Late morning in a sparsely decorated café in the 4700 block of Eastern Avenue in Greektown, reporter Aaron Henkin tries out some freshly acquired Greek phrases—“Kaliméra, pós eísai?” (Good morning, how are you?)—during his interview with Evangelis Theofanidis, a resident of the neighborhood and one of dozens of locals featured in an installment of WYPR’s series, “Out of the Blocks.”
“We sit, we talk, you tell me stories, and I put it on the radio,” Henkin explains to Theofanidis, who has already warmed to the process.
In a matter of minutes, the strictly men-only, Greek-speaking cafe crowd grows from six card players around a felt-covered table sipping thick Greek coffee, to nearly 20, with each new arrival greeting those gathered louder than his predecessor. Henkin is tucked under a muted TV conducting his interview as tables and chairs fill up the utilitarian space. What starts as a murmur of conversations and laughter serving as a buzzing background quickly swells to a big fat Greek roar.
All in a day’s work for Henkin and the show’s co-creator, composer/musician/photographer Wendel Patrick, who listens to Theofanidis’ stories while capturing the sights and sounds of the café—in this case the click-click of worry beads flipped over-under, over-under men’s palms, plus the perpetual grinding of coffee beans.
To create “Out of the Blocks,” recently sweetened with an $80,000 grant, Henkin interviews as many owners and patrons as possible at each storefront along an entire block, while Patrick scores the narratives with original music and tracks of redefined, redesigned ambient sound, as well as photographing each interviewee. The result is a deeply textured hourlong audio portrait of life in Baltimore, one city block at a time.
“A city block is a fascinating ecosystem,” says Henkin “It’s a fascinating honeycomb of all these adjacent lives. All of these people right next door to each other, separated by just one wall.”
As the setting for the fourth installment of “Out of the Blocks,” this particular block of Eastern Avenue provides a perfect example of just such an ecosystem, with Greek, Dominican and El Salvadoran establishments sitting side by side.
Rather than insert a narrator to describe a neighborhood, “Out of the Blocks” allows participants to paint that picture themselves, with stories and observations that range from humorous to warmhearted to, sometimes, arresting.
“My stories are real, from the bottom of my heart,” Theofanidis says. “But I don’t know if [Henkin and Patrick] are going to twist something. So far, I’m very confident that they’re real.”
Henkin and Patrick spend weeks getting to know an entire block—proprietors, patrons, residents—in order to gain their trust, to show people they’re not just parachuting in to grab a quick story and, finally, to develop the kind of rapport necessary for stories to flow freely.
“It’s such a weird organic daisy chain of relationships that occurs,” says Henkin.
Case in point: Henkin heads over to meet the owner of Olympia Cafe, but when he discovers that the man isn’t there, he instead chats up George, a regular patron. The next day, George sees Henkin on the street and introduces him to his friend Yanni, the owner of Zorba’s Bar & Grill and exactly the person Henkin had been trying to find earlier in the week.
“So that night, [Yanni] invited me to have dinner, and when I was there I interviewed him,” says Henkin. He also interviewed a bartender, and then came back later in the week to interview two Spanish-speaking members of the kitchen staff, with translation supplied by an “Out of the Blocks” intern.
Henkin met Patrick while interviewing him—Patrick had recently released a CD—in July 2008 for the WYPR arts and culture show “The Signal,” currently on hiatus after 11 years. Henkin says he would regularly read the Yellow Pages in search of story ideas, looking for “encounters with randomness.” That led him to the thought, “What if I pick one city block in Baltimore and make it my mission to meet and interview everyone on that entire block?” He approached Patrick about using his music for that project, but Patrick one-upped him by suggesting he instead create an original score. Their collaboration was born.
When it comes to choosing the block and the neighborhood, “We exercise a joint curatorial judgment,” said Henkin. On both Eastern Avenue and for an earlier project on Liberty Heights Avenue, the pair spent time familiarizing themselves with the local environment. But “for [the first project on] Greenmount,” adds Patrick, “Aaron was very much the front man. We had never done one of these before, and we didn’t know what it would look like or what it would entail.”
On the 3300 block of Greenmount Avenue, Henkin was very likely one of the few white people in any establishment he poked his head into.
