The second day after I landed in Baltimore, two Teach For America teachers from my new school took me for a drive past the school where I would be working. At least they said it was a school; to me, it looked more like a small prison or perhaps an army bunker. The dismal brown two-story building had only one or two windows visible from the street. The front steps were covered with trash that had collected in the corners in heaps. There was an enclosed chain link overpass that led from the school to the “playground” across the street. The “playground” was a slab of concrete with so many tall weeds growing from the cracks that it looked like a surreal forest of sorts littered with trash and colorful swirls of graffiti. There was a swingset but no swings and a few metal remnants that looked like they may have once been slides or jungle gyms.
I peered out the window at my destiny for the next two years. I fought to hold back my anger and fear as we rolled on past block after block of boarded up row houses and groups of young men in oversized white t-shirts standing on corners staring at the car with disdain or maybe anger. I had never seen anything like it before in my life, or even on TV. One of the veteran teachers, a real smartass, chuckled and asked me if I was okay back there. I wanted to punch him in his smug face. It wasn’t funny. “You’re not in Kansas anymore, darling,” the other one added. But that was just it, I wasn’t from Kansas, I was from NY. This should be cake to me, or at least to my vision of me. “I’m just tired from the drive. Can you just drop me home?” I tuned them out as they drove up Calvert Street. We stopped at at a light and I stared absently at a group of guys on the corner; the same guys I saw yesterday standing in the same spot. I vaguely wondered if they were drug dealers.
They dropped me off where I was staying. I didn’t have a home, not yet anyway. My apartment wouldn’t be ready for two more days. I had been staying with Stanton, who I’d made friends with during TFA training in the Bronx. Truth be told I had a bit of a crush on him and was just masquerading as the cool, laid-back friend, you know, just one of the guys. He grew up in Baltimore and his family was kind enough to take me in and feed me delicious, exotic food, I mean really, whose mom knows how to cook Indian food and is not Indian? My mom is Jewish and she couldn’t make a matzoh ball to save her life.
Over the summer in the Bronx on the bus back to SUNY Maritime campus from our placement school, Stanton and I had bonded over our race. It had been a long, hot day but we couldn’t complain as our school was the only school with air conditioning and the other buses came back filled with haggard-looking corps members drenched in sweat. TFA had planned the evening’s meetings to be organized by race. I was joking that I didn’t think they’d have a black, white, and Jewish group; so I must be meeting with myself. He replied that he could join me except for the Jewish part. I was floored; the only biracial person I had met besides my brothers was a kid in middle school that everyone thought I should date because we were the “same”. (I acted insulted but secretly thought he was cute and wished that was all it took.) I studied Stanton as if it were my first time seeing him and sure enough his head of curls, slightly widened nostrils, and light tan complexion jumped out at me, suddenly registering a bit of diversity. We spent the next five weeks drinking at the dive bar down the street in the evenings and shouting about how mixed people are the best looking, citing Lenny Kravitz, Derek Jeter, and Mariah Carey as prime examples.
Anyway, I was staying in Staton’s childhood home, which was essentially a mini-mansion with three immaculate and impeccably decorated stories. It did not resemble the two-story, three-bedroom house straight out of the 70’s that I grew up in. His mother was a lawyer and his father an engineer who took a year off to serve on the Baltimore City Board of Education. I adored their intelligent, passionate political discussions over dinner. I felt like a full-fledged member of the Cosby family, except that Stanton wasn’t my brother and that was a good thing since I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. When we started at our new school, things changed. Stanton started seeing Rachel, who was in her second year of TFA and of course going to be his co-teacher. How perfect! I nearly gagged at the cuteness. Me? Well, I was stuck with the only classroom that was still open space with the only section of carpet that hadn’t been replaced and was therefore stained and in places mouse-nibbled completely bare. On our first tour of the school, I silently prayed for any room but that one. And sure enough that had sealed my fate.
Things were hectic in that week before school started. There were supplies to buy, except I only had $100 dollars to my name to last me until I got my first paycheck, whenever that might be. I didn’t have any furniture for my apartment. Then, there was food and clothes and conditioner for my hair that soaks it up all sponge-like. So I gave myself a pep talk. Why sit and fake-smile while Stanton and Rachel bring back bags and bags of markers, paper, books and the cutest rug from Ikea with just enough brightly-colored circles for each student to sit on one during read alouds? (His mom even came home with a big box full of books for their classroom that had been donated by the lawyers at her firm. Then, she proudly laid five checks on the table that were to go towards the purchase of more books!) I thought, screw this, I’m going to head down to my classroom and clean and organize at least. That will take the edge off of all of this. I spent all day arranging these blackboards on wheels to construct a makeshift wall between my room and the other class sharing the same open space. I felt better too when I found a teacher desk abandoned in the hall and pulled it into the back corner and dusted it carefully. Sweating, dusty and accomplished, I headed back up Calvert Street through the ghetto to Stanton’s home, now a bit more able to maintain my polite smile.
