In Baltimore City
“I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.”
– Robert Frost
Policemen walk a beat and work shift work, I have known this since birth. After dinner was cleared away, Dad would put on his uniform, strap his gun in its holster, and leave for the station. He worked over in West Baltimore, which has never been the best neighborhood in the city. None of us ever told him to be careful, we only said see you tomorrow. These nights were exciting times for me. I was allowed to stay up all night. How great was that?
I was about four years old. As all my little friends were being bathed and put to bed, I was getting my hair done and watching Fred MacMurray shoot Barbara Stanwyck on television. Mom and I would drink Cokes, play checkers and watch the late show, the late, late show and finally, the late, late, late show. After The Star Spangled Banner played and the screen hummed with static, Mom would play her Connie Francis records.
Mom would sew and iron while I colored in books or played dolls. The goal each night was to be awake when Dad came home so that I would sleep the same times Dad slept. I never missed one morning, even on the days Mom fell asleep in her chair. I could stay awake longer than anyone. I liked the night, the quietness, the stars, the empty street where the only sound was the whistle of an oncoming train.
This plan worked for us for a few years but, like most things, it came to an end before we were prepared. It was the day before Thanksgiving. I was playing outside with a girl named Diane. We decided it would be fun to have a race. She was on skates and I was pushing a big baby buggy with a few dolls tucked inside. Her brother called out to get ready and get set. By the time he yelled “go” we were gone. Unfortunately for me, one of our neighbors chose that moment to walk outside. I swerved to avoid her, sending my buggy in the gutter and me, head over heels, across the top of it. It resulted in a victory for Diane and a cast for me. Dad had just left for work. He missed my crash.
The weeks of staying awake all night did not serve me well when I had to stay in Children’s Hospital. I stayed there after having a few surgeries on my arm. Dad was still on night shift, and so was I. One by one each nurse came to my bed to coax me to sleep. They brought me warm milk, read me stories, and even threatened to tell the doctor on me. Nothing could convince me to go to sleep. They gave up and wheeled me into the nurse’s station where I watched Robert Mitchum movies until the next shift of nurses arrived. Dad came to the hospital in the morning , and only then was I able to go to sleep. Once I was home, our shift work changed. Dad was promoted to Detective and worked more regular hours. The following fall I went to kindergarten and my sister was born. No more movies or Cokes at three am.
Many years later Dad lived with me. He had been diagnosed with dementia and never really slept through the night anymore. I would go and sit in his room and we would drink Cokes or coffee and watch John Wayne movies. Some nights I would do my ironing. There were times when Dad would fall asleep in his chair, but I always could stay awake longer. When the sun would begin its climb, Dad would open his eyes and tell me to go to sleep. Our shift was over.