An October 2002 trip
to Baltimore by Idler
Quote: I love Baltimore, a gritty, big-shouldered, no-nonsense place that’s had its share of ups and downs. Searching for the "real" Baltimore may be quixotic, but I’m having a crack at it anyway. (Part 1 of a long-term exploration of the city.)
For me, the "highlight" of Baltimore is its unpretentious outlook. See, Baltimore is for people content to be themselves. That includes a lot of folks who might feel marginalized or "out of the loop" elsewhere. Forget being hip to the latest thing, one of the beautiful people, or on the A-list. Baltimore is not about that. Think you’re hot stuff? Got lotsa money? You somebody famous? Baltimore could care less.
There’s no place that celebrates the human carnival better than Baltimore, and no better time to witness this than at Halloween, which is joyously feted with costume parades, grotesque galas, and quirky Halloween traditions. If you’re into Halloween, then Baltimore can show you a couple of new ways to light your jack ‘o lantern.
The local tourist scene revolves around the Inner Harbor, a much-vaunted urban renewal project that is, according to its promoters, a colossal success. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you’ve "seen" Baltimore if the harbor area is all you’ve visited. Check out some of Baltimore’s distinctive neighborhoods, such as Hampden, Canton, and Fells Point. Young urban pioneers carve out niches among long-term residents in these felicitously mixed communities.
One novel way of getting around is to take the Baltimore Water Taxi. This is an easy way for a visitor staying near the Inner Harbor who does not have a car to explore areas such as Fort McHenry and Fells Point. While the water taxi isn’t perhaps the most efficient means of transportation, it’s relaxing and fun.
As for driving, well, Baltimore has its share of traffic woes, but they pale in comparison to nearby D.C.''s Steer clear of the Inner Harbor/Downtown area during major sports events at Camden Yards and the Ravens Stadium. The only time we’ve ever had a real problem parking downtown was right before a Ravens game. Bring plenty of quarters for parking meters and note that unlike many cities meter fees apply on weekends as well as weekdays.
Restaurant | "Less Is More? The Joy America Café"
We were a little dismayed to find the café was closing in an hour to prepare for a private function, as we’d hope to have a relaxing meal enjoying the famous view of the harbor from the huge half-moon-shaped plate glass window running the length of the café. Still, we liked the minimalist look of the place. The tables were set a pleasing distance apart, the furnishings simple and modern; the walls were painted rich pumpkin or aubergine, all set off by a painting here, a few flowers there.
The food is Latin, Southwestern, and Caribbean inspired, with quirky artistic touches. I decided on a couple of appetizers, a favorite ruse when I can’t commit to an entrée.
A gaggle of servers stood by the bar, looking every inch like the art students they undoubtedly were. What a great place to work, I thought, as I sipped a Latin smoothie (a blend of coconut milk, cinnamon, honey and strawberries) and listened to salsa. Very cool indeed.
I’d ordered hand-rolled green garlic and queso tamales, and was at first enchanted when a small plate containing two petite tamales was set in front of me. Unfortunately, the sauce-covered little darlings proved a positive nightmare to unwrap. After several messy minutes, a tiny tamale, a bit on the dry side, was revealed. I had painstakingly unwrapped the second tamale before it dawned on me that I’d been brought garbanzo tamales rather than garlic and queso.
The server was apologetic and whisked the plate away and set a new one before me. I soon wished I’d kept the garbanzo tamales, however, as I unwrapped the new tamales only to find the “green garlic” was a bit much even for an avowed garlic lover.
My second appetizer, pulled chicken and sweet white corn empanadas, was better, but again the portion was tiny, even for an appetizer. A great mound of watercress piled to the side took up most of the plate. Luckily, I like watercress.
