This short story is inspired by the city of Baltimore and its multiethnic history and my wife’s family. It is a work in progress. Constructive feedback and encouragement is always welcome.
Like Stars in the Night Sky
Catalina Sofia Dansberger Duque
He paced back and forth with both hands clasped behind him. There was no urgency. Ed was still waiting on the corner as he did every Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 8:30 am. He walked five steps straight toward Ann St., turned left and took five more steps towards Boston, then left toward Wolfe, left again towards Fleet, and back again to Ann St. Every step was casual. He was going to his usual place to do the regular things and for that there was no rush, but there was the rhythm, the beat of the young that surrounded him.
He noticed the patterns of life. There was the college grad, primmed and pressed, that lived down the block above the old Jewish Deli where he used to buy the best cuts of meat for the company dinner parties. Then there was the new family blissful with their toddler as she ran down the street anxious to reach her school. The toddler still held the idea that school was a fun place to be-a game. The two moms held hands and called out to the little girl to slow down. Up the new apartment building, diagonally across from his own, were the inbetweeners. They were not single, not married, not tied to their work. They were yet to find someone to commit to, the place to call home, the career to be inspired by. The inbetweeners filled their time seeking experiences, tasting the speed of life, unsure of the tempo that they would fall in rhythm with. They gulped beer, sipped and sniffed wine followed by disapproving or approving nods, pretended not to smoke, and exercised with the energy of those yet to find a reason not to run. Ed loved them all. He knew each stage well and chose to live among them because it helped him remember.
He remembered this intersection. It was the same one he used to wait at for the cable car to take him to the office across town when he was young and not yet weary of the life he eagerly sought after. Every day he would deliver the daily paper sales report to the main office of the Baltimore Daily Post. It was a repetitive task but one he did with love and care because it usually meant he was delivering good news about all the events in the city. Sales were up, reporting was good, people were genuinely happy. The cable car picked him up on Boston, took a left on Wolfe, another left on Fleet, crossed over Ann St., and headed for Broadway to Baltimore’s city center.
An ambulance blasted over the cable car tracks and zipped up town toward Johns Hopkins Hospital. The tracks now stopped in the middle of the intersection. The tracks were preceded by the last of the blocks of cobblestone streets. The tracks lurched forward only to disappear abruptly into the pavement almost without a trace. It was a frozen timeline, forgotten remnants of progress. He noticed.
The inbetweeners sped by on their midgrade road bikes over the track and cobblestones. Their twin messenger bags, modern briefcases, were thrown over the back rack and bounced over the track and cobblestones. The parents with their infant strollers and skateboard attachments for the toddlers rolled over them after breakfast, lunch, and before dinner. The joggers stepped, bounced, and glided over them. The commuters drove over them. But only he noticed them.
The awareness of what had changed did not exist with a longing for it, a desire to recreate it, or a resistance to what was now. Ed did not have a conflict with any of it. Not out of indifference but out of understanding.
“Good morning, nice hat,” said the runner as he shared a knowing smile with Ed. Those were his favorite moments throughout his life, the split seconds when people are not bound by their roles, worries, expectations, or fears and make an attempt to connect with another, like starts in the night sky sending bright blinking messages before they pass on by, there is nothing to have or do just be and accept.
Ed’s face lit up as he adjusted his Oriole’s hat in satisfaction that his plan, to show support to his hometown, his home team, and to all the passionate people that believed in the baseball team, worked. He didn’t keep score but was aware of the increase in orange jerseys, hats, and cheers coming from neighborhood bars as the World Series came near. These were welcome sounds. Healing sounds. Sounds that are well known and recognized anywhere. Sounds that appear, vanish, and reappear through the years.
Like after WWII when Ed was old enough to notice the empty Bocce ball courts, the lack of Bar mitzvah invitations, the switch from cultural festivals to patriotic parades and how everyone became publicly monolingual. There was no Little Italy, German Town, or Jewish centers. Baseball games were listened to quietly. Communities became American and shed their former celebrated and proud cultural boundaries in the face of extermination, poverty, hunger, fear, hatred, and isolation.
In the face of public patriotism everyone became privately cultural. Holding Seders in private, asking for specialty food items in secret, and hiding their ethnicity in middle names and private family libraries.
The Baltimore Daily Post recorded these attempts to disconnect and survive. Ethnic bylines evolved to be “American” overnight. The Arts and Culture section was replaced by lists of enlisted and reports of the enemy.
Public fierceness with private joys became the status quo if you were from the country were the conflict was happening or part of a social movement, regardless of which side you were on. It happened first in WWI, then in WWII, and repeated itself during the Korean War, Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Cold War, Gulf War, AIDS war, War in the Middle East. If you were an “other” your life changed whether you were in the war zone or not.
