Interview with Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick

On February 1, 2017, Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick spoke with David Yezzi of The Hopkins Review, in the studios of WYPR, Baltimore. Henkin and Patrick talked about Out of the Blocks, their hour-long radio program and podcast, which focuses on the people and neighborhoods of Baltimore. James Joyce claimed that one could, by reading Ulysses, reconstruct the city of Dublin. Listening to Out of the Blocks, one feels that Henkin’s and Patrick’s audio portrait of Baltimore is becoming similarly comprehensive with each new installment.

Hopkins Review: How did you both get interested in Baltimore?

Aaron Henkin: Well, we both came here from elsewhere. Neither of us is a native Baltimorean. I came from the Midwest about 15 years ago.

Wendel Patrick: Actually, I came from the Midwest, too, though I was there for less time than Aaron. I’m from Chicago.

AH: So we have the interesting status of being born outsiders but living here long enough to have a pretty good idea of what’s what in the city.

HR: How long have you each been here?

WP: This is my twentieth year. And I’ve lived here far longer than anywhere I’ve ever lived. More than double.

AH: Sixteen years, for me.

HR: What gave you the idea that Baltimore might be your subject?

AH: It’s interesting to come to a city as an outsider. It’s maybe more interesting to you, than to the people who were born and raised here. That certainly was the case for me. When I showed up, I fell in love in with this town. I sort of fell into public radio, first as a volunteer here at WYPR, and I eventually started making original programming for the station. I always liked the idea of trying to find stories that I didn’t know existed.

HR: First, you developed a show called The Signal, is that right?

AH: So The Signal was a weekly arts and culture program, magazine format, lots of different segments during the hour. The premise was, essentially, that we would talk with artists, musicians, poets, and so on. We’d have them come into the studio, or we would take our recorders to them. As things went along, I got most interested in talking to characters whom I never would have known existed if it wasn’t, frankly, for the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages were essentially my first Rolodex of story ideas in Baltimore City. When you open the Yellow Pages, everyone’s listed in there by occupation, alphabetically, and so you run across things like “Artificial Limbs,” “Auctioneers,” “Automobile Wreckers.” You think to yourself, “There’s great potential here.” I found a guy who builds and restores pipe organs!

HR: So Out of the Blocks grew out of what was previously a focus on the arts into something broader?

AH: Yeah, it really became a fascination with everyday people like you and me.

HR: Wendel, at what point did you become involved as a partner and collaborator?

WP: We were actually talking about my first solo album on The Signal. I was a fan of the show, and I would hear it pretty often. I reached out to Aaron and asked if he would be interested in having me on to talk about my work.

HR: Aaron, your background, as I understand it, is as a broadcast journalist, is that right? How would you characterize what you do?

AH: Well, that’s a generous description of my background! A BA in English Literature is the extent of my training, that and a long career waiting tables and playing in bands. As I said, I started here as a volunteer and have learned everything by trial and error.

But, you know, I’ve done a lot of different jobs here at the radio station: I’ve produced the daily public affairs talk program, I helped start the local news department, I helped create original shows like The Signal. I’ve been at this radio story-making thing for a while.

HR: And Wendel, you are a classical musician by training.

WP: Correct. Concert pianist—that was my background, but that album was not a piano album at all. It was sort of a cross between hip-hop and electronica, and there are jazz elements on there as well. My given name is Kevin Gift, and that’s the name I use for my classical jazz works. “Wendel Patrick” was the name of my twin brother, who did not survive our birth. When I started doing other kinds of music, I decided to use his name to keep them separate. So when I met Aaron, I met him as Wendel Patrick.

HR: When Aaron mentioned the idea for a new program that would focus on neighborhoods in Baltimore, was that something that made sense to you right away?

WP: Yeah, you know, I don’t know that Aaron even had it fleshed out that much. We met over Trinidadian food, and he told me about this idea he had, about going to a city block and interviewing everyone on the block. He said, “You know, when it comes time, I would really like to use the music from your albums.” So, I said, “Well, you’re welcome to, but what I would really like to do is actually score the whole program, as if it were a film, providing custom music for each segment and leitmotifs for different people, and things of that nature.”

