Friday, December 24, 2010

Miracle on 34th St.

It's not truly Christmas in Baltimore until you've walked amid the holiday lights on 34th Street in Hampden. The kitschy, the heartfelt, and the sublime converge and twinkle in this annual display of megawatt seasonal cheer.

Homeless Persons Memorial Day Vigil, Inner Harbor Amphitheater

The National Coalition for the Homeless has designated the winter solstice, which falls on or around December 21 each year, as National Homeless Memorial Day. On this, the beginning of winter and the longest night of the year, homeless and formerly homeless people gather with activists, advocates, providers, and other supporters to read the names of homeless people who died over the preceding year.

For years now I've participated. in the local vigil, which is organized by the SHARP Coalition and Healthcare for the Homeless. It's a solemn counterpoint to the festivities of the holiday season, but a strangely uplifting one as well. Not only does it remind us, in this season of gift-giving and abundance, that our neighbors continue to die of poverty, exposure, and violence; the event is also a reminder that it is possible to make homelessness a "rare and brief occurrence," and that hope exists even in the coldest and darkest of seasons.

After the opening remarks and the musical offerings and the prayers comes the climax of the vigil: the reading of the names of the dead. After each name is recited, the crowd responds "we will remember."

For a long time I had a problem with that response. After all, the main reason that these people's names are on that list is because we as a society did not remember them. We forgot about them and threw them away. Even those of us who attend the vigil in their memory will forget about their names as soon as we hear them recited.

This year, however, I saw it differently. I don't know why, exactly, but something about the way we chanted "we will remember" after each name struck me not as an exercise in futility, but as a statement of resistance, a battle cry against all the cold and lonely ways in which we allow our neighbors to die in this wealthiest of all societies.

This year, instead of hearing my own voice - feeble, inadequate, privileged -- intoning the response, I heard the voices of all of the homeless and formerly homeless people standing around me. When they said, "we will remember," it was not only because they actually knew and would actually remember most of the people on that awful list. They said "we will remember" in defiance of despair and in contention with all the powers of darkness.

Here are the names of the dead:
Linda McNeill
William Ganzermiller
Joseph J. Levandoski
Cinderella Holley
Donald C. Downes
Ernest Panagestidis
Lindsay "Scott" Quesenberry
Donnie Moore
William "Billy" Soper
Adeline Quillan
Dwight Richardson
James D. Hanson
George Williams
Theo Corwin
Anton T. Pridget
Pamela Myers
Lee E. McCoy
Mark Miles
Allen Leslie
Lee McKnight
Doug Hamm
Harley Magee
Tracey Baird
Bruce Laster
Eric Jackson
Christian Sinott
Angelo Speller
Warren HIll
Venita Crawford
George Boynes
Jennifer Crosby
Martin York
James Stratemeyer
Steven McEachern
James "Jimmy" Smith
Sidney Hynson
Angela Tomlin
Winslow Thomas
Johnnie Bradley
Howard Hubbard
Andre Hurston
Elva Randall
Charles Wehnert
Mark Walters
Dennis Knauer
Rhonda Hamilton
Elijah Randolph
Joseph Rhodes
Michael D. Burrell
James Nicholson-El
Joel A. Reaves
Raymond Brown
Thomas Boston
Lennard Rainey
Robert Hicks
Adam O'Conner
Sandra Wilcox
Brian Goscinski
Kenneth Jackson
Daryl Ford
Patricia "Patti" Phillips
Brian Boyle
Ricky Diggs
Jerome MacDonald
Albert Bethea
Allan Ford
Linwood Tate
Frank Savage
Ronald Bassard
Gerrell McDonald
Regina McGuire-Harve
Larry Smith
Michael Harrison
Cecil Roland
Yolanda Howard
Douglas Morris
Anthony Walter
Mira Sandhu
Joseph Taylor
Bruce Harmesan
David Beers
Keyonna Williams
Jerry McNutt
Ryland Perry
LaFayette Johnson
Clarence L. McKnight

We will remember.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hon-ukkah in Mt. Washington

My friends Ray and Rachel represent a perfect cross-section of Caucasian Baltimore: Ashkenazi and Redneck. Chanukah at their house was traditional...for the most part. We spun the dreidel, anted in our gelt, and consumed too many donuts and latkes.

The latkes could be enjoyed with a range of toppings, including classic (sour cream and apple sauce), Eastern Shore (anchovies, hot pepper relish, Old Bay), and PB&J.

