Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Life in a "better part" of Baltimore

Life in a “better part” of Baltimore

Getting arrested and locked up is no way to start a new life. But there I was, breaking into tears in jail, a place I'd seen before as a reporter for The Sun.

Who knew what would brighten me up? In an only-in-Baltimore tale, 16 hours of community service was a cure for 16 hours suffered in Central Booking. Seamstress Mary Pickersgill of Star-Spangled Banner fame, who lived on East Pratt Street , mended my spirits after a fall. But first things first.

A simple question at a traffic accident at 39th and North Charles streets started a scary trip downtown. Hearing a crash cut the June night air, I left my 9th story apartment to see what was going on. Neighbors were gathering, hushed and tense. All eyes were on a white man lying on the sidewalk, his head gashed. I assumed he was hurt in the crash, but a pedestrian said he was beaten by a police officer. While walking his dog, the man took cell phone pictures of a family's arrest: a husband, wife, son. (All accounts agree on this.) The son, a Howard University student, was driving a Jeep alone in a minor 2-vehicle collision.

If true, it was hard to believe. Police brutality is seldom seen anywhere near that corner, where a Masonic temple stands. I called the night news desk. Without the armor of a press pass, I asked something any civilian has a right to know: the name of the officer causing fear among onlookers. A blunt female sergeant arrested me, wrenching my wrists so casually it seemed like second nature.

Over years on the job, I developed a regard for the Baltimore police, mostly homicide detectives. But I saw a different face of the force that night, two weeks after a decision to leave the paper and the city I loved. Twelve angry officers converged as a helicopter hovered. Meanwhile two separate murders took place miles away around midnight. Our peace was disturbed, five arrests were made, including the hurt 67-year-old man (with broken ribs). His cell phone, a catalyst for his run-in with police, was confiscated. The extraordinary event was the talk of our part of town. Police conduct at the scene is now under review by the internal investigations unit.

Within the walls of detention, the time limit is 24 hours, cold comfort in a hard cell. Bright lights, no medicine, no blankets, no books, no clock, no nothing except the pleasure of your cellmate's company. Mine was a neighbor I'd never met, the mother in the family. A flight attendant with a London accent, she was recovering from culture shock and the difference between U.S. and U.K. police practices.

When she ran to her son's side in alarm, she provoked an officer's wrath, she said. I can't say what line was crossed, since I never saw the three out on the street. Her American husband, 44, an investment firm owner and Iraq War veteran, came to her aid to no avail. And so we five strangers faced charges and a long stay into day. Five in a sea of 50,000 arrests without warrants which the Baltimore police make every year in a city of 640,000. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has filed a lawsuit in federal court, which argues city police engage in a pattern of improper arrests., which violate the legal standard of "probable cause."

I was charged with failure to obey and obstructing justice. In my glum hours behind the glass, my new life chapter seemed a page straight out of Dickens. When an editor came to meet me hours later at the back gate, I felt like singing. Right there in the rain.

Our lawyers and state prosecutors agreed court charges would be dropped -- or "nolle prossed" in Latin slang. We each agreed to16 hours of community service without admitting to wrongdoing. Charges are dismissed by the state for up to one third of all arrests made, which makes for a lot of useless human misery.

For me, that was where the good times began. We could offer to help any city agency or nonprofit. I chose a small Baltimore treasure, the late 18th century home of Mary Pickersgill, who led a skilled team of females in making the massive flag known as the Star-Spangled Banner. When it waved in the dawn's early light in 1814, the sight stirred Francis Scott Key, a poetic lawyer, to compose verses that later became the national anthem. The victory in Baltimore Harbor over the British bombardment, which Key immortalized, was a turning point in the War of 1812.

"So if hadn't been for me," I told many at the Baltimore Visitor Center , "we wouldn't have the national anthem. I'm the lady who made the Star-Spangled Banner! Come visit my house and see where we worked day and night by candlelight."

You see, I became Mary Pickersgill for 16 hours that passed too fast. When I spoke with the executive director of Flag House, Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick, she added a caveat: "It would be really great if you'd wear period dress." She suggested I set up a table in the center and invite tourists to walk to Flag House, next to the Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

So I wore a bonnet to frame my face, a high-waisted blue cotton dress, a gold medallion and a white scarf to keep me cool. A new look that revived me as surely as smelling salts. A man who teaches at Gilman School saw me in the apartment elevator and said, "On a scale from one to ten, that's a hundred." Then off I drove in my convertible looking like Dolley Madison. She was also 46 when the British sacked Washington before heading to Baltimore . In a tear, the first lady left dinner for 40 on the "President's House" table, which British army officers feasted on.

My first day, I corrected common notions that I was Betsy Ross. "No," I said. "Betsy got the credit, but I did the work. She had a better publicist."

"Life isn't fair," a precocious 13-year-old said. "And nothing's for free."

"I was born in Philadelphia in 1776," I said as Mary. "I was 37 when the Major (George Armistead) brought me the biggest job of my life. Thirty by forty-two feet, the British couldn't miss the battle flag flying from the fort."

"You're looking good, Mary," my public said. "Did you have some work done?"

When Baltimore 's harbor was flooded with Red Sox nation, I told them, "You have Paul Revere's midnight ride and a tea party, but WE have Mary Pickersgill."

That got a rise. Bostonians think they own the republic's early history.

Girls were glad to know the seamstress had a boarder, an African-American apprentice named Grace Wisher, whom she was teaching the arts of sewing and housekeeping. "Grace was part of history, too," I said.

"I was a widow. Making flags was not a hobby, but the way I earned a living," I said.

"I learned my trade from my mother, who made a flag for General Washington. My mother, daughter and three nieces helped me sew the Flag."

Then the enlivening end of the story: Flag House is one of the only national historic landmarks that enshrines a working woman's household two centuries ago.

Mary Pickersgill was known to be "vivacious and public-spirited," in the words of author Irvin Molotsky. She'll never know it, but she helped save my soul this summer.

In turn, I said it for her, loud and clear: "I made the fabric of American history."

Jamie Stiehm was a reporter for The Sun for ten years.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center , 325 E. 25th St. , Baltimore , MD 21218 . Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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