The fall the Orioles won their first World Series, I was rooming off-campus with three other Towson State College freshmen in a three-story house on Evesham Avenue.  The Baltimore of the mid-1960’s was not as much ashamed of its heritage as unschooled in it, most Baltimoreans not knowing—or caring—that, under the shade of the trees at Loudon Park, Jackson and Lee in “unwearying bronze” still met on the eve of Chancellorsville.  By that time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “civilized and gay . . . rotted and polite” old port was well on its way to morphing into Philadelphia.  As a product of the tobacco culture of Southern Maryland, I was homesick but still caught up in the novelty of living in a working-class urban neighborhood and thrilled by some aspects of the city, unsuspecting of its evils until almost too late.

Usually, I would ride the bus to classes, but I remember a few winter mornings when a couple of us would carpool with a fellow student who would swing by Evesham before sunrise on his way to the college.  Although his VW Bug had no heater, it did have a radio, and, despite the cold, my low spirits would lift as I listened to the Four Tops and the Rolling Stones on WCAO.  Lonesomeness and the feeling of being out of my element were almost gone by the time we saw the campus and the lights of the dining hall with their promise of hot coffee and, to me, delicious—if greasy—institutional food prepared by fat cafeteria women.  The elder of only two daughters in a family of eight children, I found not having to cook for others or to wash dishes an unimaginable luxury.  When the pack wasn’t empty there was also the after-breakfast Winston to enjoy—and we could smoke practically anywhere on campus in those days.

In the afternoons, I always took the bus home.  The house where I roomed was owned by a John S—-, a beatnik and a self-styled abstract artist.  While his wife seemed, oddly enough, very middle-class, John, in my mind, was the epitome of nonconformity and sophistication.  Decades later of course I know that he was a cliché, and so were those ugly modern paintings of his that hung on the walls of the second-floor apartment we girls rented, but back then I was impressed with him even if I felt uncomfortably country in his presence.  Nervous and tongue-tied, I never knew what to say to him.

One of my roommates was descended from old Maryland families, but because she had lived all her life in the nouveau venu-corrupted suburbs of D.C., she spoke with an appreciably Northern accent.  Dressed in the high fashion of the day—I coveted her Bass Weejuns and suede jacket—she was confident, socially poised, and was asked to Naval Academy dances.  The others included a classmate from high school (a good-natured military brat but not a true native) and Barbara Jean, from Salisbury, who had an Eastern Shore accent so thick you could have cut it with a knife.  The way she had of speaking, which was more standard Southern and more pronounced than my own tidewater accent, was a subject of ridicule: The girl from suburbia and that goateed landlord of ours had nothing but contempt for it and for Barbara Jean.  Not realizing that their snobbery was rooted in ignorance, I didn’t question their judgment on what was and was not correct speech.

Having been born and raised in outlying unreconstructed Maryland, Barbara Jean was undoubtedly countrified, but I was as well, though I pretended otherwise.  And, late one night on Evesham Avenue, with the ringing of the third-story doorbell, that lack of guile we had in common, in spite of my putting on airs, almost proved our undoing.  Even though I knew that each floor of the house had its own distinctive “buzzer,” awakened from a deep sleep, I, nevertheless, went downstairs to the foyer without thinking that our second-story bell had not rung, that no one lived above our apartment that semester, and that no one had any business calling at midnight anyway.  I opened the door, and standing in front of me was a man.  A dockworker or a millhand type, he was a brutish hulk with a crew cut.

I will never forget the question he asked me: “How many of you are up there?”

As if I were hypnotized, I politely responded, “Four.”

He replied, “Too many.”

Fully awake by this time, I had the presence of mind to close and secure the door.  In retrospect, I was only able to do this because he had decided to leave us alone.

I realized then that my lack of caution had exposed my friends and me to God knows what that night.  Shaken and mortified, I faced my roommates upstairs.  I was relieved, however, to hear Barbara Jean speak up to say that a few days before the incident, a man who matched my description of the would-be intruder had struck up a conversation with her at the corner drugstore.  Unduly flattered, the unattractive and big-boned Barbara Jean had volunteered too much information about herself to this stranger.  I joined the others in chiding her, happy to have a scapegoat and to divert attention from the fact that I too had not developed the city dweller’s habit of wariness.  City people knew instinctively that, in the dead of night, it wasn’t wise to unbolt a lock without first finding out who was on the other side of it.  But Barbara Jean, I rationalized, was the more culpable because she had inadvertently invited the hulk to come calling.  I didn’t stand by the down-home, neighborly but shy, Southern-talking young woman, but chose instead to join those who blamed her—and, thank goodness, not me—for that midnight encounter with the devil.

Not long ago, from my Western Shore home, I discovered that I could tune in the faint signal of an AM radio station broadcasting from across the Chesapeake Bay.  Its rustic, locally produced ads for Ronnie’s Garage and other area merchants afforded me the opportunity to hear Barbara Jean’s pretty Eastern Shore accent again.  I wish I could go back to those college days and defend her trusting ways to my roommates and explain that I had opened the door to danger that night because I, too, was an innocent Southern girl making my way in the brave new Baltimore.