Where I Come From
Published: February 2, 2011
It’s remarkable how much a single idea planted and reinforced in a child’s mind can have such a lasting impact. Tell a kid he’s smart, and he may approach mathematics as confidently as he does the monkey bars. Enough, “Oh, you’re so brave!” and you could have a stuntwoman in the making. But even though I had this kind of positive reinforcement as a kid, I didn’t think I’d ever get to use much calculus or be paid to jump off of buildings, as early exposure to fiery sermons and Left Behind movies meant I spent most days fearfully awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
It would happen very, very quickly. Those of us who were caught up to meet Jesus would disappear in a millisecond, and those who were left behind would face intense trials and tribulations before they had a chance at salvation or . . . you really wouldn’t like the alternative. This was the Apocalypse, and it was up to me to make sure as few people as possible were marooned here on Earth. I became something of a schoolhouse missionary, talking to my classmates about the ways of the Lord over lunch and leading them through the sinner’s prayer between classes. Some kids were a little unruly. Others were just plain mean, but none of them deserved to go to hell, not on my watch.
What could instill such fear in someone so young? I had a very active imagination. In addition to Armageddon, I was also fascinated by ninjas, the healing powers of certain lizard species, and black holes. But there was more at work here than the Book of Revelation and an impressionable child. Most of the people I knew thought the world as we knew it could end at any moment and that would be a good thing.
It probably had something to do with where we lived. As a kid in East Baltimore, I thought we had it pretty bad. Some of my neighbors, strung out on drugs, already looked like the living dead, stumbling through half-abandoned blocks and begging for change. And while it wasn’t necessarily a daily occurrence, it also wasn’t ridiculous to think that you or someone you loved could be shot or robbed at random. So the real question in many of our minds wasn’t, “When is Jesus coming back?” but, “What’s taking him so long?”
Which is why I’m so surprised at how relatively mundane my experience of life in Baltimore as an adult has turned out to be. Between 1970 and 2000, the city lost more than 250,000 residents. That’s like watching a few neighborhoods vanish every year. Since then our population has stabilized, our schools have improved, and we seem to have made some progress combating homicide and gun crime. We recycle now. A few of us grow crops on what used to be vacant lots, and our football team routinely makes the playoffs. I didn’t see any of this coming.
I don’t want to downplay the enormity of some of the problems Baltimore still faces—the insanity of being a large, poor, urban center in a very wealthy state; housing vacancies; drug addiction. There is real misery here, and it is by no means randomly or equally parceled out throughout the city. Still, I must note that, as a kid, always certain that the next tater tot could be my last, I never expected to be here.
It seems that, within my lifetime, there could be a consensus that life in Baltimore has moved from being dangerously awful to OK. And that’s what I’m afraid of, that we’ll graduate from end of days to not so bad and settle.
A city is nothing more than an idea held together by people and utilities. For a long time, the big idea here was waxing nostalgic about the good old days of heavy industry and full employment. But I think it’s time for a new narrative, one that turns the can-do, hustle-to-make-ends-meet mentality that people here seem to be born with into decent jobs. As I first heard Diane Bell-McKoy, executive director of Associated Black Charities, insist, we need to move from poverty alleviation to wealth generation. We need a new civic idea that inspires more of the 47,000 college students we attract to use their new skills here and makes it easier to be active and productive without a car. We need a shared truth that will pave the way so that people I encounter when I travel won’t shake their heads in pity or fear when I tell them where I’m from. Today, that story is not just possible. It’s essential.
Looking back, I’m glad to see I had it all wrong. Apparently, the Apocalypse isn’t some event yet to come but a drug-and crime-ridden era we’ve already endured. The elect, those who were caught up en masse (for all my hoping, I obviously wasn’t one of them) didn’t get as far as heaven, just Baltimore County. Meanwhile, we who were left behind didn’t end up in hell, per se. We were just given a chance to rebuild.
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