Outside the entrance to the Green Spring Station shopping arcade in Brooklandville, a well-to-do suburb north of Baltimore, sits a nondescript park bench that recently acquired a small, three-line metal plaque. It reads: “Here Sat/Charlie Barber/Friend To All.” I’m going to guess that 99% of the patrons who walk by or even sit on the outdoor wooden bench will have no idea who Charlie Barber was or why he is so honored. They will assume, perhaps, as they go try on the $459 velvet-tied women’s oxfords at Matava Shoes or a $168 linen shirt at Nova Man, that he was a popular politician or maybe prominent business leader — someone with a lot of money or power, the kind of person people give speeches about.
He was none of those things.
As it happens, I was fortunate enough to meet Charlie, and now, as much as ever, is a fine time to remember him. Especially with so much uproar in the world, with so much conflict over money and race, with so much distrust and misunderstanding, and with Baltimore in the thick of that turmoil — much of it directed at young Black men cleaning windshields at downtown intersections for tips.
As far as I know, Charlie was, as the plaque notes, friendly to all. He was also a homeless man in his 80s, in questionable health, with uncertain mental faculties and without any apparent family or assets. He was what some would surely have regarded as a nuisance, often sitting on the very bench that now honors him, greeting the mall’s affluent clientele and doing the occasional odd job for shopkeepers. I met him long ago while I was working as a reporter because something quite unusual had happened to him.
A family, one connected to a prominent local developer, had essentially adopted him in 1993, opening their home and hearts to someone they only knew from his friendly waves from that bench. And when I say adopted, I mean he was truly in the center of the family of Donald and Brigitte Manekin and their four children. He was treated like a grandparent with his own room and place at family meals. Not shipped to a homeless shelter. Not dropped off in day care. He was, as a family friend told me, “woven into the fabric of their lives.”
I found their story affecting. It would have been far easier for the Manekins to have connected Charlie with a retirement or nursing home. Safer, too. They are heirs to a local empire and could have afforded to foot the bill. Taking him in was a risk, not just potentially to them but to him as well: It was not as if they had nursing care skills. But what had started out as concern for that man sitting on the bench and the offer of a blanket evolved into this very real, very personal, very unusual blending. Was it smart? I’m not sure. Would I have done the same? Probably not. But I had to admire the love that they found in their hearts. And it surely seemed a two-way street. The decision enriched their lives, extending the family’s tradition of community service into something very personal and special. Charlie died in 2009.
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if when we saw people unlike ourselves, our first instinct was not to assume the worst? What if we could find it in our hearts to connect with them? To listen to them? To find common ground? To find ways to make both our lives better? How would such an approach inform our policies toward poverty, toward health care and housing, toward immigration? Would it make us “bleeding hearts” or “woke” or dangerously liberal? Or might it simply be an act of love? An example of caring for one another in the same way that God cares for us? Surely, that can’t be wrong.
I should mention here that the Manekins have gone on to find many other ways to serve the community, including the redevelopment of Lexington Market, the longest continuously operated market in the country and the latest project from Mr. Manekin’s son Thibault, founding member and CEO of Seawall. Son and father are hoping to bring jobs and prosperity to a once-flourishing city neighborhood by mid-September. Seawall touts “diversity, inclusion, anti-racism and equity” as its core mission.
As Thibault Manekin explains in his 2021 book, “Larger Than Yourself,” living with Charlie helped give him this sense of purpose as it did his siblings. “He showed us how to walk in other people’s shoes without passing judgment,” he writes. “He helped us better understand our privilege and why we should do everything in our power to use it for good.”
Nice job, Charlie.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at email@example.com.