The sad under the happy 

We checked into the Marriott on a balmy December Saturday. It was unseasonably warm for a Christmas celebration weekend in Baltimore, MD. My husband Kevin and I were there to see the Christmas Parade in the harbor. We splurged on the hotel – we were celebrating my 52nd birthday a little early as my birthday falls three days before Christmas and it is often very busy around that week that any getaway would not work.

There was a beautiful Christmas tree in the lobby and the hotel bustled with visitors. There was a doorman and valet parking and a bellman. The room with a view of Baltimore Harbor did not disappoint. It felt a little decadent- a little too much- but it felt really good to be able to splurge like this. The last two years had been really, really hard. Serious illness and then debt from the medical bills, another home that we had been renting out but losing money on was on the market but wouldn’t sell, and loss of income for various reasons from our jobs left us in bad financial shape.

We had tried various ways to dig out but it just seemed like things were getting worse. Finally for many reasons we decided to file bankruptcy. It was tough but in light of having faced cancer it wasn’t as scary as it may have been otherwise. Then just when we thought things were looking up – our other house had a contract for sale on it – the bank decided to foreclose. It really was a stressful time.

So here we were five months later in a hotel in Baltimore celebrating and splurging a bit. Kevin began a new job in October with better pay. Things are going better. We have a little room to breath.

We had a nice time tooling around the harbor and Fells point each time we go I see something new. Each time I get a better feel for the city and its charms.

This time there was quite a celebration going on in Fells Point. There were bands and vendors in the square. Some vendors had hot libations like spiked eggnog and cider, and some had clothing, others jewelry. I had to stop and photograph the dogs – there were so many dogs. The Fells Point area is very dog friendly. A fun looking band was taking a break promising to start up again soon.

Kevin and I hustled and bustled our way through some bars and some appetizers. We felt the holiday buzz. We watched the boats in the harbor from our room – not the fanfare I thought it would be but the boats that participated were done up nicely. I can hear people cheering for them from our room with the harbor view.

It was fun and one could get caught up in this great place and how perfect it all is. And it is wonderful. I love it there but each time I go I also see the other side. The sad side. The sad under the happy.

I see the homeless person on the corner asking for a dollar or two. I see the hustlers in the crowd doing their thing angling for money.  I read the warnings in flyer that said to watch out for people dressed in character suits asking for money as they aren’t part of this event or that. The flyer warns that they are just trying to get your cash. In the evening I see a man alone on a set of dark building steps head in his hands. We quicken our steps but I don’t think we need to fear for ourselves. Part of me wants to see what’s wrong.

Some social workers and even non-professionals say it is unhealthy to give money to the homeless because they may use it to buy drugs and alcohol. I decided long ago that this may be true but I don’t really care. I feel good giving them money and it is not my job to judge. It is my job to love and to show compassion.

I feel badly that I can’t help them all. I feel badly saying no – but sometimes you have to. Sometimes it’s as simple as having run out of cash in your own pocket.

I think my guilt over splurging on the weekend and having to say no to the needy sometimes comes from way back.

When I was young I grew up in Potomac, MD an affluent area outside of Washington, DC. I didn’t realize it was affluent until I was maybe 10 or 11. Perhaps that is the age that differences dawn on you in your awareness. I remember going to the Redskins games on Sundays. We always had season tickets and sometimes we would park outside the stadium on someone’s lawn for a small fee. We had done it for years but at some point I realized these city kids in their worn clothes in front of their worn homes lived very differently than I did. I was kind of embarrassed by that.

Later when I started college my best friend and I were attending the same school. When we went to orientation some other freshman asked us where we lived. When we said Potomac, MD they gave us a hard time. They joked that we were rich kids and I really didn’t like it. So I began to say I was from Rockville, MD (affluent now but then more regular middle class).

I was never comfortable with the label. I was never comfortable with wealth for that matter. I am sure it is because it represented more negative things to me than positive. I grew up where money was over- valued and I spent much of my life not valuing it enough. I was not a saver and I spent and spent – rejecting what had been drilled in me from youth. I think there was a happy medium and maybe I am just beginning to understand it.

I still carry the guilt of being some “rich” kid (though we weren’t rich by todays standards). In my world money did not bring happiness – for me giving away money or spending it did. I feel badly sometimes when I indulge on myself and if I can’t give to everyone I meet on the street. I need to let go of that and I am working on it. I deserve to splurge sometimes and celebrate.

After the boat parade, we head to Mustang Alley’s a bar and bowling Alley (cool right?) for a little bite to eat. In a bar there are two holiday parties going on and people are exchanging gifts – doing that elephant exchange thing- all laughing at the silly gifts. I watch as one woman takes the gift from her officemate. Though I can’t see what the gift is I know it was something everyone wanted just by the groans. The place is full of cheer. We head back to the hotel for dessert in the hotel restaurant. I just want to eat there because it feels good to sit in the pretty restaurant and sip coffee and have dessert.

I am so drawn to Baltimore – the happy and the sad. My connection runs so deep that sometimes I dream about buying a small studio for weekend getaways. Kevin and talk about how great that would be to have a little place in the city.

There has been unrest in Baltimore lately. The news of the riots saddened me. But it doesn’t take away from my love of the place. It is the reality of a city. There are problems – just like anywhere but more magnified because you have more people in a city thus more diversity – and thus more differences and some of those differences lead to anger and unhappiness. Maybe if I lived there I would feel differently about it all. Maybe the charm would leave me. But right now it is a place I love to visit.

I am not a city person by nature. I grew up in the burbs and now I live in the country. I love the country and have been drawn to nature and the outdoors my entire life. The city is such the opposite of where I live. The energy and the pace are so awakening.

When I was 22 I lived for a year in Boston. I was fresh out of college and moved there on a whim (ok I followed a boy) and I was taken by the juxtaposition of the wealth and the poverty. I remember one morning leaving my apartment and a homeless man was asleep in the entry of the building. The stench of liquor was pretty fierce. My boyfriend was disgusted that this man was in the vestibule. I felt happy he was able to find a semi-warm place to sleep.

I rode the subway to work and had a bit of a walk to my building everyday and I had “my” homeless person that I took care of each day. A number of my coworkers did the same. A few cigarettes here and a few dollars there- a muffin or a coffee some mornings- it was the best we could do I suppose. By the time we left for the day our homeless charges had moved on and were replaced by others. But we knew ours would be back in the morning.

It became part of the scenery. We would see guys in the common hustling the tourists with their card games or the ball and cup game. We would watch. It wasn’t the haves and the have-nots anymore when you lived there it was just all part of the city.

On the way out of Baltimore, I see the stadiums that sit next to a neighborhood where children who grow under their shadows. They hear the games but may never be able to go BC their parents can’t afford it.

As we drive onto the freeway, I see a small wooden fort next to the a creek – there are some plastic chairs sitting out front right – it is next to the fancy new Horseshoe casino. Does anyone know who lives there? Does anyone check? I wonder. It’s gone as fast as I see it. But I can still see it in my mind.

I’m actually grateful to notice these things. This is reality. This is what makes life bittersweet. Poverty is everywhere- it is just magnified in the backdrop of the city. I want to fix it but I realize I can’t – I can only do what I can do. The guilt may be something I am always working on.