Mar 07, 2024, 06:28AM

Back in Time: Charles Village in the 1960's

The life of a child living in an eclectic neighborhood in 1960's Baltimore.

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When I was a little kid in Baltimore, the neighborhood had different pastimes than what I might’ve experienced in a more rural environment. At the time, it was an unnamed residential area located between Remington and Waverly. Later on, in the 1960s, it became Charles Village primarily due to a petition drive by the residents of Pastel Row on 26th St. This was a block of lovely row-homes, each painted a different pastel color and facing south overlooking the railroad tracks that followed 26th St, for several blocks. There were tunnels underneath each of the main north-south streets: Charles, St. Paul, and Calvert Sts.

We lived on Calvert. These were the big Victorian high-ceilinged single-family row-homes with three stories and a full basement. When they were built in 1900, servant’s quarters were located on the top floor with a back stairwell for the servant’s use. The main stairwell was closer to the front of the house with wider and deeper treads and much more ornate woodwork. Over time, many of the homes were subdivided into apartments, one on each floor. The climb to the third-story apartment provided good exercise. In most cases, the servant’s stairwell was blocked off between floors, providing a weird shelving unit in its place. Our home, like a few others, was converted back into a mostly single-family dwelling. For economic reasons the single family lived on the first two floors and basement while the separate third-floor apartment was kept as such for boarders and friends in need.

There were only a few houses with kids our ages or close to it. We shared a wall with our northern next-door neighbor and also shared a wall with our southern next-door neighbor.

Our northern neighbor was a single-family style home that had never been converted to apartments. Their back stairwell was still there, a narrow and steep poorly-lit plain set of steps spiraling up from the kitchen on the first floor to the back bedroom on the second floor. The owners were an older couple and the wife’s elderly father. The old man walked up to the corner store “Ben’s” at least once or twice a week and all he bought each time was a carton of unfiltered Camels. I never saw him without a cigarette in his mouth or in his hand. He lived to 98. The wife was unable to have children and compensated by keeping a houseful of dogs and offering dance lessons, tap and ballet. There were so many dogs that lived in that house, it was chaos. Never less than two and I think the highest number was 14. The backyards around her also smelled of dogshit. They were very good about shoveling it up and hosing down the sidewalk, but the volume generated was just too much for only three people to keep up on. Her dogs weren’t a single social pack but instead formed multiple packs with lots of fights between them. Yard time was rotated among the packs. She’d run one pack up the back stairs and lock them in their room while her elderly dad was herding another pack down the front stairs so they could get all the dogs time in the yard without crossing paths.

My sisters learned to dance there until they were old enough/good enough to graduate on to the Tinker Dance Studio out on Reisterstown Rd. My dad drove them there for every lesson and recital, but I’m sure he would’ve preferred to stay at home and work on a project. I got an early start in technology when I was asked to run the big reel-to-reel tape recorder at a recitals. It was a Sony and all I had to do was stop and start the tape.

Our southern neighbor’s house was separated into three apartments. The owners were Greek and lived on the first floor. In their back yard were fruit trees and grapevines. The fence between us was a grape trellis. They had a couple of apple trees and one peach tree. My family followed good neighbor rules and never took any of their fruit unless an errant grape cluster grew on our side of the fence. Other neighbors weren’t so polite and in the later years of my childhood the trees would be stripped bare of the un-ripened fruit as the neighborhood got rougher and the Greek couple got older. After the husband died, the wife cut the trees down.

They were landlords to many over the years. We were close enough to Johns Hopkins University that a lot of students lived in the small third-floor apartment over the years. They didn’t usually rent to people with children but I remember a blonde girl when I was young. Then later a family of Syrians moved in. They had twin girls about a year younger than me. The mother wouldn’t let them play with me but my sisters were allowed. My younger sister always wanted to play School, where she was the teacher and all the other neighborhood kids were the ignorant students. Honestly, she probably raised those kids’ grades more than any tutoring from their families did. My older sister played Do My Chores and she got more work out of those neighbors than Tom Sawyer ever did.

