Charming City

By:Jen Michalski

Date:August 3, 2015

Category:Essay

Parents can unmake you in their death, as easily as they can make you in your birth. I found this out when my mother died recently. I suppose that most death is incomprehensible, but the suddenness of her death, at 63, from an infection and then liver failure, has left me flailing in an epistemological way far greater than any upper-level philosophy class I’ve taken, so much so that after a week of mindful meditation, then bottom-scraping nihilism, I went to the last and only place I could think to go: church.

When people ask my religion, I tell them I am a lapsed Catholic. Yet here I am, for the All Souls’ Day observation on a Sunday morning at Holy Rosary Church in Fells Point, during the Polish-language mass, no less. Holy Rosary was not the first Polish church to pop up in Southeast Baltimore, but it is the biggest and most gorgeous. Romanesque and built in the 1920s, 47 houses in Fells Point were demolished to make way for the church to give the Polish immigrants who began arriving in Baltimore in the late 19th century (many purportedly fleeing the Franco-Prussian War), their own sense of home. Holy Rosary houses a pipe organ, ten ceiling-length stained-glass windows, 49 tons of marble altars, and at one point boasted about 8,000 parishioners.

Attendance is a little less flush these days. The 2,000-seat church at 10:30 on a Sunday morning is approximately one-third full. Polish women with platinum blond hair and leopard-print dress-suits clutch rosary beads; older men with neatly clipped hair wear suits, a formalness in response to perhaps the reverence of the gold trim and profusion of idolatry but also the austerity and conservatism of the Polish community. Father Totzke reads the Gospel with a lilting tenor, which is incomprehensible except for the unmistakable name of our savior, Jezus Chrystus⎯the jangle of “z”and “y” sounds coming from his lips as foreign to me as my own thoughts and feelings these days.

Mostly, I feel lost. My mother had been my anchor, and well, my mother. She raised me and my twin brother Scott as a single mom (my father’s alcoholism took him mostly out of the picture well before my parents even got divorced when Scott and I were fourteen) and took care of our needs. When I became an adult, after a slightly awkward period after I came out as a lesbian and moved in with my first girlfriend, my mother became my best friend—my confidante. The last conversation I had with her in the Shock Trauma Ward of the University of Maryland, when we thought she was on the mend and not a few days’ removed from death, revolved mainly around my own personal problems, of which I’ve seemed to have many this year, and her resulting advice. Why did I burden her with such frivolity when she probably knew then something wasn’t right?

I am not sure what I hope to find here at Holy Rosary⎯assurance that my mother is still around, albeit in a better place, in Heaven? Or, I am looking for something greater, a feeling of security, a place to belong, with my tribe of Poles? My great-grandparents came to Baltimore from Krakow and worked as stevedores in Fells Point and for the canneries in Canton and the fields in Locust Point. They grew up on South Potomac Street and, yes, Chester Street, the home of Holy Rosary Church. (In fact two of my great aunts lived together a few blocks up. Family legend had it that if you wanted to see the reclusive—and slightly crazy—Aunt Teresa, instead of knocking futilely at her door, to visit the Burger King instead on Eastern Avenue and Chester Street at 10:30 on Sunday mornings—her own version, I guess, of church.) Most of the family stayed in East Baltimore or the surrounding areas. Something has always kept them here—whether it was poverty, a pension, or a large family, it was never clear to me. My family has clung to Baltimore and its outskirts like a moth to a porch light.

I have never felt at home anywhere, which is why I have always wanted to leave. When I graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the mid-1990s, I came back to East Baltimore to live with my grandparents for a few months and apply to graduate schools. I had always viewed myself as a transient, an outsider. I wanted to go to graduate school in New Mexico. I saw myself in DC or New York or San Francisco after that. Not here, with the duckpin bowling, the hons, The Record and Tape Traders in Dundalk that had way too many used Ace of Base CDs, the now-defunct Baltimore Sign Company on Haven Street, where I and two St. Mary’s alum proofed grocery signs and deleted, much to our pain, the serial commas.

And then I fell in love. First with a girl, then with the city of Baltimore. Neither one was love at first site. Both grew on me, in a familiar and easy way that I, in my early twenties, viewed with disdain and suspicion. Although I eventually broke up with the girl after 11 years, it’s been 20 years and I’m still in Charm City⎯first in Canton, now in Butcher’s Hill.

***

Baltimore first courted me in a stranger’s kitchen. After I’d completed my master’s in writing at Towson University, I’d started an online literary journal, jmww, in 2004 with some friends. In a sea of online literary journals that popped up in the nineties, it seemed ill-advised, and yet I had no idea how to find other working Baltimore writers outside of my writing program. I cold-called two literary sons—Madison Smartt Bell (freshly awash in his National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award nominations for All Souls Rising) and Rafael Alvarez (then writing for The Wire)—to see whether they would contribute an essay to the journal. Madison, very gracious, was too busy but offered a steady supply of student interns to get the journal off the ground, a relationship that continues to this day, ten years later. Rafael agreed to write a piece, but also asked me what I was doing the following Tuesday. He was having a party at his father’s rowhouse in Greektown for the former Baltimore Sun editor Ernest F. Imhoff, who had just published a book, Good Shipmates.

