February 13, 2012
by Akim Reinhardt
I first met Alfred nine years ago, shortly after moving into my current home. I was brand new to the neighborhood and had only been there a week when Baltimore was blanketed with a fresh coat of snow eight inches deep. Around here, that’s well more than enough to shutter schools and keep most people out of work.
I was barely awake, walking around the livingroom in jeans with no shirt or socks when I heard a tremendous rumble and thump outside the window. My primal, territorial instincts took over. The rage began to well up inside me as I prepared to defend my new holding, even if it was a rental. Who dare invade my domain!
I peeled back the curtain to see kids roaming through the streets, engaged in a massive snow ball fight free-for-all. “Alright, Reinhardt,” I said to myself quietly, “you’re only thirty-five. Don’t become a grumpy old man just yet.”
Children of all ages were streaming everywhere. A rather large one had come cascading over a short wall and onto my porch, then onto yet another, clumsily flopping across the connected rowhomes, and thereby creating the most immediate ruckus.
I got on some clothes, went outside, and started firing snowy projectiles. Sensing the opportunity to act out every kid’s fantasy by safely attacking an adult with impunity, the juvenile chaos coalesced into a children’s army. I held them off for a while, relying on a rapid fire release and some bear-like growling. But in the end their numbers were too large. They drove me back into my yard and up the stairs to my rear porch. In the end, it was all I could do to close the latch to the back gate as a fusillade misshapen snowballs reigned down upon me.
All in all, it had been a successful introduction to the neighborhood.
A few weeks later, I met the large kid who’d initially startled me by flopping along my porch. I was surprised to find that he was no child after all. His name was Alfred and he was twenty-seven years old. After a little while, I realized why I’d confused him for a kid. He’d fit in perfectly with the other children because his personality and behavior blended with theirs seamlessly. After interacting with Alfred for a few minutes one-on-one, it quickly became apparent to me that he was mildly retarded. His development was well behind his twenty-seven years. Mentally, he seemed to be functioning at the level of a thirteen year-old, give or take.
Alfred lived across the street from me in a rowhome with his mother and grandfather. The grandfather was quite old and in ill health. On rare occasions he came outside with his oxygen tank and cigarettes. Alfred’s mother, I soon gathered, also had problems: developmental issues like her son, physical ailments like her father. I had minimal contact with her so specifics eluded me, but she got around in a motorized scooter, and she was given to occasional fiascos. Sometimes an ambulance would show up and take her away. Sometimes she would somehow get locked out of her house in the middle of the night and pound on the door for what seemed like an eternity, screeching “Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelp!”
None of the neighbors ever came out to help or investigate. I followed their cue, trusting their experience.
Though I didn’t know the two “adults” in Alfred’s life, I was fairly confident that it was the sickly old man holding the household together. Barely, anyway. For example, he had managed to hire someone to paint the house one year. A nice bright red. But the contractors screwed him over by using some an interior paint, and it wasn’t long before the house had faded to a sickly pink and begun to peel.
As I got to know Alfred, I discovered a pleasant young man who clearly wasn’t prepared to make it in the world by himself, and who wasn’t getting enough help at home. He was morbidly obese, his teeth were an absolute mess, he was already on high blood pressure medication, and he typically stunk to high heaven.
Unsurprisingly, Alfred was a highs school dropout. That seemed like a given to me considering his reduced mental capacities, though a neighbor claimed Alfred had said it was because “the niggers chased him out of the school.” If he had actually said that at some point, which I have my doubts about, he would certainly have been parroting what some other adult had said. After all, there wasn’t a malicious bone in his body and nary an original thought in his head.
Alfred was generally quite happy, and he concentrated on innocent, childish pursuits. He still idolized football and baseball players the way a child would, and he showed the same fascination and exuberance with gaining their autographs or wearing their jerseys.
I did observe slow developmental growth in him, but always far behind where he should be. If he functioned like a thirteen year old when he was twenty-seven, he seemed to function like a sixteen year old by the time he was thirty-five.
It wouldn’t be enough to save him.