The Syrians were Muslims and their residency next door was our first exposure to a lot of cultural differences of which we’d been unaware. There was a lot of shouting. Regularly, a cousin/nephew/uncle would stand in the front yard and scream at the Syrian father. I used to know how to cuss in Syrian because of this, but I’ve since lost it through disuse. Sometimes the screaming would be in English. If the twin girls misbehaved, the mother would yell at them, “YOU LITTLE JEWS!”

Different holidays were celebrated. Different traditions were followed. One Muslim holiday (I’ve since learned it was Eid al-Adha,) my siblings and I were exposed to something extraordinary, a goat sacrifice. The Syrian men cut the throat of a goat in our next-door neighbor’s backyard where an apple tree once stood. I remember a lot of blood. And there was a big gathering of Syrians there that day.

Two doors to the south lived a big family that came to the neighborhood from Appalachian Virginia. There were three older boys and four younger girls. The girls had a very odd way of talking amongst themselves using words I’d never heard before. We were told they’d lived on a farm and that the girls were kinda locked away by themselves and developed their own language. These were some of the kids that my younger sister liked to play School with. Among the four younger girls were a set of twins. As it was told to us, only half the family moved to Maryland. The twins were actually half of four quadruplets. And the next youngest, in Maryland alone, had a twin back in Virginia; the youngest girl was one of triplets!

All of the girls in that family overdeveloped when they reached puberty. I remember the two oldest, about 13, but looking fully mature, kneeling on their front lawn and barking at the No. 6 bus going north. They’d start barking when the bus reached mid-block and then bark at it until it had passed through the traffic light at the end of the block. This went on for a whole summer.

Back then, before herbicides and pesticides were in universal use, we had lightning bugs in Charles Village. We chased them all over everybody’s lawns and sidewalks. We normally wouldn’t step foot on a neighbor’s lawn, but firefly-chasing was a waiver of sorts. One summer Johns Hopkins paid a bounty for lightning bugs. They were running some sort of experiment. The Virginians would tear the ass-end off a lightning bug and, with the goo that accompanies tearing a bug apart, stick it to their faces as primeval decoration. Over the eyebrow there’d be four or five and under the bottom lip was a popular location, too, but I remember one girl having a firefly butt glowing on each fingernail.

The Virginians would play 45 rpm records on their front porch in the evenings. They’d play their newest purchase over and over at the record player’s highest volume until there were too many skips and pops to play it again. The Jackson 5’s “ABC” came out in 1970 and I must have heard that song thousands of times. Please don’t let me hear it today because I might start barking at buses.

The youngest Virginian boy was only a couple of years older than me, but my mother didn’t want us playing in their yard because she thought they were a bad influence, poor white trash. On the other hand, the matriarch of the Virginians didn’t want her kids playing in our yard because she thought our mother was the bad influence, a bar owner and too foul-mouthed. Lots of “motherfuckers!” were shouted from our kitchen door. Our workaround to play with Army men was to set up our armies and throw rocks back and forth across the Greek landlord’s intermediate yard. We had rules which always changed in favor of my southern aggressor. Some rules made sense. Rocks couldn’t be bigger than a quarter. If a rock hit a soldier and he fell forward, he was only wounded and you could recover him for another round. If he fell backwards, he was dead meat and back to storage. We had to come up with a different rule for machine-gunners because they’re on their bellies by default. Certain soldiers were harder to kill, a precursor to the hit points and buffs seen in today’s role-playing games.  One Christmas the enemy received a large “Talking Robot.”  They named him Gargantua or Gigantor, probably using both at one time or another. This was the hottest toy that year. He fired missiles out of his palms and out of a trap door in his head. We could only throw smaller rocks at the robot’s trap door so we didn’t break it.