AH: And that, by the way, is like when you ask for a sub-compact and somebody offers you a Cadillac.

HR: Speaking of Trinidadian food, a recent episode features a woman from Trinidad who’s been cooking on her block for the last thirty years. She has seen her entire neighborhood grow up around her. Her name is Joyce. And what’s the name of her place?

AH: Soul Source Restaurant. You hear the music of that place every time the phone rings.

WP: [sing-song] Soul Source!

AH: That’s how she answers the phone! That same mournful melody.

WP: It’s beautiful.

HR: When that episode starts, you hear kitchen sounds, plates clattering: The sound has been managed throughout. And I like the word “cinematic.” It provides a texture that gets you into each block, block by block. How do you decide what the sound of a place is, and how do you decide who to talk to?

AH: Well, you show up and you try to talk to everybody. And at that point, you sort of assess the . . . I guess you could call it the spectrum of skepticism on the block.

HR: There must be a real range.

AH: Yeah. Some people are natural born extroverts, and they’ll tell you their life story the first time you meet them. Other people will keep you at arm’s length for a long time.

HR: How long would you say you spend on a block for a show?

AH: The fastest we’ve been able to make an episode is eight weeks.

HR: Wow. So, every day for two months, you’re hanging out, meeting people, really becoming a part of life on the block.

AH: Pretty much. At the tail end, we’re there a little bit less, because we’re huddled in front of our computers, doing all the editing and scoring, but, yeah, it’s a relationship.

HR: Wendel, at what point do you start to gather ideas for the soundscape?

WP: We have a bit of a system that we’ve developed. Normally, when we first go to a block, the two of us are there together, and people sort of get a good look at us.

Then Aaron spends more time than I do, just at first, hanging out and explaining to people what it is that he’s doing there. Once Aaron gets to the part where he starts recording, he has a good idea of what things will be helpful to me in terms of gathering sounds.

HR: Getting to know who the people are, their occupations, their histories, that locates it, yes?

WP: Even before that. For example, up on Edmondson Avenue, we walked past a tire shop and we heard these mechanical sounds. Immediately, we knew that would be part of it.

It’s walking around and being hyperaware of what you’re hearing and how it pertains to a particular location. But that doesn’t tell you what the mood is going to be, which is determined more by the stories people share.

Once I start to be a more frequent presence on the block, I start taking more and more pictures, and I’ll say to Aaron, “Can you make sure that you got that particular sound?” Because we’ve been doing it for a while, and because Aaron is highly attuned to audio, he has a pretty good idea of things that will be helpful.

HR: When you hear the episodes—the sounds, as well as the voices— the stories really do transport you. Each block—that is to say, each episode— has its own distinct feel. It struck me that radio is an incredibly unique medium. The stories are so vivid, but all you get is the sound.

AH: The irony, I think, is that radio is a profoundly visual medium. When you listen to the radio, you are not just receiving the story, you’re also making the story out of what you’re hearing. Because that visual dimension is missing, you’re creating it in the theater of your own mind. You want to talk about an HD screen? That visual landscape is as close to your soul as the biggest movie screen or the most hi-def TV.

HR: It must be close to the experience of reading. In a sense, it’s like being read to, except you have a whole soundscape of an imagined world. In this case, it’s the real world that you’re meeting halfway in your mind, as opposed to what might be, I suppose, a more passive experience of viewing it as a film.

WP: It’s like being read a biography by all of the biography’s players. It’s like having everyone from the block come in and read to you, as opposed to having just us, or somebody that’s been there.

HR: Right, right.

WP: If I’m watching a movie and there’s no sound, I feel like I’m missing a tremendous amount. The first thing I try to do is turn up the sound. If I’m listening to a radio program like this, I don’t really feel the absence of the visuals. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking, “Oh, gosh, I’m really missing something because I don’t know what this person looks like.” At most, I think, “Hmm, I wonder what that person looks like.”

