On a slightly chilly September morning, John Washko sat at an outdoor makeshift cafe in the 300 block of East 31st Street.
He sipped a cup of coffee and chatted with a neighbor. On the table in front of him was a pile of nuts he put out for squirrels. Dog walkers passed by the small collection of mismatched chairs and tables and greeted the coffee drinkers before continuing on their way.
Washko, 75, has come by nearly every weekday for almost the past three months. Lately, he’s come to see the progress on his home, which is being repaired after it was burned in an early-morning fire on June 15 that also damaged three other homes in Baltimore’s Abell neighborhood.
Some neighbors believe the fires were a hate crime. Pride flag bunting hung on a doorway to Washko’s front porch. Down the street, another pride flag was burned that same morning, although it did not cause damage to the house.
The fires remain under investigation, and no suspect has been identified, according to the city’s fire and police departments. Mayor Brandon Scott said in a news release after the fires that it could not be confirmed “that this was a hate crime.” Federal agencies are also involved in the investigation, the release stated.
Reconstruction began on Washko’s home around a week ago, he said, gesturing to a rowhouse just steps away from the cafe.
Just months ago, the front of the house was covered in brick. The porch, Washko said, “looked like an outdoor living room” where he liked to listen to music and socialize with people. Now some of the brick is burned away, and the porch is almost completely gone.
But even through loss, Washko was smiling this September morning. “What can you do?” he said, his voice at times nearly drowned out by the construction noise. “You either learn to live with it, or you become very bitter and then everybody’s miserable.”
In the weeks and months since the fire, neighbors said, the community has come together in support of the victims, and of each other. In some ways, the little makeshift cafe itself conveys that story — one of healing and connection in the face of loss.
‘John, get up, we’re on fire!’
It was around 4 o’clock in the morning on June 15. The cats were going crazy. Washko’s partner, Brian Banschbach, woke up and saw a glow out the window.
He opened the curtains: “John, get up, we’re on fire!”
In bathrobes and bare feet, Washko and Banschbach ran down the stairs. Fire was coming in through the front windows, so they headed to the back door.
Washko said he had trouble finding the keyhole. Banschbach had fallen to the floor.
Washko was panicking. The smoke was coming in. The flames were getting warmer. “But I’m saying, ‘I can’t go down, he’s down. If we both go down, we’re done,’” Washko said.
Washko remembers getting out — finally. He was taken to the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland, where he stayed for five days, three under intubation. He suffered smoke inhalation, he said.
“They must have taken about a gallon worth of black fluid out of my lungs,” he said.
When he woke up in the hospital, he said, “I saw my partner, so the only thing I asked about was, ‘Where’s the cats? Where’s Charlie? Where’s Festus?’”
Charlie, or Charles — along with two other cats — did not survive the fire. Festus was missing until this past week, when he was found alive in the house. One other cat, Hectate, survived as well.
Now, when Washko thinks about the fire, he said, he thinks about his cats.
“That’s the only thing that aggravates me,” Washko said. “Why did they have to kill my cats?”
After he got out of the hospital, Washko and Banschbach drove by to see the house. He’d lived there for about 41 years. And now, many irreplaceable things had been lost. Family albums, pictures, documents, one-of-a-kind art pieces.
Life was just becoming nice, he said. He was retired. He was socializing with neighbors. “Things were just coming together the way you’d expect your golden years to be,” he said.
Lisa Scotti learned about the fire around 6 that morning from her roommate. “There’s a situation,” he texted her. She wasn’t home — which is across the street and a couple of houses up from Washko’s — instead at her partner’s house near Frederick.
She called her roommate. “The house is fine, but the pride flag is burned, it’s gone, and their houses are burned,” she recalls him saying.
Scotti left immediately. When she arrived around 8 a.m., she saw two neighbors on her porch. Pieces of what was once a pride flag were melted to the flagpole hanging off a column, while other pieces were on the ground. She was grateful that her house was not burned down. But she was also fearful, angry and also sad for her neighbors, she said.
“I feel like the flags, and therefore, the people in the houses with the flags, were targeted,” she said.
Neighbors, others show support
Almost immediately, neighbors sprang into action.
