author D. Watkins floats between two worlds, adept at
maneuvering through both though perhaps not fully
comfortable in either.
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.
the interior journey thatís the real challenge,
managing the strangeness of it all.
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.
black friends call it Baldamore, Harm City, or Bodymore,
Murderland," Watkins writes in the first essay in
the book, "Stoop Stories."
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
just call it home."
a recent stifling Tuesday afternoon, the author gave an
impromptu tour of his two Baltimores.
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
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.
Beast Side" is a collection of 23 essays that his
publisher describes as "searing dispatches from
urban war zones."
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."
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.
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
two Baltimores donít make me angry," he says.
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."
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.
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.
man can talk.
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.
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).
donít want anyone to have in my life to suffer because
of something that I wrote," he says.
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.
Krya, 37, has known D. (who prefers not to use his birth
certificate name, Dwight) since the author was 12.
was always kind of a little different from everyone
else," says Krya, whose friends call him Oats.
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."
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.
break came when his article "Too Poor For Pop
Culture" went viral and was chosen as Salonís
second-best personal essay for 2014.
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.)
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
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.
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
get the feeling that Iím a science project for
them," he says. "They wonder at what point Iíll
fall apart and explode."
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.
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.
best storytellers I ever met come walking down these
streets all night and break day," Watkins says.
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."
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.
STORY CAN END HERE)
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.
member Cullen Nawalkowsky calls out a greeting. "Weíre
going to put up a life-size cutout of you," he
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."
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.
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
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.