The writers at the party were everything I’d always dreamed them to be—tipsy, friendly, and very hungry. In the basement kitchen on Macon Street, while Acropolis and Zorba’s served gyros and calamari up the street on Eastern Avenue, Rafael’s father unearthed steaming trays of homemade lasagna from the oven, and fifty people milled through the house on a weeknight, drinking wine around the kitchen table, in hallways, on the stairs. For me, a twenty-something who hadn’t even published a story yet, it was a who’s-who of literary Baltimore. People didn’t seem to care that I was nobody; if you were there, you belonged. Rafael collected burgeoning writers like strays and gave them a taste of “The Holy Land,” Southeast Baltimore. That night, I met a tall, gangly redhead named Gregg Wilhelm, father of the CityLit Project, and in the ten years since we since have collaborated on writer’s happy hours, panels, an anthology, writing classes at the Creative Alliance, and many glorious evenings of dinner and drinks at Bistro Rx near Patterson Park.

I have met so many writers since that night, but that night, amid a crowd of strangers who smiled at me when I sought their eyes instead of looking away, the power of Baltimore community was cemented in me. As the dustup between Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs and David Simon has proven, we have a reputation as a bunch of thin-skinned people with a chip on our shoulders. In some ways we are the middle child who’s tired of not being the oldest or cutest, the devil or the angel, because we’re pretty damn cool, too. Some of the reason we’re overlooked is that we’ve gone about making our waves quietly: we have publication parties in our father’s basement for friends in Greektown, we host music salons for local and visiting opera singers in our living rooms in Druid Heights, we have bands play at our homes in the county, we publish avant-garde literature and letterpress books in rowhouses in Hampden. We make things for each other, when no one is looking.

Maybe some are upset with Mike Rowe because we want to keep it that way. Do we really want to see Baltimore listed as a top 5 city in Travel and Leisure? Baltimore’s so cozy, like that house on Macon Street, or the foldout couch in your parent’s basement, that when I am driving up Charles Street to the Walbert, I pass a friend going in the other direction on his bike. When I go for a jog at Patterson Park, Gregg and his family beep at me from their car on Patterson Park Avenue. When I have lunch or dinner anywhere, I will always stop at the table of someone I know to say hi. I see people in the writing community at art openings, and I see artists at readings. I see musicians at the opera and knitters playing cards at the bar down the street. “Well-kept” secret is an overused phrase, and yet there is something delightfully secret about our little pond (harbor) and surprisingly, incredibly unpretentious. Everyone wants you to get ahead in Baltimore; maybe because we are a blue-collar town, brought up on the backs of our immigrant families, not strangers and transients, like the major metropolitan cities have become, we still carry with us the hardships of being strangers in a strange land, we still carry the DNA of community building, of making sure our own are getting ahead.

***

My mother always was thrilled that I’d stayed in Baltimore, a few hours’ drive from her home on the Eastern Shore, despite my assurances wanderlust would claim me. She had met or heard about so many of my Baltimore compatriots she’d often confuse them. (“Are YOU the one who had a baby?” She once asked a male friend, who is single and childless, at the CityLit Festival one year). I am surprised at how many people have asked to attend her memorial, without meeting her, simply because she was my mother and made me. Even though I can no longer take refuge and long weekends at her house, there are people who will take me into their homes and hearts here, and who always have, even when I was a neophyte and had nothing to give in return, except my gratitude. I still think about moving sometimes, but it seems so insurmountable to start over somewhere else, in a strange city, when everything I’ve always sought in other cities is right here, sitting across from me at the Paper Moon Diner or next to me at the Club Charles. People who wear their hearts on their sleeves, who ask you how you are and expect an honest answer, who make a great lasagna, who don’t mind sharing it with strangers.

In the Catholic Church, during mass one goes to the altar to receive the communion Eucharist from the priest—a papery, stale-tasting wafer that represents the body of Christ. At Holy Rosary, I watch parishioners line up in the aisle between the pews and debate taking communion, as I had done for years as a child. I remain in my seat. This community is no longer mine; they are my blood, but I no longer speak their language. In fact, I never have. The community that has adopted me gathers in less-ornate places; we meet not in church but in coffee shops and basement kitchens. There is no priest, merely a facilitator who decided perhaps, on a Thursday, to have gathering on Saturday night. The communion is ideas, a love of the art and words, and we often drink beer, not wine. It’s not a blood connection, but a bond all the same. I think my mother would have approved.

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