midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the tag “Baltimore”

Ridin’ Scared: Whistling Through America’s Most Murderous City Park

Tomorrow my daughter Rebecca will run the Baltimore Marathon for the second time, quite an accomplishment for a 19-year-old, a running career I documented here, along with a video of the most enthusiastic and devoted marathon fan.

But I didn’t tell the story of my offbeat and slightly harebrained adventure in 2014 to see Rebecca finish the race in the heart of Baltimore.

I didn’t want to jam into a light rail train car at 6 a.m. or get stuck trying to maneuver and park my own car among nearly 30,000 runners and their families, so I came up with the idea to ride my bike to the start/finish area at the Orioles and Ravens stadium complex. I studied the Baltimore City map and found what looked like the most scenic and direct route to enter the city from the west, where I live.

My wife Amy and Rebecca urged me not to ride my bike all the way through Baltimore to the city center, concerned about my safety. But as Amy knows all too well, the more she urges me not to do something, the more determined I become to do it (Disclaimer: This particular practice is not recommended for guys as a lesson for improving your marriage.)

I drove to a Park & Ride just outside the city, embarked on my bike, and soon reached the historic 17th century mill village of Dickeyville, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the adjoining historic mill town of Franklintown. After riding through these pastoral, historic areas with their old stone buildings and lush greenery, I entered Leakin Park. Leakin Park was serene and beautiful, an oasis of nature in the city with streams, trails and mature forest that stretched for miles. I thought I was in the countryside.

But as soon as I emerged from Leakin Park, I entered Baltimore’s West Side slums. I rode several miles through blighted streets dotted with boarded-up and vacant houses and dilapidated urban housing projects, which dominated the landscape until several blocks before the stadiums.

I had no idea about Leakin Park’s reputation until more than a month later when I told my story of urban cycling to my wife’s family at Thanksgiving dinner. “You rode through Leakin Park? What were you thinking!?” was their response.

It was then that I learned that Leakin Park is known as the Deadliest Park in America. It is the setting in the Serial true murder mystery podcast – a spinoff of This American Life radio show – and the site of a search for a dead body in HBO’s The Wire about the cat-and-mouse chase between Baltimore police and drug gangs. Serial features the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in Leakin Park. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and is serving a life sentence for the crime.

Leakin Park’s reputation as a Dead Zone is well-deserved. It gained infamy in 1968, when four young boys were found dead in the park. Many believe that Leakin became a preferred dumping ground for bodies because of exactly what I experienced riding through it – it’s on the edge of West Baltimore’s crime-ridden neighborhoods, yet it feels a world away from urban blight.

Dead bodies discovered in Leakin Park have been documented as a research hobby of Ellen Worthing, who created the website Bodies of Leakin Park. Her research found that 67 bodies were discovered in Leakin Park since 1968 – a number that may actually be higher because of a six-year gap in Baltimore Sun library archives.

I was blissfully ignorant on my ride to the 2014 Baltimore Marathon. I was oblivious that Leakin Park was also leakin’ blood, leakin’ menace, leakin’ secrets and leakin’ revenge. I only saw one or two people during my ride through the park. Maybe I was lucky that it was 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Mayhem was sleeping in.

I enjoy telling the story now about my brush with death, my whistling journey through the graveyard, a 21st century Ichabod Crane on bike unwittingly fleeing the Headless Horseman. It’s a nice memory and a story that is ripe for great embellishments. But you won’t see me cycling through Leakin Park on Baltimore Marathon Day 2015. Body #68 will be somebody else.

DEAD BODIES IN LEAKIN PARK:

Leakin Park Bodies June 2011 jpg

Baltimore Riots Hit Closer to Home

Another liquor store -- apparently not my tennis partner's -- that was looted during Baltimore riots, including stolen ATM.

Another liquor store — apparently not my tennis partner’s — that was looted during Baltimore riots, including stolen ATM.

The Baltimore riots just became more personal.

