South Baltimore Tunnels

August 4, 2010

A few years back I adapted a photo and text essay, originally published in the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine in the early 1980s, as a full-page feature for a contemporary publication. The editors liked the content and my layout, but—because we couldn’t agree on a fee—the piece was not used. So I’ve decided to publish it myself as a blog post. The house on the right in the large image is 807 William Street, in South Baltimore, as seen from the back. My family lived there from 1950 to 1952. (This larger image did not appear in the Baltimore Sunday Sun version, only the smaller shots of “tunnels” viewed from the front sidewalk.) The brick-paved walkway between the two houses often served as my playground, hence the idea for the narrative. The two boys at the end of what I then called my “tunnel,” and what I have since learned is officially known as a “sally port,” are my sons, Shawn and Vincent. What drew my interest as a child, and still does, are the attractive vertical shapes and the backyard scenes they framed. The larger photograph was made in the 70s, when Shawn and Vincent were around my age at the time the alley, areaway, sallyport—whatever— served as my playground. My short elegiac memory of those days appears below the photo layout.

The younger boy called it his “alley,” but the older boy next door, with whom he shared it, said the covered walkway between their row homes was an “areaway.” The difference, he said, was that an areaway has a roof and an alley is open to the sky. To the younger boy it was much more than either alley or areaway. On days when he was punished and told by his mother to play there, it became a bridge from the hot desert of the summer streets to the cool oasis of his backyard. It was a refuge from savages (neighborhood bullies), and a tunnel to the center of the earth. When it rained he was warm and dry—on scorching days he was cool. It was the best of both worlds and a world unto itself, a city canyon wherein he became Little Beaver in a Saturday Red Ryder cowboy movie. By placing his feet on one wall and his back on the other, and applying cross pressure (imaginary tomahawk clinched in his teeth), he would inch his way to the top of the passage and wait in ambush for his brother, one of General Custer’s men delivering supplies to his mother’s pantry in the fort. When the younger boy was not a happy comic book or movie character, he was Brer Rabbit, and his alley—areaway—the perfect briar patch.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.