The next morning, I headed to the dollar store with a $10 budget and picked up a few things to decorate my classroom with. (Well, nine things to be exact– tax can be a real bitch.) After shopping, I headed to school with a smile on my face, “ I can do this,” I kept telling myself over and over, beginning to feel the vibe of the southern rap music on the radio all the time. I turned it up and soaked in the cityscape, noticing how the scenery scared me a little bit less with each trip to school. “I can do this.” I waved hello to the secretary and headed up to my room. I almost didn’t recognize it, the makeshift wall I had carefully constructed was gone and all the boards were in the other classroom. In the center of the room stood a short, older woman with a weave that reached down her back to her rear end. She wore thick, heavy glasses and a headband that cut across her face obscuring her eyebrows.
She moved towards me. “Oh, good! You are nice and tall. Can you push that desk over here?” I looked in horror at where she was pointing. She was pointing at my desk, the one I had meticulously cleaned the day before. Is this woman kidding me? She has already emptied my room of furniture and now she wants me to move my desk into her room?! She must’ve read the look on my face, because she flipped a thick clump of braids behind her shoulder and gave me a smile. “You didn’t think this stuff was actually yours, did you?” Feeling hot tears welling in my eyes, I feebly shook my head, backed out of the room and fled down the stairs and out into the hot sun just as the dam broke and the tears started tumbling down my cheeks.
The further I got away, the better I felt in an empowered sort of way. I turned up Calvert Street heading towards safe, richie-rich land. Empowered, maybe, but also feeling bitter and frustrated by this straddling of two worlds. Neither seemed to be working out for me. I started thinking about how badly I wanted to get in touch with the community I was going to be working in and see if I’d be accepted. It was an urge that got stronger as my fear subsided and curiosity surfaced. I hungrily devoured the city wanting to really know Baltimore and not crouch in a glass house throwing stones at reality. As that thought materialized, I passed the same corner on Calvert Street that had always caught my eye. About five of the same guys I had seen before were standing in front of the stoop, in front of the only rowhouse on the block that wasn’t boarded up. An idea hit me.
Why didn’t I just stop and talk to those guys? Calvert Street was pretty busy at this time of day. At night all the lights turned to flashing yellow so cars could cruise by without having to stop. But it wasn’t night. They couldn’t kill me in broad daylight or anything, right? What did I have to lose? Who cares if I get hurt anyway? Wasn’t it inevitable living here? I was already in a shitty mood and stuck here for two years and so far it sucked. I figured I might as well get my feet wet and do something crazy. At least it was daylight, I assured myself again, most people get killed or mugged at night anyway. I think. At the next block I made a right and circled back around to head up Calvert again.
For the first time since my plane landed in Maryland, my heart was racing, and I liked the adrenaline it pumped through my veins. I rolled up to the red light on the corner. One guy was leaning against a parking sign close to the road. I took a deep breath and rolled down my window.
“What up mami?”
“Not much, do you guys mind if I hang out with y’all.”
(I was trying out that “y’all” thing, since everyone down south said it and I didn’t want to seem like a Yankee.)
He looked at another guy who was wearing a black and white bandana on his head and a wife-beater tank that showed off his hard, chiseled body-and hard, chiseled body guy shrugged.
“A’ight, if you want.”
This guy doing the talking was kinda chubby and about 18 years old and didn’t seem that intimidating really. He was definitely not the head guy but he said I could, so why not? I took a quick glance at the other three guys on the stoop, briefly noting that I was outnumbered if it came to a fight and then cut across two lanes to park on a side street. When I put the car in park, it struck me to wonder if my car would be stolen, but I dismissed the thought. Who would want a ‘96 bright blue Mercury Sable anyway? I hopped out and checked for parking signs. I am a New Yorker after all. But, there were only bare sticks of metal, protruding out of cracked concrete where, I assumed, signs used to be. I opened the passenger door and double-checked the back seat for anything that might excite a petty thief, then I locked my wallet in the glove compartment for safe keeping. I locked the doors twice, maybe three times, with my remote clicker and crammed my keys in the back pocket of my jeans.
Strutting across the street, I felt another rush, for once in my life completely unsure of how the next few minutes would turn out. Surprisingly enough, there was no little voice of reason warning me to slow my steps. Less than gracefully, jolted by the honk of a passing car, I jumped up onto the curb. I gathered my composure and looked up at the guys, all five of whom were silent and staring at me like I was a creature from another planet. I could’ve been on another planet and would’ve felt the same. The guy with one foot resting on the stoop lit a cigarette without taking his eyes off me and passed the pack around to his boys. He tipped it towards me and I shook my head no.