HR: You’re not sitting there thinking, “I’m missing parts.” I think what brought that home to me was how moving much of the program is. In one recent episode, there’s the woman pastor whose husband has died, and she can’t really manage the church by herself. Listening to her preach to her congregation, to people that she’s very close to, and basically breaking down and admitting she doesn’t know how she’s going to spend her Sunday afternoons, because she always spent them with her husband. I found that so powerful.

AH: That’s one of those moments that you can never imagine happening before it happens, you know? When you show up with no agenda, you take that documentary leap of faith, and you just . . . stay and listen. Amazing, unexpected things will happen like that. I remember that day, leaving after that church service, and just staring at my recorder, like I couldn’t believe we had actually got that recording.

HR: In addition to the recordings that you do, you also document these interviews with photographic portraits by Wendel, yes?

WP: Yes.

AH: We always show up at the end to give everybody a CD and a print of the portrait we made of them. It’s a nice kind of closure for everybody.

HR: Are the portraits like headshots?

WP: Sometimes they’re of the face or from the chest up. It’s primarily of them in their environment, so it can be in front of their establishment or inside.

HR: So, why do people talk to you? Do you have special tricks?

AH: It’s an interesting thing, wandering around initiating conversations with complete strangers. It’s not a normal way to live. But I can tell you, it’s a deeply fulfilling way to live. I’m grateful to this project for giving me an excuse to do it. All I wanted, all my entire story-making career, was an excuse to talk to strangers. When you show up and you meet someone, the first conversation with that person isn’t about you interviewing them, it’s about you being who you are, where you come from, what your philosophy is about life, and giving that person a chance to, essentially, interview you, if they want.

HR: What happens when that happens?

AH: I think people realize that something’s going on that is different from a media interview. If someone from the media ever shows up to a lot of the blocks that we go to, it’s after some crime has happened. They come in and do a stand-up. The flashers are flashing behind them, and there’s yellow tape. They do some interviews and get a couple of perfunctory sound bites, and then they’re on their way. That’s one kind of interview experience. It becomes clear that what we’re up to is something completely different. When I show up the next day and say, “Hey, how are you, Joyce? How you doing?” I haven’t brought my recorder yet. I’m still just laying the groundwork, so that everyone on the block knows who I am, what I’m up to, what I want to accomplish. I bring CDs of past episodes, I show them Wendel’s portraits of people, I talk about why I do this. I give them a compliment—and it’s a true compliment—that they’re really interesting people, whoever they are. I think everyone’s interesting, if you get to a real enough point with them.

WP: There have been several times where I’ve been on the block with Aaron, and we’ll be having a conversation with someone. Aaron will say, “Oh, you know, I just saw Shorty on the other side of the street.” And whoever Aaron’s talking to will say, “Wow, you know everyone’s name.” And, you know, when we did the Monument Street block, there were like 50 people. If you’re doing the kind of media interview that Aaron was describing, where you’re coming in and zooming out after a quick talk, you don’t remember people’s names. Your assistant writes the names down. When you’re there for eight weeks, you know everyone’s name. I think that really has an effect on the inhabitants of that block.

AH: There’s a great quote: “It’s the secret wish of the soul to be interviewed.” No matter how skeptical someone is, no matter how prone they are to blowing you off, at some level they’re curious about what you’re up to. They see what’s happening with all the conversations and recordings with everybody else on the block, and they realize that our only agenda is to be patient, active listeners and that we are genuinely curious about their lives. How often do you get an opportunity like that in your life? It’s deeply validating, I think, to have someone take a genuine interest in who you are as a person.

HR: There was in the last episode a guy who was shot just below the eye and the bullet lodged in his neck and you asked him, “What’s that bump in your neck?” It was clear that you suspected what he in fact confirmed, that the bullet was still there, lodged under the skin of his neck. You talked to him a long time.

