The Mayor of Fells Point
My mainstay was an IBM Selectric typewriter. Soon after I moved to Baltimore, my Selectric broke down: I could not fix it and these were expensive to have repaired. I went to bed that night repeating, “I must have a typewriter!” A knock at my door early the following day was my next-door neighbor Kenny Shock with a Smith Corona electric. “Need a typewriter?” he asked. “I know you’re a writer.” I used Kenny’s Smith Corona until I got a computer.
Kenny—a Fells Point eccentric who called himself “The Troll”—introduced himself when I moved in. He captained our enclosed half-block on Portugal Street, which at the time was half working garages, half rowhouses occupied either by single young men or women seniors. He enlisted me to help him keep our area swept and neat, organized the trashcans on trash days, hunted rats with a pellet gun, and fought with the funeral director who kept his hearse in a garage at the end of the block. Visitors occasionally parked in front of garage doors despite clear postings. The funeral director would throw a fit if his garage was blocked when he needed to get his hearse out. He called Kenny “The Mayor of Fells Point.” Both liked to bark and seemed to get satisfaction letting off steam on each other.
Kenny and I had Datsuns and worked on them outside our houses, sometimes helping each other. Commenting on a repair that had taken most of an afternoon, he said: “It’ll work, but it ain’t according to Hoyle. And you know who Hoyle is, don’t you?”
I waited a beat for his wink and reply: “Some asshole down the road.”
Kenny played by his own rules. Once when I was working on my car, he burst out of his house and ordered me to change a Baltimore Orioles tee shirt I had on that I found in a local thrift store. The shirt said “The Birds Will Shine in ‘79.”
“That’s a collector’s item! I’ll give you a tee shirt if you need one, but wash your hands before you touch it and put it away in a safe place.” Kenny’s one-person rowhouse and a separate garage that he rented in midtown Charles Village were filled with what he called antiques and collectibles. These were found items such as decorative household knickknacks and vintage furniture, promotional sports memorabilia, classic Playboy and Hustler magazines, and miscellanies such as Confederate money. After he died years later, I heard that some who had expected an “inheritance” were disappointed the treasures of his Ali Baba’s cave were no more than expressions of his personality, lovingly collected and preserved, rich in heart but of little material value.
Kenny served in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He said that he nearly shot the fleet commander while on guard duty because the admiral was drunk and refused to follow protocol. One Sunday morning he ran over laughing to tell me that he had “held up” an elderly Greek bar owner in Fells Point with an old pneumatic torque gun: “The dumb Greek knew it was a torque gun but you should have seen the look on his face!” He told animated stories about regulars at his favorite bar near Patterson Park, in which he often played all the parts. The settings, on occasions when I went with him to these places to get a beer, were far less colorful than in his telling; but the telling rang true from the way I could see the regulars respond to him. He was entirely original. His language was unprintable even then but never mean-spirited and so uniquely his own and surprisingly funny that I would smile while he told a story and then go home thinking about it and laugh until my stomach hurt.
But Kenny had a thoughtful side. With little formal education, he knew or could figure out how to make or fix nearly anything. He lived paycheck-to-paycheck, paying his rent by the week and living on his earnings doing jackleg electrical contracting as “Shock Electric” for business owners trying to save a nickel. For pin money he cleaned The Stadium Bar on Greenmount Avenue, a former local landmark not far from what was Memorial Stadium. Eventually the Maryland Institute College of Art hired him full-time as a maintenance man.
Kenny was a “junior,” the eldest of four brothers and son of a career Baltimore cop against whom he claimed to have “won every fistfight but one.” He had been twice married and divorced early on, with an adult daughter from each marriage by then in distant states. He told me late in life that he found out that his eldest actually was his father’s child: “I always wondered why the old man sent her money all those years.”
Once driving him home from an uptown errand when his Datsun 510 sedan was not running, Kenny asked me to take St. Paul Street, a north-south thoroughfare. “I want to see if there’s any people I know, whores, whores I know,” he laughed. We did see one of his hussies, as he called them. He told me to honk the horn and shouted and waved to her: She shouted and waved back. Hookers were his hobby. Flush with cash and headed for Patterson Park one Friday afternoon, he told me eyes alight that he was looking forward to a weekend “filled with sexual en-yu-en-does.” Patterson Park was notorious then for its sex workers. Kenny’s regulars ranged from streetwalkers to bored housewives whose husbands were in the lock-up to drug-addicted dropout professionals. He fed them when they were hungry, bought them personal care items, helped them out with money, and let them use his house as a crash pad. Sometimes he looked after their kids and took them shopping at the Dollar Store. One of his friend’s kids called him “The Purple Man” for his favorite color, long before the Ravens came to town. For a time, a younger woman stayed with him who looked like a 1940s movie femme fatale. When I noticed that she had gone, I asked him what happened to her. “I had to kick the hussy out because she kept leaving needles lying around.” When I asked, he said he didn’t use condoms because he wasn’t worried about hookers getting knocked up and only gays got AIDS. While we were neighbors he mourned a gay brother who died of AIDS.
