Discovering Baltimore’s diversity

Posted Oct. 22, 2009, at 6:26 p.m.

Four afternoons a week, I work at Johns Hopkins University. I file, write letters, edit and do research. I took the job because they have a cappuccino machine.

That’s not entirely true. As far as part-time jobs go, it’s definitely above-average; the people are smart and focused, the hours are right, and the material is all interesting to me. After my first interview, I went home, opened my closet and made sure that in the event that I was hired, I would have enough clothing appropriate for an office that I wouldn’t have to wear the same thing twice in a week. I would make it — just.

“I’m not sure if I can go to school, write and work all at the same time,” I told a friend after my second interview. I paused. “But they have a fantastic coffee maker.”

“Really?” she said. “Free good coffee — that’s like, an extra buck-fifty a day on top of your paycheck. Bonus.”

I started that Monday.

Thus began my black-and-white Baltimore days. In preparation for applying to nursing schools, I am taking several prerequisite courses in math and biology at Baltimore City Community College, or BCCC. Five mornings a week I hop on the public transit system and ride over to the west side, joining the ranks of inner-city students stepping off the metro and heading to class. Then, each day at noon, I sprint to the metro, head all the way across town to the Johns Hopkins medical campus where I work part time. Though both places are inherently “Baltimore,” they couldn’t be more dissimilar environments.

I am the only Caucasian in three of my classes at BCCC. To my acute embarrassment, I have found myself unable to understand what some of my classmates are saying. More than once I have had to say, “Excuse me?” only to have another student step in and “translate” for me.

“He asked you if you wanted to buy his old biology book.”

I struggle not to cover my cheeks with my hands when my face turns bright red. It’s one thing to need translation when you’re an exchange student in a foreign country; it’s another thing entirely when you can’t understand the dialect of other Americans, speaking your native language. They laugh at me good-naturedly; I have stopped trying to blend in.

While the majority of my classmates are urban African-Americans, there is a large enough smattering of African, Asian and a few Middle Eastern immigrants to pepper the hallways with second languages. This school is probably the most genuinely diverse institution I have ever attended. Most of the students are juggling work and family; almost all are there with a specific goal, usually occupation-related.

“Shoot,” a woman in my math class said as she opened up her notebooks. “I’ve got my son’s papers.” She held up a crayoned sheet of three-letter words. “We were all working together at the kitchen table last night. My baby’s gonna be in kindergarten today with my economics worksheets.”

After class I take the metro — the only metro line in Baltimore, a dilapidated, solitary subway line cutting diagonally across town — to my job on the east side. There, I work in an office with a half-dozen other white women. And, while Johns Hopkins University employees are fairly racially integrated, I readily understand what everyone is saying here. Same city, different world, different language — sort of.

“You take the metro here?” a co-worker asked me. She is a medical student who just moved here from Nebraska. “Wow. I was told not to do that. You’re a brave woman.”

The metro seems OK to me. Even during rush hour, it’s only partially full. Sometimes the blinking sign in the car will stop changing, announcing “Next Stop: Mondawmin” for several stops in a row, none of them Mondawmin. It’s no fast-paced, Washington, D.C., metro line. I wouldn’t take it at night, and I wouldn’t fall asleep on it, but those seem like fine rules for any country mouse living in the city.

My east side-west side days underscore Baltimore’s “patchwork quilt” feeling. In truth, you don’t need to cross town to sense the different worlds within one city. When I began searching for an apartment, I was amazed at how quickly the tone, atmosphere, and demographic of Baltimore could change from block to block. “Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods,” I was told when I arrived, and it certainly has proved true.

I have a multifaceted view of Baltimore packed into each day, and I’m only scratching the surface. When I come home at night, open my windows, and sit down to start my schoolwork — listening to the sound of my neighbor’s Spanish and the occasional firetruck — I know that I’m starting to know its many faces.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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