Waking up to the sound of a headboard banging against the bedroom wall is not uncommon for Cameron, an orphaned teenager forced to play surrogate father to his 4-year-old brother, Antonio.
To feed the family and pay bills, their older sister, Chance-a year shy of legal drinking age-regularly prostitutes herself to older men from the suburbs and the blocks surrounding their small, two-bedroom apartment on Appleton Street in Baltimore's west side. At 15, Cameron is the prime age to start working as a corner boy for the Payback Crew, a local drug gang, the only available line of work for an unemployed, young black male with mediocre grades living near North Avenue.
Abandoned by a mother lost to AIDS and a derelict father consumed by drug addiction, Cameron and his siblings find themselves in a situation just short of hopeless mere pages into author Marshall C. Bell's second self-published novel, Baltimore Blues: Harm City (TBG Publishing).
As fans of the HBO show The Wire will know, Bell is reprising a trope that has come to characterize this city in recent popular culture: the idea of Baltimore-as-seedy-underworld, an image perhaps also found in the video recordings of CitiWatch cameras, but removed from a tourist's occasional jaunt to the Inner Harbor.
In Baltimore Blues, Bell aligns seedy Baltimore against protagonist Cameron at every turn. He describes the city-specifically those blocks running from Monroe Street to Coppin State University, where the story is set-as a beast on the prowl, dormant for just a few hours before daybreak, when dealers, crooked cops, drug addicts, prostitutes, and gang members hunting snitches awake and take over the streets.
Cameron's income is dependent upon Chuck, a wealthy white businessman from the suburbs who visits Chance whenever he can retreat from his wife and family. Cameron's hassled routinely by Nigga Ray, an addict pushing stolen wares to pay for his next dose of heroin. And after a freak shooting at a nearby corner store, he finds himself tailed relentlessly by Rock and Wayne, leaders of the Payback Crew who suspect he has ratted them out to the city police as the shooters.
Baltimore, as Cameron experiences it, is a city with no prospect of redemption; at one point he adamantly declares that he'll move away from Baltimore, "maybe out to the county or to another state," where there are fewer people doing drugs, fewer people getting shot, and fewer people selling their bodies just to make ends meet.
The city that 44-year-old Bell writes about in Baltimore Blues is a place he was largely sheltered from for the first half of his life. While his family is from West Baltimore-his grandmother lives on Appleton Street to this day-Bell grew up in Owings Mills, in Baltimore County, and attended the private Park School from first through eighth grade before matriculating to gifted-and-talented classes at Randallstown High School. From there, it was on to Howard University, in Washington, D.C., where Bell got his bachelor's degree in marketing and African-American studies.
"I didn't start fucking up until I came back to Baltimore," Bell says.
After graduating from Howard in 1991, Bell headed into the city, moving into a house on Auchentoroly Terrace in Mondawmin. He was one member of Blackout Productions, a group that threw parties at different locations in the city. Over time, Bell's occasional weed use morphed into recreational cocaine use.
"Next thing you know, you're addicted, you're jacked up, and it's hard to get out of that spiral," he says.
He describes the mid-'90s as a "crazy period," during which he had two sons four months apart and no focus. There were moments when not all was bleak; for instance, Bell managed brother, former City Council President Lawrence Bell's unsuccessful 1999 campaign for mayor of Baltimore. But in general, for a little more than 10 years starting in 1995, Bell vacillated between periods when he was totally clean and other moments when he was addicted to drugs, squatting in "abandominiums" and scrounging for cash to fight off withdrawal.
"Drugs don't care who you are," says Bell. "But at some point you have to ask yourself: how do you want to be remembered? Going around hacking people all day just to get $20 to get a jumper in the morning?"
Bell's salvation came in the form of writing. He started his first novel, The Darkest Secret, in 2006 after he finished a final stint in rehab. A brief relapse delayed its publication until 2009. But Baltimore Blues was completed in just under a year. Today, Bell is completely sober, a working political consultant and talk-radio host: His program, Midday Magazine, airs twice a week on 1010 WOLB-AM.
Perhaps more important to Bell's recovery, however, is the function storytelling has come to have in his life. In the novel, Cameron's salvation comes in the form of two older, black male mentors-Blue the barber and Mr. Humbart, a Coppin State professor-who guide him, give him reasons not to descend into the neighborhood drug culture, and take an active interest in his health and well-being. That's a role Bell assumes now: the mentor who has walked in the shoes of the students he speaks to in Baltimore's public schools.
"Cameron-he ain't perfect," Bell says. "He's in that world. I think there are a lot of kids who are right on that line that could go either way. That's why guys like me have to come in, 'cause the kids aren't gonna figure it out themselves."
In a sense, that's what Bell is trying to do with Baltimore Blues: sketch out in fictional form what possibilities are open to young black boys and girls who reject a life of drugs, sex, and violence. That message, however, at times sounds woefully simplistic, even out of reach. A reader can't help but wonder how fortunate it is for Cameron to know Blue the barber, who happens to know Professor Humbart, who happens to have been at one point a professional photographer, which happens to be a career path Cameron wants to pursue.
Even more, the intervention undertaken by mentors is ultimately self-defeating. Bell says that sometimes when he speaks at a school, he has to dive into his battle with addiction for students to relate to him. In the book, it's Blue who chases after Cameron when he rushes off to point the barrel of a handgun at Rock's face, eventually persuades him to lower the weapon, and in return gets shot by another stick-up boy working for the Payback Crew.
Still, in the end, Baltimore Blues strikes a hopeful if a discordant note. Cameron starts pulling in work as a photographer; Chance, after meeting a man who will become her fiance, is no longer beholden to Chuck's wallet (and, therefore, his libido); Blue survives his gunshot wound. It's deliberate, according to Bell, who claims this novel is not a piece of urban fiction.
"Urban fiction books . . . tell the worst of our stories," he says. "They don't tell the best of our stories."
The best of those stories are not works where people can't escape the grip of the beast that is the worst of Baltimore, says Bell. Instead, they're stories that follow the advice that Cameron's father, Arthur, passed on to his son before losing himself in heroin:
"Life was more than a slow crawl to death. Life was about loving, learning, and living."