Issue #54, March 2001
The last stranger I encountered was actually a neighbor, though a renter and therefore someone without the same assumed relationship to community as the rest of us, homeowners one and all. Actually, I never encountered him in person, just in story, where he came to mean different things to the various people who created him.
For Jim and Delia, a sweet, Catholic-school couple with a charming new baby, he was "the hobo" next door, someone to whom they gave money for doing chores around their house and also for not doing chores around their house. When Delia first mentioned him, I was struck most of all by the term "hobo," which I could swear I haven't heard anyone seriously use in the last thirty years. As much as anything else, I thought its use characterized Jim and Delia's combination of endearing naiveté and maddening self-absorption. Did they really think that hobos were a part of the urban scene, these pony-tailed drifters who travel in battered pick-up truck with leaky exhausts and hand out cheaply printed business cards claiming a number of capabilities? If you spent your whole life in small religious schools where everybody else was more or less like you, did you come away with a vocabulary so completely inadequate to the conditions of 21st century life? Did you really give somebody money nearly any time he asked for it, then think he was going to go away and leave you alone — especially when he lived right next door? Didn't this behavior make you likely to vote Republican in the next election?
The Democrat across the street — who might have voted for Ralph Nader because in Maryland we had this luxury — thought the hobo was after her children. At least, I'm surmising it was the hobo because the figure Jane described was anything but benign. She thought he was a genuine stranger — meaning, someone who lived somewhere else, menacingly — and not someone who in reality lived a stone's throw from her back porch. She told me a story while we were walking our dogs, that when she left the kids alone one day (she has three, ranging from about 10-l7), they saw some guy walking around in the backyard. When one of the kids went outside and said, "What are you doing here?" the stranger replied, "I just wanted to see if you needed your gutters cleaned out. I do that kind of work." And the kid said something like, "No, go away," and the hobo left. Jane said, "Can you imagine? That's the perfect story — the guy who says he's there to 'clean out your gutters,'" and she shivered. For a moment, I saw the stranger just as she did — a solitary figure trying to get into your home and your life, perhaps kidnapping your children, possibly poisoning the family dog to keep it quiet. White-guy sociopath, transient, opportunistic, renter. And I saw myself alone somewhere and prey to these kinds of things, though in fact the neighborhood is pretty active at most times, made up of older residents who stay at home, people who take walks on the hilly tree-lined streets, and an over-crowded thoroughfare less than a half a block away. So I said, "What did he look likely exactly?" Because the description sounded like Jim and Delia's next-door neighbo, I told Jane I thought it was the hobo, who really did clean gutters, among things. But the original idea had a fix on her imagination as the idea of the hobo had on mine, so I don't think she took much comfort in the identification.
Quite possibly, the guy really was trouble, at least according to Jack, who claims that the hobo/stranger stole an expensive tool off his porch. "I saw his pick-up parked right on the corner, and the next thing I knew, the tool was gone," Jack said, furious. Jack is the president of our community association, a pretty laissez-faire group that holds semi-annual picnics and an annual meeting. At the latter, one of the original neighborhood people (a snappish woman who keeps pugs and is active in local Republican politics) called out, " I think it's time we did something about the houses in this neighborhood that are run down!" to which Jack replied, "Yes, I agree." Patrick (my mate and co-mortgagee) leaned over to me and whispered, "Do you think she means us?" Irritated at the prospect of having to consider such a question, I called out grouchily. "Well, just exactly what are we talking about here? What properties, for instance?" After a long moment, the snappish woman said, "Well, the house on the corner, mostly — the apartments. That place is a disgrace." In other words, the hobo's building.
Jim and Delia moved to the suburbs because they knew they eventually would: the poor reputation of Baltimore City public schools regularly leads affluent parents to move when their children reach school age. And, besides, they said, the hobo was driving them crazy. Ironically, not long after they moved, he did, too.
I've never been a stranger in Baltimore because I've lived in this city all of my life. Unlike most academics, I have not changed locations in order to work. Among my colleagues, I'm a bonafide local with a quality of strangeness that also attaches to original dwellers in gentrified neighborhoods. At one time, it was rare to meet anyone who didn't grow up here. Now it's rare to meet people who did. What kinds of people don't go anywhere?
Well, poor black people, for one. In Baltimore, many African-Americans rely on public transportation that isn't very good. The ridership for buses around town is 80-100% black. The light rail doesn't go anywhere much, and the subway confines itself to a few routes; both are designed largely to get suburbanites into and out of the city quickly, perhaps to work, perhaps to one of the two new stadia. I've never been on the subway, though I know there are people who use it. But if you want to get around without a car in Baltimore, you spend a lot of time waiting, transferring, and confining yourself to cramped public spaces full of strangers. In a striking number of places, the poverty is so vast and so brutal that moving out of housing projects into an adjacent neighborhood is the psychological equivalent of foreign travel. And the ineffectiveness of public transportation keeps people away from sources of work that would give them access to the kinds of mobility we claim are basic to American life.
