Sissy & Shaniqua, Then & Now
We first met Okhui ‘Sissy’ Benlein & Shaniqua McCready on the 1900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue back in 2018. This episode, we reunite with Sissy & Shaniqua, we listen back together to their original recordings, and we ask them, “How’s life changed in the past three years?”
Aaron Henkin: From WYPR and PRX, it’s Out of the Blocks. I’m Aaron Henkin. Here is how the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore sounded back in 2018.
Unknown Voice 1: One thing that I really love about this area is that what we lack in built infrastructure and built environment and community, we one hundred percent overcompensate for in our connections to each other. We do not give up on each other in this neighborhood, even if it feels like the outsiders have given up on us.
Unknown Voice 2: You can help it if you was born in a tornado, you know? You kind of have to learn how to fly or you’re just gonna get sucked up. It’s simple.
AH: It’s been three years since that episode and this week, we’re reconnecting with a couple of folks we met back then. One of them is Okhui Benlein, AKA Sissy.
Okhui Benlein: Owner and only cook of the store, Sissy’s Seafood, located at 1812 Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland.
AH: We’re also going to catch up with Shaniqua McCready, who crafted gold and silver teeth at Urban Jewelers.
Shaniqua McCready: That’s the best part of the job, to make people smile and for them to be happy. Like, your smile is everything.
AH: We’re gonna listen back with Shaniqua and Sissy to their original segments and we’ll hear how life has changed for them in the years since then, right after this.
OB: So, I’m chopping up some onions. I like to mix red and, you know, yellow onions. My name is Okhui Benlein. Owner and only cook of the store, Sissy’s Seafood, located at 1812 Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland. That’s about how much I use. I actually live up the street. I’ve been living here for fifteen, almost sixteen, years. And I use a little tiny bit of parsley mixed with my sauce. It’s wonderful. [laughs] I always wanted to have my own business. I had mind for business. So, I decided to leave that job which I had been at for seventeen years, company called [00:02:18] Card System which manufactured Visa and Mastercard. And once I got graduated and got my master’s, I decided it was time for me to move on to be my own boss. Let the meat cook a little bit.
AH: So, you spent many years working at this big credit card company. You got a master’s degree in engineering. Why not stay there at the company?
OB: What I realized, being a woman and being Korean… Big corporation was white male dominant. I couldn’t move up anymore. I had a position open as vice president position right above me, but I got turned down. I wind up training somebody becoming my boss, even though I’m the one training them. So, it was heartbreaking for me, so I realized it’s enough. It’s time for me to move on and start my own.
AH: So, you walked away from a hundred thousand dollar a year career and decided, “I’m gonna open a seafood carryout restaurant.”
OB: [laughs] At the time, I was living in Virginia. Nice suburb, big house. I worked hard to get that and put mortgage on the house and bought the store.
AH: So, what was it like for you to move from suburban Virginia to the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Avenue?
OB: It was eye-opening. At the time--2004--this street was bad. Bad, meaning everyone out there was hauling out straight cocaine. They were selling cocaine on the street, hollering out loud like you’re selling gum. So, to be honest with you, I didn’t come outside after dark. After two years, I decided, “You know what, you’re only gonna die once. Let me go adventure out,” and I started to get to know people. Neighbors, my customers, went to birthday parties, and, you know, I was doing some charity work, volunteering some time, and what I learned in last fifteen years being here, working here, living here is that when you treat people like you want to be treated… I mean, people say that, “Oh, you want to get treated right. You gotta treat them right.” Absolutely. I think maybe the neighborhood changed me or it could be my aging. Okay, when I came here, I was under foty. Now, I’m fifty-two years old, okay? And for me, change… I don’t know what change is. People changing me, I don’t know. I think I’m a better person. I like who I am. I’m proud of who I’ve become.
AH: (2021) I wanted to ask you… In your original interview, you said you always wanted to have your own business. After this past year and half with COVID, you still feel that way?
OB: More so than ever because I don’t… You know, I’m fifty-five. I got another five years. That’s how long I’m gonna be working. Five or six year more and I’m gonna retire. Things are tougher, so it’s more challenging right now with the COVID going on. And even now, business is terrible, but you learn how to tighten up your belt a little bit because you have less.
AH: You have been here a long time. You’ve developed some close relationships with regular customers. I wonder how everyone on the block has been holding up over the last few years. You see people come and go, I imagine.
