Beauty is Pain

Baltimore row house

I’m sitting at a little writing desk, next to a sleeping puppy, inside a row house, surrounded by the city of Baltimore. Landing here is random, so random, I know. But embracing the unknown sometimes sends you to unexpected places.

And so here I sit, just down the block from an ancient, and excellent, donut shop that sells out of marshmallow fluff filled dough, and up the block from a convenience store whose owner was shot and killed just a few months ago. Baltimore is like that, a place of extremes. You might know this place for blue crabs and Old Bay seasoning, or Freddie Gray and Serial. You might not know this place for pretty brick row houses, a deep culture of the arts, friendly people, or really good Italian food.

I work in a vastly white neighborhood, among hipster record stores, a vegan bakery, and restaurants that serve only small, shared plates. On the bus ride home, I am usually the only white person among polite teens and old ladies who shout “have a blessed day,” before exiting at their stop.

Prostitutes roam the busy street a block away from my house in the late and early hours, while art galleries have openings on Fridays just across the street. Flower pots bloom right along with the rats nests and the methadone clinic surges with clients near the independent book store. More garbage floats down the sidewalk in a light wind than leaves, and every other block sports a creepy, bullet proof glass enclosed convenience store. The busiest place in the neighborhood is a little Latino bakery and rowdy kids skateboard in the elementary school parking lot after hours. Entire blocks of homes sit abandoned and crumbling a mile away from the newest brunch hotspot. Packages left on the stoop won’t stay there for long, and neighbors are happy to stop for a chat on their way inside.

Baltimore, as far as I can tell, is a tortured, starving artist. Full of promise and ideas, talent and genius. But that talent often comes from a dark, depressed place. There’s something about survival and suffering that fosters great art. About loneliness, obscurity and hanging on by your fingernails that forces beauty to the surface. So while a very real chunk of this city starves, suffers, and caves in, life beats on behind front doors, between library shelves, in basement bars, on a canvas, under headphones.

It’s sunny again today. I will pass the same liquor store with the same guy sipping away on something covered with a black plastic bag on my way to the park. He will say, “how are you today ma’am?” and I will wave. I will admire the gold-domed church visible from the other side of the park and stop to buy bread at the Italian deli. There are no gurgling creeks or perfect drifts of snow, no perfectly silent mornings or owl sightings. But there is a pulse here, there is a warm light behind closed blinds, there is a challenge to be more.

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