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May 2003 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Past, Present and Future
By Robert Abilez

If we bellied up to the bar at Riddle's Penultimate Café and struck up a conversation, it wouldn't take you long to surmise that lately I've been spending inordinate amounts of time reflecting on my thirty-one-year existence. Taking stock. Sort of. A large part of that existence has been spent in and around St. Louis, physically, if not psychologically. Here's an account of my transition from St. Louis to Baltimore, Maryland, a working-class, East Coast town that's alarmingly similar to the Gateway City, yet one that thrives on its own quirkiness.

I was actually born in Fairmont City, Illinois — the "East Side," if you will. (Aside — wasn't there a feeble attempt a few years ago to start calling St. Clair and/or Madison Counties "East County," collectively?) Growing up, I thought of St. Louis as "the big city." I remember my dad waking up at the crack of dawn to catch Bi-State downtown, which dutifully delivered him to his places of business in the Railway Exchange Building, and eventually, the Chemical Building. I daydreamed that some day, I'd grow up and get to go for swims at the downtown Y before work like he did, and be rid of the near-daily stomach knots that were par for the course at my parochial elementary school. I also snicker to myself as I recall treks across the expanse of the Poplar Street Bridge with school chums piled into Colony Park station wagons, adorned with faux-wood paneling, of course. We'd fix our awestruck gazes upon the swooping Arch, as petulant older siblings drove us to Forest Park for wintery outings at Steinberg Skating Rink. Unfailingly, this was followed by cocoa and éclairs at Herschel's (later known as Harold's) on Euclid, or comfort food at the Millbrook Café on the Parkway.

After Mizzou, and during what I'll call a few transitional years spent working at my first "real job" (sigh), and eventually grad school at SLU, I got to learn about St. Louis through the lens of, well, a breezy twenty-something who hadn't yet engaged in the existential analysis of all of life's tough questions. And what better time to do just that? Not only did this unencumbered period of my life foster the perfect state of mind for an unintentional look at both the ominous realities and the untapped potential of the region, but I came to appreciate the perspective that my Midwestern upbringing would afford me, no matter where I ended up.

While I'd like to be able to say I purposefully advanced my own destiny in making my way to Baltimore, I'm now convinced that cosmic anomalies brought Baltimore to me. Assuming that's true, why would "The Force" lead me to Baltimore, you may ask, when clearly I maintain a fondness for and a connection with St. Louis? (I have owned up to the fact that my current ritual of checking headlines on the web sites of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Belleville News-Democrat isn't exactly what Abraham Maslow had in mind for self-actualized individuals who have truly moved on.) My explanation for this is at once simplistic and platitudinous: I think most things in this life happen for reason — a job opportunity in Baltimore materialized just as I realized St. Louis was a comfy umbilical cord of sorts; I needed to finally cut it — and people generally learn something from almost everyone they meet — if they're open to that (I recently met Divine's mom here at a book signing; now there's someone with some perspective) — and every place they go. Currently, that place for me is Baltimore, publicly billed as "Charm City" (not bad), "Baltimore, the City that Reads" (sadly, city benches on which this slogan officially appeared somehow morphed into "Baltimore, the City that BLEEDS and BREEDS" to editorialize the notorious murder and teen pregnancy rates), and most recently, thanks to the efforts of the city's current mayor (who, by the way, fronts a decent Celt-rock band), "Baltimore, the Greatest City in America" (excellent). What have I learned here? Much.

Another admission — before I moved here, I could barely locate Baltimore (affectionately referred to by locals, and occasionally herein, as "Balto"; hey, I've earned the right) on the map. Indeed, most of my knowledge of the city came from TV's "Homicide, Life on the Street", a few Barry Levinson films (think Liberty Heights and Diner) and, of course, the high-camp work of John Waters, the "Pope of Trash" (think Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Pecker and Hairspray). I'm first to admit that these screenings didn't exactly paint a bucolic portrait of Baltimore. Undeterred, I packed my life into a U-Haul and an '87 Olds Delta 88 (which I still drive, thank you very much), and set off to experience Charm City for myself.

In time following the bedraggled relocation East, I came to realize that while Baltimore compares to St. Louis in predictable ways, there are odd, even tragic parallels. For example, it takes about 15 minutes, barring traffic snares, to get clear across town, and I-695 hugs the region just like I-270. Predictable. Aside from the freakish two feet of snow dumped on much of the Mid-Atlantic this past February, the weather is fairly comparable. Baltimore has the same city-county thing going that St. Louis does, and incidentally, I understand that these are the only two cities in the nation that are officially structured in this manner. Like STL, Baltimore's got a light rail system the routes of which the city hopes to expand in the future. Socio-economically speaking, the population make-up is about the same and the cost of living is comparable (although admittedly a bit more expensive here on average, but still affordable). The O's and the Ravens are Balto's answer to the Cards and the Rams, and this town has a favorite brew, National Bohemian beer, affectionately known as Natty Boh. It's all Baltimore, even though it's not produced here anymore; I think it may even have some loose A-B ties. Not really predictable, but maybe interesting to some. The crime rates are consistently high, most of downtown (with the exception of the Inner Harbor) clears out by 5:30 and there's an inexplicable inferiority complex (think St. Louis-Chicago) among some here, in part because Baltimore is sandwiched between close-by and larger neighbors D.C. and Philly. Odd (maybe sad) parallels. But what's up with Balto natives asking, during otherwise sparkling cocktail conversations, "Where'd you go to high school?" Obviously, this is not just a St. Louis thing. Tragic.

