The basement of Saint Jude Thaddeus Catholic Church was a large square room with a grey concrete floor and white, rectangular ceiling tiles. The florescent lights buzzed. The room was full of round tables, which were filled with anxious neighbors. The air was muggy and thick with anxiety.
Mencken sat in the back, between two, large, elderly women. Both fanned themselves with the flyers they’d been given at the door. Both wore formless dresses. Mencken wore a blue polo shirt and khakis. He looked over at the coffee station Father McFadden had set up. Stacks of white Styrofoam cups, sugar packets, and a can of powdered creamer stood between two large silver coffee urns.
“Would you lovely ladies like some coffee,” Mencken said, standing.
The one of the right said, “Sitting next to a fine man like you is probably all the excitement I can take tonight, baby.”
“You know that’s right,” the one on the left said.
Mencken laughed. “Okay then,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” On his way to the coffee, he surveyed the room. Two men stood out among the Cherry Hill neighborhood residents. The first was the mayor’s tax assessor, a mousy man dressed in a rumpled suit, and, including Father McFadden, the other Caucasian in the room. The second man of note was Nathaniel Davis, the city council representative from district ten. He was a thin, thirty-something, ladder climber who had moved into the district with the intention of running for the city council seat. His grey suit was clearly tailored for his joggers frame. The outfit was completed by shinny black shoes and a red bow-tie. His mayoral ambitions were not a secret.
When Father McFadden took the podium in the front of the room, Mencken took his seat. The kind priest raised his hand and the room grew silent. “Thank you,” he said, “for coming tonight. I didn’t expect such a great turnout. I appreciate you all giving up your Wednesday night to be here. To start off the night, I’ve invited Reverend Jeremiah Leaks to open us in prayer.”
The room muttered affirmation as a heavy set, African American man in a black suit and tie, took the stage. “Let us pray,” he boomed. His voice was deep, rich, and full of authority.
Mencken watched as everyone in the room bowed their heads and closed their eyes. Several people raised hands in the air. There was a stabbing pain on Mencken’s left foot. He winced and looked down. The elderly woman’s brown cane was grinding into his toe. He looked up at her with a mix of rage and confusion. She mouthed, “Bow your head and close your eyes, baby.” Mencken smiled and complied.
Reverend Leaks prayed, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.”
Confirmation echoed through the room.
Reverend Leaks began to pick up intensity. “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.”
Murmured agreements followed.
“He will not suffer thy foot to be moved,” Reverend Leaks boomed.
“Amen,” people said.
“He will not suffer thy foot to be moved,” Reverend Leaks repeated.
“That’s right. Amen. That’s right,” the room responded.
“He. Will. Not. Suffer. Thy. Foot. To. Be. Moved.” Each word pounded the air, seemingly shaking the room.
People began to clap.
“The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil. He. Shall. Preserve. Thy. Soul.”
The room responded again with loud and vibrant approval.
“The Lord,” Reverend said, reaching his climax. “The Lord,” he repeated again, with more power. “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in. From this time forth. And even. And even. For evermore.”
People stood and yelled with joy, shouting their approval.
“As it is written,” Reverend Leaks declared. “Let it be done, Lord Jesus.”
Almost the entire room was on their feet, yelling their agreement with hands held high.
Reverend Leaks took back up his seat on the front row. Father McFadden returned to the podium. “Thank you, Reverend, for those powerful words. Now, we must get to the reason we have gathered here today. The Mayor has sent to us Mister Leonard Silverstein to explain to us the coming changes in our neighborhood. I’ll now give the podium to Mister Silverstein from the office of Tax Assessment.”
“The office of Tax Assessment? Well this should be riveting,” the grandmother sitting to Mencken’s right said. Mencken and the other elderly woman laughed.
Silverstein fumbled with his notes at the podium. The silence of the room was thick. The rustling of his paper stabbed at it, bringing pain to everyone’s ears. “Yes,” he said, adjusting his glasses. “Well. Thank you for, having me tonight.”
The room was stoic.