The day after the fire, neighbors hung about 175 pride flags on homes around the neighborhood. They’d been sent by Flags for Good after neighbors connected with them.
Around June 17, Dre Cortes — former program director for The Baltimore Transgender Alliance, and now an independent organizer — spoke with neighbors about painting a pride flag on a crosswalk on East 31st Street as a way to show resilience and care, he said. Many were thrilled, he said.
Some neighbors came out to paint, joined by people from across the city. Others brought brooms and started sweeping the sidewalks, he said, or came out on their porches. The painted pride flag remains on the crosswalk.
Meanwhile, the Abell Improvement Association was flooded with calls and emails offering help and donations, said its president, Diana Emerson.
The association publicized a PayPal account on social media and on flyers so that people could make donations to the victims, Emerson said. Others wrote checks.
Peabody Heights Brewery hosted a fundraiser and gave a portion of every beer sold to the fund, Scotti said. Organizations donated prizes for a silent auction, and there was a fundraising raffle.
“People just came out of the woodwork for these folks,” Scotti said.
Washko and Banschbach stayed with friends for almost a month after the fire, he said. Then their insurance company put them up in an apartment downtown.
But Washko said he doesn’t spend any more time there than he has to. “The whole place rings hollow,” he said. It’s not home.
There were other things to do. He had to buy clothes to wear. He had to cremate his three cats — whose remains now sit in little boxes with brass plates with their names, he said.
They probably won’t be able to move back home for another six to eight months, Washko said. But nevertheless, he’s there most days, watching and talking at “Cafe Charles,” named after one of his cats.
The cafe evolved naturally. Brendan Basham and Lauren DiMartino live just a couple of doors down from Washko, and in the days after the fire, people started to hang out on the sidewalk of their block.
So, they put out a table from their backyard. They strung lights and hung empty picture frames for a recent neighborhood “porch prom” and left them up for the cafe, DiMartino said. They bought some flowers for a centerpiece.
Basham said they were “trying to transfer the energy of our anxieties and grief into something creative and nurturing for our neighbors.”
Later, another table — which had been in Washko’s backyard — was donated to the cafe. Then, some chairs from another neighbor. Someone brought salt and pepper shakers. More recently, a neighbor donated an espresso machine.
A nearby florist donated flowers for several large pots set out nearby, and a neighbor began watering them, Basham said. “She actually hauls buckets of water across the street to keep these plants alive,” he said.
And just like that: a meeting spot, where people could talk and get to know one another.
Basham will sit out with a coffee in the mornings, and sometimes a beer or cocktail in the afternoons. Often, he said, neighbors will stop by to chat. Sometimes, longtime residents will tell stories about the neighborhood, and also “remember the children who grew up in the neighborhood, and who they’ve become.”
Other times, people he doesn’t know will sit down to share a story or drink.
“It’s just been kind of a really great community-building event — that was unexpected,” Basham said.
A few weeks after the fire, two neighbors designed a T-shirt, which was to be sold at the Abell Community Street Fair this past weekend, Emerson said, with the profits going to the victims.
“#hate is not welcome here,” and “#abell pride,” one side of the shirt reads.
So far, the neighborhood has raised a little over $30,000 for the victims, Emerson said. Their goal is $50,000.
“The neighborhood is doing what we do best — to really rally,” Emerson said.
‘It just doesn’t seem real’
On this particular morning, Washko ventured into his house. Everything was covered in black soot.
“This is where the artwork was,” he pointed to a wall at the entryway. “Here, here and here.”
They were from an auction, he said, and from an artist in Greece.
“That was a curved TV,” he pointed in one corner. The oak floor is warped underneath the carpeting. Even the streetlight in front of the house melted from the heat, he said.
Still, “It just doesn’t seem real. Yeah, it happened, but it happened to somebody else and that was way in the past,” Washko said. “You’re just drifting along in that, sort of, ghostly ethereal type of setting where, what happens, happens,” he added.
That seemed to be his attitude that morning: what happens, happens. He cracked jokes. “I have to look at it in an upbeat sort, otherwise it will be too depressing,” he said.
And he talked about plans to rebuild.
“This, too, will pass,” Washko said between sips of coffee. “That’s it. This, too, will pass.”