D. Watkins explores two Baltimores in his first book

September 14, 2015 

The author D. Watkins floats between two worlds, adept at maneuvering through both though perhaps not fully comfortable in either.

The hard part isnít so much the physical journey from the boarded-up rowhouses and roach-infested refrigerators and cracked-asphalt basketball courts of the impoverished East Baltimore neighborhood where the 34-year-old Watkins grew up, to the theaters, coffeehouses and college campuses where he increasingly is a familiar presence.

Itís the interior journey thatís the real challenge, managing the strangeness of it all.

He writes vividly about the two Baltimores in his first book, a collection of essays called "The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America," which is being released Tuesday. "The Beast Side" (the authorís nickname for Baltimoreís east side) is the first title commissioned by Hot Books, the new investigative imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.

"My black friends call it Baldamore, Harm City, or Bodymore, Murderland," Watkins writes in the first essay in the book, "Stoop Stories."

"My white friends call it Balti-mo, Charm City or Smalltimore while falling head over heels in love with the quaint pubs, trendy cafes and distinctive little shops.

"I just call it home."

On a recent stifling Tuesday afternoon, the author gave an impromptu tour of his two Baltimores.

Along Monument Street not far from Johns Hopkins Hospital, school kids in khaki trousers and emerald green shirts walked home past a tobacco store, a mattress shop and an outlet for Dough Boy Clothing. Near the authorís high school home, old friends called out as he passed: ĎHey, D! Wassup?" He stopped to shoot baskets at his favorite court, which he describes in the essay "My Neighborhood Revolution."

In that other Baltimore, in Artifact Coffee in Hampden and Red Emmaís Bookstore Coffeehouse in Station North, Watkins is both a favorite customer and an obvious source of pride, a hometown talent who refined his prose style over countless days and cups of java.

"The Beast Side" is a collection of 23 essays that his publisher describes as "searing dispatches from urban war zones."

The essays have such titles as "Cops Are the Terrorists in Our Neighborhood," "Weíre All Freddie Gray," "The Black Crisis Clergy" and "[Expletive Deleted] the National Anthem."

Watkins writes that some of the people with the strongest work ethic heís met make their living selling drugs. He writes about his disappointment at what he perceives as President Barack Obamaís failure to shed light on systemic racism, and about a chilling visit to the middle school in which his teenage nephew is enrolled.

He writes about how confusing it can be for someone who comes from the neighborhood he and his friends call "Down Da Hill" to find yourself sitting at a table with two businessmen in suits who ply you with $13 cocktails while picking your brain about African-American culture.

"The two Baltimores donít make me angry," he says.

"They just make me curious. Why is the city structured this way? Where do I fit in? Itís a little like being an immigrant. Iíve always been that way."

Watkins is candid about his past, which includes years in which he sold drugs, earning enough money to finance his education and to purchase a $600,000 home in Bolton Hill equipped with a wine cellar. (He has since earned a bachelorís degree from the University of Baltimore, a masterís degree in education from the Johns Hopkins University and a masterís degree in creative writing from the University of Baltimore.) He long ago sold the fancy house, along with other perks of his former trade, and now makes a living as a freelance writer.

He credits his time at Hopkins with giving him the communication skills to traverse both worlds. And indeed, itís the stream of words that flows nonstop from Watkins that makes him so conspicuous, even more than his bright coral kicks or the gold chain that he wears over his black T-shirt.

The man can talk.

Ideas and observations jostle and bump up against one another in his sentences like rush-hour commuters on a crowded train. Thereís always the chance of encountering a stray knee or elbow, and you may step onto the platform a bit mussed. But itís hard to come away from the encounter without being at least a little changed.

As the titles of his essays suggest, Watkins is intellectually fearless. His writing is designed to provoke, and it does. After the essay on the national anthem was published online, he says, he received death threats directed at both him and his family. Itís why heís vague about his current residence (on the northeast side) and his personal life (he is married to a teacher; they have no children).

"I donít want anyone to have in my life to suffer because of something that I wrote," he says.