OB: Lot come and go. But then, it’s like… People around here in this neighborhood recycle. That’s the only way that I can put it. They’re gone for six months to a year, they’re back. But I feel like craziness is still out there with the drugs and everything else. It’s just people seem to be more happy. There’s a lot of positive things with the COVID. People got more financial aid, they got more help, they got more food stamps, their children getting food stamps. So, people seem to be happier, spending more per se. Then you got one that is so doing more drugs, you’ve got more addicts in this avenue. I cannot go out there in the back in the morning. There will be ten, twenty needles all over. So, I’m out there with the rubber glove, mask, picking up things, cleaning every morning. But it gets tiresome after a while. Then, I have a dumpster, big dumpster. I pay every month to get the dumpster. These people will go in dumpster and take out all the trash on the floor, looking for something, but they don’t ever put it back in the dumpster. So, I wind up cleaning. So, it’s more people more addicted. Did you know that I got a fourteen year old out here--that’s the first time I’ve seen fourteen--so addicted? He will walk into the wall. He cannot walk straight. He’ll be out in the middle of the street. So, a lot of sadness. So, you’ve got some negative things and some positive things because people getting help as far as family, women, single women with a few children, a lot of children. They actually live well, it seems like, because of all the help. They know how to get it. I don’t know the inside. I’m sure they have problems too.
AH: You told me that being on this block has changed you as person and that you are proud of who you have become on this block. I wonder if you feel like you’re continuing to change as a person.
OB: Yes. Even though I’ve only got dollar. I used to have a ten hundred dollar but it seems like never enough. I remember being always greedy. Hungry for more, better things. “Oh, I want a Mercedes-Benz! Why can’t I have a BMW?” You know, you pay seventy, eighty, ninety-thousand for a car. Like buying a house, to me. But anyway, it was nothing to me back then. Now, I don’t have that. I run around in a beat up Chevy. But that’s okay because I learn how to manage it and learn how to appreciate. I see value in life. Value in who I have become. Value of what’s more important to me. So, put your stuff in more perspective of the way you look at things. Make me cry. I remember when I was young I didn’t cry that much but I’m older, it seems like I tear up more. I see beautiful things, sweet things. I see goodness in people. More than I did when I was younger, because I was so busy with myself I didn’t have time to take the time to look. Now, I feel like I feel mature and old enough to look at everything and value it.
AH: You’re thinking about retirement now. Where do you imagine yourself in five years from now?
OB: I’m actually seriously thinking about buying one of those winter homes. A little shiny bus, little tiny one that I can drive, to travel. I can take that and just go all over the United States. But I’m a little afraid too, so I was thinking maybe I can get a shotgun and put it inside so if someone tries to rob this old oriental lady… So, I say I might do it. I’m actually seriously thinking about retiring.
AH: Sissy riding off into the sunset in an RV with a shotgun on the rack. I love that. That’s a beautiful picture. I have to tell you, it’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know you. I’m so glad I got to meet you and I wish you well in the years ahead and I hope we keep in touch.
OB: Yeah. Thank you. I know that in your lifetime you’ll remember me and I know in my lifetime I’ll always remember you, Aaron. But it’s that meaningful.
AH: Okhui Benlein, AKA Sissy. We first met her on the 1800 block of Pennsylvania in West Baltimore back in 2018. It’s Out of the Blocks. More in a moment.
Employee 1: It’s the same reason why people wear a watch or a nice gold chain. If you smile and you see that gold, it’s like, you know… It’s gold in his mouth. I like that. It shows that it’s a sign of status just like a watch or that nice car or chain or something.
SM: I make people smile. I make gold teeth, silver teeth. If you’re missing a tooth we can fill it in and make you look better than what you already do.
Employee 1: I mean, gold tooth has just been in the black community for a long time, so this is where a lot of people come in the area to get what they need.
Employee 2: My specialty here is taking impressions and molds of people’s mouths.
SM: You mix up the material, take the mold, and after that, it goes in the oven. Oven gets to a thousand, and once it come out, we melt our gold down and we pour it inside the flask and then boom, you have a set of gold teeth.
Employee 1: Shine it up and there you go.
Michael Jacobs: Hi, I’m Michael Jacobs. I own a business called Urban Jewelers. We’ve been in existence for approximately I guess thirteen years, on and off.
Employee 2: You can ask anyone. You can just step out this door right now. Mr. Mike, his name rings bells.
MJ: Well, I grew up in the Sandtown community and everybody pretty much know me.
SM:He’s Uncle Mike to everybody. “Uncle Mike, Uncle Mike, Uncle Mike, Uncle Mike! I need some golds. Uncle Mike, can you fix this?”
MJ: People just started calling me Uncle Mike because I had a number of young people that I just considered as family and that’s what they started calling me, so even my customers call me Uncle Mike.
Employee 1: Actually, he’s my uncle, so… As a young kid, I was seeing him doing it so I was always interested and he would let me and my other cousins just watch him as he would work on what he was doing.
MJ: I’ve trained numerous young people. A lot of the time, it don’t work out. But they never forgot that I gave them a chance, so…
SM: He’s a fantastic person. Look, he helps everybody smile. He actually gives back to the community. Like, look what neighborhood we’re in. Like, he could be anywhere else but he decides to actually be in the hood helping people here. So, that says a lot.
AH: You have some remarkable teeth. Tell me about what you’ve got in your mouth right now.
