745 Baltimore Street

I can remember my sister and my getting up early Sunday morning and going next door to Carl Ellis' store. We would get chocolate milk and a honey bun for breakfast. Our pink sponge hair rollers peered from beneath our greasy, polyester, silk scarves which permeated the air with the smell of Sulfur 8. We wore quilted satin-like robes to hide our white, cotton, full-length slips. The lacy, white socks and spit-shined, black patten leather shoes were the only indicators of our destination, Ebenezer Baptist Church.

"Girls finish your breakfast and get dressed," instructed my soft-spoken, even- tempered mother. "I still have to do your hair and it's gonna take about thirty or forty minutes to walk to your Aunt Jack's house."

I never understood why we had to go to Aunt Jack's house at 745 Baltimore Street before going to Ebenezer which was on Austin Street. But we did. As we walked, the sky spread out above us in one continuous carpet of blue. The fluffy white cumulus clouds easily lent themselves to the "What do you see" game we enjoyed along the way.

"Step on a crack, break your mother's back," teased my older sister Barb, as we reached the sidewalk which marked the intersection of Baltimore and Austin Streets.

"Don't step on the crack, don't step on the crack," we all sang as we skipped over the neat straight quarter-inch grooves in the concrete walk on Baltimore Street.

The sidewalk marked the beginning of what I perceived to be the upper-middle- class neighborhood. The homes, although not particularly large, represented wealth and success in my childish ignorance. The yards, mostly void of color, contained neatly-mowed, green grass, unlike our dirt yard which we swept with an old, straw broom. Every house had at least one car under the carports; however, our major mode of transportation was walking. The most distinguishing feature of the homes was the porch. The porch usually contained some kind of swing with a matching chair or two. The awning over the porch provided shade in the dog days of summer and shelter in the April showers of the spring, but our house had steps which offered neither shelter nor shade.

"Ding dong, ding dong," the doorbell rang. My sister and I took turns playing with this luxury item on our Aunt Jack's front door.

"Come in," Jack answered, pulling the heavy black door toward her. "I'll be ready in a minute."

We swung on the porch in the cool, peaceful breeze until it was time to go to church.

My sister Barb, my three cousins and I headed to Ebenezer through the pass which wound from my aunt's house to the church. We popped sour green plums into our mouths and giggled at the twisted distorted faces and wild eyes caused by their bitterness. We snapped morning glories and argued over whose bud resonated the loudest. We sucked the sweet nectar of the wild honey suckles, one right after the other. We looked for the one perfect four-leaf clover that would surely bring us good luck for all eternity. Mom and Aunt Jack drove to the church for fear of snagging their pantyhose on this adventurous route.

After speaking to the whisky-drinking, cigar-smoking sinners lounging around on the porches of the dilapidated homes known as "Sinner's Row," we entered the doors of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

"Holy, Holy, Holy," bellowed sister Fullerwider with her eyes closed and her head rolling from side to side.

It is the first Sunday of the month, I thought to myself. The Senior Choir sings on the first Sunday. Communion is also on the first Sunday. The Junior Choir sings on the second Sunday. The Cheeks' Chorus sings on the third Sunday. The Quarlets sing on the forth Sunday and the Mass Choir sings on the fifth Sunday.

The church was beautiful. The bare wooden floors glistened like a new penny. The stained-glass windows were open to allow the breeze to cool the unairconditioned building, and to allow the gospel to overtake Sinners' Row, compelling some poor lost soul to repent and accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. The communion table was meticulously draped with a superbly white linen cloth. The pews were a beautiful dark wood with no cushions.

"Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church. Amen," Reverend Earl Cheeks recited along with the congregation. "Ushers, please come forward and prepare for offering."

I loved to hear Reverend Cheeks preach. He looked so handsome in his long white robe with his thinning wavey hair plastered to one side covering the balding spot. He captivated me with the way he pounded his fist and wiped his sweat when he was coming to the close of his sermon. He could save any poor sinner's soul from the blazing fires of hell, or so I thought until one hot day in June, when I was disillusioned by a strange encounter with Reverend Cheeks.

"Hey baby," he slurred. "You sure are a pretty young thing! Wanna go for a ride?"

I was confused. Was this my Reverend Earl Cheeks?I thought. Or was it one of those whisky-drinking sinners from Sinners' Row? Was he making a pass at me? Did he not know it was a sin to lust after the flesh?

Now I know how Malcolm X must have felt when he realized that Elijah Muhammad was a man and Allah was God. My Reverend Cheeks, whom I had deified, was a mere man, a sinner.

