December 25, 2008

posting by Caroline Picard

Passing by Clay Street in Annapolis she always heard the sounds of a different kind of life, a separate and impenetrable society. Clay Street wove behind her college house. It was the only black neighborhood in town. Supposedly there had been others. Surely there were more, but none so close to the historic district.     Fleet Street, they said, used to be a black street. Now, a quaint and crooked aside with Irish looking row-homes, stacked shoulder to shoulder in creaky colonial flights of stairs with doily curtains in the windows and garden hoses coiled in orderly loops. Bridget liked to recreate its ruddier past on her way to school. She liked imagining the black people from the black and white photos she’d seen, hovering on their stoops, smoking cigarettes with too many barefooted children all over the place. In the stills it didn’t look chaotic. It was frozen poetry, framed for affect in the local bed and breakfast Chez Amis. The place that tourists stayed on Fleet Street.
Girls worked there as chambermaids; college girls, Bridget’s classmates. They paid their tuition that way, ironing sheets and folding beds. They had to wear Band-Aids over any tattoos below the sleeve. Bridget liked to pretend it was a secret brothel. She never made that joke out loud.
Someone moved the poor folks from Fleet Street to Clay, eminent domain or some such thing, the property value in the downtown historic district was more than any housing project could justify, so the state pushed them off and sold everything to contractors. So much for the local alderman. What was once a street, alive and vibrant, and telling of old slave-time woes was refurbished with a domestic veneer of an upper middle class. People like to see that veneer, no matter how much they complained about gentrification. It was a visual success of the American Dream. Fleet street was empty. Did the houses miss the old noise?

Outside the Clay Street Cemetery, two perpendicular streets extended as alternative grounds, flagging the farthest bounds of Annapolis, they followed the edge of the river as far as West Street. One was Clay Street, the other, the farther, nameless. These streets, again, full of life, full of the tragic ferocity of the disenfranchised, the poor born of the poor and into a wild culture. When Bridget passed into the cemetery bounds, two black pimps, purple suits and gold chains, stood leaning on the gravestones.
“Best keep clear of the Northeast corner,” one of them had said.
She nodded, a little afraid. On her way out, she gave them twenty dollars.
“Don’t keep your face so sad,” said the other. His teeth were white, his face a smooth and flawless black.
On her way out she heard a baby crying in an upstairs window. The baby sounded small. A man yelled from the same story, “Shut the Fuck up!”


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