Over the years I have visited many Baltimore inner city homes to interview the residents about their life and work, their hopes and dreams. They are members of the urban poor: the un- and underemployed, as well as those who – despite the fact that they work full time and then some – do not make a living wage and struggle to make ends meet. It doesn’t matter what time of the month or year I visit, whether it’s the East side or West side, public or private housing, upon entering each residence, I am always greeted by the same persistent sound: the plaintive chirp of a smoke detector whose batteries need replacing. It accompanies us as we settle down for our interview and whimpers throughout, often acting as punctuation to a particularly illuminating point the interviewee has made. It is not something my hosts apologize for or even feel the need to explain. It’s just part of the soundtrack of their lives. And a barely perceptible one at that. They are much more likely to notice the sounds just outside their door: gunfire at all hours, wailing police sirens, bottles breaking in the back alley, junkies hanging out on the front stoop. It’s not that my hosts are not concerned about their family’s safety. They are. It’s just that they do not perceive a house fire as their biggest threat. When I mention the dysfunctional smoke detector, it’s as if they themselves are hearing its appeal for the first time.
“Oh that? Yeah. It always does that.”
When I suggest that it’s a matter of safety, they respond with a half-hearted, ” Yeah, we should fix that.” That ‘s pretty much the beginning and end of the discussion.
I allow myself to imagine the possible explanations my hosts might give for not replacing the batteries, if they were so inclined:
“It’s not my house. I don’t own it. Why should I put any money into it?”
“I don’t know how.”
“My boyfriend’s gonna fix that.”
“I’m more concerned for my child’s safety when he leaves the house, not when he’s here with me.”
But I don’t really know. All I can surmise from the chronic beep is…it’s not a priority.
The sound of a chirping smoke detector in an inner city dwelling is like a Zen koan. A Zen koan is a riddle whose answer is only revealed after much reflection and contemplation. Koans, such as the familiar, “the sound of one hand clapping” are used to train Zen Buddhist monks in the art of meditation, the final goal of such meditation being Enlightenment and Awakening. Like all paradoxes, a koan begs an answer, but the answer can only be attained by settling into the question. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the sound of urban poverty? What does it all really mean? There are no glib or easy answers. They rarely come quickly. And, ultimately, they are only revealed after the total abandonment of judgment and reason. To answer the riddle, “Why does the smoke alarm chirp?” one has to contemplate long and hard. Only then will one be truly awakened to the plight of the urban poor. And enlightened by the answer.
The Caroline Center educates women who come from these ranks. They are the un- and underemployed of Baltimore. They’ve come to Caroline Center because they want a better life for themselves and their families. Caroline Center helps them get there. They not only provide job training in careers where there is room for advancement, but they also teach critical life skills. Skills that will help each woman make the right decisions in all areas of her life: work, family, home, community. Along the way, each woman experiences her own Awakening. And eventually, in big and small ways moves towards her own, profound Enlightenment.