Here's a cool parallel: in both cities you get that same small-town-within-a-large-city feel, mostly because of the strong, but not quite territorial, sense of identification that goes along with living in certain parts of town. Many current Baltimoreans grew up here, left for a while, often for school or just plain wanderlust, then returned for the duration. I hear of folks from this area who, despite having experienced other cities, states, even other countries, are more given to staying put in Balto. I dig that. It gives the rest of us a comforting sense of permanence during those moments when we feel an occasional tug to set down roots, the sense that lots of people can and will call this funky place their ultimate home.

Now, I could go on and on with more similarities. But these few will suffice for our purposes today, gentle readers. Like the rich tapestry of customs, places and people that eloquently unite to make St. Louis, well, St. Louis, there is nothing typical about the lore, language and culture that comprise Balto's fabric. First, a few historical factoids worth mentioning. You may already know that it was in Baltimore that Francis Scott Key authored the "Star Spangled Banner," in which Key recounts the triumph of American forces over the British advance on Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The free library system as we know it was started here by Enoch Pratt in 1882. Edgar Allan Poe produced many of his most well-known works here, and you can wax macabre at his gravesite downtown. And speaking of macabre, in 1892, it was here that the first commercially available Ouija boards were marketed by Baltimore brothers William and Isaac Fuld.

You might also be interested to know that some long-time residents pepper their speech with "Balmerese." For example, while you and I say "Bal-TI-more," these people round out that "t" and dismiss the short "i" like yesterday's crab shells to end up with "Baldimore," and oftentimes just "Balmer." Other linguistic curiosities (at least to this Midwesterner, who has been told he has a nuanced Midwestern accent) include the confluence of a long "o" with a stretched-out "awn" sound in words like "on," and the tendency to lose a syllable or two during moments of excitement. An example of the latter might be, "Let's go downyoceanhon!" Translation: Let's go down to the ocean, hon." (Note: the mellifluous rhythm and melody of said Balmerese is featured in some lyrics from Balmer's own riot grrl, Mary Prankster.)

As for eats, the proximity of the Chesapeake Bay and the associated abundance of crustaceans provide for some great seafood. Indeed, the fair weather crab feast is a summer staple. And lately, I've taken note of a fair number of fine establishments in which to appease a jones for some comfort food. The "Big-Ass Pork Chop" at the SoBo Café in Federal Hill is not to be missed. And you can get a great open-face turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and lumpy gravy at Café Hon in Hampden, one of my favorite parts of town. The fashionista waitresses there, often brandishing teased-to-Jesus beehives and carefully-considered kicky accessories, will set you up, all the while declaring, with a wink and cheeky smile, "enjoy it, 'hon."

Row houses comprise the dominant housing stock in the city, which tends to be long and narrow, yet in many cases, amazingly spacious. Thoughtfully painted screens can be found in windows and doors of some of these homes, as can proudly displayed seasonal scenes in the picture windows of others. Open markets dot the city like recurrent oases, including one of the oldest and largest in the nation; I dig not having to buy produce at the supermarket if I don't want to. I can't justifiably describe each neighborhood within the confines of this column. All I'll say is the differences — whether architectural, ethnic, cultural, culinary — between, say, Federal Hill, Highlandtown and Roland Park are palpable. In many neighborhoods, the arts thrive, with live theatre, music, cinema, museums and festivals to suit your every mood. And the non-commercial radio phenomenon here has been something of a personal salvation.

One of the cool things about watching movies set in Baltimore, especially John Waters films, is that I'm starting to "get" all the Balto subtext that an outsider may miss. The complexity of this place makes it nearly impossible to convey in a few movies or in a story like this. I got here three years ago, and the transition was not instant. Even though it's a lot like St. Louis on the surface, Baltimore is fierce not only about its identity, but how one invests time in getting to know it. I learned that making the best of living in this city (or any other, for that matter) involves being open to its idiosyncrasies. Balto invited me to do just that while maintaining the presence of mind to appreciate where I've been, where I am, and lately, where I'm going in this life. Frances Milstead (mom of Baltimore-born Divine, remember?) wrote in the opening pages of my copy of her book, My Son Divine, "Glenn [Divine's real first name] always said, live for today." Good advice, Glenn; I like to think my St. Louis past informs my Baltimore present. And wherever I end up, this town will stay with me too.

Rob Abilez spends his days in Balmer as an attorney specializing in health care law. In his free time, he keeps busy exploring Charm City and the Mid-Atlantic region.

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