We staggered out of the Helping-Up Mission in Baltimore every morning at 5:30, a dawn processional of bums trooping down the streets in twos and threes, alone in the city, save for a few prostitutes looking for one more trick to cap a long night.
On those frosty mornings of January, our first task was to glance skyward, to the top of the Maryland National Bank building 10 blocks west. The color of the giant MN logo up there served as a beacon for our daily urban voyage. It was our weather forecaster. Red meant warm weather, blue meant cold, yellow meant no change from the pervious day and, when the beacon flickered, rain or snow was due.
Few of us spoke at that hour, except for the hunchbacked Pinky, who suffered from cataracts. Every morning he'd squint his eyes westward and mumble: "What color is it? What color is it?"
The answer always came back blue.
The forecast was important to us because most of our time was spent on the streets. This was a life of interminable trudges -- more than 10 miles daily -- between soup kitchens uptown and warm daytime shelters. So I quickly learned of certain anchors to the daily schedule. Just as a business executive knows where he will park his car in the morning or where he will meet a colleague for lunch, the homeless know where to go to eat, to use the bathroom, to get a few bucks, or simply to pass time.
I learned of these retreats by accompanying men who had a certain expertise or specialty in daily survival. Movie Man, for instance, knew about entertainment in town and taught me how to hoard food from the nuns at the Franciscan Center. Country Slim was a tireless neighborhood guide who led me to various soup kitchens, while Porter showed me the way to the heart of Father Chuck -- the patron saint of Baltimore bums.
The most popular hangout was the blood bank. And there wasn't anyone better at using the blood bank than Preacher.
Preacher was a dapper fellow in his early thirties who lived and slept in a three-piece black and white pinstriped suit that was so worn out the white stripes were brown. He claimed he was a Baptist minister and his trademark was a threadbare clothbound Bible. Inside the front cover of the book, nestled beside penciled clusters of phone numbers and women's names, he stored a few yellow joints.
"The Lord has a plan for all of us and mine is to spread that gospel. I am a spokesman for what it is," Preachers was fond of saying. "Whenever that collection plate come back with a little bit in it, I say thank the Lord for the love offering." In between love offerings, Preacher was a regular visitor at the Hyland Donor Center on Baltimore Street.
He took me there one morning.
Hyland was one of several blood banks in the heart of downtown and every morning at 7 o'clock, when the bank opened, at least a dozen men from the mission were at the head of the donors' line. Preacher kept an identification card on file at Hyland because he gave plasma there twice a week. He also visited other blood banks, even though it was against regulations to give regularly at more than one location.
"Everybody need a little extra cash now and then, home," he whispered, handing me a pen to sign in. This was when I learned Preacher had another motive for bringing me to the bank. For every new body a regular donor refers to Hyland, he receives a $1 finder's fee from the bank. I learned later that Preacher brought two or three new men into the center every week, in addition to sacrificing his own plasma. He was quite a popular figular with the doctors and nurses because of it.
After signing in, Preacher sat me down and told me about plasma. His lecture was later repeated by nurses, but I liked the way he put it better.
"Now plasma," he began, "ain't like givin' that whole blood Dracula stuff. When you gives a pint of whole blood you gets twenty dollars, but it takes eight weeks for all the cells to come back to your body, an' you feel like a wet rag with the shakes for quite a while. Plasma's much finer and easy as pie. What they do is separate the white cells from the red and give you back the red cells. Now the white cells that you done gived up, you can get those back real quick eating candy, fruit, whatver, you know?
"And the good part," Preacher said, fixing his smile on a passing nurse, "is you can give it up twice a week, if you wants, to. Eight dollars for the first donation, nine dollars for the second."
He pointed at a sign that said "Six Time Bonus Club" and explained, "And if you comes back twice a week for three weeks, you get a five-dollar bonus."
So the blood banks in Baltimore were quite popular hangouts among the down and out. I gave plasma three times during my stay there. Each session lasted three to four hours, most of that time spent with a needle in my arm.
The take was eight or nine dollars for four hours' work, but few of the men complained about conditions or payment. In fact most conversations in the bed-packed blood room were about white blood cells, and where the donated plasma might end up.
After blood and urine testing to determine if any alcohol or narcotics were in the blood, we were sent to the blood room in back where about 25 beds were lined up against two walls. The nurses told us to remove our overcoats and use them as pillows.
The nurses and most of the donors met so often they addressed each other by their first names. It was common to hear Peggy, a rotund brunet nurse, punctuate her rounds with "wake up, Charlie, this ain't detox" and "Put that dirty book down, Shorty, the blood's movin too fast."
