“Dead Kids on the Block” first appeared in the December, 2003 issue of Touchstone.
Dead Kids on the Block
Robert Hart on the Wages of Vice
If you have never heard of Balmer Merlin, you have never been a resident of Baltimore, Maryland. It is not that the natives are in too much of a hurry to pronounce the t—that would be natural enough to New Yorkers—or to treat an or with the appropriate sound. What makes them say Balmer is simply that they are laid back: They see no reason to put consonant strain upon the tongue.
This trait is evident in that the purpose of a marble stoop is less for climbing to a front door than for settin’. Settin’ is very much like sitting, but not if one sits up straight, or arches forward to muse like the Thinker. For settin’ means sort-of-sitting, and doing so wholly without attitude. Baltimore has many other charms and grand local traditions. Among these are things innocent, and things (to use an old word) fond, in the most uninnocent way.
A Fond Thing
From the tenth floor of a building near the Inner Harbor, the office of an attorney for whom I do special work to supplement the not-quite-enough income of a Continuing Anglican priest, I see all the way to the hill where once stood Memorial Stadium. The stadium, the place where the Orioles won a couple of final World Series games, is gone. Gone too is the plaque that stood in the parking lot beyond the left field bleachers where, in 1966, landed the longest home run in city history, hit by one of my boyhood heroes, Frank Robinson.
What needed tearing down was not Memorial Stadium but one of the fond things in city tradition, a thing so fond to Balmer hearts that it has been given its own place in the town’s unique canon of what many seem to regard as sacred tradition. In walking distance of the attorney’s office is the corner of Baltimore and President Streets, that block of Baltimore Street known in many quarters of the world not simply as a city block, but as the Block. It is even celebrated by men in Paris, which about says it all.
Once, when I was in this attorney’s office, he asked me if I could make inquiries in an establishment on the Block about a girl who strips there. His firm specializes in helping uninsured hospital patients obtain eligibility for the Medical Assistance program (known in some states as Medicaid). I declined to be seen entering such an establishment, reminding him that I am a clergyman. “Oh, of course,” he said. Besides, employers on the Block do not keep the kind of records we need for the Social Service caseworkers.
The case was given to me anyway; I am very used to working with such clients to obtain Medical Assistance for them. The girls are young, rather pathetic, addicted to heroin, and thanks to their urgency to get a fix with any available needle, infected with HIV. I have gotten to know many of these young women, once they give consent. Indeed, from their medical records I have known them quite intimately.
Tested, HIV-positive, date of test. Current CD4 count somewhere below 200, maybe as low as 15 or 8. AIDS is diagnosed very simply: Anyone with HIV whose CD4 count drops below the magic number of 200 has AIDS. It is the end stage development of HIV, meaning that the person so diagnosed is drawing close to death. Some of these girls have lived to be as old as 26 or 27. If there are no old dancers on the Block, it is not because they retire early.
I remember a few years back listening to a talk radio program. A jolly lady, in her own words a “senior citizen,” was speaking with chuckles about the time she gave her husband a special birthday present. She took him to the Block and paid for him to cut off a young woman’s clothes with scissors. The host, whom I know to be a very intelligent and principled conservative, said, “And I bet everybody had a good time.”
“Oh yes,” chuckled the elderly woman. Hey, a bit of fun. It is one of those things that makes Balmer a grand ole’ place.
A Fond Tradition
I asked one of the girls with AIDS, “Do you have any respect for the kind of men who go to those places?” A question never before asked of her, she was slow to answer, because it took her by surprise. “Hell no,” she finally said. It is entertainment based upon mutual contempt between performers and audience, but high-paying. Very much high-paying, until fixes are taken, not for the high, but simply out of desperate need.
Some people who call themselves conservative have cultivated the ability to consider any precedent, once it ages a bit, as being a part of what must be conserved. The Block is, as I said, a Baltimore tradition, a fond thing. Don’t mess with it. Don’t spoil the romantic notion that it is just good fun, and that the “ladies” enjoy showing their stuff. Any Libertarian will tell you that you own yourself. The women of the Block establishments are simply exercising their private property rights, and that settles it.