The promotional blurb at the Joy Café’s website says the restaurant “wins raves for its attention to every detail of the dining experience.” In truth, attention to detail is what I found lacking. After we finished our meal, for example, we sat regarding our dirty plates for a good ten minutes before our server, deep in a conversation with the other staff members, came over to clear them. As I sat looking out at the Baltimore harbor, with the Charles Center designed by Mies van der Rohe in the distance, I couldn’t help but think of one of van der Rohe’s maxims: God is in the details.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on March 9, 2003
Joy America Café
800 Key Highway
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
+1 410 244 6500
Restaurant | "Mr. Bill Recommends: The Papermoon Diner"
The theme starts outdoors, where (apparently) a frustrated plumber with a flair for gardening and a bondage fetish was given free rein. Ferns and flowers spill from toilets and sinks, while a nude mannequin sporting chains and padlocks is artistically planted in a bathtub. However, even the unconventional exterior of the diner--painted in sunburst hues of yellow, cerise, blue, and lime green--didn’t quite prepare me for the visual explosion within.
I’ve indulged in an amateur psychoanalysis of the diner and have concluded that the decorator must be have been deeply affected by the "Mr. Bill" clips shown on "Saturday Night Live" during the 70’s. (Remember those? Each episode featured the impossibly sweet puppet encountering misfortune and mayhem, as the narrator crooned, "Oh, noooooo…! Mr. Bill!") In short, whoever decorated the Papermoon has a thorough understanding of how toys lend themselves to emotionally primal themes. Baby doll tableaux enfants vie with epic mini-battles (toy robots vs. superheroes), oddly poetic arrangements of armless mannequins, accretions of Happy Meal toys, and cast-off furniture (nailed to the ceiling) for the patron’s bedazzled attention.
All this would be so much window-dressing, however, if the food at the Papermoon weren’t as unconventionally appealing as its décor. The menu, featuring both meatloaf and mesclun, strikes a happy balance between comfort food and trendy cuisine. I ordered a grilled tuna steak sandwich with avocado, tomato, bacon, and melted havarti cheese, an interesting variation on the standard BLT. The sandwich was simply enormous, with the tuna grilled to flaky perfection. My sole complaint was that it was such an inelegant thing to manage, with tectonic slabs of avocado, tuna, and tomato shifting in contrary directions.
I had asked for sweet potato rather than regular french fries, but received huge portions of both, much to my "Are you going to eat all that?" husband and son’s approval. The latter, whose entire nutritional philosophy can be encompassed in two words, "hamburger" and "Coke," happily demolished chicken quesadillas, while my husband was in head-nodding raptures over his "Turkey Powerhouse Sandwich," featuring baked turkey breast, lettuce, tomato, sprouts, and honey mustard sauce.
Service was predictably relaxed; there’s no tiresome "Hi! I’m, Jason, your server today!" spiel here. Patrons are encouraged to get up and help themselves if they need extra napkins, ketchup, or whatever, and many of them do. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, this is definitely the place in Baltimore to go when both mind and stomach are rumbling.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 8, 2003
227 West 29th St.
Baltimore, Maryland 21211
Attraction | "Best Souvenir in Town: The Baltimore Tattoo Museum"
Why do people get tattoos? I ask myself this as I stand before a wall of "flash" (sheets of tattoo designs) in the Baltimore Tattoo Museum, an offbeat tourist atttraction in Fells Point. The designs I’m looking at encompass the lurid and the beautiful, the crude and the refined, the trite and the imaginative. So many designs appealing to so many types of people. What’s it all about?
An ancient art dating back to Paleolithic times, tattoos have been used throughout history for an astonishing range of purposes: as distinguishing marks of bravery or survival; as a means of branding or punishing slaves or prisoners; as symbols of group or tribal affiliation; as symbols of love or sentiment; as part of religious ceremonies; but, most of all and increasingly, as emblems of individuality.
As tattooing has become more mainstream, it has, perhaps lost some of its edge, but has gained a wider appreciation. It was inevitable that before long someone would open a tattoo museum. (I later find that there are, in fact, several tattoo museums in the U.S.)
The Baltimore Tattoo Museum isn’t, strictly speaking, merely a museum. A large sign near the door reads, THINK! It’s permanent! A zoning restriction prohibits tattoo parlors in Fells Point; conveniently, this is a museum that just happens to do tattooing and body piercing, thus sidestepping the zoning restriction.
