The Baltimore Free Store is an organization dedicated to the reuse and recycling of unwanted items by distributing (most of) them for free from their storefront one day each week (typically Saturdays, with donations accepted on Wednesday evenings).
Their storefront is a large former appliance store on a gritty section of Southwest Baltimore (just west of Hollins Market) lined with pawn shops, liquor stores and fried chicken restaurants (all of which close down promptly at sundown). Windows in this neighborhood were adorned with either metal bars or large sheets of plywood, and most doors (including the Free Store’s) were protected by large metal gates.
Yet, it maintained an active street life with neighbors stopping each other on the sidewalk to chat and kids biking in middle of the street past teenagers standing stoic guard of their respective turfs. As store manager Bonnie said during my orientation a few weeks ago: it was a logical location to put a store like this…and it was “the only place we could afford.”
Unfortunately, affordability and accessibility are not necessarily the same thing. True, several buses pass by the store each hour, but the nearest light rail station is over a mile away and the closest stop for the (free) Charm City Circulator is at the “UM Biopark Garage” – five and a half blocks east of the store.
However, this didn’t stop people from lining up in the cold autumn air up to two hours before the otherwise unmarked store was slated to open. In fact, by the time I arrived at the store the line already stretched halfway down the block, but no-one arrived to let me (or anyone else) in for another half-hour.
It didn’t take long for things to get interesting: the well dressed older lady in front of me (a dead ringer for Kathy Bates’ character in Titanic) was chatting with a young college-aged couple while a large woman in a ragged blue folding chair passed out candy from a small Ziplock bag. Then the crowd scatters slightly as a man near the front of the line begins throwing up reddish-yellow bile all over the sidewalk in front of the store.
A few minutes later an average-sized woman with reddish-blond hair and a greenish-grey T-shirt arrives and unlocks the gate to the store. After some prompting she comes back out to unlock the “exit” door as well; while she’s doing that a short black man comes out and passes around a clipboard with a sign-in sheet attached as the woman in the folding chair gets her nearly empty bag of candy back.
The woman with the grey T-shirt turns to us, and starts shouting announcements that none of us could here but essentially boiled down to: enter in an orderly fashion, don’t be greedy and limit 25 people in store at once.
It was that last point that led to the day’s second exposure to bile:
“What the fuck is taking these people so long?” said a tall white man with a battered baseball cap. “Oh right, some of them have 6-7 people listed in their house.”
I couldn’t decide if that remark was more brazen or stupid – especially given his surroundings. Thankfully, the red headed lady came out, looked at me and pulled me inside before I could see if he got the beating he deserved.
Her name tag read “Kathleen” in big red letters and had a small sticker on the lower left hand corner. She was glad I’d come, but I got the distinct feeling she had no idea what she was going to do with me now that I was there. That seems to happen everywhere I go.