A beads of sweat ran down his balding head. He wiped it away from his forehead with the sleeve of his suit. “I, well. I appreciate you having me here. As I’m sure you know,” he continued, looking at his notes. “The mayor’s office has approved the waterfront property along Waterfront Avenue for development. This includes, but is not limited to, large portions of Middle Branch Park.”
“What are we supposed to do without our park?” a young father in the back yelled. “Where do you expect our kids to play if you take away their fields?”
Mumbles of angry support resonated in the room.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Silverstein replied. “I’m not here to debate the merits of the decision. I’m here to discuss the change in zoning’s potential impact on you. As you have probably heard, the property has already been purchased by Building Baltimore. They have contracted with the city to construct luxury waterfront homes on the land.”
“This is bullshit,” another man yelled. The room agreed with intense frustration.
“Well, I understand that.” Silverstein began to fumble with his notes.
Councilman Davis came to his rescue. Swooping up to the podium with hands raised in a gesture of peace, Davis said, “Calm down everyone. Calm down. Now I know that change is difficult. I know it’s hard. But this is good for us. This is good for our district. Let’s hear Mister Silverstein out.”
“Thank you, councilman,” Silverstein continued. “Well, as I was saying, according to Baltimore tax code, your property taxes for the following year will be based not on the estimate of your house, but rather on the estimate of the property in your community. This means that when the property value of a neighborhood increases, well, so does the annual property taxes.”
“Don’t matter,” a young woman in the back yelled. “I don’t pay property taxes anyhow.” The room laughed.
“This is a misnomer, ma’am. This change may affect you as well,” Silverstein continued. “For example, if you live in section eight housing, you might be relocated.”
“Relocated,” an elderly man at a middle table exclaimed.
“This is some bullshit,” another man yelled.
The room erupted with frustration.
“Well, again,” Silverstein said. “We aren’t here today to argue whether or not these things should be passed. They have been passed already. We are here to discuss how you can best prepare yourself.”
The volume of anger in the room grew, forcing Silverstein to stop and wait. Speaking louder, he continued, “If you do own your home, well, after the construction of the luxury homes, your property taxes will increase twenty-percent a year until they have stabilized with the value of the property in the area. If you are in government subsidized housing, you will be given three years before mandatory relocation.”
“This is my home,” an elderly woman cried. “I’m not leaving my home. Where do you think I can go? This is my home.”
The room broke into chaotic agreement, everyone voicing their frustrations at once.
Again Davis sought to come to the rescue. He stepped back in, again with his hands raised. “People, people,” he yelled. “Quiet down. Get control of yourselves. Yelling at Mister Silverstein won’t do any good.”
Mencken spotted his opportunity. Standing, and then stepping up on his chair so that he towered over the room, he called out, “Councilman Davis. Excuse me. I have a question.”
The brazen command in his voice drew the attention of the room.
“And you are?” the councilman replied.
“Mencken Cassie. Representing the Baltimore Star.” With all eyes on him, Mencken stepped down from the chair. “Tomorrow we will be running an article on these proceedings. Would you be able to confirm for us tonight that you received sixty-five thousand dollars in campaign donations from the Ignite Baltimore Fund?”
“I’m sorry, Mister Cassie did you say? This isn’t the time or place for that discussion.”
“Could you also confirm for us that the Ignite Baltimore Fund is a subsidiary of the Building Baltimore? Is it true, councilman, that you received a large donation last year from the very development company that is now destroying a beloved park in your district, and economically pressuring residents to leave their homes?”
Davis attempted to respond, but he could not be heard over the fury in the room. Residents yelled and banged on the table. Some stormed out. Others screamed their disapproval at the podium.
Davis screamed loudly, “You have no proof. You have no proof.”
Mencken silently sat back down and watch the room continue to unwind.
The grandmother to his right leaned in to his ear and whispered, “Baby, you just made a big mess.”
Mencken smiled and took a sip from his coffee.
The above story is a chapter from Jeff Elkins’ upcoming novel “Mencken and the Monsters.”