As disturbing as it was to see Baltimore looted and burned from my living room in my suburban community 20 miles away, it was still anonymous rioters wreaking havoc on anonymous victims. That has changed.

I got an e-mail from my tennis community that a Korean-American who I have played against in tennis leagues, played with on the same team, and partnered with in doubles, was injured (I don’t know how seriously) and lost his business, a liquor store, to rioters.

The e-mail said that my one-time doubles partner “was knocked out by a brick, kicked, punched, batted, and pick-pocketed,” and that his wallet and cell phone were stolen. It continued: “His store was overrun by violent protestors who broke into his business, looted everything and eventually burned the store down. The store has since been boarded up by the Fire Department.  Everything is lost. Everything is ruined.”

The Wall Street Journal referred to my tennis partner’s tragedy in its April 28 story: “Several other fires burned around the city, including at Fireside North, a liquor store in West Baltimore, where a resident said the owner had given all his cash to looters before pleading unsuccessfully with them not to burn his shop. The shaken owner declined to comment.” Though the WSJ didn’t name the owner, a Korean online news organization did.

Overall, this is a tremendously complex situation that has played out in communities across the country that involves many factors including racism, police abuse of force, intergenerational poverty, lack of economic opportunity, failing educational systems, deplorable housing, lack of political will to address entrenched, systemic problems, hopelessness and isolation.

But what happened to my tennis partner is not complicated. It’s criminal, pure and simple. And those who perpetrated the violence and destruction should be apprehended and brought to justice – just like the Baltimore police officers who were responsible for the treatment and death of Freddie Gray, if they are found through the legal process to be culpable.

In my current graduate school class, Diversity Issues in Counseling, I read, “Black Like Me,” a book by a white author who took dermatological drugs that darkened his skin so he could experience life as a black man in the U.S. South and write about his daily life, observations and experiences. John Howard Griffin’s courageous experiment took place in 1959, a time of overt, oppressive and nearly intractable racism. But even 55 years later, one of his poignant observations still rings true, as demonstrated in Baltimore:

“I pray that the Negro will not miss his chance to rise to greatness, to build from the strength gained through his past suffering, and, above all, to rise beyond vengeance. If some spark does set the keg afire, it will be a senseless tragedy of ignorant against ignorant, injustice answering injustice – a holocaust that will drag down the innocent and right-thinking masses of human beings. Then we will all pay for not having cried for justice long ago.”

Griffin was right. Economic and social justice have been too long denied by a society too willing to look the other way while those unfortunate enough to be born into depraved and oppressive inner city blight conditions suffer through no fault of their own.

But he also was dead-on about the need to “rise beyond vengeance,” and about the “senseless tragedy” of “injustice answering injustice,” dragging down innocent and well-intentioned people through base behavior that harms the brave actions of those who dare to “rise to greatness” and address injustices through civil methods exemplified by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

My tennis partner was an innocent who was dragged down by vengeance. I am angry at the City of Baltimore for that. I have no doubt that more could have and should have been done to protect him, and others who suffered similar losses at the hands of criminals exploiting a volatile situation. I hope he is able to recover physically and economically. Whether he would ever be able to recover trust in a community he served, and that shattered it – both the city’s power structure and the criminals who attacked him and his livelihood – would seem less likely.

You can help my tennis partner recover through a Go Fund Me site: http://gofundme.com/BaltimoreRiot

Solidarity Amid Tragedy: A Ride for Tom

I spent New Year’s Day 2015 attending a funeral of sorts for someone I had never met. It was a moving event, literally and figuratively. Maybe 1,000 or more avid cyclists and casual riders alike gathered in Baltimore at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation – a starting point with sad significance — and took over the streets in a sea of bikes on a 35 degree day as the sun faded, riding in solidarity to the spot where a cyclist was killed by a drunk and distracted driver.