Grease, gambling, and fire. What's not to love about this holiday?

Post-Turkey Day Brunch in Cedarcroft

Thanksgiving, as most of us figured out long ago, doesn't truly end until the turkey carcass is stripped clean of the last sinew of flesh and is nothing more than a misshapen blob of gleaming white bone.

When I was younger, I would make repeated late-night incursions into the kitchen to peel off strips of bird to make sandwiches, preferably ones that involved a dinner roll, a hunk of cheese, some stuffing, and whatever remained of the cranberry sauce. Now that I'm (arguably) a grownup, I've become a fan of the more genteel option for disposing of the turkey's remains: the post-Thanksgiving brunch.

This year my friends Kathleen and Todd invited me to their place for turkey-and-asparagus crepes with roasted potatoes, coffee, and good conversation on the side.

Thanksgiving in Charles Village

With my gf in Canada and my mom celebrating the holiday in the OBX this year, I thought my Thanksgiving would be spent alone in my fetid bachelor bad, eating Dinty Moore Beef Stew out of the can while watching softcore on Netflix.

Instead I got together with my friend Sonia and we managed to have a fun li'l DIY Turkey Day for two.

Hon for the Holidays

As crazy and hectic as these past few weeks have been -- work, personal life, etc. -- I'm happy to say that I've been able to get into the holiday spirit with some local festivities this season.

So in addition to my earlier pics of the Station North Arts Cafe holiday party and the Washington Monument lighting, I'll be posting images of hollies so jolly that your eggs will nog spontaneously.

I have no idea what any of that means.

Ho ho ho.

Monday, December 20, 2010

December 19, 8:36 p.m., North Avenue

You can check in any time you like. But you have to wear a bag over your head when you leave.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Station North Arts Cafe tree lighting

Here are a few photos from the Station North Arts Cafe tree lighting. Located on Charles Street just south of North Avenue, this bright, friendly, and cozy little coffee shop is owned by my neighbors, Kevin and Bill.

The evening featured free homemade cookies, hot cider, "naughty" coffee, and Ian Hesford, who can apparently play every instrument under the the same time.

SNAC co-owner Kevin Brown

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Feats salutes Unsung Baltimorean for her feats

I'm pleased as punch to report that, as a result of her surpassing awesomeness, previously featured unsung Baltimorean Kenya Asli was selected by Feats, Inc. to receive 50-yard-line tickets to the Dec. 19 Ravens game!

In honor of its 25th anniversary, the local events management and marketing firm launched Feats of the Heart, aimed at celebrating the good work done by community residents. So I was thrilled when I got the notification that Kenya had gotten the nod.

And I'm almost as thrilled that she, not I, will be freezing her butt off at Ravens Stadium next week.

December 11, 8:36 a.m., Waverly Market

If you got a hankerin' for bison, get it from the dude in the awesome hat.

A Monumental Occasion

Some pics from the annual lighting of Baltimore's Washington Monument on Dec. 2.

eye contact

An important part of living in Baltimore, more than any other place in my experience, is learning when it's a good idea to make eye contact with random people you pass on the street...and when it's best to avoid it.

Eye contact = ok: older people, especially older women, especially church ladies; business owners and shopkeepers; police officers; dog walkers; young children; adult men who watch everything that's going on with quiet, neutral expressions; myself, at least on a good day.

Eye contact = not advisable: loud people who make big movements while walking; clammy looking guys with plastic hospital bracelets; women shrieking obscenities at each other on opposite sides of the street; people muttering darkly to themselves; adult men who preemptively glare at you for no reason you can fathom; certain people you know from work who spot you at the coffee shop or the market and glance at you interrogatively, but whom you don't really feel like talking to at the moment because you're, like, on a date or something and the last thing you need is for them to be all like, 'so, did you read that report on gargledyhoohablahdeeshnoo from the Urban Institute last week?'

Eye contact = it varies: teens and older youth; orthodox religious people; guys singing or rapping cheerfully to the world at large; people you used to hang out with/work with/sleep with but haven't seen recently, whom you see at a random concert or whatever.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Attention, art flakes! Only 39 days left to nominate yourselves for big cash prizes!

Hey, remember dance ninja and featured Unsung Baltimorean Lily Susskind? Well, she's one of over 350 local artists vying for the coveted Baker Artist Awards.