AH: Michael Anderson is his name. It was interesting as an example of the way things work with our process. We didn’t meet him until we’d been on the block for several weeks, getting to know everybody else. He hadn’t quite finished rehab yet, but he was back on the block one day. We knew his friends, Foots and Shorty, so well that I was immediately sort of accepted by him and had this rapport with him. I recorded that conversation the first day I met him.

HR: The show highlights the variety of life in Baltimore. I remember Mama at Mama’s Grocery Store. She’s from Eritrea and came to the United States as a refugee of a war. You spoke to a number of devout Muslims in the community on Greenmount Avenue. Those interviews seem particularly resonant now, when it’s those exact people who may be denied entrance to our country by executive order.

AH: This city is a city of immigrants. We all talk about Black Baltimore and White Baltimore. When you look more closely, this is a city of first-generation immigrants from Nigeria, from Eritrea, from Pakistan, from Afghanistan, from Yemen, from Ukraine, from China, from Korea, from Bangladesh, from Kashmir.

HR: The owner of the jewelry and stereo exchange is from Ukraine?

AH: Yeah.

HR: And he has an AK-47?

WP: Yeah. His name is Dima. He has a number of guns.

AH: The episode we did on Eastern Avenue, the 4700 block of Eastern Avenue, which is the heart of Greektown, was interesting. It’s now got a booming Hispanic population, so you end up in this fascinating scenario where you’re hanging out with the Greek guy who owns Zorba’s Restaurant and Grill and he introduces you to his cooks in the kitchen, and they’re from Mexico. The old Greeks call the Mexicans “the new Greeks.” It’s the American dream repeating itself on that block.

HR: I remember also the UPS driver who lives in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of crime, and he used to walk around the block two or three times before going into his house, to make sure that no one was going to walk up behind him.

AH: He’d been in the streets dealing before he was a UPS driver. That used to be his habit when he was dealing. You always have to be looking over your shoulder, always worrying about what’s coming around the corner. He felt such a palpable sense of relief once he got the job with UPS that that that wasn’t part of his life any more.

HR: So, he wasn’t doing that any more?

AH: Not at that moment, he wasn’t. You never know. Also, I never know quite how people edit themselves when they talk to me.

HR: And yet it’s amazing how honest people are, no? There was the guy who had been in prison for a long time, who was fighting a drug habit. It was good days and bad days. He could get heroin on the street, no problem, but some days he would just not do it, and that was different. He was trying to get clean, and he was very upfront about his limited success. He was realistic about it, as he was working on it. That really rang true.

WP: It’s interesting. Not only do we spend a lot of time with people on the actual block, but when we’re editing the show and I’m writing the music we also spend time with specific phrases that they uttered. In addition to remembering the people, you actually remember these lines that they delivered and things that they said. They’re all really memorable.

It’s funny. Mama, who you were just speaking about, actually lives across the street from my building, on the other side of town. And I didn’t know this until I walked into her other little grocery and there she was. This was maybe four years after the Greenmount episode aired. She said, “Wendel!” And I said, “Is this your store?” She said, “Yeah, I live right there.”

HR: So there’s some people that you still run into?

WP: There’s a lot of folks. A good number, I’d say, find us on Facebook and keep in touch that way.

AH: As much time as the people spend with us, we spend much more time with them. Our relationship goes on with them in our headphones, very intensely, for many, many hours.

HR: How many hours of tape do you usually collect on a given block?

AH: An average block has 20 to 30 people, and I record for about a half-hour to an hour with each person, so around twenty hours of tape. We then cut it into a 48-minute-and-30-second program. So there’s a lot of time spent with that tape. You get so connected with each voice, the nuance, the tone and timbre, the accent, the pitch, that you could recognize that voice anywhere.

WP: I was actually in a grocery store, about two years after the Greenmount episode aired. I was pushing my cart down the aisle, and I heard this woman ask one of the employees where she could find some item. I just froze. I thought, “That’s Jada!” I went around to the other side of the aisle, and it was Jada, from the Greenmount episode. I was so tuned in to the essence of her voice from working on the show and editing her piece that it really stuck. They all stick.