About half the people in the museum are, in fact, there to get tattoos. A pair of giggling girls, one receiving her first tattoo, is in one of the glassed-in tattooing rooms, where a tattoo artist works with intense concentration. The rooms feature curtains that can be drawn if privacy is desired, but in this case the paying customer has become a temporary display, the tattooing machine producing an audible BZZZZZZ that resonates through the shop. The novice glances nervously at the needle poised above her upper arm as her friend stands supportively by. The scene reminds me of the day, some 35 years earlier, when I had my ears pierced, my friend beside me whispering, "It only hurts for a second."
In half an hour, I learn much more than I had ever expected to about tattooing. I learn, for example, that the patent for the first tattooing machine was held by Thomas Edison, and that one of the best-known tattoo artists, Sailor Jerry, was inspired by Japanese techniques. The museum houses an impressive wall of Sailor Jerry’s flash, as well as amusing and sometimes recherché tattoo artifacts. Women Cry for It—Men Die for It!—Tattoo Madness! screams one of the collection's vintage movie posters. "Mommy, Can I Get a Tattoo?" reads an ad for temporary tattoos marketed by Mattel in the 60s.
The Baltimore Tattoo Museum is free. All it will cost is a faint itching sensation on whatever area of your body you’d secretly like to have tattooed.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 11, 2003
Baltimore Tattoo Museum
1534 Eastern Ave
Baltimore, Maryland 21231
Attraction | "Literary Finds for Mutated Minds: Atomic Books"
Best Place to Kill Time
Best Subversive Literature
Best Comic Book Store
Best Place to Buy Smut Guilt-Free
Best Weird Book Store
Best Place to Frighten Your Parents
Yes, Atomic Books is all that and more. A Baltimore institution (in every sense of the word), Atomic Books careened from location to location, undergoing several identity crises and sex-change operations in the process, ultimately emerging phoenix-like from the ashes of financial ruin. While Atomic Books’ slogan is "Literary Finds for Mutated Minds," it might easily be, "Give me your bored, your degenerate, your alienated masses yearning to break free."
Let’s face it. Most chain bookstores, however hard they try, are no substitute for a well-run independent bookstore, let alone a well-run alternative bookstore. Sure, they can install Starbucks, provide cozy reading areas and flaunt displays of glossy best sellers. Best sellers? I don’t need no stinkin’ bestsellers.
Give me, instead, cutting edge ‘zines ("Murder Can Be Fun"), graphic novels, interesting erotica, and a killer selection of books on sideshow freaks. Give me post-apocalyptic rantings, trash culture ("How to Spot a Bastard by His Sign"), and avant-garde poetry. Give me videos ("Sex Rituals of the Occult"), Japanese anime, and sock monkeys. Give me what Atomic habitué John Waters has dotingly called "the reading list from hell."
Speaking of Waters, ranged on one wall is an impressive display of Christmas cards he’s sent over the years. There’s a card with what looks like Waters (but is actually Elizabeth Taylor) wrapped in bandages. There’s one featuring transvestite Divine wearing, what, oatmeal? One can only hope. My favorite is of John Buscemi impersonating John Waters (add that trademark pencil-thin moustache and, eerily, they’re look-alikes.)
So, you’re wondering, what exactly did I buy at Atomic Books? Well, on my first visit I made a beeline for the film section and bought a signed copy of Waters’ Crackpot: The Obsession. It was so warped I went back for more on my next visit, during which I spotted a book I absolutely had to have, The Pop-Up Book of Nightmares. (I have the companion volume, The Pop-Up Book of Phobias in my ever-expanding collection of pop-up books. You may scoff, but let me tell you something: Pop-up books are BIG in some circles.) A third visit adds a signed copy of James Taylor’s (curator of Baltimore’s own American Dime Museum) new book, Shocked and Amazed, as well as some irresistible finger puppets, and in a moment of parental abandon, several comic books I should probably not have given my twelve-year-old son.