Truly one of the coolest things about being in Baltimore, the Baker Awards provides local artists in all media with opportunities to win fame and (modest) fortune. Awards include the Mary Sawyers Baker Prize, which is given out in a juried selection process; the People's Choice Award, where visitors to the Baker site get to vote for their favorite artists; and the "b" prizes, which are smaller awards given out by the Baker Foundation board to a handful of artists and arts organizations.

Artists can submit images and video of their work for the next 39 days, at which point the nominations close and the voting begins. This gives you art lovers out there plenty of time to browse through some of the amazing work that local artists are putting out, pick your favorites, and set up your profile so you can vote.

There's even an awesome iPhone app to make the process even funner and easierer! So get yourself over to the Baker site and prepare to have your mind shredded and your face melted by fantasticness.

Oh, and be sure to check out Lily's video submissions, like this one:

Pluto Dances from effervescent collective on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

November 27, 8:30 - 9:30 a.m., Waverly

The 32nd Street Farmers Market: come for the produce, food, and crafts; stay for the people.

Pat Cruz of Sister Friend Arts

Cybee's Wildflower Honey

Don Gorman of Harmony

This guy sounds just like Richie Havens.

Camille Brown of The Art of Adornment

A yummy turnover from Neopol.

"Thomas Jefferson" apple from Reid's Orchard. Kickass tee by Pat Cruz.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nominate an unsung Baltimorean for awesome Ravens seats!

As someone who loves learning and telling the stories of unsung Baltimoreans, I was pleased to see this offer from the event planning firm Feats to give 50-yd-line(!) Ravens tix to local heroes who are changing their communities for the better.

Think of someone who inspires you. And who likes football. And then nominate them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Jesus Rivera

Getting together with Jesus Rivera for lunch is one of my favorite activities. Read on and you'll find out why. A couple of months ago we met at Arcos Restaurante, a "Mexican oasis" on Broadway in Fells Point.

In addition to tasty, authentic food, reasonable prices, good service, and a beautiful atrium/courtyard area, Arcos boasts an awesome portrait of Frida Kahlo. I took a couple of photographs of Jesus looking up at Frida with a half-bemused, half-flirtatious expression. It was a great pic.

Unfortunately, you won't see it here, because I somehow managed to lose it among the four computers and random bits of portable memory that comprise the sum total of my creative output. So this Unsung Baltimore profile is sans photos, at least until the next time Jesus and I get together over pollo rostisado and chile en nogada.


Jesus Rivera cuts something of a dashing figure. The handsome 57-year-old has a wide, expressive brow, an easy grin, and smiling eyes. He dresses stylishly and enjoys dining out, particularly at the Mexican and Central American restaurants that have become destination eateries in Fells Point. He loves taking walks in his Charles Village neighborhood. He can be found at the Waverly Market each Saturday. In conversation, he is affable, relaxed, and attentive. When he speaks of his wife, he positively beams.

So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that he spent most of his adult life as a celibate Catholic priest.

"Some people kid that I went into seminary at age 14 because I have 13 brothers and sisters," jokes Rivera, who grew up in Lorain, Ohio, about 30 miles west of Cleveland. "The truth is that I wanted to see more than Lorain. But nobody told me that Catholic priests don't get married!"

Large families were very much the norm for Rivera's parents, who moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland in the 1950's.

"My dad was number nine of 10 kids," says Rivera. "My abuelo had a large finca [plot of farmland], but dad was told that he wouldn't inherit. My mom was twelfth out of 14 kids! It was after World War II; Puerto Ricans fought, so things started opening up. Most people went to New York. My dad moved to New Jersey at first, but he heard about a USX job in Lorain, so they moved there."

They weren't the only ones. Lorain boasted a sizable Puerto Rican population even in the fifties and sixties. Rivera and his siblings grew up in the midst of a tight-knit community, the center of which was the local Catholic church.

"Sacred Heart Church was where I kept my culture," Rivera says. "The priest spoke Spanish, the songs were in Spanish, everything was in Spanish." This mingling of religious identity and cultural identity was responsible, to a certain extent at least, for his early interest in becoming a priest.

"Faith was a huge part of it, of course," he reflects. "It still is. I love the Word of God. I love serving God's people."

After 13 years in the seminary, Rivera entered the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, an order of Vincentian priests dedicated to serving "the poor and abandoned." As a Spanish speaker, Rivera found himself traveling often to Mexico and other parts of Latin America on mission work. He did this work diligently and with enthusiasm, and rose quickly through the order's ranks.

