Baltimore, you see, is a lightless, no-night town, a kind of club basement, come-on-over-and-have-a-beer, one-night-out-a-week town. The Block, which the Great Fire of 1904 missed and the Salvation Army never misses, is the city's only evidence of night life. Every city has its equivalent. It is a 20-minute walk along a string of pornographic bookstores, flophouses, penny arcades, tattoo parlors, surplus stores, restaurants and strip joints. It is also a street of sounds: horns being bruised by heavy fingers, the lewd swishing on a drum and a slattern's hurt cry, "Ya cheap bum, ya, why doncha come up with somethin', go for somethin', ya stiff." It is the street of the Gorilla Woman and Blaze Starr and transient strippers who arrive and depart about as often as the flophouse sheets are changed, a street where if you have it they'll get it and if you don't, well, "this ain't the Walters Art Gallery, champ." A street, just a G-string away from City Hall and police headquarters, where the cops will go blind if you lay a roll of bologna on them.
Yet the city—just as it is not certain whether it wants to be in the North or South—can't make up its mind about the Block. The street is infamous to some and a landmark to others. "Why," they say, "everybody from all over the world talks about the Block."
It is also being talked about in Baltimore. The Block was again prominent in the city's latest examination of its police department. In a 600-page report of findings and recommendations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police raked the city's police department. The report found the city's meter maids surly, the horse patrol archaic, inefficient and odiferous, and the pedestrian injury and fatality rate the worst in the nation. It is also implied that the police—poeleece to Baltimoreans—are not very bright. A number of times, it seems, they decided that citizens had died of natural causes, only to find later that the bodies they had sent to the morgue had fatal knife wounds and gunshot holes. The report did not get any better as it went on, but the citizens remained unflappable.
Still, despite its Keystone Cop police department and its insufferable torpor, you can belong and almost go back to Baltimore, where few genuine scandals occur, where nobody reads (at least not the Sun; the "best unread" newspaper in the country has a circulation of only 184,000). A city where the numbers business grosses $10 million annually and a big operator, who gets a big share of the take, gets caught—like some untutored back-alley purse snatcher—taking a 50� play over the phone. A city whose Society is one of the most exclusive in the country and where all the money is clutched by a few tightfisted hands. A city of factory workers who take their politics in the bars from lightweights whose political philosophy stops at Boss Tweed and Huey Long. A city that Alabama's Governor Wallace knocked over as if it were some Boys' Club amateur. A city where you can breathe a lot less polluted air than you do in New York and see much more than 25% of a day's sunlight, and where you never have to worry about featherbedding jackhammer jockeys chopping up the street outside your window at midnight. You can belong and almost go back to the city because there is order to life there, and a certain security to life there. Still you can't really go back, because it was (even though you were unaware of it then) and is a Harry Langdon kind of town, and if you have ever seen Langdon in a movie you have to feel sad.
Besides, Uncle is gone now, and much of the section in which he lived is gone, too; the young people have all grown and left for their barbecue pits and slices of green lawn, and now only the old stay firmly on. Uncle, who used to sell produce from a horse-drawn wagon in the alleys and side streets of East Baltimore, checked out one day in an alley—right in the middle of one of his typical arguments with a housewife who claimed his hard crabs were too light and his cabbageheads were too small. He lived all his life in East Baltimore, in the Highlandtown and Canton sections, and he used to say, "Sonny, these people 'round here are the most civilized people, and this is the most civilized living in the world. They don't wanna hurt anybody, and they don't wanna be hurt. They just wanna be left alone. And if you wanna know this town, you better know these people here."
Uncle knew his town and knew his section and the people who are left. People who make sure their life insurance is never overdue, people who work hard and can be quite impatient with dreamers. People who live in blocks of row houses—red brick trimmed with white lines, window screens with pastoral scenes painted on them—that are fronted by white marble steps. Women who scrub the steps and sweep their patch of pavement. Men who go to the corner bar and buy kettles and pitchers of beer and then go home and drink it in the kitchen. People who sit on the steps on hot summer nights and in the kitchen during winter; their parlors, as they call them, once were used only for wakes and weddings. People who will listen to a Governor Wallace, because he speaks to them about everything they have always feared—change, disorder and intrusion.
"Sonny, change will come here, too," said Uncle one day by a pier, while the nephew stared vacantly at a freighter crawling through the water, and wondered where it came from, where it was going and if he would ever go. "The young will leave," he said, "and the old will stay. But the young can't leave it completely. They take a lot of the life with them, and the life here in East Balamer is a lot like the way Balamer is.
"You can't help lovin' this town," he finally said, "but you never know why. It's kinda like bein' in love with a certain kind of woman, maybe one with a broken nose. She may not be the prettiest or the most attractive, but she's real." He then jerked the reins in his hands, and the horse and wagon eased away from the pier.