Jessie Pauline Strozykowski died last month. Many knew her as Miss Pauline. She lived across the street from me. She was known for snaring passersby into uncomfortably long conversations, usually ending with an awkward walk backwards, accompanied by the hope of fading away into a cloud of fog like Batman. She had the smile of a jack-o-lantern and the voice of a squawking crow. Her loose, linen-like skin draped over her frail bird-like skeleton; she was occasionally crowned with one of many wigs. When not adorned with a wig, Miss Pauline’s wispy white hair would be bound tightly in rows of curlers and a bandana. When she went out, she would doll herself up like Raggedy Ann and spritz herself with a handful of glitter.
Her roommate was a 19-year-old large black dog who was just as tenacious as she was. Miss Pauline swore the dog had died and come back to life three times. She also said the dog knew when someone was going to die.
Miss Pauline was a character you would expect to seep from the brains of John Waters or H.L. Mencken, after a few rounds of the finest National Bohemian money can buy. But she was more than just an eccentric; she was one of the last relics of a Baltimore that has all but vanished. She embodied a narrative and a mind-set forged and molded over nearly a century, with over 70 years on my block.
Miss Pauline used to recount stories of Fell’s Point from the time when it housed the majority of Baltimore’s mariners; when children were raised and disciplined by the whole neighborhood; when neighbors mingled in the streets and the corner bars after work instead of retreating to the glow of a flat screen and Netflix.
She told stories of her sassy younger self running around to all the neighborhood bars wearing short-shorts, which “brought all the boys around.” She saw the insurgence of the local drug trade and the effect it had on the neighborhood and the recent revitalization. She also talked a great deal about her grown children and grandchildren, visibly over-flowing with pride.
Beyond her extensive chronicles of the neighborhood, Miss Pauline personified a quirky, yet venerable mentality. When something was wrong with the city, she was the first one to send a hand-written letter to City Hall. She made it a point to sit outside on sunny days, even if it was near freezing.
She wasted nothing. Leftovers were reused the next meal, and food scraps became soups. Plastic bags became sock liners for cold and wet days, and ribbons and string were used to keep her trashcan and lid from blowing away in the wind.
She had a do-it-yourself spirit, patching her roof, repairing concrete and salting her sidewalk, even through this past winter. When she wasn’t able to do something herself, she enlisted the help of locals—she abhorred corporations.
Several large pots of plastic flowers adorned the sidewalk in front of Miss Pauline’s house. She once mocked me while I was watering my scraggly excuse for a bush, saying, “Why the hell don’t you just get a plastic one? You never have to water it and it looks good all year.”
She was right.
It must also be said that Miss Pauline knew the value of portion control. She would only purchase a “shorty” of gin, saying any more would “cause trouble”.
She thought outside the box. When she and her late husband were on the rocks, he moved into the house two doors down. After that, she said, they had “dates” all the time.
When her husband passed, and she had aged to the point where decorating the house for Christmas became difficult, she trimmed his second house wall-to-wall with bright lights, manger scenes, small snowmen, and Santa Claus cut-outs. She left the decorations up all year, and when the holiday season rolled around, she spent most of her time in her Christmas House.
Miss Pauline also exemplified a sense of love and forgiveness rarely practiced these days. She would give many of the neighborhood “floaters” money to purchase items from the corner store, knowing they would probably disappear for a while and “lose” her money. She would willingly forgive them with such a sense of love, always giving them another chance to prove themselves. Despite their actions, she would continue to treat them with respect and spend hours talking with them.
In addition to her great disdain and distrust for corporations, Miss Pauline hated hospitals. She said “people die in hospitals,” which is true, in a sense. She remained in her home right up until the end, with her old dog by her side. And, just as anticipated, she died the day after she was taken up the hill to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Miss Pauline’s 90th birthday would have been this spring. At the time of this writing, her dog had not moved from his perch by her couch side and was refusing to eat. He may be joining her soon. Neighborhoods aren’t distinguished by names like Canton, Highlandtown, and Fells Point; they are distinguished by neighbors like Miss Pauline. She brought character and a sense of place to a neighborhood and make my block different than any other place in the city.
by Ian Craig
Special to the Baltimore Guide