It was crucial to stay alert. With 25 donors and only three nurses attending us, it would have been possible to fall asleep with the needle in your arm and end up giving much more than the necessary pint of blood. But, most important, we had to remember our identification numbers so that we were sure the red cells we got back were indeed our own. That first morning a young black man perusing Hustler magazine in the bed next to mine offered to assist me.
"Don't be nervous, rook, it's easy," he said. "I been here so many times whenever somebody ask me where I work, I tell em the blood bank. No lie."
"Here," he said, tossing a ball of Ace bandage, "you're gonna need this.
Then Peggy came, wiped an orange antiseptic solution on my forearm, and inserted the needle in a very prominent vein. The needle was connected by a long plastic tube to a pint bag next to the bed.
"Now," the veteran advised, "pump your hand with that ball."
The blood ran swiftly through the tube to the bag, which was suspended on a metal balance. When the bag was filled with enough blood, the balance would tip and I had to shout out "Down!"
Even though we began pumping blood into the bags at about the same time, the rate we filled the bags varied, depending on blood pressure and vein size, so the nurses had to scamper around the blood room from "Down!" to "Down!" clamping tubes. The bags were then placed in a machine that separate a half pint of plasma -- a straw-colored liquid -- from the red cells.
Twenty minute later the machine finished separating the cells, and Peggy came by clamping a half pint of red cells to the top of an aluminum TV pole at the foot of the bed. We recited our names and identification numbers to make sure we were getting our own red cells. Then the nurse unclamped the bags and the red cells were taken by gravity down through the tube into the needle and on into the arm. This produced an unnerving, tingling, warm sensation.
Later this process was repeated from beginning to end so that each of us gave a full pint of plasma and received a full pint of red cells back. After that first session Preacher and I took our earnings and bought a few candy bars to regain strength, then splurged on a $3.50 broiled chicken at the Lexington Market. There, we ran into Country Slim, and all three of us ate the chicken, bones and all, standing next to a counter beside a fish stall.
Preacher spent most of his blood wage on a Maryland lottery ticket because he'd dremed of a three-digit number the night before, then saw the digits on a license plate as we left the market.
"Ain't no disputin', ain't no refutin' fate," he kept saying over and over. "The Lord has a plan." We left Preacher and headed to West Baltimore, where Slim said he knew a friend of a friend of a friend who might lend him a little cash.
Slim was an ideal walking companion because he talked incessantly and, if the listener was in a listening mood, that could make the trek seem much shorter. In the streets, anyone tall or slender is aptly dubbed Slim. Thus Slim's full nickname, Country Slim, reflected his appearance as well as his rural North Carolina backwater origin.
Country Slim was 6-foot-2 and bony thin. He wore a Navy peacoat whose sleeves stopped abruptly just past his mid-forearm, and scruffy black fake-leather knee-high boots that he proudly wore outside his jeans "to show the hicks in B-Mo what style is." His hair was receding from the front back, so to cut his losses he took a razor once a week and shaved the thinning front, thus moving his hairline even farther back.
"An old Indian custom," he explained one morning in the Trailways restroom, razor in hand. "The Lumbees in North Carolina do it for good luck."
Slim had many poses. He was a southern gentleman, trickster, comedian, amateur philosopher and songwriter, and an indefatigable braggart who claimed he once swallowed razor blades and Chlorox for money. He was also so superstitious he'd never light three cigarettes with one match and refused to split poles on those long walks through the city.
But what made him such an endearing figure to the down and out was his inexhaustible collection of rural adages. Slimisms never failed to spill forth whenever a subject or situation warranted perspective.
Here is Country Slim on urban survival: 'Life is like the grape. It grows on the vine. When the vine go bad, ain't no point in the grape hangin' 'round."
On hunger and indigence: "Stomach growling so bad today sounded like a tractor-trailor done backed up in it and was changing gears to get out." And, "Ain't got a cent to pay the rent. I'm broke, disgusted and can't be trusted. I'm gone."
His harshest words were directed at Baltimore, which he cursed constantly. "Lookie here," he said one night over soup at the mission. "If'n I was in the airplane and knew it was gonna crash in Baltimore I'd go tell that pilot to land the thing a little ways west so I miss this hick town. If'n it hit 'round here's I know I die."
Slim had been a transient all his life, migrating from produce, chicken farm and knitting mill jobs in the Carolinas and Virginia. He came to Baltimore four months ago after being paroled from jail in a small town in Virginia, where he was convicted of armed robbery.