In WWII it had been his family. The Danzingers became The Dans. His grandmother stopped speaking German to him. Any reference to Germany in the Baltimore Daily Post, the paper his grandfather had helped create when he first came from Germany in the 1800’s, was as the enemy to prove they did not support what was happening abroad. But that was all they were willing to change. They meant to keep their Italian, Jewish, Polish and German friends but their friends did not mean to keep them as friends. During these times sometimes fear won over reason.
Ed saw his best friend Ishmael “Izzy” isolated by others. He refused to shun his best friend but his sign of solidarity was of no use. Izzy had been told like the others that the Germans were to blame and Izzy in turn withdrew his friendship.
That is when he learned to secretly connect. He knew his friend’s birthday and all the Jewish holidays. He would leave him small reminders of their history: cookies, a bag of red marbles- Izzy’s favorite color, and dreidels during Chanukah. Izzy never thanked him. Like stars in the night sky he would send out his own bright signals of gratitude- tiny but visible. Izzy would leave a piece of cookie next to him at lunch, roll a pencil to him when he lost his, and drop a piece of his favorite candy in his coat pocket from his dad’s store.
Izzy eventually moved away to be with family in New York. This much he knew from overhearing his mother tell the neighbor after returning from the Jewish butcher shop. Ed and Izzy never spoke in person before he left but Izzy lovingly said goodbye by leaving him his most prized toy, a small Red Tail Angel toy airplane, in his jacket pocket on his last day of school and then he faded from his life forever.
Izzy absence was filled with a void of silence that opened his eyes and let him see he had not been alone. While people continued to be “American” and separate themselves from those obviously different, that they had been close to before, there were also many who defied this enforced separation with private acts of giving. Sometimes a random bread basket, a warm jacket, a good cut of meat, a few extra dollars in a paycheck or some much needed medicine would appear without the need to be claimed or thanked. It was given at times out of need but many times out of remembrance to the strength of the bond that existed as the people we were before the war because the giving was not specific to those you knew.
And maybe if you never had to live through something like this, these small private acts could be judged as public acts of cowardice but these acts of defiance do not appear in one particular country or by one particular people they just shine without proclamation or expectation everywhere. And if anything could be learned from the act of war it is the danger of disconnecting from the very essence of who we are, human consciousness can’t be snuffed out by hiding, it is what makes us human and aware of people appearing and disappearing and their needs. There is great danger in believing that difference is reason to kill people, that our human conscience and capacity to care could be erased with mass doctrine. We do not have to look like or be like others to care about them, acknowledge them, and coexist. It is not ignorance of evil, or a blind eye to hate, but openness to the goodness that exists.
Ed lived and changed. He married, had two children, earned a good income and witnessed the cycle of isolation that appeared at the beginning of every war and social movement. All of them affected him and his family in different ways but he and his wife and children did not take part in the divisiveness. Instead they directly experienced each wave by shopping at stores deemed “the wrong ones,” inviting to dinner the families left without an invitation at New Years Eve, bought their meats from the butcher with the funny name and beard, filled their pastry boxes with international delights and shared them with those who palates were still restricted. They celebrated their anniversaries, birthdays, and life joys with whoever’s turn it was to be labeled “the enemy”, their children, grandparents, and friends.
Ed’s children grew cognizant of the humanness behind the labels and life did not cease to impress the need to do so. When the stars in the night sky were erased with smoke after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died it was a clear reminder of what can happen when people choose to be moved by fear and not by the recognition of ourselves in others.
“Ella,” said the two moms. Ed watched the parents every morning repeat their demands, delivered with a giggle. His own children had been excited for life. He and his wife, Emma, spent many of their waking hours chasing after their son and daughter down the same street to the same school.
These memories were imperfect points of feelings with their own luminescence. When his son brought home his first boyfriend he felt useless. What he learned throughout the years and taught his children was reduced to nothing and he became a hypocrite in seconds.
The ache in his son’s, wife’s, daughter’s, and his eyes, Izzy’s eyes, his name was Izzy, were still vivid in his mind and made Ed feel invisible. This man, this Izzy, challenged all of his teachings with his presence, with his beautiful dark eyes, kind eyes. This man made his son feel centered like he had felt with Emma for over 30 years. Yet Ed did not know what he did not know and lived with the disappointment that dimmed the light from his son’s eyes, his own father’s eyes.
Why he thought at this late stage in life he would stop learning he could not answer. He questioned his beliefs and fought against his reactions until one day he gave up fighting and worked within the love he had for his son. He proved his public love and support when he asked his son if he could walk him down the isle at his private wedding.
His son and son in law created a life filled with immense joy and kindness. Both dedicated to serve, his son a cop and Izzy a military doctor; worry often lived in the parents’ hearts and minds. Years after the wedding, Ed once again stood by his son with his hand on his back as Izzy’s mom received the folded American flag from his fellow soldiers. She then turned to his son and placed the triangle of fallen stars on his lap, hung Izzy’s dog tags around his neck, and hugged him like she had hugged Izzy every day of his life- with the love of someone who reflected the bright light her son carried. Izzy died at war when his hospital was bombed. Izzy died providing surgical care to wounded Middle Eastern and American civilians.Ed wept for Izzy. He wept for Izzy’s mother. He wept for his son. He wept for his own ignorance and darkness.