"I became the senior vice-president of the congregation," he says. "My job was, when one of our brothers got 'sick,' I would go to where they were and take care of them."

Rivera explains that by 'sick,' he is not referring to somatic medical conditions that could be treated at the local emergency room. Instead, the word was used by the order as code for "depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, homosexuality, child abuse, priests with families."

Rivera's heart went out to his 'sick' brothers, and he did what he could to help them with their problems. But he eventually became disillusioned with the church's emphasis on sweeping such problems under the rug, rather than addressing them head-on.

"I began to ask myself, what is it about our system that is making our brothers sick?" He smiles ruefully. "But that's just not a question that you ask in the Catholic Church."

That conflict, between his duty to suffering priests and his duty to church policy, began to take a toll on Rivera.

"I became seriously depressed myself and got counseling" from a layperson who was not part of the church. "After one year, I allowed myself to ask a question: is the Catholic priesthood really my vocation?"

His counselor helped him resolve this quandary by asking Rivera what being a priest meant to him.

"I said that for me, being a priest was about loving God and loving God's people."

The counselor then asked Rivera if he could continue to do those things without wearing a Roman collar. A short time after that, Rivera decided to leave the priesthood.

"I thought about going into real estate," chuckles Rivera. "I mean, after all, what does a guy who's been a priest for 24 years do?"

In 2005, he was introduced by friends in Pittsburgh to a woman who owned a set of instructional tapes on becoming a real estate agent. Her name was Leigh Kramer and she lived in Baltimore. "We hit it off," murmurs Rivera, smiling fondly.

He held onto her business card and thought often about contacting her to borrow those tapes, until one morning during his daily prayer, when he experienced an epiphany of sorts. "Call it whatever you will: spirit, God, the universe," says Rivera, his eyes growing wide at the memory. "I heard a clear voice that said, 'go meet her!'"

Acting on this newfound conviction, Rivera traveled to Baltimore and looked Ms. Kramer up. Then he asked her out.

"I was a real rookie," he says, somewhat embarrassed. "I hadn't been out on a date. I wasn't sure what you're supposed to do!"

Whatever he did clearly worked, because Rivera and Kramer got married not too long after that second meeting.

But if falling in love with Leigh happened with extraordinary speed and clarity, falling in love with Baltimore came more slowly for Rivera.

"There are obvious dividing lines here," he remarks. "If I walk to the left of my house, it's very beautiful. If I walk right and south, I see lots of crime, lots of poverty."

Rivera expresses frustration at these deep divisions in the city's social fabric. "Baltimore is so territorial! You stay on your side, I stay on my side, that kind of thing. All of us - Latinos, Blacks, Whites -- why are we in different groups? How can we connect?"

These questions led Rivera to become involved with the Latino Providers Network, a coalition of local nonprofit organizations and businesses interested in serving Baltimore's growing Hispanic population, and in bridging the gaps between Latinos and other members of the Baltimore community.

"I'm interested in finding ways to bring Latinos and African-Americans together," says Rivera, who recently stepped down as LPN's executive director to pursue other career goals. While he acknowledges the fault lines that exist between the two communities, Rivera is committed to exploring ways to find common ground.

"A lot of people feel that Latinos are stealing jobs, but the way that employers pick up Latino workers so they can pay them less is unjust for Latinos as well as African-Americans."

He is confident that LPN can work together with community partners like Morgan State University to have the tough but necessary conversations that need to take place. "I like to do things slowly, instead of 'let's have a meeting and get it over with,'" he says.

In addition to his activities with LPN, Rivera works as a life coach and as a counselor at Adelante Familia, where he counsels men who have perpetrated domestic abuse. "In a way, what I'm doing now [at Adelante] is very similar to what I was doing as a missionary," he muses. "I'm helping my sick brothers."

He has found another parallel with his former life. Along with a number of other married former priests, Rivera is a member of Rent-A-Priest, a national network of ordained Catholic clergy who perform a range of pastoral duties, though they are not sanctioned to do so by the Catholic Church.

"I've performed nine weddings this year," enthuses Rivera. He cites Hebrews 6 -- "you are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek" -- with emphasis on the word 'forever.' He also remembers what he told his former counselor: that being a priest is about loving God and loving God's people.

"I love being alone in quiet prayer every morning," he says. "I also love being with people, especially kids and families. And I love my time with my wife."

"It's all about inviting people in and helping them to connect," Rivera says with a smile. "I love for people to be involved."