A sign declares, "Warning: You are under constant surveillance," a refreshing reminder that Atomic Books has no intention of protecting your privacy. All visits are faithfully recorded by the store’s Atomic Cam. It is, as they say, the next best thing to being there.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 9, 2003
1100 West 36th St
Baltimore, Maryland 21211
+1 410 662 4444
Attraction | "Yo! Edgar! - The Baltimore Poe House and Museum"
Don’t walk there.
Parking not far from where I thought the Poe Museum to be, I set out one sunny afternoon in search of the modest brick house where Poe—along with his aunt, her young daughter (Poe’s future wife), and his brother Henry--lived from 1832 to 1835.
The first few blocks were benign enough, with tidy public housing flanking a broad street. It wasn’t until I came within a few blocks of the Poe House that things became decidedly grim. Groups of vagrants sprawled on doorsteps and milled on the street, the scent of marijuana one of the more wholesome of the odors wafting from the open doorways of derelict buildings. Grass grew between jagged gaps in the pavement and empty whisky bottles, trash, and dessicated rodents lay in the gutter.
Poe would have loved it.
I, however, was fairly rattled by the time I plunged around a corner and spotted, with infinite relief, the police cruiser on duty just outside one of Baltimore’s more sinister tourist attractions. To gain entry to the Poe House, one must be buzzed in after being cautiously regarded through a spy hole. Once inside, the chatty curator of the museum collects the $5 entrance fee and gives a brief orientation to the museum.
There isn’t a great deal on display, which is understandable given the scant record we have of Poe’s life. The tidy house with its cramped rooms has been left much as it would have been in the 1830’s, with uneven wooden flooring and simple whitewashed rough walls.
On the ground floor is a modest display of artifacts, the most poignant being a postmortem portrait of Poe’s wife, Virginia, who died of tuberculosis. Look carefully for the telltale signs of incipient decay written upon her face. There are other household items as well, redolent of genteel impoverishment. Upstairs, the largest of the house’s rooms has been given over to a video presentation featuring an actor playing Poe, declaiming in a suitably theatrical mode.
Still another small room holds Poe’s personal memorabilia: his desk, a lock of his hair, his telescope, and wooden fragments from his coffin, the latter seized by souvenir hunters when Poe was exhumed from a pauper’s grave and reburied many years after his death. It is said that the coffin fell open and splintered, revealing the corpse within. It’s all suitably macabre and of a piece with his mysterious death in 1849 at the age of 40. Speculations about precisely how he died have occupied generations of Poe scholars.
It doesn’t take long to look over the museum’s contents in hushed contemplation. Back out on the street, my eyes require a moment to readjust to the bright sunshine. An ice cream truck is parked just down the street, music blaring from its loudspeakers ("If You’re Happy and You Know It"). Threadbare and abandoned folk patiently queue for ice cream.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 9, 2003
Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum
203 Amity St
Baltimore, Maryland 21223
+1 410 396 7932
Attraction | "The Germ of Curiosity: The American Dime Museum"
The suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing, I realize the afternoon we visit the American Dime Museum, a one-of-a-kind institution that has taken root in Baltimore.
Dime museums were once as popular a form of entertainment as going to the movies is today. Evolving from "cabinets of curiosities," dime museums featured strange creatures from distant lands, amazing performers, and ancient curiosities. There were freaks, clairvoyants, ventriloquists, hypnotists, and midgets, along with natural aberrations such as two-headed geese or six-legged calves.
People flocked to these exhibits, paying a dime to enter such famous establishments as P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York. "The increasing pace of nineteenth-century technological development had created an atmosphere in which people could reasonably believe almost anything," writes Andrea Dennett in Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America..
We now scoff at 19th-century credulity, at its willingness to be duped by the Fejee Mermaid or the spirits manifested at séances. "To the egress," read a sign in Barnum’s museum, a successful gambit to move people more quickly out the door. However, I would contend that there was, in fact, something very wonderful that was lost when the last dime museum closed its doors.
