“To the memory of an able physician and bacteriologist, a lover of art, music and poetry, who died a martyr to the cause of science, contracting psittacosis (parrot fever) in line of duty. Erected by fellow employees of the Baltimore City Health Department, 1930.”
My great-grandfather, a medical doctor, was the director of the Baltimore City Health Department’s Bureau of Bacteriology, 1920-30. No doubt he would have preferred to stay longer, but his career and life were cut short when, at the age of 59, he was infected with parrot fever (psittacosis) while researching a cure. (His young female lab assistant suffered the same fate.) He died three months before my father was born, victim of a disease that Wikipedia claims is fatal in only one percent of cases. (Perhaps his lab work exposed him to a higher “dose” of the bacterium.)
Last fall, a friend of mine who works for BCHD forwarded me an email that was circulating in the city government. An administrator in the Department of General Services was trying to locate information on a “tablet” that had been dedicated to my great-grandfather the year he died, a memorial to his sacrifice. This was once displayed in the city’s Municipal Building but had apparently been taken down at some point. The administrator was going to try to convince the health commissioner to rehang it; at the time he sent the email, the tablet was leaning behind his office door. (Actually, amusingly enough, the term the administrator had used for “hanging” was “locating,” i.e., he said he was looking for help “locating” the thing, making me worry at first that some junkie had unbolted it and brought it in a wheelbarrow to one of the scrap yards that pay by the pound for copper pipes and the like.)
I contacted the administrator and kept tabs on his efforts, but he changed jobs after the new mayor took office. His successor, apparently not the history buff that the first guy claimed to be, sent the tablet back to BCHD’s storage cage, to be filed on a shelf next to the Ark of the Covenant and forgotten. Knowing that my father would be visiting this week, I called BCHD’s facilities department and arranged a visit.
My father and I set out a little before eight a.m. on Friday. I picked a route that took us south on Greenmount, past some of the worst blocks in this city, fire-scorched and boarded up as if in the aftermath of a military operation. Still plenty of places to buy liquor and fried food, though. More significantly, the route took us past Greenmount Cemetery, where the good doctor himself lies buried in the family plot. As we got closer to downtown, the morning rush-hour traffic became progressively more hellish. I was circling a block, looking for a parking spot, when a bus prevented me from changing lanes out of what appeared to be simple meanness. I guess driving a bus in this city wouldn’t help you cultivate your charitable side, though. And what’s that you ask? Do I always let buses change lanes in front of me? Umm… let’s just move on to the next paragraph.
The health department security guard was clearly a little confused by the nature of our visit. Who is this tie-wearing outsider demanding entrance to the facilities department? But a call determined that we were expected. The guard took us out into the parking garage and pointed out a door. I gave her a donut. (On the way down, I had stopped for a mixed dozen at Dunkin Donuts, in the shadow of the I-83 overpass, so that I would not be arriving empty-handed. They were going out of their way for me, so I thought it was the least I could do, but was this patrician of me? I worried I was acting like some rich New Yorker, tipping everyone in sight to make it easier for him to believe that he is beloved by the common man. Speaking of the common man, at Dunkin Donuts a madman was panhandling outside the entrance, and I gave him a dollar because I wanted him to love me, too. It’s easy to get cynical about the able-bodied panhandlers in this city, but the crazy ones break my heart. He was doing all right: other customers had given him at least three cups of coffee – which, is that wise?- and several bags of food. The man seemed glad for the money, though, and giggled delightedly like a child.)
The facilities staff was gracious and helpful. Perhaps it was the donuts. When I walked in, John, the director of the department, made the standard “are those for me” joke and looked surprised and pleased when I said that they were. “Just put them right here,” he said, patting a small table in his office, in a tone of voice that made me wonder if his staff was going to get any. The storage cage was in a back hallway. Someone had brought the plaque out and propped it against a box. My father was surprised, he later said, by how big it was. We snapped some pictures and my father explained a little about the history of our ancestor. My father had prepared a letter and informational packet for the health commissioner, in hopes of convincing him to rehang the thing, and John said he would deliver it himself.
And that was that. Back out through the garage, down an alley, into the car, out through the still-mounting traffic. What would the good doctor make of this city today?