Besides, in the neighborhood that Watkins grew up in, nosy strangers tend to be looked at askance. Etiquette calls for outsiders to wait in their cars until they can be properly vetted and introduced to the authorís friends and neighbors from the street.

Aaron Krya, 37, has known D. (who prefers not to use his birth certificate name, Dwight) since the author was 12.

"D. was always kind of a little different from everyone else," says Krya, whose friends call him Oats.

"He just operated on a different thinking level. Most the people you meet are on one track. If it isnít basketball or football, it was the street. But one track was never enough for D."

Watkins is so verbally dexterous that itís hard to understand how his elementary and high school teachers could have missed his academic gifts. But it wasnít until he was in college, he says, that anyone told him that he was smart or encouraged him to write.

His break came when his article "Too Poor For Pop Culture" went viral and was chosen as Salonís second-best personal essay for 2014.

Later that year, after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Watkins became an in-demand cultural commentator for NPR, The New York Times and the British newspaper The Guardian. Heís working now on an article for Rolling Stone magazine, and his second book, a memoir called "Cook Up," is scheduled to published in May. (He has also started a three-month stint as a regular contributor to The Baltimore Sunís op/ed page, with columns running every other Sunday.)

Watkins is in a position now where he can start to make a difference. He has a platform for his opinions, and policy-makers are eager to hear what he has to say. The risk is that the more inroads he makes into the second Baltimore, the less naturally he might fit into the first.

The author acknowledges that after his initial flush of success, a few acquaintances started "to act a little weird," as he puts it. Others have questioned publicly whether Watkins has embellished the grimier parts of his background.

But itís the first Baltimore, not the second, that will always have his heart. Despite the plaudits and the $13 cocktails that Balti-mo provides, the denizens of this second Baltimore sometimes still keep the author at a distance.

"I get the feeling that Iím a science project for them," he says. "They wonder at what point Iíll fall apart and explode."

Watkins might not like the conditions in which he grew up, but he loves and admires the friends, relatives and neighbors struggling to survive in near-impossible circumstances. Itís why he returns most Sundays to shoot hoops and talk trash with his friends in Frank C. Bocek Park, why he carries a basketball in his trunk at all times in case he happens upon a pickup game.

In the culture Watkins grew up in, every home was open to a kid who might have had an argument with his mother and needed a place to chill for a night or two. It was his neighbors, not the schools, that taught him how to shape a narrative and hook an audience.

"The best storytellers I ever met come walking down these streets all night and break day," Watkins says.

"Itís part of our culture and tradition, and I learned from them. One guy, Al, who could take the simplest event and turn it into an Oscar-winning drama. He would tell these wild stories about his life as a super-gangster that were theatrical and funny because he never lost."

The stories of the people he grew up with deserve to be told, he says, and itís his job to articulate them faithfully to those denizens of the second Baltimore.


At the end of a long afternoon, Watkins swings by Red Emmaís, where he wrote most of "The Beast Side." Itís the kind of quirky, cool, intellectually alive outpost that he says residents of the first Baltimore donít even know exists.

Cooperative member Cullen Nawalkowsky calls out a greeting. "Weíre going to put up a life-size cutout of you," he tells Watkins.

There, in the middle of the bookstore, where it canít be missed, rests a stack of hardcover volumes of "The Beast Side," alongside a pile of copies of Baltimore author Ta-Nehisi Coatesí recent best-seller, "Between the World and Me."

As soon as she spots Watkins, Jessica Baroody hurries up to the author and asks him to autograph her copy of his book. Sheíd come from her home in Baltimore County to purchase "The Beast Side" a few days before it went on sale to the general public.

"I heard you speak at Hopkins a week after the uprising happened," says Baroody, 27. "It was really enlightening. I came away with a completely new perspective."

Red Emmaís then erupted into the typical coffeehouse cacophony of whirring espresso machines and grinding blenders. The author and his reader stepped out of the way of browsing customers, and spoke together quietly for a few moments.



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