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Too Closed for Comfort

July 4, 2007

Charm City, MD – Doormen are different in Baltimore, at least in my limited experience. In New York, I often found those at the doors of fancy Manhattan buildings to be large, young black men – bouncers stuffed into waistcoats, caps and jackets – who would eye me with the measured indifference that strangers to the city mistake for unfriendliness, then wave me on with a murmur and a slight nod of the head once I’d officially been deemed a guest. They never seemed too bothered by my existence either way, extending to me the brusque acknowledgment of the fellow New Yorker that, paradoxically perhaps, is the city’s intimacy – a kind of unspoken solidarity. For there to be a feeling of some deep social gulf between us would be absurd as the man who will open the glass-paneled door at one hour might be the one for whom you hold the subway car doors the next, or the man who infuriates you by holding the doors when you’re already on the train, or the man infuriated with you for holding them, or perhaps the man standing next to you in a packed car at the station who shares with you a snort of frustration and a disapproving shake of the head at all those assholes holding the doors.

In New York too, some of the doormen are white, or Hispanic. In Baltimore, it seems, all the doormen are black. Granted, I’m basing my impressions largely on the Mies Van Der Rohe apartment building that my father happened upon by accident when he moved to Baltimore from London, and where I lived for a few years. But the rule seems to hold true for most of the buildings, restaurants and hotels I’ve entered and left. At the time we moved in, having doormen was as much a security necessity as a matter of snobbery though neither consideration ever really occurred to us. For my father, the apartment was simply close to campus and, because very few people wanted to live in the city, affordable. Baltimore’s violent crime rate was then astronomical, while now it is merely horrendous. When another Hopkins professor was beaten to death by muggers nearby, we were rather taken aback.

Incident reports covered the Hopkins campus billboards, new alerts of armed robberies pinned on top of older ones because there was no more room. Almost invariably the line for “assailant” read “young black male.” And so it was that nervous whites employed working-class blacks at least in part to make sure they were safe from young black men with guns and knives. Not that the motley collection of codgers employed by the building where I lived could have done much to repel an armed attacker. My own interactions with the doormen were rather ridiculous, no doubt in part because I must have radiated discomfort with the whole enterprise. A strapping if sullen young lad, I had no need and still don’t for anyone to swing open the door for me, or for the jig of bowing and hat-tipping that made me feel like some snotty Little Lord Fauntelroy in velvet knee breeches. To their jaunty “there you go, sir” or “alright there, young man,” I’d mumble some incoherent thank you and hurry on through the doorway, whether in or out. One short old man who worked the morning shift was much more bitter and would sit perched on a stool with a scowl on his face as I emerged from the elevator. Seeing me, he would rise ever so slowly from his seat and begin to shuffle at a diagonal over to the far door, setting off a kind of race for who could go slower as I tried to avoid reaching the door ahead of him so that the illusion of his doing his job could be preserved. The doorman would win by a nose each time, punching the latch and applying the minimum amount of pressure on the door’s glass panels needed to swing the door open. Then I would nod my acknowledgment and scuttle out sideways through the acute angle created by his ministrations.

Little seems to have changed since then. Baltimore’s crime rate dropped somewhat in the last few years thanks in part to the efforts of a white mayor (now governor) who was miraculously elected in a city that’s 65 percent black by exploiting a split in support among two black candidates. That mayor, Martin O’Malley, was apparently less beholden to the sclerotic system of black patronage in the city administration (no more corrupt or inefficient than any other ethnic political machine, just one with fewer resources). The police adopted aggressive new street tactics, the housing market boomed, investment rolled in and fewer middle class people got mugged or murdered near their nice homes. Nevertheless, wealth is still overwhelmingly white, menial labor overwhelmingly black (though increasingly Hispanic too), whites don’t dare to tread in most black neighborhoods – wracked as they are with poverty, crime and drugs – and the black doormen are still scraping and servile to the white (though increasingly Asian) clientele that employs them.

John F. Kennedy said that Washington D.C. had the charm of the north and efficiency of the south. That dubious description could well apply to Baltimore. The two cities are after all very similar; Baltimore just has fewer politicians and more heroin dealers. But a sense of old Southern gentility still hangs on here that doesn’t seem to pervade its neighbor. So pro-slavery were its white denizens that the Union generals stationed a garrison in the city to make sure Maryland didn’t go over to the Confederacy. I can’t help but feel that the overly eager manner and exaggerated deference of the doormen is part of that heritage – something expected, a show. I once saw a skinny black man working the door at a downtown hotel in top-hat and tails engage in such out-and-out minstrelsy as he greeted guests that I could only think (or perhaps hope) that he was going overboard for his own comic entertainment and snickering to himself between performances – satire for an audience of one. Perhaps black playacting for the benefit of whites is so ingrained in Baltimore’s consciousness that no-one gives it a second thought. Perhaps it has become merely ornamental.

And yet in Baltimore, there is no subway used by all to democratize everyday experience. Blacks ride the city buses, whites generally don’t. Blacks go to city schools, whites go private. Black men gun each other down in the streets over weight or pride and law-abiding blacks in dilapidated neighborhoods live in fear, but Baltimore is thought to be doing well because white kids don’t get mugged so much anymore. Indeed, for many, the only real social interactions between blacks and whites are at those doorways, and the tenor of that interaction is simply more proof of how separate our existence is. When the door opens, it only confirms how closed off from each other we actually are.

To read other blog entries by Hasdai Westbrook or others at GUERNICA click HERE

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