SM: I have four silver tops with diamond cuts and I have three solid bottoms. It just makes my mouth shiny. [laughs]
AH: Tell me what it’s like when the customer comes in to pick up their gold fronts or whatever you’ve made for them and they slip them on for the first time and you show them the mirror.
Employee 1: Oh man, they always feel good. It is crazy. They always, like, their whole mood brightens up. You can tell that you made their day when they leave out. And they stay in the mirror for a while, too, because they’re so happy to see it, like, it’s hard to get them away from the mirror after you show it to them.
SM: That’s the best part of the job, to make people smile and for them to be happy. Like, your smile is everything. Like, when you open your mouth, that’s the first thing people see so it’s a big deal. So, I actually really like doing it.
SM: (2021) I sound a little bit younger. [laughs] I do. It sounds actually good to listen to it. I never actually got a chance to hear it, so now that I hear it, I was like, “Oh, so that’s what I was sounding like on TV or on the radio or something. Alright, cool. I like that, I like that.”
AH: Are you still working at Urban Jewelers?
SM: At that moment, I am not working at Urban Jewelers. But everything is still the same. Like, when I say everything, it’s still the same. They’re still making people smile. I still have a million and one people calling me, “What’s the address? What’s the address? Are you there today?” No, I am not there. I’ll even go there with you while you get your process done. “Well, I’m gonna come pick you up, alright?” Then, people are saying, “Well, I’m on the avenue and I don’t see the store.” Alright, they moved to the new building. “Well, where is the new building?” It’s literally, like, three minutes up the street. “Alright, well, I’m on my way. Can you let somebody know I’m coming?” Everything’s still the same. Everybody’s still nice. Uncle Mike is still Uncle Mike. My mom is still there. Everyone is still… Everything is the same.
AH: You had to be laid off when COVID happened, yeah?
SM: Yes. Due to the fact, like… We basically--for the health reasons--we try to make sure that everything is spaced out and, like, six feet apart and to be truthfully honest, we have the same clientele but it kind of cut down and we don’t even open on the weekends anymore. So, it’s like how we have to make an appointment to do everything. We used to take appointments and also take walk-ins. Everything basically is appointments now. So, that kind of… It’s a good thing but I hope that the pandemic will be over so that everybody can get back to normal and we can all work together.
AH: Tell me a little bit about what your day to day life has been since the pandemic, since you stopped working.
SM: It’s more so of a wake up, breakfast, probably watch TV… If I have my daughter during that week--because I get her every other week--it’s schoolwork until when school is over, then we’re watching TV. I try to take her places that’s open for children, so there’s, like, a Dave & Buster’s, Main Event, stuff like that. So, I give a chance to pick certain things she wants to do. Probably shop on Amazon, make TikToks, watch TV, dinner, bed. Then, do it all over again. Like, it’s really not much to do. I might step outside and go out sometimes to a bar or something, but it’s very rare.
AH: Feeling stir crazy? Getting bored?
SM: Very much. Yeah, it’s real boring.
AH: You mentioned working at Urban Jewelers with your mom. We heard her in the original segments. How’s she doing these days?
SM: My mother is fantastic. She also has taken up a new thing where she does teeth whitening now and she places gems on your teeth, so she does that and she also still helps make the dentures, also, and the golds. So, she added a little bit more to her everyday work while she’s there.
AH: When I met you, at first, when we were interviewing, you said, “Your smile is everything.” What makes you smile these days?
SM: Just still being able to wake up and see the next day and be COVID-free to be truthfully honest. Just to still wake up. It’s people that are, like, catching COVID, so much stuff is happening, and the world is still crazy. We still have all the chaos still going on but it’s not as much. So, to still be able to wake up and go on with my day...it makes me smile. It makes me happy, for real. Especially where I’m from and where we live at.
AH: Your smile still shines. Those gold fronts still looking good.
SM: Yes. I make sure I clean them every day.
AH: Any final thoughts you want to leave me with? Words of wisdom?
SM: Come back!
AH: I’ll come see you again in a couple years. We’ll do it again until we’re old and gray.
SM: Okay, I’m here for it!
AH: Shaniqua McCready. We first met her on the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018. That’s gonna wrap it up for this episode of Out of the Blocks, an original production of WYPR and PRX. Big thanks this episode to Okhui Benlein, ”Sissy,” and to Shaniqua McCready. Thanks also to my co-producer Wendel Patrick, who creates an original musical score for each episode of the show. Wendel also photographs the people you hear in this series and if you go to wypr.org/outoftheblocks, you can see then-and-now portraits of everyone we’re featuring on this final season of the show. Until next time, I’m Aaron Henkin. Thanks for listening. Out of the Blocks is supported by PRX and produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, Patricia and Mark Joseph Shelter Foundation Inc., the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Portfolios online at bakerartist.org, and the Maryland State Arts Council at msac.org.