A few years after I moved into the neighborhood, Alfred’s grandfather died. Not long after that, his mother’s condition worsened. Within a few years, she would be carted off to an assisted-living facility. Amazingly, Alfred was now in the house by himself. And the neighbors who’d known him all his life made no effort to help him.
While there is no shortage of transient renters on my block, there’s also a strong quotient of homeowners. For example, in the bank of eight houses where I live, not only is each one of them occupant-owned ( I bought mine two years after moving in), but after nine years, I’m still the new kid on the block. Everyone’s been here longer than I have.
But none of that seemed to matter as Alfred’s situation became increasingly bleak. No sense of community emerged to act on his behalf. Instead, his situation was left to crumble.
Part of the issue was that none of the neighbors I spoke to seemed willing to acknowledge the obvious: that Alfred is mildly retarded and clearly incapable of taking care of himself. Rather, everyone I spoke to in casual conversations held him to the same standards that one would hold a “normal” person.
When Alfred’s mother was carted away to a facility, they blamed him for being an uncaring son who callously “shipped his mother off to a home,” whereas I couldn't imagine him having any role in the decision whatsoever. When he occasionally came around looking to borrow money for medicine or food, they treated him like a panhandler and griped about him being too lazy to get a job. I was always stunned by these responses. If Alfred had all of his faculties, their attitudes would have been understandable. But they seemed to be in utter denial about him. They simply refused to believe what was so patently obvious to me. It seemed like nothing short of willful ignorance.
Alfred actually did get a job eventually. He managed to catch on as an usher at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. It was the kind of work he could actually do. He was issued a polo shirt, a wind breaker, an orange cap, and tan polyester pants. Eighty-one days a year, he’d hop on the local number 27 bus and take the half-hour ride downtown, always arriving very early. His job was to look at tickets and show people to their seats. Apart from some tips on Opening Day, he earned state minimum wage (Maryland’s rate is a couple of bucks higher than the national mandate). He netted between three and four thousand dollars a year. I know because for a few years I did his taxes, making sure to get him the full refund as well as some Earned Income Credit.
Of course it wasn’t enough. First the phone got shut off. Then the gas and electric. He had no heat, but due to Alfred’s large size and Baltimore’s short and not terribly difficult winters, he didn’t seem to mind. He managed to get a cheap cell phone. For a while, he charged it on the external outlet on the side wall of the corner bar. I’d given him a skillet so he could save money by cooking food, but once the utilities went, he seemed to subsist on crap from our local version of 7-11, the Royal Farms.
If my neighbors were willfully ignorant, bordering on the delusional, about Alfred’s impaired mental faculties, then in retrospect the same could be said about me for my willingness to believe that this was a sustainable situation. The most obvious threat was property taxes. Our hundred year old houses in this transitional working class neighborhood aren’t worth that much, but the city has an astronomical property tax rate of well over two percent. I figured his annual bill would be similar to mine, approaching $2,000 a year, which he clearly could not afford. I asked him about it a couple of times, and he mentioned something about a city program that had greatly reduced what he owed. There were in fact such programs, so that was enough for me. There was also idle gossip around the neighborhood that the house was owned outright, and mention of an uncle who helped out. I knew no details, but was happy to believe that despite all the evidence to the contrary, Alfred would not lose his home.
Of course I was wrong.
Last month a twenty yard dumpster appeared in front of his house. A couple of workers spent three days hauling stuff out. Each day they filled that dumpster, had it emptied, and started over. They were gutting the place.
One neighbor spoke to the workers. She says they told her that Alfred apparently had not been taking the garbage out. Instead, he was for years tossing his refuse into the basement, nearly filling it up. The windows were painted shut and the smell was so bad that the workers broke some of them open to let in fresh air. Word is they also found all of his sports memorabilia, several thousand dollars worth, still scattered about the house. She claims they said their boss had bought the house for $13,000, barely one-tenth of its value even in that condition, implying it had been gotten at auction, possibly for tax default. But that was a rumor, and this neighborhood is chock full of unreliable chatter.
And as for Alfred himself? No one seems to know where he is. There aren’t even any rumors about it. He’s just gone. And no one seems to give a shit.
Posted by Akim Reinhardt at 12:10 AM | Permalink