'Tha Bloc': Portrait of a Baltimore Community The author of Tha Bloc, t.p. Luce, set out to create a portrait of his East Baltimore neighborhood using photos, poetry and stories... with a recipe and a prayer thrown in for good measure.
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'Tha Bloc': Portrait of a Baltimore Community

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'Tha Bloc': Portrait of a Baltimore Community

'Tha Bloc': Portrait of a Baltimore Community

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Baltimore, like many American cities, can change from block to block. Sometimes on one block you can see homes with solid windows, humming air conditioners and late model cars. On the very next block, you can see homes with broken windows and broken-down cars parked up and down the street. t.p. Luce lives on a block in East Baltimore that might be considered by those who don't know it to be on the sadder side of that divide. Luce has put together a book of photography and poetry about history called "Tha Bloc."

We sat on his front porch a few weeks ago looking out on an orderly street of small neat lawns and tidy front porches. There are many plastic chairs that move between the porches according to who's getting together. t.p. "The Poet" Luce is his professional name. Many poets who perform in Slams or poetry clubs don't use what they call their government name to publish or perform. t.p. Luce's government name may sound familiar, Ellis Marsalis III. He is the son of the man, Ellis Jr., who heads a kind of American royal family of jazz including Branford and Wynton Marsalis. Ellis Marsalis III is also a computer analyst and a single father. This is his first book.

I'll ask this question just once. You've probably gotten it since, you know, time immemorial. How come you didn't go into music?

Mr. T.P. LUCE (Author, "Tha Bloc"): Well, I was never interested in going into music. I mean, at no point in my life did I ever envision myself being a musician.

SIMON: I know you've got a piano inside.

Mr. LUCE: Yeah, that's my daughter. She plays the piano. My daughter--she plays a lot better than I can. I can't play it at all. You know, even growing up, as we went to--we used to go to--you know, our dad used to take us to all his gigs...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LUCE: ...and clubs and used to hang out in the club, and it was never anything I was interested in. I mean, it just seemed like a hard way to make a living, and it is a hard way to make a living, even now. You know, Wynton and Branford, I think, being aberrations 'cause I know a lot of musicians who have to make a living.

SIMON: I'd like you to read a copy of one of your poems.


SIMON: And now that we're here sitting with you on your front porch, it looks like the--in fact, the young man in this picture that accompanies the poem could be on this front porch or...

Mr. LUCE: Oh, yeah, he could be. He might be here in a little while. Yeah, that's Big Greg(ph) if everybody wants to know who that is. I give a shout out to Big Greg, so. Yeah, this is the poem "Tha Bloc."

(Reading) Where I live, there exists some mysterious energy that is. What we are told is not, cannot be. Some sparkle, some shine, breaking through the bleak landscape of the city which no one knows is there and therefore shines unseen. On the block, children run the corners, whole on the outside but premature, half-grown on the inside. Here, all the natural sentimentality of youth, all their same wonderment does not evolve into curiosity and knowledge but rather is leached out by the world. Everyone is then denied the opportunity to be what they are, and the voids created are filled not with people but caricatures, not with lives but rules. But still, I love this place. I love the noise. I love the temperature, the constant loud lives bouncing off the brick of these straight rows out into the ether of regular life. And the thin living, the way of life being so hard that inside all the pressed black are diamonds, gems, spilling music, word, dance, rapture. This is the energy that cannot be pinned down, the elusive energy of the bottom, of little hopes, of the ignored, a spontaneous energy that passes in short waves which may seem random, but I feel is in some measured interval that only nature knows, fed strangely enough by ignorance, violence and untrained desire, visible only to the naked mind's eye. Although it is cast as non-existent by those outer-city rose-colored eyes, in truth, it is to them invisible.

SIMON: So many phrases here strike me. I love this one. You say, `I love the noise. I love the temperature, the constant loud lives bouncing off the brick of these straight rows out into the ether of regular life.'

Mr. LUCE: Yeah.

SIMON: It's a great image.

Mr. LUCE: Yeah, it's like most people don't know, like, in Baltimore, these row of--if you look at this block that we're on here, they're just--you know, two stories and it's a straight line. So in the summertime, if you open the window--like, if I open my window and, you know, Antoine's(ph) mom will sit over here on her porch and she could sit down on that porch and have a regular conversation like we're having right now, I could hear every word that they're saying because the sound echoes all the way up and down the block. And, you know, there's something about that that I like. I mean, I think most people here like being here.