"Lookie here," Slim said one night. "The chief of po-lice, the mayor and the boss judge are all related and they job is to keep the niggas down. They had me painting lines on the highway. When time came for my parole they tried to make it easy-like for me to escape just so's they could get me back to finish the job."
Slim never went for the bait, and came to Baltimore after his release because his wife and two children were here. But once he got here he found she had left and returned south. So Slim was stranded in missions and at the mercy of stool pigeons -- he called them "cheese eaters" -- at the bus station who often turned him in to security guards for loitering. -
Like Preacher, Country Slim had a plan. He was going to cash in his welfare check and sell his food stamps and catch the first bus to Inglewood, N.J., where his mother lived and where he could get a job at a hotel-motel complex. In the meantime he wandered the streets searching for strokes of luck. One day he found a bus pass on the street and smooth-talked a commuter into paying $8 for it. Another day he hooked onto a work crew that went out cleaning the Bowie race track. When he returned to the city he spent his earnings on wine and a prostitute, but admitted later that it was little satisfaction.
"Had me $3.50 in my boots, so I had to keep 'em on the whole time I was making love, home," he said. "I was scared of gettin' my head punched."
The man had bottomless reserves of energy and was capable of loping 15 to 20 miles a day if the destination was worth the journey. And when Slim was down and out even the promise of one dollar was worth the walk.
So, after leaving Preacher that morning, we zigzagged our way north through alleys, to ward off the wind, and an hour later found ourselves in West Baltimore near a cluster of brick town houses on Pressman Street.
Slim ducked inside an entryway and knocked softly on the first floor door of the project janitor. A portly man answered, and Slim and he talked briefly about the mean old woman upstairs who threw Slim out into the cold. The janitor agreed totally with Slim that the woman was no good, pointing out that another man had recently met the same fate as Slim. n
This dialogue lasted about five minutes before Slim finally got around to the punch line. Could the janitor spare a few bucks? The janitor replied that he didn't have any money, but he did give us each a pack of cigarettes, which turned out to be the high point of the day and definitely worth the walk.
A few days later, Slim vanished, prompting a great debate one night at the Helping-Up Mission over his likely destination. Soldier Boy -- a young black dude from Detroit who shared Slim's animosity toward Baltimore, wore military clothing and went to bed every night with curlers in his hair to maintain his processed pageboy hairdo -- insisted Slim had caught the Greyhound north and he cheered his good fortune.
Another bum, however, believed Slim's itchy feet succeeded in landing him in jail.
Country Slim was destined to become another legend at the Helping-Up Mission, much like Old Louis. He was my favorite tour guide of down-and-out Baltimore and he led me to a number of daytime hangouts that I continued to frequent after his disappearance. The Franciscan Center was the liveliest of these retreats.
One of the first things I learned in Baltimore was that black and white bums avoid mingling in public once they leave the mission.At night at Helping-Up, blacks and whites shared cigarettes and meals, even nodded off in chapel with their heads on each other's shoulders. But on the streets, blacks and whites separated and throughout the day, whenever a white derelict came across a black in the cityscape, the men studiously ignored each other.
On my first morning out in the cold Jimmy, a young black from the District who later helped me land a temporary job in Baltimore, put it this way: "A black man's your brother, no matter how much money you got, usually.But a black man don't like to keep company with poor white trash in public, just like a cracker don't wanna be seen with no poor nigger."
It was odd formality, since so many places in Baltimore were shared by bums of all races. The Franciscan Center was a good example. Of the two daytime soup kitchens in uptown Baltimore -- Manna House, a little dive on North Avenue was the other -- the Franciscan was clearly the best.
Every morning between nine and ten, black and white bums snaked their way up Maryland Avenue to the center, a brick walk-up in a working-class row house neighborhood in West Baltimore. Outside the front door, while we waited for the nuns to open the kitchen, the blacks and whites began mingling and mixing in a haphazard line that began at the Franciscan porch and moved down the hill to a bus stop. On Thursdays there were two lines, one backing uphill and leading to the free clothing door, the other zeroing in on food.
The nuns led us into the tiny Franciscan dining room in groups of 10 and served coffee, sugar, fruit, candy and thick sandwiches of cheese and Lebanon salami. This was Movie Man's favorite haunt. It was here that he had a captive audience for his critiques of the latest films he had seen.