Tom Palermo, a cyclist, bike frame maker, professional, married father of two young children died Dec. 27 when hit from behind while riding in a bike lane on one of Baltimore’s more bike-friendly streets. The crime has attracted national and even international attention because of its egregious nature and the status of its perpetrator. Tom was run down by the second highest ranking bishop in Maryland’s Episcopal Church hierarchy, who had a flagrant previous arrest for driving under the influence. This time, the bishop drove away from the accident scene with a shattered windshield with a big hole in it from where Tom crashed through it. She returned to the scene later only after cruising by and being noticed by another cyclist who stopped to render aid, and who chased her down. She has been charged with manslaughter, driving with a .22 blood alcohol level (legal limit .08), texting while driving and leaving the scene of an accident.

When I heard news of the accident and the impromptu plan for a New Year’s Day memorial ride for Tom, I felt compelled to be there. If there was ever a case where the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I” applied, it was this one. I imagine all the cyclists felt the same kinship. I had spent half of 2014 campaigning for Maryland state delegate, and used my bike as a campaign tool to go door to door and to advertise. The bike was equipped with a trailer with campaign signs on each side and in back. It did not earn enough votes to win, but it made campaigning more enjoyable and kept me in shape.

However, I was often keenly aware how vulnerable I was – much more so than the one- to three-week long bike trips I’ve taken in my younger days. Most of the roads I traveled had no bike lanes or even shoulders, and traffic that could hit 40-50 mph or more. Drivers often seemed in a rush and distracted, oblivious to me. I was always one driver mistake away from meeting the same fate as Tom.

The Baltimore cyclists rode three or four miles on Jan. 1 to a makeshift memorial with flowers and candles and messages where the accident happened, and solemnly observed a memorial session with Tom’s family and bicycle advocates as a community.  A white “ghost bike” was locked to a pole in Tom’s memory. Many were angry – a homemade memorial featuring a bike wheel and bike seat stood in the road’s median, with the seat inscribed with “I Am Angry.” But this was a time to remember Tom and support his family. Justice would have to be sought later.

The vast majority of the people at the ride had never met Tom, just like me. But there was an unmistakable feeling of connection, of familiarity. Tom was us, Tom was me. He was 10 years younger than me, but in ways similar. He had a boy and a girl, just like me, two years apart, just like me. He loved to ride, just like me. At his memorial, his family talked about how hard it was for Tom to find time to ride in recent times, with a young family, a full time job as a software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a side business. I could relate to that; when my kids were 6 and 4, free time was at a premium.

On a sunny and relatively mild December Saturday afternoon, Tom had been able to carve out some time for himself and had gone out for a ride, and never came back. It was unbelievably, crushingly, maddeningly sad.

The light amid the darkness was the spontaneous reaction of people to be there, that people cared about what happened and showed it through their actions in what can often be a cold and uncaring world. That it mattered to be there. That all the texting and Twittering and Facebooking could not substitute for being present, for joining a brotherhood and sisterhood with a common avocation to acknowledge one of their own. I had debated whether or not to go – it was cold, I wanted to relax at home on a day off. But when the time came, I knew I would regret inaction, so I went and I’m glad I did. It was among the most moving events I have ever experienced, largely because of its spontaneity. A thousand cyclists claiming their piece of ownership of the streets – if only for an hour – is quite a spectacular sight.

As I have reached well into midlife, I have become more and more aware of mortality. This is nothing unusual. But incidents like Tom’s just serve to remind me – I don’t know when my number is up. Life does feel more precious; it becomes more urgent to strive for fulfillment, meaning and self-actualization. Perhaps there does come a point in everyone’s life when there is no more time to wait for tomorrow or someday. A week or so after Tom’s accident, we heard about ESPN’s Stuart Scott – BOOYAH! – passing away after a long fight with cancer. He was two years younger than me.

I imagine I will often think of Tom when I ride. I have thought about him every day since the memorial ride. And like every other cyclist there that day – I would bet my life on this – I am not going to stop riding the roads. It comes with some risk, but so does life.

I never knew Tom, but I wish I did. I have a feeling I would have liked him. I wish the best for his family.

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