Here's one story about the West Baltimore corner of North Monroe and Mosher streets: On May 21, three people were shot: one in the head, one in the chest, one in the leg.
Here's a better story about that corner. One day, a teen known as Q-Ball was walking with his brother and a friend when a skinny white boy named Alan emerged from a rowhouse and said, "Hey, do you all wanna destroy a microwave?"
“This guy looks crazy,” Q-Ball remembers thinking, “but here’s our chance to get destructive, to destroy something.”
The trio went into Alan’s backyard, grabbed some pieces of wood, and went to work. When they were done, Q-Ball gave Alan a high-five. He winced and looked at his hand. There was a cut straight across his fingers.
Like most young men from West Baltimore, misfortune had found Q-Ball often. Over time, misfortune can transform into anger, and anger always finds a way out. Q-Ball didn’t like turning his own anger into other people’s misfortune. The microwave was willing to take some of Q-Ball’s anger away. A little blood was a small price to pay.
Alan’s hand was smeared with red. “I guess we must be blood brothers now,” said Q-Ball.
Alan Willingham-McLain, 24, and several young men from the neighborhood are packed up in Alan’s kitchen sharing a pot of chicken, rice, and bell peppers. As with all community meals here, each person fixes a plate for someone else. Above the sink behind them, a plaque reads, “FAITH makes things possible—not easy.”
It’s been over two years since the microwave-bashing, but Q-Ball is still here. His real name is Ernest Wilson. At 19 years old, he’s still tight with Alan.
“When he turned 18, I’m like, ‘We’re calling him Q, not Q-Ball,’” Alan said, laughing. “That sounds more like a man’s name: Q.”
Not many houses have mission statements, but in Alan’s living room there’s one scrawled on a whiteboard in purple and orange marker. It says that 1917 Mosher is an “intentional Christian community,” serving as a “safe and empowering space” for young men who want “more than what the corner has to offer.”
“I guess the reason why this lifestyle is important to me,” Alan said, “is because I fear the world will never see the amazing leadership inside of people like Q if society keeps on this track where we just isolate ourselves from people who hurt and who are different and keep opportunity away from them.”
Q keeps his hair thick and wears stylish outfits with brightly colored flames and camouflage. As I sat listening to his life story, his feelings registered very clearly on his broad face. His demeanor is so calm, though, that it’s difficult to notice those feelings changing. One minute, you see gleeful gratitude in his face. Look again and it’s mournful regret.
Q tries to keep himself in places where opportunity is most likely to cross his path. He helps lead a youth group at New Song Community Church. He is training to become a leader with Young Life, a Christian mentoring program working with students from Calverton Elementary/Middle in Southwest Baltimore. He wants to attend Baltimore City Community College in the fall. But as a young man in West Baltimore, there’s something else just as likely to cross Q’s path: the odds, which are against him.
“Yesterday I went swimming, and someone stole a bookbag that had my ID, my social security card, and birth certificate,” Q said as he sat at Alan’s kitchen table. “It seems like every time I’m on track, something will always take me back. My cousin, she got shot in the face two weeks ago. And a man I looked up to as a role model got killed back in February.”
On February 23, police found Phil Carr Jr. on the ground in Park Heights, shot in the head. “When I found out about that,” Q said, “I kinda went through a downfall.”
Carr had helped Q’s family get through his great aunt’s death from breast cancer in 2010. “We were all down and depressed, and when he came along, we were like, ‘Aw, that was the problem: We was missing the fun,'” Q said. “I kinda looked at him as a father.”
Q’s great aunt, Mary Ellen Bell, had raised him from the age of four. She became like a mother to him. When Bell died, Q was 15, and he went to North Carolina to live with his father. School and sports began to stress him out, he said, and after a few months his father got locked up. That was actually a bit of a relief—they’d had many conflicts. But then his mother called from Baltimore: Q’s sister was ill.
“When she told me that, I snapped,” Q said. He began feeling suicidal, making sketches in a notebook rather than expressing his feelings to anyone else. When one of the sketches fell on the floor and someone saw it, Q called his mom. After nearly a year in North Carolina, it was time to come home to Baltimore.
Back home, he remained depressed and turned to marijuana and alcohol. “When I was going through them times,” Q said, “a lot of people was talking to me like, ‘Hey man, look, you starting to change, you starting to pick up an attitude, man. You mean. You acting crazy.’”