Everyone called him Movie Man because film was all he liked to talk about. He was a tall, light-skinned man whose old imitation camel hair coat was at least three sizes too big. He also carried a faint odor of urine, so the wooden seats next to him were always the last to be filled. But this never stopped him from discussing the previous Sunday's free movie at the Enoch Pratt Free Library or the twin Kung Fu bill at the Howard Theater.
Weekends were the toughest days for the homeless and destitute because so many retreats -- the blood banks, labor pools and soup kitchens -- were closed. Saturday and Sunday thus became the hottest day for bus station security guards who were kept busy bouncing bums from waiting areas and bathrooms.
The most popular Sunday morning perch was a McDonald's on Fayette Street directly across from Trailways. Here a bum could purchase a cup of coffee and sit all day without worrying over eviction. This McDonald's was so popular, in fact, that by nine or ten in the morning a score of bums were scattered around the eatery sipping or stirring their coffees and keeping an eye on traffic outside.
But some bums, such as Movie Man, were clever enough to save or panhandle $1.50 and attend the twin bill at the Howard Theater, where they could relax all day and enjoy the latest in Kung Fu entertainment amid the odor of stale popcorn.
The show the audience put on at the Howard was usually better than the gunfire, broken bones and rapes up on the big screen. The audience was a mixed crew of drunks, bums, old couples still in their Sunday finest, and young shouting and screaming black kids who provided instant replays in the aisles of some of the more daring Kung Fu routines they saw on screen.
It was there that Old Louie, the legendary Helping-Up bum, was said to have cracked an empty wine bottle on the grimy gray screen all the way from the back row because he was frustrated over a love scene that carried on too long.
Movie Man was there almost every Sunday, critically looking on from the second row at such flicks as "Golden Triangle" and "Fortress Under the Sun," whose sound was garbled and picture was out of focus.
When he wasn't there, he was sitting in on the Sunday free film at Enoch Pratt Library, whose theater was usually so crowded with derelicts and drunks that a bespectacled library clerk had to go up and down the aisle during the film sraying ample amounts of Glade air freshener.
Movie Man much preferred the Howard films. The library movies usually were so dull they put him to sleep. "Not enough violence," he said one day at the Franciscan, munching on a piece of cheese. "Now, for some folks Barbara Bel Geddes and "I Remember Mama" is good clean fun. I saw that and I like to puke. Rather have Bruce Lee any day. Sucker packed a mean punch." l
Movie Man was a native of Baltimore, he was proud to say, and worked as a manual laborer for quite a few years before landing a job with a local General Motors plant. Five years ago, though, he said, he came down with rheumatic fever and has been on disability ever since.
He didn't like to talk about GM. Whenever he came upon the subject he started talking about how the company was now manufacturing robots and developing lifelike human skin, before ending the discussion with furrowed eyebrows and a sustained sigh.
The only subject he was really lucid on was the B-cinema, and his favorite person to gab with was Cobey. Cobey was a library bum who spent most of his time on the first floor at Enoch Pratt buried in out-of-town newspapers. Movie Man also was a part-time library bum on weekdays, when he would trudge up Enoch Pratt's winding granite staircase and watch videotapes of education films such as "Roots."
Coby was a white retired laborer whose left arm had been amputated after it was crushed by a tractor. His bum's life intersected with Movie Man's at the Franciscan Center. While Movie Man talked film, Cobey rambled on about newspaper stories. One day Cobey was obsessed with the outer space exploration of the Voyager spacecraft and how important information on one of Jupiter's moons was lost when a Russian satellite interfered with U.S. communications.
"Sound like James Bond cowboy stuff to me," declared Movie Man.
"That ain't all. That moon was the one scientists said had some life on it," Cobey went on. "Russians gonna get there first now and get a few slaves."
Then, while the nuns handed out second helpings, other bums nearby unlimbered their own imaginations to the point where Bruce Lee was suddenly on his way to Jupiter. Of course whenever something like this happened at the Franciscan there were always several younger men eating nearby who would shake their heads cynically and tell Cobey and Movie Man to shut up that nonsense.
The Franciscan Center was a treasure trove of ideas and survival techniques. Movie Man, for instance, advised me to always have a plastic bag handy in my pocket to carry several extra Franciscan sandwiches back to the mission for when hunger returned. He also showed me how to fill my pockets with the sugar candies the nuns kept piled in a plate in the entryway.
And it was at the Franciscan that I met Porter, who turned me on to Father Chuck -- the patron saint of Baltimore bums.