Two doors to our north was a family with three kids, two older boys and one girl. The boys were a lot of fun and wild. I always liked them. I didn’t play with them much because they were older and doing different things. One night they were camping out in a tent in their backyard. As they were setting up, a storm came and they had to take everything inside. They decided to still camp and set up in their back bedroom overlooking the yard. They built the tent on their bed and then the campfire on the floor. I woke up to sirens and whirling red lights of several firetrucks. My siblings and I ran out front and stood out on the sidewalk and watched their house burn in the rain. The fire damage wasn’t complete because they lived there for a while after that. Today they’d be forced to vacate. The girl of that family took dance lessons with my sisters and they were good friends. She was spoiled and was known to throw temper tantrums, screaming at the top of her lungs when she didn’t get her way.

My mother was hosing down our backyard sidewalk when that girl decided to throw an over-the-top crying screaming tantrum in her backyard with the dogshit yard intervening. My mom’s one of those women whose commands were generally followed. She started screaming at the girl, “Shut up, goddamn you!” My siblings and I would’ve shut up. We knew when to “suck up those tears.” But this girl took it up a notch. I remember she was wearing a fancy white and pink dress. My mother then switched to her more assertive nature, marched to the fence and started hosing off the tantrum girl while shouting, “SHUT!  UP!  SHUT!  UP!” repeatedly while the girl stood in shock instead of running off.

I’d guess about half of the houses on my block had garages next to the alley. Everybody else would have that space dedicated to yard or garden. The garages would deteriorate over time and fall in on themselves eventually. That space might become a parking pad or the yard extended. Kids in our neighborhood would play on the roofs of the remaining standing garages. One of the Virginians fell through a roof and broke his leg. The story he told people for the fame points was that he’d tried parachuting off with a bedsheet.

If you’ve ever driven past a block of row-homes, you’ll notice there’s almost always a double set of windows below the front porch right in front. If the home doesn’t have a front porch, the double set of windows is still there. Through those windows is where people would get their coal deliveries. Under the front porch (if you had one) or in the front of the basement (if you didn’t) would be a pile of coal. That area was always darker and dirtier than any other part of the basement and used strictly for storage after the coal deliveries stopped.

As the story was told to me, a lot of Baltimore row-homes were built out during a growth spurt  in the late-1800s. One side of the street and then the other. A foundation gang of workmen would pour a block’s foundations before moving on to the next block and next foundation. Different other specialty work gangs would follow in order or as needed: masons, carpenters, pipefitters, plasterers.

When the foundation was poured for the block on which our house was eventually built, there was an economic downturn mid-project. The foundation was finished, but the money for masons and carpenters was gone. The foundation sat idle for 10 years before work re-commenced. Ten years for the concrete to cure, settling without a load but open to nature. If one were to visit the basement of those homes today, they’d find the concrete surface isn’t rock-hard but more sandy. Our house’s foundation included the coal room under the porch.

The homes across the street were built after the economic downturn and in a cost-cutting measure, the coal rooms under the porch weren’t included inside the main structure’s foundation. They had dirt floors and wooden walls, making it nothing more than a high-ceilinged crawlspace.  

Across the street were two brothers, “Wart” and Jerry, who used to play with my brother and me.  It was the standard 1950s/60s stuff: Cowboys and Indians or soldiers attacking each other. Or Construction attacking the level lawn. I was a passionate hole-digger. The traffic on Calvert St. increased and eventually our parents didn’t want us running across the street to play anymore. That’s when we decided to dig the tunnel. The plan was that my brother and I would go straight through the basement foundation wall and then angle over to Jerry and Wart under Calvert St. They’d do the same from their side and we’d meet somewhere in the middle under the street.

My brother and I got started and quickly realized we weren’t going to get far. An eighth of an inch of sand and then aged concrete of the best quality. We also understood that if we were discovered we’d be sacrificed by our parents, much like that poor goat. We’d scratch at it now and again but eventually gave up. Jerry and Wart asked about it once and we answered that we hadn’t gotten very far but hadn’t given up either. They moved away unexpectedly shortly after that, didn’t have time to say goodbye. It was probably 20 years after they moved away that I was told that they’d actually gotten a small tunnel dug a few feet under their front yard, heading for Calvert St. They didn’t face the concrete barrier my brother and I had faced. They were on the side of the street with wood walls and dirt floors in their coal room.


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