The chapters which are numerical are factual. The chapters which are alphabetical are fiction, though in some instances the fiction modestly drapes what is factual. I will post one chapter a week, alternating factual and fiction.
At the end of my third grade in school, my brother would soon be three years old. The project by now was being operated by the Baltimore City Housing Authority. Rents were determined by your family income. Since our family had two boys and a girl we qualified for a three-bedroom house. We were put on a waiting list. We wondered where our next house would be located. There were some areas of Armistead Gardens that seemed like slums. Or maybe we would get a house in the new section.
The house we were given came as a happy surprise. It was at the beginning of Armistead Way, where it junctured with Pulaski Highway. There were single story duplex houses with gabled roofs in a column which followed Pulaski Highway down a hill to the northern end of the project. They were originally built to house the foremen at Glenn L. Martin.
There was a large grassy yard on three sides of the house. A street ran parallel to Pulaski Highway separating these houses from the cinder block two story row houses. These houses had asbestos shingles on the outside walls and drywall inside walls. There were three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen/dining area. There was even a pantry off the kitchen.
Across Armistead Way there was a wooded and grassy area running alongside Pulaski Highway. Across Pulaski Highway from the wooded area was a large Acme Markets supermarket. The sidewalk in front of the house went to Pulaski Highway and there was a stop light so you could cross the highway safely. After you crossed the highway, there was a row of shops – a variety store, a drugstore, and a liquor store. Up the hill from these shops was the Acme Market and beyond it a Sunoco gas station.
That fall all the elementary school children living in Armistead Gardens were transferred from P.S. 231 to P.S. 83. It became known pretty quickly throughout the project that the parents in the neighborhood around Brehm’s Lane School had complained to the school board about busing children from the project to their school.
Another change was that there would no longer be school buses. We had to ride the city transit bus. The transit buses ran all through the project to Fox Mansion. That was the end of the line. P.S. 83 was in East Baltimore. It was situated between Fayette Street and Orleans Street. About a mile north of the school Fayette Street and Orleans Street merged and became Pulaski Highway. Entering the project, the first bus stop was in front of our house. Leaving, it stopped at the corner diagonally across Armistead Way from our house.
I think the first year the school gave us tokens. That changed and we had to pay 10 cents fare. There were many, many days that if I wanted to go to school I had to walk because my parents didn’t have 40 cents that day for Beverly and me to go to school and come back on the bus. I have always wanted to measure the distance from where we lived to P.S.83. I’m sure it was over two miles.
One aspect of the new school that I particularly liked were the libraries. There was a school library from which I borrowed many books. At home, unless I had some chore to do, I could be found lying on my bed reading a book. Beverly made many friends in our new neighborhood, but I didn’t. At school the school librarian noticed that when we were out on the playground, I would be off by myself or getting beat up by some other boy. I couldn’t and wouldn’t fight back. I tried to protect myself from the blows, but my attempts were ineffectual.
One day when I was in the library, the librarian said, “I need someone to help me by shelving the books that are returned and by repairing the books. If you are interested, you could come to the library during recess or at lunchtime if you are free.” I jumped at the chance to stay away from the playground bullies. Shelving books was easy. Repairing books took a great deal of learning, but the librarian taught me to do one stage at a time. Until I learned that stage I couldn’t go any further and had to leave the book for the librarian to complete. By the end of that school year, which was my fourth grade, I could repair a book as well as the librarian and could letter the titles on the spine as neatly as she could.
During the next school year, I began to go to the Enoch Pratt Free Library branch on Fayette Street about two blocks north of the school. I began to carry as many as six books home at a time and would read them all in a week. Once I read through all the books by Roy Chapman Andrews, a paleontologist. Then I read all the books by Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein.
In the fifth grade I started and edited a homeroom newspaper called Class Gossip. Members of the class would write out riddles, jokes, innocent bits of gossip, news about upcoming events in their clubs or neighborhood. Some drew sketches or cartoons. I would organize the pieces. One girl in the class was very artistic. She would make a cover with a piece of colored paper and crayons. Another girl, Gloria Mosca took the material home and her mother typed it onto typing paper, pasted in the cartoons and pictures, and put holes in the pages with a three-hole punch. The cover and pages were put together with brads. The newspaper was kept on the teacher’s desk. Students who finished their work ahead of the class could take it from the teacher’s desk and read it.
The years living in Armistead Gardens were mostly financially hard years. We would receive boxes of clothes and sometimes food from the Church. Several times at least Grandad Pritt would find out that someone he knew well was going to Baltimore. He would send us a bushel of potatoes and some home-canned food.
Many, many times I went out with my wagon with a Kotex cardboard box in it. The box was so big that only one side fit in the wagon. The other side was propped on the other wagon side. That worked out fine. There was still room in the wagon for any soda bottles I found. I went up and down the streets in the old section looking in the garbage cans for newspaper or cardboard. After a while, people would stack their newspapers and put them beside the can. I was also looking for soda bottles that I could take to the Acme Market for the deposit. When the big box was full, I went across the highway and pulled the wagon almost a half mile down the highway to the salvage yard. They would buy the box of paper from me. Including the box, I would get 15 or 20 cents. I would wash out the bottles and take them with me to the store. I think the deposit was 1 cent per bottle. For 25 cents I could get a box of macaroni and cheese and a can of Manning’s beans. If I had 35 cents I could also get a loaf of day old bread.
Other times my mother would send me to Ginny’s house on the bus. She would send me with a note to Ginny asking if she could spare some food. Ginny would always send me back with a bag containing some potatoes, and a few cans of food.
We only had meat on Sundays and on payday (every two weeks). One time a man who lived across the street came back from a hunting trip in West Virginia. He had killed quite a few ground hogs and they were in the trunk of his car. His wife absolutely refused to clean them. He asked Mom if she would clean them and he would let her keep two of them. She worked several hours cleaning the groundhogs. Then she went to work on the two she had earned. She boiled them three times in water, maybe it was salt water, and threw the water down the sink. Then she fried them in lard. The meat was very dark and it looked like parts of a dog, but it was delicious and tasted like fried chicken.
I have painful memories of Mom standing at the door and taking verbal abuse from aggressive bill collectors. She had no money to give them. She would answer them politely. When they left she came into the house and cried. Other times she would have to ask the milk man to continue delivering milk and bread another two weeks and she promised she would pay him then. Afterward, she cried.
Too many years, I went all winter with holes in the soles of my shoes. Every evening I would have to cut a piece of cardboard to fit inside each of my shoes for the next day.
I read a lot of books, not so I could be smart in school, but so I could pretend I was living in other places and other times. I don’t have many happy memories of my childhood and teen years living in Armistead Gardens. Is that because I am morose by nature or did those years of my life make me that way?