Friday, May 15, 2015

Charm City

My childhood home in Baltimore didn't have a chimney. And come Christmastime, that was a problem.

“How,” I asked my dad, “is Santa going to get inside if we don’t have a chimney?”

With a straight face, my dad responded, “Through the dryer vent.”

A clothes dryer vent seemed an undignified way to welcome the most important man on Earth into our home. Chimneys, though, like brand-name jeans and cable TV, were for rich people. My Gardenville neighborhood was solidly blue collar. Fancy folks had above-ground pools or aluminum siding maybe, but not chimneys. Yet, every December 25th, the toys got where they needed to go. The lint trap never produced a wayward beard hair or tuft of white fur, but I believed.

That there were kids who didn't have dryers, never occurred to me. Just a 15-minute walk from my block of modest single-family homes, the neighborhoods got shabbier. Liquor stores sprouted up. An x-rated movie theater hunkered between a tattoo parlor and a ballet studio. Alleys served as backyards. It never occurred to me that, to some kid a half-mile away, we were the rich people, or that Baltimore Gas and Electric didn't care whether you wanted a new bike or one pair of decent shoes, that you’d been good all year.

Folks call my hometown “Charm City,” which seems an equally fitting nickname for childhood. As a kid, I assumed that life was, more often than not, great, and above all else, fair. Magic wasn't just possible, it was expected.

Of course Santa was real. Of course I could grow up to be Donna Summer, Queen of Disco. Really, nothing came on TV after 8. And, yes, calm down, Mom would be okay.

It never occurred to me that my dad might not be telling the whole truth.

I was 8 when my mom died. I was playing with a friend across the street when I heard my dad urgently calling my name. As I loped toward home, I saw people crowding our sidewalk and front porch. Neighbors gathered on their stoops, crying. Before I even stepped foot in my own yard, I knew: She was gone. And with her went Santa Clause and my prim little bubble of fairness.


Thirty years later, I’m a mother. My son is 2, and I sometimes find myself torn between recreating that bubble for him and laying everything bare. For now, Santa lives again. In fact, Santa is a thoroughly modern man: I explained to my son that Mr. Claus uses the webcam to watch over him at night, when the nursery is dark and lonely. This fib sooths my son and imbues his world with a little extra wonder. Admittedly, the ever-present eye of Santa also helps to keep my toddler in line. Fairy tales have always functioned that way: vague threats disguised as enchantment.

My husband, son, and I live in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, having moved for work and more green space and a loft bedroom. Notably, we have a fireplace. Almost everyone in our neighborhood has a fireplace. Chimneys left and right. There are no above-ground pools or security bars on windows. Signs of poverty are a violation of HOA rules. Our schools are “high-performing.” We are engineers and lawyers and stay-at-home moms and military families. We garden and host play dates. It’s a very different kind of Charm City. The bubble practically builds itself.


When I was fresh out of grad school and nearly broke, I lived for a time in Baltimore’s Govans neighborhood. My roommates and I rented a row home near a chicken wing joint that advertised “50 Pieces for Your Wedding or Funeral!” A police camera mounted below a swirling blue light kept a silent, electronic watch over our corner. Someone left needles on the hood of my car. While I was trudging up York Road one day, a man in a neatly detailed Volvo leaned out of his window: “I wouldn’t be walking alone through this neighborhood if I were you.” A handful of Black kids played tag on the corner behind me, laughing, shrieking. “It’s not safe,” the guy called after me as I glanced back at the kids and then went on my way.

Image courtesy of Debi Parker Keating Photography.


As an early spring chill suddenly gave way to sticky heat, storms rolled through Virginia. My son watched from his bedroom window as lightning crackled in the near distance. Thunder rumbled. My husband held a hand to our toddler’s back and whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry. The storm stays outside.” Before his bedtime, I held my son in my lap and read to him. He dug his head into the flesh below my shoulder. As the rain began to pelt the windows, he mumbled to himself, over and again, “Don’t worry. The storm stays outside.” I rocked him and read to him and I held my tongue. “What’s the harm?” I wondered to myself, “This isn't Katrina.”

When do you tell a child that terrible things happen, sometimes for no reason? Or worse, that they happen for reasons we choose to ignore? At what point does a sense of security become a fatal flaw?

Last week, I watched Charm City erupt. For days, my son had awoken each morning convinced that a thunderstorm still raged outside. He could not be persuaded otherwise until I threw back the curtains on a sunny day. “The storm stays outside,” he would announce. And from our 50-mile distance from Baltimore, I did feel very much “outside.” I clicked from news channel to news channel. I trolled Facebook for status updates from friends in the city, from folks on the inside.

So many people asked, “Why would they burn their own neighborhoods?” And all I can say is that it’s hard to break a spell.


  1. I have heard many comments about why someone would burn their own neighborhoods, some hateful, angry and nasty and some defensive, and attempting to justify the destruction. But you are right, Jess. spells can be good or bad and are very hard to break. You are a very wise woman to recognize that.
    Children at Sam's age are so young, impressionable and vulnerable, but I feel sure that you and Shelby will know when the time is right to begin to teach him about life, the good and the bad, while still keeping the beauty and the magic alive. Love, Aunt Judy

  2. Beautiful piece. I wish that the kids in those neighborhoods' spells weren't broken so early and often by society and the realities of poverty.

  3. You are a wonder. Your talent feeds my need to read good writing--something that's in woefully short supply in the blogosphere.

    Thank you for this:

    Folks call my hometown “Charm City,” which seems an equally fitting nickname for childhood. As a kid, I assumed that life was, more often than not, great, and above all else, fair. Magic wasn't just possible, it was expected.

  4. Absolutely beautiful piece, Jessica. Heart-wrenching, thought-provoking and beautiful.