When I first met Bethan, at our mutual friend’s birthday party, I commented on her name and we instantly bonded over our Welsh mothers. Then she told me she lived in Baltimore. Just for context, this was mid-season of the NPR mega hit, Serial, so poor B immediately had to endure my many questions about that week’s episode (luckily she was also as obsessed as I was, and later most obligingly gave me updates on Adnan’s case fresh from the Baltimore court house). I instantly fell in love with Bethan’s wry sense of humour, not to mention the fact that this graceful tough-nut with inexplicably Disney princess hair works as a public defender in one of America’s toughest cities. When I started The Street Where You Live, I immediately thought of Bethan, who lives such an inspiring and exciting life, in a seriously upcoming place. I’m so happy you’re getting to meet her. Let’s take a walk with her down the street where she lives.
On her apartment:
I'm originally from the Maryland suburbs of D.C, but I now live in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighbourhood. I moved here about a year ago, and now live in a one-bedroom place in an old row-house that got spliced up into apartments. My apartment, which I found on good old Craigslist, is pretty small but I like it. I love living in Mount Vernon. The architecture is so beautiful and I love my short walk to work. Having said that, The laundry is coin-operated and only takes quarters. Quarters.
My street has a lot of nice, older buildings. It’s a few blocks away from Baltimore's Washington Monument (FYI, D.C.'s Washington Monument is the more iconic, but ours is older!) The monument is surrounded by four small parks, which are beautiful and well-used. It's a pretty mixed neighborhood, some families but not many with kids. A lot of young professionals live here because of its proximity to downtown. I also think there's a retirement home a few blocks North of me.
Baltimore is a fun city. People who visit and only go to the aquarium or an O's (the Baltimore Orioles, the city’s baseball team) game really miss out. We have great restaurants, bars, and the atmosphere is generally more friendly and laid-back than in neighboring D.C.
On her beloved roommate, Teg:
I live with a Shepherd-mix named Tegwyn. We met at an animal rescue in North Carolina, where he was the only puppy who didn't bite me. I find this to be an endearing quality, and it's lead to a lasting friendship.
On finding her true passion:
I don't really know why I went to law school, but I'm glad I did. I went to the University of Maryland, College Park and have worked at various times as a kindergarten teacher's aide, live-in caregiver, and waitress. I went to law school at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. After spending a summer as an intern for the Public Defender's Office in Rockville, Maryland, I decided to pursue this a career.
I love being a public defender. For your readers who might not be familiar with the US system, a public defender is a criminal defense attorney who represents those who can't afford counsel. Unlike court-appointed attorneys or attorneys taking pro bono cases, public defenders usually work in an office with other lawyers doing the same thing. I handle misdemeanor cases in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. We have large caseloads and it can be very stressful, but I've never had a job this consistently engaging and rewarding. My coworkers are some of the most tenacious, dynamic, and fun people I know.
I represent all kinds of people. As long as they fall below a certain income-level, and face the possibility of jail, we will represent them. The charges I deal with are all misdemeanors, of varying levels of seriousness. I would guess the single type of case I see most often is drug possession. There's no typical day. I had a trial yesterday for a client accused of possessing a BB gun in violation of the city statute. The main issue was whether or not a BPD firearms examiner could testify as an air-pellet-gun expert (he could not) and whether the State had therefore presented enough evidence for the case to go to the jury (they did not). The poor jury was falling asleep, literally, while the prosecutor and I whispered evidentiary arguments to the judge up at the bench. Then they were sent home and my client was acquitted without fanfare.
This morning, I was out of court so I drove out to Hagerstown to visit a client in prison. I kept setting the metal detector off, and the Correctional Officer ended up teaching me how to remove the underwire from my bra by filing it down on the rough stone wall and pulling it out. I'm really glad she was a nice woman or that might have been awkward...
On Baltimore’s community spirit:
I’ve has so many interactions with people in my neighborhood that are kind of entertaining. People are pretty friendly in this city. I had a tabloid-inspired conversation with a stranger in the grocery store the other day about Angelina Jolie's privacy rights. Someone composed and sang an impromptu serenade to my dog once. An elderly woman stopped me while I was shopping to tell me about her career as a showgirl in Atlantic City. That kind of thing seems to happen more in this city than in the D.C. suburbs, and it always brightens my day.
On Baltimore’s gritty reputation:
People call this city “Bodymore, Murderland." That's a misconception about our crime rate. Personally, I have lived here for over a year and have never murdered anyone.
Joking aside though, My relationship with the city hasn't always been this positive. There is some real dysfunction here. Maybe I notice it more because my job intersects with other public services like the jail, schools, and substance abuse treatment options. Baltimore tends to come up short when compared to other parts of Maryland in these areas. It can get really frustrating, especially when people seem resigned to Baltimore always receiving fewer resources and getting substandard services compared to the rest of the State. That having been said, there's a real tenacity of public service. I've met all kinds of people who dedicate enormous amounts of time and effort into making the city better. To all the doubters, I say stop passing through Baltimore on your way to New York or D.C. and come it for yourselves! It's more than The Wire or Serial. I will say though that the effect I think (and hope) that (mega smash hit NPR series) Serial has had was to get people thinking and talking about wrongful convictions and confirmation bias in criminal investigations. That's a really good thing in a place liked Baltimore.
Describe your street in five words.
Underrated; Scenic; Friendly; Good coffee
When you walk down your street, what do you feel in your heart?
It depends on the time of year and what type of day I've had. I feel great about the street in the Spring (when it finally gets here) because it's such a gorgeous neighborhood.
On her perfect day off in her neighborhood:
A good day off starts with a run around the neighborhood, up Charles Street, and around Bolton Hill (another nice, old neighborhood near midtown Baltimore). I'd want coffee and breakfast at Milk & Honey, followed by a walk with the dog down to the inner harbor. I would sit in the park and read something that was not work-related. I'd spend a few hours at the Walters, which has a really fun and eclectic art collection, and then dinner at The Helmand, which is a great Afghani place. If I had the next day off too, I'd go to Brewer's Art for drinks after dinner.
Thank you so much Bethan! You're such a bad ass. If you need more of Miss Haaga, and you don't want to commit a crime to get it, you can follow her here on Instagram.