“That was an interesting experience,” Henkin says. “Through this project, I’ve gotten very used to sticking out like a sore thumb. Which is kind of an acquired skill, I guess,” he adds with a laugh. “You have to embrace the fact that you stick out like a sore thumb, and that kind of becomes part of the conversation.”
Typically, he’s initially met with skepticism, “like I’m trying to sell them something or convert them to some religion.” But once he’s made clear the show’s intent, “It’s usually an amused and sort of bewildered reaction. Then the reality of what I’m doing kicks in when I show up the next day, and the day after that, and a week later I’m still there wandering around every single day. And people eventually realize, ‘Wow, this guy’s not going anywhere.’”
Because pointing a microphone at someone has a different effect than pointing a camera, it usually takes a few interviews before Patrick comes on the scene. Neighbors realize the two are working together and, as word gets around, more interviews are done on the fly. Oftentimes, the show’s creators use portraits of previously interviewed neighbors to persuade reluctant participants to consent.
In addition to gathering people’s stories, Henkin employs his microphone like a camera to “take an active tour of all the sounds in the space,” collecting “sounds that [Patrick] can use like colors on a paint palette” for scoring.
“I might ask for more thunder, cars passing or that chopping sound from the restaurant,” says Patrick. “That part is really important to the overall sound. When I’m on the block, I’m thinking, ‘What would work here, what would go well with this?’ I’m already [composing] stylistic ideas.”
In the Liberty Heights Avenue episode, a rhythmic pitter-patter undergirds an interview at the Caribbean Heat restaurant, completely designed from spatula and pan sounds recorded in its kitchen. Meanwhile, the percussion of a sewing machine introduces a conversation with a dry cleaner, creating sympathetic musical accompaniment.
“Frankly, he makes the project way cooler than it would be otherwise,” Henkin says.
Hours and hours of interviews must be edited down (a recent project totaled 17 hours) to the final public radio standard running time of 48 minutes, 30 seconds. Then Henkin sends files to Patrick for scoring. But composing on paper isn’t the latter’s working style.
“I write it in my head, and [then] it’s all about recording what’s in my head,” Patrick says. Or “I might just start improvising along with an interview … and that’s what will be recorded.”
Patrick uses a midi-controller—it looks like a toy keyboard, about a foot-and-a-half long—that unleashes a flood of sampled instrumental and ambient sounds. With choice of instrument, key, rhythm and genre at his disposal, it allows him to work as conductor, musician and orchestra simultaneously.
In the Liberty Heights Avenue program, a barbershop section begins with the sound of the owner’s razor, which, Patrick says, is “just between B and B-flat.” Given the fact that he possesses perfect pitch, Patrick can identify the note of any sound, whether musical or, in this case, electrical. He complemented the buzz of the razor by composing his score in the same resonating pitch, because “this tool has provided [the barber] with so much in life. It’s a central figure of the story and [therefore] a central figure of the music created for the piece.”
Once he has finished, Patrick sends groupings of stories with scores added back to Henkin for a listen. This back-and-forth process continues until they’re in agreement, followed by the final mix.
When they listen together, “That’s an amazing experience,” Patrick says. “This is so fulfilling for me as an artist: to do what I love artistically and apply it to something that is really meaningful.”
At the completion of each project, they return to the block with gifts of CDs of the finished program and framed portraits for everyone who participated.
“I thought they were crazy when I first heard about them,” says Vanessa Villacorta, a member of the wait staff at Pupuseria Mama Tana on Eastern Avenue, “but I’m glad they’re doing a story about the neighborhood. They were explaining about the project as something that was important to them.”
The show’s recent $80,000 grant—composed of resources from the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, the Cohen Opportunity Fund and an anonymous donor—came with the charge to complete six programs within a year. That timetable has created an uptick in production for Henkin and Patrick, while also widening the potential scope of the series. (The two are considering documenting other cities in Maryland, the U.S. or even the world).
“It’s a promising year for us,” says Henkin, “and it’s one that, by the end of the [grant] year, I think we’ll have made an interesting document of record for Baltimore. Each block is a collage, but by the time you have six or eight of these, the series is going to be this wonderful collage of Baltimore.”
This article originally appears in the January 2016 issue.