There are also pockets in the city full of white people who don't go anywhere. They stick close to wherever they grew up so that generations of a family live just a rowhouse or two away from each other. In one of my old neighborhoods, a woman said sadly that her daughter was "gone." I said, "Oh," not sure what she meant. "She moved really far away," she continued, "about six blocks up Light Street." That meant six blocks from where we were standing, which was about two and half feet from the woman's house. Come to think of it, I was a stranger in this part of the city, a gentrified section of town on a peninsula near the Inner Harbor. The indigenous population is what remains of a working class industrial community whose Formstone row houses have been restored to brick and painstakingly rehabilitated by some of the most shameless yuppies you'll ever meet. Most of the latter live closest to the harbor, where the seafaring manager types lived and left behind very large row houses with interiors worth restoring. I lived in the outer part of much cheaper homes that had undergone many wobbly additions over time, making their interior floors a series of treacherous, uneven steps and angles and their exteriors very crooked and tumbled-down looking. Most of the original industry was gone, but heavy pollution remained as did very much higher than average cancer rates. Likewise, the results of industrial and other accidents are everywhere you look — deformities, missing limbs, many people immobilized or in wheelchairs. There's a bar on every corner and, of course, a disproportionate number of lottery machines.
Nobody seems to care very much about these people, who are not the romantic poor, but seem unlovely and self-destructive. They distrust all government, which largely ignores them at every level from local to national, and are suspicious of any program the city launches, however benevolent they might seem. Of course, they are not all this way, but many are. They send large contingents of soldiers to fight any war, and see in the newcomers a vast ingratitude. When Patrick and I wore anti-war buttons during the Gulf War, we were refused service at a local sub shop. Other, less predictable ideas can be held just as fiercely. My next door neighbor Mary, for example, hated the former residents of my house simply because, she said, they were fat; she was convinced her nephew would contract AIDS playing football at the University of Maryland, and she wouldn't let the city plant a tree because she said all trees did was gather the blowing trash. On the other side of me was the neighbor who calls every city agency on you that he can think of, getting you cited for things like crooked drainpipes, a wood pile insufficiently far off the ground, and weeds growing through the cracks in the concrete. He also said my cats were running on his property and destroying things. Though my cats never went outside, city animal control people came to my house and required verification of my cats' whereabouts and their vaccinations. Elsewhere I was known as "the school teacher" by neighbors who watched my car being burglarized but wouldn't tell the police what they saw. Almost everyone is terribly angry all of the time, with much justification. But I found conversation exhausting, neighborhood meetings chaotic scenes of irrational accusations, and the general tone of things depressing. I never felt at home here, which was surely as much my doing as anyone else's, but between the oppressive yuppiness on one side and the blazing hopelessness on the other, I failed utterly to acquire a sense of place. According to my own principles, I ought to have pitched in and tried to make life better for the people around me — as others were trying to do — but instead I fled.
My father divides the world into two groups: "strangers" and "family." By the latter he means my mother and me; his parents and siblings are all dead and were never close. By the former, he means everybody else. No stranger is entitled to his attention or generosity. Only those of us bound to him in the nuclear way matter. Or so he says. "If you died," he tells my mother," I'd never see your sister again" — not because he dislikes her, but because she's an example of a stranger, the person who isn't sufficiently connected to you. Such a view of the world doesn't translate into sunny optimism or an abiding sense of belonging. He is very alone in his own skin, though that solitariness is, of course, nothing more than a trick of the light. But it's a light he feels comfortable with, so he keeps it burning.
Not going anywhere roots you, but also forces inward any sense of strangeness you might carry and keeps it at a disquieting distance from the apparent realities of your life. For example: a good friend of mine who seemed unlikely even to move out of his mother's house instead abruptly traveled to Japan and stayed there. When I expressed surprise, he said, "Well, here at least I don't just feel like an alien, I am an alien." So you can leave one place in order to feel comfortably strange in another.
I'm not sure I can accommodate a "mysterious stranger," who I'd probably assume was just carrying a lot of emotional baggage, and I don't have much patience for anyone who's a "stranger to him or herself." At the same time, I wouldn't trust someone who wasn't enough of a stranger to see things from the outside, to shake loose the complacency of comfort and community often enough to venture into other realities. These are the trips we must regularly take, the foreigners we must continue to be.
Deborah Shaller teaches English and Cultural Studies at Towson University.