Living in Pigtown

In southwest Baltimore, a couple of blocks from the shiny Inner Harbor and the pristine new baseball park at Camden Yard, is an area known as Pigtown. The name came from the days when they drove the pigs through the streets to the slaughterhouses. The slaughterhouses are gone, now, and with them, the pigs, but the name lives on.

Most of its residents are poor lower and lower-middle income families. Many families have lived here for generations, since the days of the slaughterhouses. Often, grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren, live within a couple of blocks of each other. Sometimes, three or four generations are packed into the same row house.

In the summer, the windows are always open, as if gasping for breath. The electric fans rattle at a constant frequency. But they seem to provide little relief to these un-air conditioned brick ovens.

From one window, a baby's scream competes with the hip-hop beat from a boom box. They are punctuated by the occasional "Shut jo mouth, 'Nessa! Momma had just enough of that." A slap silences the scream, but only temporarily. After a few seconds, the scream resumes.

From the window, next door, a male voice and a female voice shout at each other. The argument ends with a slamming of the back door accompanied by the repeated banging of the screen door.

The banging ricochets between the rows and rows of houses. It starts a chain reaction of barking stray dogs and screeching stray cats. Their howls zigzag through the neighborhood.

Washington Boulevard runs through the middle of Pigtown. There, the commerce is conducted by a few mom and pop shops. With sparse shelves and few customers, daily survival is always a wonder. In the cash registers, food stamps outnumber real U.S. currency.

Once, every month, I follow the alleys through Pigtown until I pop up on Washington Boulevard. Just off Washington Boulevard, in a strip mall next to the B&O Railroad Museum, is Diggable Styles.

Diggable Sytles is a combination hair and nail salon. It has two shampoo bowl seats, four styling seats, two hair drying seats, and a nail care table. All the equipment look new.

Compare to its peers in the neighborhood, Diggable Styles is a relatively successful shop. It has had its share of bad times but somehow, it manages to pull through. In the desolate economic landscape, it stands in defiance of poverty.

Today, Jackie is the hairstylist on duty. As I step into the shop for my monthly hair cut, Jacki is talking up a storm. "When Ms. Mammy came in, she wanted...blah blah blah"

The manicurist smiles and nods. The two customers listen, without any interjection. I sit down and join her audience.

Suddenly, Jackie stops. She notices a couple entering a car parked outside the shop. Jackie shouts, "Tony left, yet? Tony better not leave without coming by here. I promised him a special cut, so he better not leave without coming by here."

The couple nods, waves their hand, and drives off.

Jackie returned to her monologue, "Hmmm, Hmmm, Hmmm... Such a shame! A real crying shame what they did to him. Tony's a good boy."

Jackie turns to the manicurist, "Remember when Tony was little?"

The manicurist smiles and nods.

"Remember when his mama used to ask him, 'What yo name? What yo name? Is yo name Shit? Yo name's Shit, ain't it?"

The manicurist laughs, "Yes, and little Tony would say, 'No, Ma'am! My name is "Mark Anthony Wilson, the Third.' Then, he'll point in the air."

Both the manicurist and the hair stylist breaks into several minutes of laughter.

"Yes, it's a crying shame what they did to him."

The mood is solemn, again.

"Ju know his mama's a dope addict, don't you? Spent half her life in jail. They finally had to take him away from her. Sent him down to Florida to live with his aunt."

"After all that, he still loves his mama. Every time he comes back to visit, he's begging his mama to leave here to start her life over, down there. After all those times she called him "Shit", he still loves her. Tony's such a good boy."

"Ju know that Tony started college, this fall, don't ju? Did good in school and made it to college! That makes it a bigger shame."

The manicurist nods.

"He came back, this week, to visit his mama over school break... Hmmm, Hmmm, Hmmm!" Jackie shakes her head.

"Answers a knock on his mama's do... Hmmm, Hmmm, Hmmm!" Jackie shakes her head, again. This time, speckles of tear dot her cheek.

"When he openned the do, they shot him. Didn't even know who they were. Suppose to be for his cousin, Leroy. But, Tony answered the do. Shouldn't have answer the do without looking out the window first. Guess Tony got too use to living in Florida."

Jacki stops for a moment.

"Now, he's paralized from the neck down."

Jackie is quiet again. For the first time at Diggable Styles, I receive my hair cut in silence.

As I pay for my cut, Jacki breaks the silence, "He'll survive. Tony's a good boy. He'll make it."

"He'll survive." Jacki repeats as if to convince herself.

I didn't know Tony, but I nod in agreement.

At the same time, I question myself, "Will Tony really survive? Will Diggable Styles survive?"

As I walk back down Washingtion Boulevard, I looked at the empty store fronts and the boarded houses. Urban decay has devoured half the neighborhood and is encroaching on Diggable Styles.

I want to scream, "Run Jacki! Run Diggable Styles! It got Tony and is now coming after you!"

By P. H. Chen


Epilogue:

The Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF) Baltimore is trying to give kids in these neighborhoods a fighting chance. Find out how you can help.