I was desperately willing myself to speak when the chubby boy broke the silence and asked me if I was from around here. Though I was certain they all knew I wasn’t, I said not and explained how I came to Baltimore to teach and a guy standing completely on the stoop chuckled and in spite of all good judgment I look up at him and ask what’s so funny. He replied, “Nah I didn’t mean no disrespect, it’s just you standin’ here wit a bunch of dropouts, yo.” They all laughed and I just nodded. “Girl, that gonna be a hard job round here….shit.” “I know,” I replied. Then someone asked where I was from. “Yo! NYC, baby.” I didn’t have the heart to explain I was actually from the suburbs of Long Island. But is was all going much better than I had expected. I felt like one of the boys as we stood there chatting. I began to relax and enjoy myself. Yes. This was why I came to Baltimore.
More comfortable, I started taking in more of my surroundings. The building across the street was surrounded by barbed wire and there were two completely wrecked police cars in the parking lot. I asked what the building was. A young skinny boy said, “It’s the parole office, so we ain’t got far to walk, “ then took a swig out of a bottle mostly hidden by a paper bag. I stared at the building again and saw a thick-necked dude strutting up to the door. An uncomfortable feeling eased its way into my stomach and a voice whispered, “What the hell are you doing, Paige?” Just then, as if to confirm the need for concern, a blaring stereo broke the silence. Mothafuckas and niggas boomed from a pristine while Cadillac Escalade rolling on extra large tires with gleaming spinning rims. It pulled up on the cross street and the scariest man I had ever seen jumped out of the front seat, leaving the door open, walked straight at me. I didn’t know what to do besides stand there frozen, soaking in the gleam off his shining bald head and hope that the eyes behind those dark shades were kinder than he looked.
He stopped about an inch from my face and tore the shades off violently.
“What the fuck are you doin’ standin’ on my corner?”
Centimeters away from his wild eyes, I saw a certain fury behind them as well as three tear drops tattooed on his cheek as if they had just fallen there and left their mark. (I later learned that you get those in prison to represent the number of people you have killed. I am glad I did not know that then.)
“I can leave if you want me to,” I squeezed out meekly from trembling lips.
“ I just asked you a question. Answer it. What the fuck is a girl like you doing standing on a corner like this?”
He was spitting the words in my face and they hit me like rocks. I didn’t know how to answer or whether to answer or what he wanted to hear. So I just stared back as my breath caught in my throat.
“Are you here for drugs?”
“Are you on drugs?”
“Are you a cop? That’s it you’re a cop aren’t you?”
He paused. His eyes widened as he searched for what to say, then took a drag from his cigarette
He blew smoke right in my face.
“No,” I said holding back tears as my eyes began to water from the smoke.
He paused long enough to take two more drags, eyes darting around my face, clothes, body…searching for answers.
He looked at me a long time then a huge smile crept across his face.
“Yo, you cool then. Hey chief get this chick a 40!”
I let out an exhale though he was still standing awfully close.
“No thanks, I’m alright, I drove here. “ I stammered, confused yet pleased with this turn of events.
“Whatever, I like the idea of you standing here prettying up my corner and all.”
He was still inches away from my face and I think I liked him better when he was accosting me.
“You want to go upstairs with me for a little while?”
“I’m..um…no thank you…I am just going to chill here. I just wanted to get to know the neighborhood a little, since I am going to teach here.”
He laughed at my comment but launched into a passionate speech about the trouble with Baltimore schools. The other guys chimed in too and I stood there talking with them for nearly an hour. Finally I said I had to run and the boss guy with the tattoos on his face gave me a hug that lasted a little too long. But who could blame a guy for trying? I clamped hands with the other guys and waved as I headed back to my Mercury Sable and back to life on the other side of the ghetto.
I passed that corner hundreds of times in those two years and always waved but never stopped again. I guess you have to be at the end of your rope to be that daring. Still, I was proud and I often thought of their words on my toughest days. Wanting to give hope and compassion to the next generation, hope and compassion that the Calvert Street boys never had. I smiled when my friends were in my car and would say, “Wait, you know those guys?” and would be totally dumbfounded when I said yes. I told the story at a TFA party once and most didn’t believe me until they saw the guys waving to me.
The director of TFA Baltimore told me, however, to never tell anyone that story again. He said it sent a dangerous message. Those words stuck with me, unsettling me with conflicted emotions. What exactly was the danger in my story? Sure, it’s not necessarily a great idea for young women to stop and talk to drug dealers. Yet, there was such gold to be had in taking that risk.
A year and a half later, I was driving up Calvert Street at about 8:30pm through the flashing yellow lights. As I approached that corner, I saw the flash of red and blue lights. Five guys were splayed face down on the concrete. They were being handcuffed. That was the last I saw of the Calvert Street boys.
Paige Vaccaro is the founder of a nonprofit organization, C.R.O.P.S. and taught at the elementary and intermediate school levels for 12 years. Her most current writing can be found on her blog.