is time to “suck it up.”

Although we are acutely aware of the fact that this is a major turning point in our lives, we have no way to foresee how well things will turn out. Eventually, we will discover a beautiful town called Annapolis, located on a body of water every bit as beautiful as the one we had left behind in California. We will build our lives there. And that ugly city to the north, Baltimore, will experience a renaissance when a man named William Donald Schaefer will transform the crumbling downtown into a tourist mecca called the Inner Harbor. As inconceivable as it may seem now — in 1962 — we will find our home in the Land of Pleasant Living and become proud Marylanders.

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