One day while we talked outside, one of his regulars brought a John to our corner, took Kenny aside, and then she took the John in Kenny’s house. They left not long afterward; the woman slipped Kenny several rolled-up bills. “The things some people do for five bucks,” he said to me, shaking his head. Another time, early one evening when we were outside, the same woman got out of a car at the end of the street in an evening dress and a feather boa. Walking toward us in heels she reminded me of a kid balancing on a railroad track. She needed to borrow a little money from Kenny.
Apart from a woman in an electric dress who once looked in my open door and asked, “You mess around?”—I said that I did not—Kenny’s girlfriends did not proposition me. I supposed that he told them I was not interested. Occasionally he offered pointers: “I always like a full bush. A shaved box tells you she just got out of jail.” One morning when he was away, a woman pounded on my door because she needed a ride to court. I recognized her: A tough, tiny woman who looked a lot like her alcoholic mother, also tough, a tiny woman of old Fells Point’s tough, tiny streets. “Kenny said he was gonna take me but he ain’t here and I know you’re Kenny’s frien’ and you got a car so you can take me.” All true. Eastside District Court was a short drive away. When I let her out, she said she would be done at three o’clock. “Sorry,” I said, “You’ll have to get Kenny to pick you up.” I mentioned this to him when I saw him several days later. “Did you get a blow job?” he asked.
Kenny would start his news stories with a knockout lede: “I put that dumb bitch Chrissy in the hospital.” He would follow with a nut graf: “The hussy was shivering in the cold on the corner of Broadway and Lombard and didn’t even have a coat on. Hopkins admitted her with pneumonia.” He said that once when he took the woman I took to court to a bench trial in Baltimore County, she nudged him, nodded her head toward the bailiff, and said under her breath: “I dated ‘at man.” When her soliciting case was called, Kenny said the judge seemed to be amused by her story about “havin’ a new baby and a new boyfrien’ and turnin’ a new leaf, sir,” and despite a long criminal record which included robbery and assault, he let her off. Kenny’s comment: “She probably dated that judge too!”
The same woman and a friend squeezed past me once when I opened Kenny’s door, smiling and trailing a scent of plastic model glue. I asked Kenny about the smell. “Turlo,” he said. “What’s turlo?” “Stuff people sniff that turns their brain to gray mush. Only takes a couple years.” He said he didn’t touch it. Later I asked a paint salesman in a neighborhood shop if he was familiar with the term. “Sure,” he said. “It’s toluene, an industrial solvent. Street people sniff it to get high but it’s extremely dangerous to work with. Causes brain damage. We sell it only to contractors we know.”
If Kenny had not seen me for a while, he would pound on my door to make sure I was all right. “Hey Weirdo! You alive in there!” He liked catching up with me and I let him use my landline telephone. Once he noticed that I was eating two pieces of bread with nothing between. I got fresh pumpernickel, seeded rye, and whole grain loaves three-for-a-dollar from the H&S bakery store down the street and loved the taste, but my just eating bread told him I was low on funds. He dragged me over to his house and gave me half his bologna and American cheese over my objections.
I kept up with Kenny after I moved and got back to the neighborhood when I could to see him. He always welcomed me with fresh stories in which he played each of the dramatic parts, usually outrageous and mostly unprintable. But his lifestyle eventually caught up to him: He had a stroke because he stopped taking blood pressure medicine that interfered with his love life. When I visited him in the hospital, I was told to wear protective gear because in addition to the stroke, they were treating him for nearly every sexually-transmitted disease except AIDS which somehow he never got. But gowning and masking up did not feel right: I couldn’t visit Kenny covered up. I went in wearing my street clothes. He was delighted to see me; he said that his brother and sister-in-law and other friends also had been by. On the wall of his room were pictures from a coloring book crayoned by a woman he had raised when she was a teenager.
Kenny went from the hospital to an assisted-living group home not far from the old neighborhood, closer yet to his Patterson Park playground, but he never recovered. I wrote to him and stopped by when in town; he was lucky his brother and sister-in-law managed his care. Even reduced mobility never convinced him that he couldn’t just go back to the block and pick up where he left off. Though the merry spirit of the man who answered my prayer with a typewriter still keeps me company: I never had a better neighbor.
Peter Geier is a writer based in Baltimore, Maryland, who has reported and written features for local, national, and international publications. He reviews films for moompitchers.blogspot.com He has published as yet a pair of short fictional pieces and is completing a collection of short stories set in New York.
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