The moms caught up to their little girl and then turned right onto Ann Street towards the school. They made a right at the black iron gate and disappeared into the parking lot. The same parking lot that had once been his playground, where he and Izzy played baseball when the nuns weren’t looking, only to be found out later when Izzy batted a rock into the lower school window. The evidence was still in his hands when the nuns ran out. Their punishment was telling their parents that they had to pay to replace the window. They never played baseball on school grounds again.
Izzy never got the satisfaction of seeing the school close and the nuns leave. Many businesses closed after Vietnam. When integration laws that were passed in the fifties were finally enforced in the sixties and seventies many people were still not ready, they escaped to the suburbs-the Great White Flight. It was enough to make the city mostly black- making the point of the laws mute.
But Ed and his family stayed. The law reaffirmed their beliefs and practices and while they were disappointed to see their old friends go they formed new bonds. Found streets that weren’t vacant, with different shops and recreated their communities with those who chose to stay, those who could not move but wouldn’t if they could, and those who like them clung to the city as their home. At times there was fear. Drugs, violence, and gangs made the stars at night even more distant but eventually people came back. Buildings were remodeled. The Jewish Deli reopened. The Polish church unlocked its doors. Barbershops cropped up. The signs on the stores read open, abierto, ouvert, their neon signs twinkling in the windows. The old Catholic school found new life as an independent international private school that welcomed everyone.The Dans, Abromsons, Phillips, and Anthony’s became the Danzingers, Adomovitch, Filipeka and the Antinou once again. They resided next to the Gomez’s, the Tukomara’s, O’Malley’s, Hendy’s, Ansaris, and Jeffersons.
Companies set up headquarters all over Baltimore and invested in the redesign for the city center with a new well-lit harbor walkway, museums, restaurants and shopping centers. Universities filled the city with the young, bright, hopeful and energetic.
Ed recorded it all in the Baltimore Daily Post. He bore witness to the changes that appeared and disappeared and how people responded to them. In his sixties, when his family sold the paper to the Baltimore Sun, he retired to travel with his wife, dance around the world with her, and savour the time with his children and grand children. Emma passed away in her late seventies from natural causes and was at ease at seeing her daughter content in her art career with her husband and her son shine once more after remarrying to a doting lawyer who helped him raise the three children he had adopted with Izzy.
Ed visited his daughter and son in law in Mt. Vernon on Tuesdays. They visited all kinds of galleries and museums. He visited Emma on Wednesdays by going to their favorite international movie theater and bookstore just as they used to do. On Thursdays he visited his sons and grand children in Federal Hill. They played, laughed, and cooked together.
Now at eighty Ed chose to live in Fells Point where he had grown up and raised his children. He lived in an apartment building at the corner of Ann and Boston Street filled with other aging city witnesses-his city family. They paint, dance, sing, and connect with life while it is still here. They breathe in the possibilities and reflect the changing beauty all around them. They have heavy hearts filled with joy and sorrow but most of all love and appreciation. Ed felt lucky to surround himself with those who embraced life feverishly at all its points and seldom looked back or forward but were content to just be.
Ed paced toward Ann Street as he waited for the city circulator and stopped when he looked up to see a woman in a station wagon. Dark long hair, dark eyes. Lovely. She reminded him of his Emma. She even had that same hurried look and pursed lips of someone who is eternally late.
The commuter looked back at the old man in the 70’s jacket and white and black Orioles cap pace back and forth and watch everyone else go about their day. She wondered where he could be going. She was late for the job that was not a writing job, her passion and dream, and dropping her daughter off at a school she didn’t love. Her days were filled with questions, worries, and anxieties. She saw the man on the corner and wondered what his story was. She at least felt grateful that she was not alone like that . He looked up at her, she looked away afraid to make eye contact and make him feel uncomfortable. She pressed her gas pedal and drove through the intersection over the buried cable car tracks and to the new private international school in the old Catholic school building, not really noticing any of them. He noticed.
Ed stepped onto the circulator on Boston Street. The electric powered bus drove down Boston, made a left on Wolfe, left on Fleet, over Ann Street towards Broadway and down the city center. He studied the city skyline dominated by the historic neon Domino Sugar sign and how its reflection on the harbor blended with the reflection from the lights of the Hard Rock Café guitar sign at the top of the smoke stacks from the old power plant and with the other skyscrapers that had cropped up throughout his life.
He remembered Baltimore when you could see the stars in the night sky. And like stars in the night sky people appear and change into the open space of life. Life appears and disappears by itself and we get to decide whether to reflect the light.