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1930's and 40's – Growing Up Poor in Baltimore

 

 
 

   Anyone who has read “Angela's Ashes” will be struck by the similarity of Ann Marie's story, even though a continent and ocean separates the stories by geography.
   Ann Marie's mother had her own shaky start in life:  She grew up in a Roman Catholic orphanage. She aged out of the orphanage, and took shelter in the home of a relative who had been either unwilling or unable to provide for her when she was a child. Early marriage seemed like a ticket out. Unbeknown to her, it was a ticket to hell. The husband, Ann Marie's father, was a seldom sober wife beater.

    The family was Irish-Catholic. Ann Marie and four siblings survived. Ann Marie could not count  the long list of potential brothers or sisters who either did not survive infancy or were spontaneously aborted due to physical abuse.
   Prohibition ended in this country on December 5, 1933.  Ann Marie remembered being sent to nearby bars, carrying a bucket of beer home to her father and his friends.  Many of her father's jobs were lost because of his drunkenness. A more frequent pattern, however, was his quitting his jobs once he had enough money to start a drinking spree. Largely, her father was an absentee parent, but he knew the day when the welfare check came. In those days, however, a prolonged stay in the home by a husband resulted in ineligibility for welfare. Thereby the State did its share in breaking up of families. In Annmarie's case, any absences by her father were a blessing.

  The battered old moving trucks always pulled up at 2 a.m.  With today's poor, this is still the case. Moves were frequent because rent was seldom paid. Annmarie's family, however, had little furniture to move. Beds consisted of springs covered with old coats. Blankets were also old coats. The children slept sideways which enabled them to sleep four to a bed.  The younger children were bed wetters.
   There were public baths in Baltimore. The Public Bath Movement is a story in itself.  In the middle of the 19th century, the movement sprung up in Europe, the idea being to make the poor more like their “betters.” The hope was that physical cleanliness would lead to moral cleanliness. By the First World War, the movement was fizzling out, its objectives unrealized. Nonetheless, some public baths remained.  A Baltimore banker named Levering headed Baltimore's Public Bath Commission for decades. (But we are getting away from Ann M arie's story!) The baths in Baltimore now catered to a rough clientèle of street people.  Children were discouraged from using them. To meet the needs of this population, some public schools opened their doors in Saturdays.  For five cents, one could get a sliver of soap, a towel and a shower.  Ann Marie and her family used the school baths, since they were often without electricity or even a bathtub.  Ann Marie's situation represents an extreme contrast with America's middle classes today where showers are a daily occurrence and people feel seriously deprived if their home only has one bathroom!

Thanksgiving is just as apt to be a mournful day as a happy one. In many inner city Baltimore homes  today, and yes, in the suburbs as well, a  mother or grandmother might weep at holiday times because a fondly remembered loved one as fallen victim to the violence of the streets. Not as likely during Ann Marie's childhood, but Thanksgivings seldom entailed a special dinner. Even on regular days, dinner was not guaranteed. Ann Marie remembered one Thanksgiving when she was determined to find a Thanksgiving dinner for herself and her sister. The two children trolled the streets of Hampden. One house on 34th Street had Thanksgiving decorations in the window. Ann Marie reasoned that the occupants would have had enough money to have a Thanksgiving feast.  She knocked on the door. “The Miracle on 34th Street” proved to be a miracle once more.  The family seated the girls at the table, where Ann Marie remembered having three helpings of everything followed by ice cream in the form of a turkey for dessert.

   One day, when Ann Marie was in elementary school, her father presented her with a basket. Its contents consisted of thread, needles and pins.  He instructed her to go into the bars in Waverly (possibly Stoler's; Sweeney's; the Green Door-- there was no shortage of them) to sell her wares. The expectation was that men would give her a few cents without dipping into her stock.  She also knocked on doors of Waverly homes. Some days she would even trudge over to Charles Street and past the Art Museum, where she would find herself in Wyman Park or Hampden. Here were more doors to knock on.  Once or twice she wandered northward toward the more affluent homes of Guilford and Roland Park, but she quickly learned to avoid those areas.  The wealthier the families, the more likely they were to rudely dismiss her. They made her feel like an alien from another planet, sullying their world, their consciousness. Annmarie's father kept vigilant watch of her earnings, snatching them up as soon as she made enough money for a bucket of beer or a half-pint of Seagram 7. Her mother sewed a small pocket inside of her jacket so that some of the earnings could be saved to put food on the table.  On just a few occasions, Ann Marie found herself with a dime, which she spent on the supreme luxury:  a movie at the Waverly Theater in the 3200 block Greenmount Avenue. Up until the day she died, Ann Marie remembered the names of these films because they were a rare guilty pleasure.

Meanwhile, the beat went on – her father beating her mother!  Her mother, a devout Catholic, preferred going to Church to going to Court.  But there was one last beating, the one that landed her mother in the hospital fighting for her life.  This time, Ann Marie's mother did go to Court. The child herself testified against her abusive bully of a father. With jail looming before him, the father packed up and left Baltimore, never to return.  Life got better.
     What, then, happened to Ann Marie?  She survived.  An outsider would describe her life as uneventful. She had an unwelcome visitor as a teenager-- polio. Treatments were painful.  She married, had two children, separated from her own alcoholic husband.  She worked to support herself. She obtained a hairdresser's license and spent many years cutting hair in Middle River. In later years she lived by herself in a home in Little Italy that needed many repairs. She obtained a contractor to do the work. He ripped her off. She went to Court and saw that there were many other victims of this contractor. The Court exacted a judgment against him.  He fled Baltimore to avoid paying reparations.
   Ann Marie generally shunned hospitals, especially since a failed cataract surgery at a prominent East Baltimore hospital left her legally blind in one eye.  The hospital had the nerve to bill her. Instead of seeking legal advice, she obediently paid the bill. As the year 2000 approached, she knew that diabetes was winning its battle.  Her legs were so painful that she could barely walk.  Post polio syndrome likely contributed to her leg pain. She forbid anyone's telling her children that she was sick, but a sister was nearby to give some comfort during her final days. Anyway, Ann Marie had no fear of death. She claimed to have had occasional glimpses of the “other side.”  There, all she saw was beauty.  Ann Marie departed this life on April 30, 2000, alone and on her own terms.  So many of her memories, both personal memories as well as memories of a way of life, died with her. The hope is that in telling her stories, some of the memories, at least, will have persisted.
                                                                  -JNG