Porter was a newcomer to Baltimore who had hitchhiked from Hagerstown and was looking for money to travel south to warmer weather. As soon as he arrived in town he did what nearly every newcomer did. He applied for an emergency welfare check, which everyone in the mission called the "mercy check."
While he waited for the bureaucracy to turn its wheels, he scoured the city for money, and one of his favorite quarries was Father Chuck, who was famous among the destitute for giving money out of his own pocket.
"All you gotta have is the right con and Father Chuck'll help you out," Porter barked one day as we headed to the priest's church, St. Vincent dePaul, located across the street from Baltimore's central post office. You could tell if Father Chuck was in if his camper was parked in front of the rectory. This day it was.
So was Fat John.
Fat John was Father Chuck's ward, an obese red-bearded vagrant who had constant trouble keeping his pants up over his flabby hips. He had been in and out of local mental hospitals for the better part of a decade, and was rather renowned on The Block for eating 37 hot dogs one year in the Polock Johnny's hotdog eating contest.
Father Chuck was to testify at a trial coming up in which Fat John was accused of vagrancy. The cops picked him up one night in an abandoned building on Pratt Street, with his pants all the way down to his knees. The cops called Father Chuck at two in the morning because they knew he always helped the down and out and they let the priest know that if he didn't come down right away Fat John was going to be charged with vagrancy and indecent exposure.
Fat John's usual daytime perch was the entryway of Father Chuck's rectory. When Porter and I arrived Fat John was there, filling up the entire doorway with his massive bulk, chewing on sugar candy. Father Chuck, a handsome young Italian-American wearing black glasses and a plaid shirt, soon opened the door and invited us in, firmly warning Fat John time after time to "keep your pants up, keep your pants up" and "don't act crazy, please." t
Fat John grabbed a seat at the kitchen table next to the refrigerator while Father Chuck presented a loaf of bread and a can of Spam. Porter and I took several pieces of the salty meat, then watched Fat John smother the rest of the entire can between two slices of white bread.
What followed was a 15-minute roundtable-discussion of wives, children, foreign affairs and the church, with large springlings of Fat John commentary.
"Father," Porter began, folding his hands in mock anguish, "life has been very, very hard. My wife left me and won't let me see my children. I ain't got a penny to my name, father, and I'm livin' in the mission."
"God helps us what helps us'selves, ain't that right, Father Chuck?" Fat John shouted. "Hey! It was snowing and raining out today. That's the devil beatin' his wife, huh father?"
"Quiet, John, please. Keep your pants up."
"Shoot, devil was just an angel gone rotten, a bad apple, huh father?"
"Anyway, father, I just, like, I don't know where to turn. Look at that paper over there. World's fallin' apart. Russians . . . Afghanistan . . . Iran . . . The Colts . . ."
"Hey! Jesus loved everybody, didn't he, father? Shoot, his father was the most powerful being in the universe."
"John, please. . . . You're right, Mr. uh . . ."
"Mr. Porter, you're right, the world's talking war again and it's a frightening thing. It's almost like Vietnam happening all over."
"Don't get me wrong, Father. I believe in America. This is the best damn country in the world. . . ."
"Shoot, Jesus walked on the water. . . ."
"America feeds the world and we got the best damn scientists around."
"Hey! Ain't that right father? Jesus helps everybody but nobody listens."
"Thing is, there's the saints and the ain'ts and I'm one of the ain'ts. When you ain't got nothin' the cops look at you keen-like and you're liable to land in jail."
Father Chuck held his hand up to freeze Fat John, then said, "I know it's rough. I was picked up for hitch-hiking once and had to sleep in jail."
"Jesus healed the sick, huh father?"
"Keep your pants up, John."
"Leprosy, amputations, the flu. Jesus was superdoc, huh Father?"
"John, please, we're trying to talk."
"Hey I love you father, you're all right," said Fat John, chewing on the Spam, and Father Chuck laughed.
Eventually, Porter got around to asking the priest for cash to get him by the next few days and Father Chuck dug into his pocket and pulled out five dollars. Father Chuck and a visiting nun then led us into an anteroom where we all joined hands and the priest prayed for us. But the blessing was interrupted by a phone caller who pleaded for $100 to ward off eviction.
It proved to be another walk worth making. Not only did Porter and I have a little meat in our stomachs, but we also came away with a bit of cash, which we promptly exchanged for beer and corned beef on Lombard Street.
Preacher, Country Slim, Movie Man and Porter showed me how a man could get by in Baltimore on little or no money at all. Food, shelter, a little spending change and entertainment were available around town if one looked hard enough.
But most of us still craved work.