On an unseasonably warm afternoon last fall, I parked my car atop a hill in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay. I started sketching the modest homes that line the sloping streets, dwarfed by the massive coal pier at the edge of the neighborhood.
After a while, a man walked out of his home across the street, curious about this stranger in his neighborhood. When I explained that I was drawing the coal pier, he invited me in for tea to chat.
Once I’d settled in with some Earl Grey, the friendly neighbor began telling me about himself. He was a musician, it turned out, and he brought his guitar into the kitchen where we were sitting. At first I thought he was going to share some of his music, but instead he placed the guitar in front of me and pointed to the powdery black dust beneath the strings.
It was coal dust.
He plays that guitar every day, he explained, yet every morning there’s a new dusting of coal. On my way out, he ran his hand along the top of the microwave, revealing another layer of coal dust.