As I reminisce, I recall how after church we would all pile into Aunt Jack's hunter green 1977 Pontiac Coupe Deville. We rushed to get to the exquisitely prepared dinner that awaited us. Aunt Jack had prepared delicious-smelling, crunchy fried chicken; mouth-watering macaroni with extra sharp cheddar cheese; nostril-tickling, buttery corn-on- the-cob; tongue-teasing, tangy lemon meringue pie; and a gallon of thirst-quenching, sun- brewed, sweet tea, all before going to church. Now she only had to brown some crumbly, crusty, buttermilk cornbread.

Once the dinner had been devoured, and the kitchen had been cleaned, mom and Aunt Jack retreated to the porch for an afternoon of gossip and reminiscing. The children all ran across the street, through a path, and onto the playground. We rode the merry-go-round until someone puked. We played stick ball with ghost men to fill in where needed. We swung so high that the chains jerked. Exhausted, we slowly strolled back to the house and joined the adults on the front porch for rest and relaxation. From the porch, we could hear feet stomping, and hands clapping as the Junior Choir sang, "Gong Up Yonder" on their fifth anniversary at the church. We sang along and imitated Sister Lottie shouting. As the sun began to set, Mom, Barb, and I said our good-byes and headed home. As we walked, we looked for flickering fireflies and counted the countless stars in the dark, moon- lit sky.

Fifteen years later I revisited Ebenezer Baptist Church and Baltimore Street.

"Where's all the old houses?" I asked my mother as we drove down Austin Street toward the church.

"Oh," answered Mom. "The drugs and the killings got so bad, they condemned those ole houses and tore 'em down. They weren't nuttin but crack houses."

Waist-high grass and weeds covered the land where homes once stood. Beer cans and bottles, soiled diapers, candy wrappers, and rusty metal parts littered the streets. In the midst of it all, someone had planted a garden.

"You know back there's where yo cousin Butch got stabbed to death," pointed out my mother. "The city and church s'pose to do something with this street soon."

"Boy," I remarked as we parked the car in the freshly lined parking lot of Ebenezer Baptist Church, "the church sure has grown."

"Yeah, they added on a dining area, a nursery, and two or three classrooms," mother informed me. "They ain't bout nuttin but money and show these days."

The doors of the church opened to reveal its beauty. The wooden floors were covered with plush red carpet. The stained glass windows were locked to keep the cool air in and the thieves out. The seats and backs of the pews were padded with firm cushions. Each pew had gold nameplates attached at the ends.

Williams Family 1986, read one plate. Tolbert Family 1987. Hill Family 1988. Fullerwinder Family 1985. The list went on and on.

I'm reminded that it's the fourth Sunday as I hear Sister Lottie of the Quarlets singing in a raspy deep voice:

May not be able to sing like angels. Maybe you just can't preach like Paul. But you can say I, I love the Lord. He, He heard my cry. And then he died for us all.

Following the service, we visited Baltimore Street.

"There sure are a lot of 'For Sale' signs around here," I observed as my mother and I drove through the sparsely-populated neighborhood. "It looks so run down and ragged. It reminds me of the old Sinners' Row."

"The good people are trying to move away," said mother shaking her head in frustration. "The drug dealers, crack heads, prostitutes, gang bangers, and other scum have ruint this nice neighborhood. The few good people left are terrified. They don't dare sit on the porch or go to the park anymore. Fraid of being robbed, raped, stabbed, or shot to death."

Upon reaching 745 Baltimore Street, I exited the car and made my way to the porch. As I pressed the broken doorbell of the small brick house my nose caught the clashing odors of shake-n-bake chicken, boxed macaroni and cheese, frozen corn nibblets, and stale donuts. Cold, black, cast iron burglar bars covered the dirty window panes. Standing gazing around, I realized that the only purpose for the porch was to gain entry into the dark, lifeless, musty brick structure. The porch had been reduced to a mere step.

As I turned to leave, something drew me down the paths I had travelled as a child. To my dismay, I found that the winding paths leading to the church and park were grossly littered with sperm-filled condoms, empty Schlitz Malt Liquor bottles, Newport cigarette packages, home-made crack pipes, and various other drug paraphernalia. The park provided horny, drug-crazed addicts with a love haven for breeding and spreading numerous sexually transmitted diseases.

Thoroughly disillusioned, just as I had been when I saw another side of Reverend Cheeks, I returned to my car and drove away from 745 Baltimore Street. I wondered how this upper-middle class neighborhood could have allowed itself to be defeated by drugs and crime. Did the people of this community, I asked myself come together and fight like Hector at Troy and General John B. Hood at Atlanta, or did they put their tails between their legs and submit like a cowardly coyote? I felt an eerie sense of vulnerability pulsating in my veins. I locked the car doors and quickly drove away in fear of becoming the next casualty of war.

Vanessa Mitchell