I write these diary entries in the mornings, sitting at the dining-room table. I would have a view out of the dining room window, but it is usually blocked with a piece of wall-board that acts as a sort of “peace line,” separating Zuzu (the cat) from a stray that likes to sit on the back steps and stare at her when she is perched on the window sill there.
Zuzu would prefer it if she were the only cat in the world and cannot stand to be reminded that she is not, and so the sight of this stray sets her to yowling and hissing so horribly that, when I heard her once from another room, I at first thought that some sort of car alarm was going off outside. Hence, the wall board. My brother had moved it on Thursday, perhaps to enjoy the view himself. When I slid it back into place before leaving for the health department, Zuzu pathetically followed the edge of it as it swept across the window, peering around it for as long as she could. When it was finally all the way across again, she hissed disgustedly and jumped down to the floor.
At work these days, the procedural editing I was working on earlier in the week has been suspended in favor of a data analysis project with a tighter deadline. It’s strange to find myself elbows-deep in Filemaker, doing things like trying to figure out how to define records as valid in such a way as to get the largest possible “universe” for the analysis, and so on. It can be frustrating, too, since this kind of thing is new to me and I must essentially teach it to myself. Still, there are moments of breakthrough, when the feeling of satisfaction is comparable to what you’d feel after solving a particularly difficult logic problem, or reassembling one of those maddening metal puzzles that bars sometimes have lying around. Yesterday was one of those times, which was a relief, because let’s just say the week had had its low points up till then.
Casting my mind back to what little set theory I studied in high school (I was just wondering, do I want the union or the intersection of these two groups?), my concentration was suddenly shattered by a cacophony of honking outside my office window. I knew exactly what it was. There is a funeral home a block up, and a procession was setting out. In the city, tif they are to remain together, these processions must inevitably ignore stop lights and block traffic at intersections. Some of the honking is from the cars in the procession, to what end I am not sure, while the rest is from confused drivers waiting at the cross street, unable to understand why these cars keep pouring across the intersection even though they no longer have the green light. Several years back, I was riding in a friend’s car when we encountered a similar situation. We had the green light, and this stream of cars was blocking us. Finally, the stream came to a stop for some reason, but, since they wanted to remain together, they still blocked the intersection. Having no idea what was going on, my friend tried to nose her car out through a gap between two of the cars, only to have the driver aggressively close the gap while the passengers snarled curses at us. We thought everyone had lost their minds, but we finally understood when we spotted the “Funeral” placard in the car’s windshield, the same placard that I see in the windshields of the cars proceeding past my office. My question is, why not put these placards in the side windows? It’s the cross-street traffic that needs to know it’s a funeral, not the next car in the procession. How could this not have occurred to them? Maybe I’ll walk down and suggest it.
At Dizzy’s there was some confusion over who had rights to which empty seats at the bar, and so we moved to the little table by the window. The cares of the week quickly dissolved in the first stem glasses of Stella Artois, while the muted television provided the usual surreal subtext. Nexium is the best medication to take for erosive epiglottitis, which, whatever else you can say about it, is certainly a great choice of term from a marketing standpoint. They’ve found $500 million in gold and silver coins from a 17th century shipwreck. The headline for the Larry King Show asks “Hugh Hefner: How Does He Do It?” and someone named Judy has lost 23 pounds without hardly trying. A viewer writes in to Lou Dobbs to say how “proud” she is that he speaks up for “those of us who have no voice.” And then there’s the Barbie Bandit. Why did the girl next door rob a bank?
From the table I had a good view of Mohawk Man, a middle-aged regular who first came in with said haircut two weeks ago. Before he did, there had never been anything else about his appearance to foreshadow this: he dressed in untucked denim shirts, jeans, sneakers, had a nondescript short haircut. Then suddenly he appeared with all of his head shaved except for a narrow strip down the middle. It wasn’t spiked up or even particularly well groomed. My first thought was that he had lost a bet, but, while this could still be true, it seems less likely now that I can see that he is definitely maintaining this haircut, i.e., reshaving the sides. So now I’m thinking there must be another explanation, and I’m trying not to leave my back turned to the guy for too long at a time.