Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Baltimore, MD

After awhile, the refrain becomes a bit repetitive. Another town I’ve been to before. Another couple weeks with a lot of rehearsals. Another downtown. Another set of cute parts to find. Another downtown that’s suffering from urban flight.

Interestingly enough – one thing I’ve been noticing is how the depressed downtown areas are often on the East Coast. Why that is, I’m not sure. Because we only went to tourist destinations on the West Coast? Because the East Coast is just more densely populated, and thus the suburb rules? Because the East Coast is older? Because the West is moving from rural to cosmopolitan, while the East moves from cosmopolitan to rural? I dunno. You tell me.

Fells Point: A great place to spend a lazy afternoon. Wide open streets and restaurants & bars with tables outside. Fun stores. The harbor nearby. Bikers of all flavors park their hogs along the street and take in an afternoon brew while plaid-short tourists wander through the open market.

Federal Hill: I like this area a lot. (A wee bit less, now that the Thirsty Dog Tavern (now simply Pub Dog) no longer allows dogs.) Lots of little shops. Restaurants. And the quirky home of Illusions Magic Bar and Lounge,where Spencer Horsman, the young prodigy magician son of Ken Horsman, a former Ringling Bros. Circus clown, performs his act on the weekends. And frankly, how that twenty dollar bill made it into that orange, I have NO earthly idea… But if magic isn't your style, there is still plenty of recreation to be had in looking at the old school furnishings, the masterly bartending, the pool table and couches in the back, or the museum of clippings and memorabilia that Ken has amassed of his son's nascent career.

Hampden: I’ve never been there, sadly. I had wanted to go for “Honfest,” but I had some other commitments. The website describes it as “a local tradition. The Bawlmer term of endearment, Hon, short for Honey, embodies the warmth and affection bestowed upon our neighbors and visitors alike by historic working-women of Baltimore. HonFest is an annual celebration in honor of these women. Since 1994, HonFest has grown from a tiny Baltimore's Best Hon pageant behind Café Hon, to a nationally recognized festival that covers four city blocks on Hampden's very own 36th Street.” Basically, if you put Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade together with Greenwich Village’s Gay Pride Parade and grind them both through a John Waters blender… you’d get Honfest.

American Visionary Art Museum: Wow. So cool. A museum which, at every turn, would seem to evoke the response, "I didn't know you could make art like THAT. Or use a material like THAT." Junkyard genius and backyard brilliance. Whatever credentials among the artists you find here are like so much honorary degrees - only acknowledgment of otherwise innate talent and experience-based training. It's art that simultaneously makes you think you could go into your crafts box and make something brilliant yourself, while simultaneously shaming you into thinking you could ever have an ounce of these people's creativity. And of late, they've added exhibitions that cross all sorts of boundaries, looking at the artistic experience itself from psychological, economic, cultural, anthropological, and historical perspectives. If there's one thing you do in Baltimore, make this it.

I think, by now, you’re getting the idea. Another town chock full o’ nuts. As for other towns that have to wage a campaign to 'keep XXX weird', Baltimore seemingly never actually has to even put that idea forth. The weirdness brigade seems fully and permanently entrenched.
But here’s the thing: I have never been to a town with so much personality but so little character. What is the essence of Baltimore? I couldn’t really tell you. Something about the town eludes encapsulation. For instance, Angie and I met a guy in this stationery store (I think it was Le Petit Cochon) who’s British and had been all over the world. He’d wanted to move to the US and, in making a careful examination of all the cities on the Eastern Seaboard, this fellow – a more-than-part-time sailor – picked the harbor city of Baltimore. He talked non-stop, even though he was very charming and literate, and he thought Baltimore was the bee’s knees, which is fine, but he was the last person you would ever have expected to end up in Baltimore, let alone as the result of careful forethought and preparation.

A town with one of the highest historical murder and crime rates in the nation. (More than New York and between 2 & 3 times the national average.) A town that has been steadily losing its population for years (2.2% just last year). An economy that … well … that’s bad everywhere, isn’t it? Anyway – somehow, in spite of it all – Baltimore manages to earn from its residents an undying loyalty. But even if you ask them, they can’t really tell you what it is that draws them to stay. Yes, the crime there is terrible. Yes, the city has been trying to rebuild itself, but it’s largely failed. And yet, Baltimore is, by all resident reports, a great place to live.

Obviously, there’s something I’m not getting…

And I don’t disbelieve it either. Civic pride can only take you so far. I’m only saying that I think you have to really spend some time there, getting to know the town inside and out, before you can make a judgment. More time, and with more assiduousness, than I apparently had. But after ten months on the road, if my intrepid tourist skills have begun to flag, well … can you really blame me?

One last item worth mentioning: we had a lovely 5th anniversary dinner at Sascha's. It turns out that I had been to this restaurant 2 years before, when I was on my last tour - and it was, in fact, the first time Angie had come down to visit me on the road. But I didn't remember that until we arrived at the place. They actually held the kitchen open a bit late for us, as we came there right from the show. Afterwards, we went for drinks across the street at Ixia (for which I would gladly provide a link, but it's now apparently closed - too bad, it was a very nice place). And tottering home, I could say it was the romance of the evening that was so intoxicating, but ... the dirty vodka martinis probably didn't hurt. The rain that began softly falling helped to sober us up, though, and as we arrived back at the hotel, I think it was all in all a perfect anniversary. So let that be my own contradiction. Yes, it was Baltimore. And yes, we had a perfectly good time.

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