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A Remarkable Sign of Humanity in a City

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Last month, me wife, April, and I had a get-together with a couple dozen of our Washington (D.C.) area friends at a restaurant in Silver Spring, MD.  We've just recently moved back, after six years in New Mexico, to our place in the mountains of Virginia, about two hours drive from D.C.  This gathering in Silver Spring was a way of making contact with a lot of people whom we've known for years. (One had been a friend of April's since high school, one has been a friend of mine since 5th grade, and the rest have been friends for "only" two or three decades).  

About an hour before the designated time for the event, April and I arrived within a mile of the place so we could take an extended walk around Silver Spring.  It was cold and windy for my taste, since my taste doesn't run much toward cold at all, another of the pre-mature winter days we've had in this part of the country for the past couple of weeks.

As I walked through the downtown area, I tuned in on my resistance, even a tinge of hostility, to the city's built-up environment.  After all, I'm a guy who just decided to leave a city to move out into the midst of woods and mountains, a place where nature's force is powerful, little restrained by the hand of man.  And now, in this congested space, I felt in alien terrain, felt it unwelcome to be walking in a place where the earth is all paved over, where big buildings loom over us, and vegetation has been relegated to the occasional touch of the landscaper's brush.  

It had been some years since I felt this sense of the city as a way of dividing us from what is good and beautiful.

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And then something happened that put the city into a different, more humane perspective.

It was on the main drag of Silver Spring (Georgia Avenue).  We  passed a little space that opened back off the street, instead of being closed by some building-front flush with the wall of buildings housing all the shops and offices.  Back a little ways from the opening of this space we saw a monument of sorts:  a bronze statue of a man, from the middle of the torse up to the hat on the top of his head.   

The face of the figure bore a sly and subtle but clearly benign smile.  The head was worn forward on the neck, a posture quite unlike that on most of the monuments to the honored individuals --statesmen, war heroes, founders-- found in this region of our nation's capital.  And the neck itself was wrinkled and weathered.  On the top of the head was a hat of some sort --a hard-hat for a construction worker or fireman-- with the initials SSFD on it (presumably for Silver Spring Fire Department).  

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The statue was placed atop a block, and on the street-ward face of the block there was a plaque.  The title it gave for the figure was "The 'Mayor' of Silver Spring."  And beneath that, the writing, engraved in bronze, told a story.

This is how it read:  


The “Mayor of Silver Spring” was our official town drunk. Although he was born into a prominent DC family, Norman got off to a rough start. His mother had TB and the stress of bringing him to term took her life and left little Norman with life-long problems. He ran away from a school for retarded children when he was six. He grew up as an outcast, drifting around the country doing odd jobs, farm work and washing dishes. He was an odd shaped piece that never quite fit into society’s jigsaw puzzle.

Norman’s was the picture of misery. Often wearing his shoes on the wrong feet, his rumpled clothes hung off his 90 pound frame like a scarecrow. He looked like a gargoyle peering out from under a hard hat. After returning to the DC area, he spent the winter of 1966 in Glenmont, sleeping in the fire department coal bin. That spring he wandered down Georgia Avenue.

In Silver Spring he found a home. The Phillips family set up a cot for him in the back of their autobody shop. For 25 years Norman lived in that back alley garage, which was directly behind this statue. It was the only real home he ever knew. After his death, Norman’s alley, “Mayor Lane” was named for him. Silver Spring’s business community, the shoppers, the police, and fire departments were his family. They accepted his drinking, his course manners and came to love his quirky, Tom Sawyer sense of humor.

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“Don’t worry ’bout it” was Norman’s answer to everything. As our “Mayor” made his rounds, he generously shared a bit of his permanent vacation with us work-a-day shut-ins. He owned nothing. He shambled through the streets, happily living out our worse fears for us. After seeing Norman, we really didn’t worry about it quite so much. Fridays were his big day. He retrieved armloads of flowers from the flower shop’s trash and passed out bouquets to the ladies (Norman loved the ladies). His weathered, toothless face looked like a rusty ax stuck in midst of those brightly-colored flowers.

One day he put out his last cigarette in his last beer and just like that, he quit. But the truth is he wasn’t much different sober. Silver Spring’s loving care allowed Norman to live out his life on his own terms. Silver Spring’s finest hour lasted 25 years.

<em>[Text from click here It says, "The monument was sculpted and donated by Fred Folsom in 1991," but it is not clear whether Folsom is the author of the tale told on the plaque.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)

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