In another case I was given the typical Southeast Baltimore address: “Zone 24,” as the natives call it, referring to the fact that all Baltimore zip codes begin with 212 with the last two digits varying. Going past sites that many people have seen thanks to NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street series, I arrived at the brick row house, climbed the marble stoop, and found the patient’s mother.
She has not seen her daughter in months. No, there is no father—or rather he is gone—and the hospital must have this address for her daughter because she had lived there a few years before her recent admission. “We had problems. You understand don’t you? I just couldn’t keep her here.” I know these words; they all use the same script: “Well, wait. She might be with her boyfriend at. . . .”
She lives with her boyfriend, and that in spite of the fact that she was diagnosed with HIV a couple of years ago. Of course, he doesn’t mind the way she works to make her drug money. He is a very generous guy.
I have worked on many of these cases over quite a few years, and I see the pattern. Life in Balmer is surrealistic.
I cannot count the times over the years when I have heard seemingly decent people talk with wonder and childish excitement about the Block, how many times I have heard it defended as a cherished institution. The notion people have of it is a romantic one, of a harmless pleasure rooted in a fine local tradition.
I do not know whom to pity more: the people who hold these notions or the girls who are doing the dance of death. I suppose the sort of people who frequent the joints at Baltimore and President Streets do not want to know that what they are watching is largely a tragic collection of desperate junkies, already infected and sentenced to an early grave. They are someone’s daughters, and yet they belong to no one. Their bodies will not even come to proper burial.
When I meet patients such as I have described, I find that my words so affect them that they invariably begin to weep. The eyes full of tears are a welcome sight, for it means that the soul is not yet completely given over. Something in them may still wish to live. I am glad at such times that I am doing this sort of work on a self-employed, case-by-case basis, and that no one can stop me from speaking as a priest. In fact, not because I am a priest, but simply because I am a Christian, I do more than I am paid to do.
The experience of these young women is of cruelty, and is felt by them in the form of simple indifference from absent fathers, idiot boyfriends, and greedy employers. Their addiction is known to the men around them, and nonetheless they are helped in their own self-destruction by being hired and put on display so that they can make money to buy the poison they crave. The money is going into the drugs that, even were there no HIV/AIDS, would eventually kill them. No wonder that the apparent compassion of a stranger, of an age to be that father they have not known, swells their eyes with tears.
Aware of an effective yearlong program that is a Christian ministry, I have done what I could to steer addicts to enter it. Even the addicts who are not HIV-positive—yet—and have a hope of normal life if they can be free of their habit, have one problem with the program I recommend. It requires them to suffer through withdrawal instead of giving them methadone as a substitute addiction.
This is what the addicts have in common with all sinners everywhere: the intense fear of withdrawal. The cutting off of the hand, the plucking out of the eye, the only remedy for sin being repentance of a kind that maims and leaves a wound. It also gives life and creates freedom. I have managed to persuade a few of them, though not all, by far not all.
The world has given a very innocent meaning to the word “vice.” It now refers to many a little thing, so that I indulge in vice when I light up a cigar or drink Kentucky bourbon. By this reasoning many very evil things are given legitimacy as mere vices, no worse than a cigar or a drink, no matter that it is with temperance. But do men at the Block engage in harmless vice or in the deadly sin of lust? And is the deadliness of these sins something that only a theologian can ponder?
The deadly sins are called deadly because they bring death to the soul itself, and if unrepented, bring the soul to eternal damnation. In the Block, with its exploitation of vulnerable girls, in the girls’ addiction to heroin, in their dying of AIDS, and in the chuckle of an old woman who bought her husband an evening on the town, this deadliness is manifested in a most graphic way. The deadly sin of lust destroys life in this age, signaling its destruction of life in the world to come.
Of course, none of these manifestations is unique to Balmer Merlin.