Another Land, by Lawrence Jackson

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From Shelter, a memoir, which will be published this month by Graywolf Press.

I plotted my return to Baltimore the day after the heaviest snowfall in a decade, a bright January afternoon. I was in town with my sons, who were sitting for entrance examinations at a local boys’ school. While they speed-penciled the bubbles, I would look for our new home. I had grown up with two people who held real estate licenses in Maryland, but I didn’t quite think of them. I would be looking in another part of town.

I found the realtor, a trim, energetic, dark-haired Tab drinker. She drove an upgraded SUV, freshly detailed despite the snow and salt, and when I climbed in she handed me a folder with a dozen listings. The realtor had not grown up in the city, and her words twanged with eastern water’s edge. Her son had recently graduated from my old Jesuit high school, and she was easily familiar with me in a way that emphasized her presumption that with only slightly different decisions, she could’ve been the Johns Hopkins recruit and I the local factor working on commission. I was reluctant to concede this, not simply because it was so readily true, but because the more clear-eyed fact was that she was my better. As soon as I told her where my mother lived, she would know the sort of visa I required to visit her part of the world. How long would it take, or in what manner would the company have to be mixed, before my own country idiom began to show?

We begin the outing in Homewood, near the campus stadium, peering into elegantly appointed, English-style row houses on University Parkway, followed by a couple of duplexes as we climb the hill. The first residence is to me a place of ethnographic wonder. The opened doors reveal the organs of a species akin to but akimbo from the tribes where my own life has been rooted. The interiors of these lodges are guarded by identical fireplace sentinels: framed city maps from the Early National period. The mouths of these charts open at the basin of the Patapsco River, then are mounted by neighborhood cheeks called Fells Point, Jones Town, and Baltimore Town. Strewn about the living and dining rooms are the same wingback Windsor and Queen Anne chairs, highboys and credenzas, the Persian rugs never differing in texture, the Pikesville and Sagamore rye whiskeys brushing shoulders on a sideboard not far away.

Years of browsing antiques, purchasing an occasional curiosity at a museum gift shop, scouring the libraries for maps of Pittsylvania County, and making furniture by hand led me here. I found a satisfying charm and a longed-for but achingly unfamiliar residue of pedigree. Four miles to the west, where I was born, seemed like another land.

Although it has seven sides, Baltimore is shaped like baseball’s home plate, only the vertex of its bottom tacks to the right, and a chunk of that bowel of land is bitten off by the salty Patapsco River. After the Benin and the Biafra, we have roosted on the bight of the Patapsco. Charles Street is the city’s spine (although it must give way to Hanover Street to cross the river), climbing the hill and separating the city into west and east sides. North Avenue splits the city again into northern and southern halves, though the main geographical distinction is west or east of Charles. The Homewood, Roland Park, and Homeland neighborhoods are bunched around Charles Street, the name an ancient echo of the English Civil War and of Maryland’s founders’ House of Stuart Jacobite leanings. Beyond the Johns Hopkins campus, west of York Road and east of the Jones Falls, lies the Royalist residential part of the city. With the agent I surge up Roland Avenue, parallel to Charles Street and just slightly west, encountering the college assistant dean, who represents the university in my contractual negotiations, on a perilous morning jog in the snow. We pass the grocer, who fields a doorman and adds a one-dollar surcharge to every item.

At the Northern Parkway, we turn east. When we had half days in high school, I used to catch the no. 44 bus. The agent and I cantilever our way back from the snowbanked boulevard onto a street filled with meticulous, retiring, brick or stone colonial-style cottages.

One house, right by the Methodist church, offered a fetching price, but the overwrought flower beds suffocating the walkway between the rear door and the garage, and the cloisonné and bijouterie stacked high on every shelf let me know that it wouldn’t work out. The owner had devoted herself to the task of membership in her class with so much intensity that she would never discard a darling fawn, like the person who sucks up the entire kitty playing hearts. We didn’t see the world the same way. The negotiations would break down over an improperly cherished memento by the boy who had once ridden by her house on the no. 44.


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