You know, so many people ask me because for some reason they think that I should be somewhere else. They think--I say, `Well, I live in East Baltimore.' They go, `What do you live there for?' And I--'cause that's where I live, and I like it here.' You know, and I let people know that. This project, it's not a social studies project. These are my neighbors.

SIMON: I want to talk about your photographs a bit, and it's obviously a little more demanding than the medium in which we're functioning now. Your photographs are black and white.

Mr. LUCE: Yes.

SIMON: Big decision between black and white, and color?

Mr. LUCE: Well, I mean, it really wasn't. Color wasn't--didn't interest me simply because when I look at color photographs that I like, it's--you have to take into account the color. The whole purpose of shooting color is the color. Black and white, you know, obviously you're not worried about color; you're worrying about the people, the thing. You're worrying about the composition, the framing. It was too, in my opinion, glorious of a medium to not use for this thing 'cause that's, you know, I mean, that's black, white and gray, and it's all right in front of us.

SIMON: Got to ask you about a photograph that has caused some comment.

Mr. LUCE: Yeah, I've heard a lot about that photograph.

SIMON: Page 52.

Mr. LUCE: Page 52, "Man Child."

SIMON: It's a young man looking down at...

Mr. LUCE: It's a young man looking down at two guns. First question people ask me is are those guns real? Yes, they're real. And the other question they ask me is: Is he really sitting there sucking his thumb? And the answer is yes, he's really there sucking his thumb. I was actually photographing tattoos, and he walked into my yard, and I know him. At the time in this picture, he's 13 years old. So he's got a tattoo on his chest, so he pulls his chest and he says, `I want you to photograph this tattoo.' And I told him, I said, `Well, just wait a second. I'm--when I finish the other guys, I'll get to you.' So he sits there and he's a little impatient. So he stands up and he pulls a gun out and he holds it under his tattoo and he says, `Photograph it like this.' So my instinct kicked in because prior to here, I was in the military. My first instinct was `Clear the weapon.'

SIMON: Take all the ammo out.

Mr. LUCE: Take all the bullets out, and that's what I did. So at that point, when I took it from him--I didn't take it, but he gave me the gun, he pulled out another one. He says, `What about this one?' I said, `OK.' And I told him to unload the other one and he didn't know how. So I showed him. I said, `OK, what we're going to do--we're going to open it up, take the bullet out of the chamber, clear the weapon.' So I then give it to him, and I say, `Here, do not reload those weapons until you're out of here. I would suggest you don't ever reload them, but, you know.'

So he goes and he sits down, and I finish photographing the tattoos. I don't know exactly what he's doing, but I do know this, as I--when I first started photographing the guys, a lot of them get into what I call `the television version of themselves.' And I often ask myself how long does it take for the television version of a particular character to wear off? The answer is about 35 minutes. So I turned around and there he was, sucking his thumb staring down at this guns, his heats. So I took the picture. And I only took that picture once, and I turned around and finished photographing the tattoos, which was unusual for me because I would have thought I would have taken a bunch of those so I'd have some to choose from, but I knew I had it. I knew--it was like, there he is. I could only get that with him not paying attention to me.

SIMON: I'm told you had a reading this spring in New Orleans.

Mr. LUCE: Yes.

SIMON: And a particularly distinguished member of the audience, probably more than one--but I'm told your father was there.

Mr. LUCE: Yes. Yes, he was. We had a reading at the Ogden Museum, and my father was there. That was the first reading he went to, you know?

SIMON: Well, may I ask, did you feel that your father understood you in a different way when it was over?

Mr. LUCE: You know, I don't know if I could say that. I don't know if this would be an odd thing to say, but I think he likes the book more than I thought he would. You know, I don't know that I--I have to savor the moment in my head, you know, 'cause it's always been the other way around. I've always been in the audience and he's been up there. And I've got hundreds of those, hundreds and hundreds and many more to come.

SIMON: Mr. Marsalis--Mr. Luce, thank you very much.

Mr. LUCE: Thank you.

SIMON: And to see some of those pictures and read more poetry from "Tha Bloc," you can come to our Web site, npr.org.



SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

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