HR: That’s maybe the other thing that radio tunes you in to that another medium wouldn’t in the same way. It’s what you’ve been talking about all along, Wendel: music. You get so much from the music of the human voice. It’s so expressive and has its own signature.

AH: There was a street preacher on the corner of 33rd and Greenmount Avenue, Elder Grissom. I recorded him doing his sermon on this megaphone, and then I interviewed him. I cut all that together and gave it to Wendel, and Wendel was listening to the melody of his voice.

WP: For him, I gave him this special treatment: it was solo piano, but it sounded essentially like he did. The rhythm matched exactly what he was doing. And also the temperament of what I was playing matched as well. And then Aaron edited it, so that you would have him preaching and then he would stop and then Aaron would have him explain about why he preached and how.

AH: It went back and forth between the interview and the street preaching.

WP: When you had the interview, the music would stop, or pause. It would still be there, but it would be sort of on this pedal tone. Then he would pick up again, and the music would just follow him. What you say about the speaking voice being an instrument is very true. I try to support that musically, harmonically, melodically, without overpowering the listener.

AH: Wendel has perfect pitch, so, for example, the tire gun, at the tire repair shop? It hits different pitches, and Wendel made a piano accompaniment for that.

WP: Every different pitch of the gun is matched, and then I harmonize the chord of that pitch underneath it. And it goes by fast, so . . .

HR: The show has so many immediate pleasures that there’s a sense in which it needs no more reason for existing than that, but it touches so much more widely and deeply than that. Why do this show? Is there a particular point of view?

AH: There is no narrator in the episodes, and we do that for a reason. People are used to public radio programs that have a host, that have somebody who tells you where you are, what’s about to happen, and to sort of help you through the reflection on what you’re supposed to think of all this.

When the show begins and you hear, “Hey it’s 88.1, WYPR, It’s Out of the Blocks: one hour of radio, one city block, everybody’s story.” That’s generally what a host would say on the show. I write those scripts, called “interstitials,” and I bring them to the block and let everybody take a crack at reading them. Then I cut the voices together, so they are literally hosting their own show.

Beyond that, a host does a certain amount of narrative handholding. That’s what listeners are used to. The absence of a narrator can be a little disorienting to listeners. It’s something that takes some getting used to. Also, there’s no one narrative arc that takes you from point A to point B.

HR: It’s more of a collage method.

AH: It’s a collage. It’s an anthology of short stories. That can thwart people’s expectations.

HR: So, why do this show, in this way?

AH: There’s a lot of talk about people living in bubbles right now, in the media. And those bubbles aren’t just political bubbles. We all have our personal, social bubbles that we live in, too. That’s human nature. This show, I think, is an interesting peek through the looking glass of what that would be like if that wasn’t our nature.

You hear public-radio types—managers, program directors— always wringing their hands about, “How do we diversify our audience? How do we reach out?” “Community outreach”—that’s a buzzword. This show is a very simple answer to that question.

WP: Oftentimes, you have a whole block, or the larger community around that block, listening to a program that they normally wouldn’t listen to, or maybe have never heard of. And the show is about them. When we go back after the show airs and give everybody a copy of the CD and a portrait, their portrait, they share with us how meaningful the experience was for them. They ask, “Are you coming back? Are you going to do a second one?”

When we talk about, “What’s the point of the show?”—which is a different question from, “Why do you make it?”—I don’t think we have a definitive point of our own. We both feel that it’s important and valuable to share stories of people who normally don’t have their stories heard, but other than trying to make a beautiful piece of art that people hear on the radio, I don’t have an agenda. Aaron doesn’t have an agenda. And I think that’s one of the things that’s so refreshing to the people that we interview. By the time we’re there for a month, they realize, “Wow, they’re really just here so that we can tell them about our lives. There’s no ulterior motive, they’re not trying to sell us anything, to get us to buy anything, to get us to promote anything.” I think it’s rare even for a friend to approach you in that manner, let alone a stranger.

AH: I hope the show makes you, perhaps, more inclined some day to strike up a conversation with a stranger.

HR: So, you went into neighborhoods all across the city, all kinds of neighborhoods, and with no agenda and no point to prove. Have any broader ideas about the city emerged as a result of your conversations?

WP: Just because a block doesn’t have a big shiny casino or a big restaurant, or a harbor, or a large university doesn’t make that block any less interesting than a block that does have those things. In most cities, you are conditioned to think that certain blocks or neighborhoods are just not important or, worse, just completely irrelevant. If you see a block that doesn’t have a quote-unquote destination on it, people sometimes dismiss it, but there are people there, you know? Those people have lived on this earth, just like anyone else, and as a result, they have stories and experiences.

HR: Sometimes they’ve lived on that block for decades.

WP: Yeah.

HR: And they’ve seen it change, and it’s been their home for their whole lives.

WP: So, I guess, everywhere is important.

AH: I’ve learned that we all have a fundamentally tribal instinct and that a city block is a tribe. Whether it’s in Greektown or Pikesville, or Deepdene Road in Tuxedo Park, or, you know, Patapsco Avenue in South Baltimore, the people on your block, for better or for worse, are the people you interact with and spend every day with, in each other’s company. That’s your tribe. It’s a fascinating, fundamental, modern social unit. It’s a honeycomb, all these lives happening simultaneously, just one adjacent wall from the next.

HR: How has doing this work changed your lives in Baltimore? Do you think about life here differently after doing this show?

WP: I do. I spend a lot more time looking at people who go by and wondering what their stories are. I also just pay a lot more attention when I’m driving around the city. I’ll give you an example. When we did the Patapsco block, it was the second one that we’d done. At that point, we were really just trying to replicate what we’d done, just to see if we could do another one after we’d done Greenmount.

I was really excited about the block. There was something about it that just spoke to us. But it took us a long time to do that one. It took us almost three years, because we didn’t have funding at the time. But, as we were doing it, I recognized that my impression of the block had been . . . I don’t even want to say “wrong.” I just did not expect the block to yield as much as it did, and to have as much going on there as it did. I think I’m more aware of the fact that it’s possible for me to decide, well, “That’s how it is here,” and to be completely wrong.

HR: Aaron, how has your perspective changed?

AH: Every time I get to the point where I record an interview with somebody, and it’s one of those beautiful, personal moments that you hear on the radio program, I fall in love a little bit with every single person that I meet and interview. I mean, how beautiful is that? Getting to fall in love that many times, over and over again, it just makes me really grateful. It’s been a life-changing experience for me.

HR: You started out doing maybe one show every couple of years. The strength of the show has generated funding and support. What’s the next year look like for you?

AH: We actually have new news to break.

HR: Do it!

WP: Last season, which was our first full season, we did six episodes. And we had received funding to do an additional six episodes this season. However, we were also chosen as part of the first PRX Project Catapult cohort, which came with additional funding, as well as additional show responsibilities.

HR: And what is that, PRX?

AH: PRX stands for the Public Radio Exchange. It’s basically a radio and podcast content distribution operation.

HR: And they make the show available to public broadcasting stations all over?

AH: Right. They’re also growing a very robust podcast enterprise. They are the organization that created Radiotopia, which is a great label for original podcasts.

HR: So they, like a lot of entities, are transitioning from being exclusively distributors to being content creators as well?

AH: Correct. And we got selected, along with folks from six other stations around the country. It’s basically like, it’s the like public radio equivalent of getting picked up by a major label. So it’s pretty exciting.

We’ve got various ideas about how we’re going to retool this. We’re going to continue making episodes in the traditional format, but we also are thinking about other creative ways to podcast more frequently than once every eight weeks. We’re growing a crew of field producers to go out and help meet people on the blocks and to help edit the recordings we make. So we’ll be out there meeting people and collecting conversations on multiple blocks at the same time, and we’ll be able to produce shows more frequently.

HR: Congratulations! Very much looking forward to listening.