Happily, Dick Horne and James Taylor think so, too. Their personal collections of dime museum paraphernalia, combined with their enthusiasm for bygone days of wonder, has made The American Dime Museum a success. Who, for example, does not yearn to see a nine-foot tall Peruvian Amazon mummy or thrill to the sight of a vampire bat? Who would not find a unicorn interesting?
Usually it is not so much the object but an exotic story woven around it that excites interest. We are informed, for example, that a wizened brown hand resting in a glass case is the hand of "Spider Lillie," a murderous prostitute who killed by releasing a poisonous spider from the large ring on her finger. Then there is the "Sewer Serpent," captured in India and known for its sinister habit of emerging from bathroom fixtures, not to mention the "Pooka," a huge and dangerous rabbit captured in remote Run-Tox.
As well as the fabulous, there’s the (some might say) crude and quaintly humorous as well. We read with delight about Le Petomane, a famous nineteenth-century "fartist" who entertained all of Paris with feats of his unique anatomy. Downstairs, next to the Devil Man and a pickled python, is the figure of woman made entirely of chewing gum. Patrons are encouraged to add to the sculpture, so, naturally, we did.
This good-natured museum manages to strike a happy balance between the patently fake and the almost believable. To believe in impossible things is perhaps a failing, but to never believe in them is unforgivably dull.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 12, 2003
American Dime Museum
1808 Maryland Ave
Baltimore, Maryland 21201
+1 410 230 0263
Attraction | "High on Life: The American Visionary Art Museum"
"[We seek] to draw attention to America''s history as a mecca for forward-looking innovators, optimists, dreamers and doers--highlighting the sense that America is at her best when she actively remembers that many of her greatest citizens were very much self-taught, self-made pioneers."
Defining visionary art is an elusive task, for all art is by nature "visionary." However, in the sense used at this splendid museum, the term means art done by outsiders, those with little or no formal training, or art done by those obsessively pursuing a singular vision, often devoting decades to creating a single work or developing one theme. Visionary Art, strangely enough, is quite difficult to describe but very easily recognized.
The museum makes a grand opening statement just outside, where a flamboyant "art car" evokes head-shaking wonder. Every inch of an old hearse is covered in accretions of glassy objects, mostly in cobalt blue. Bottles, beads, baubles, and bibelots are ranged in bristling battalions, lovingly arrayed over each automotive fin and bumper. The rear of the vehicle features a grandiose shrine featuring an accordion and Jesus.
Much of the AVAM is devoted to a single exhibit on a core theme. Past exhibits have explored themes as diverse as war and peace, love and loss, visions of the apocalypse, and angels and aliens. The current exhibition, "High on Life: Transcending Addiction," sounds straightforward enough: seeming to promise art done by recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.
Ah, but what AVAM considers an addiction covers behaviors the rest of us might consider normal. The central idea behind the exhibit is this: humans are hardwired for addictive substances and activities. Moreover, the line between what society deems socially acceptable (excessive spending) and disgraceful (compulsive hoarding) is often arbitrary indeed.
The exhibit takes several hours to digest, but personal "honorable mentions" include Charles Benefiel’s obsessive exploration of time through "stippled" renderings of dolls, Elizabeth McGrath’s nightmarish yet amusing dioramas combining elements of reliquaries and circus sideshows, works by John Lawson,"the Hieronymous Bosch of Beads," and the singular visions of institutionalized life by Chris Mars.
"High on Life" is a powerful exhibit, by turns disturbing, euphoric, sly, angry, and transcendental, with an astonishing range work in all manner of media–everything from acrylics to cannabis seeds. Each section of the exhibit develops a central theme, such as "Temptation" or "Descent." What was most striking to me was the balance of views presented: the grim realities of addiction offset by the whimsy of LSD-induced hallucinatory effects, for example, or the ragged edge of William Burroughs’ "in your face" junky aesthetic softened by ethereal visions of paradise. More than any art museum I’ve visited, AVAM manages to come the closest to capturing (but never pinning down) the butterfly of the human spirit.
American Visionary Art Museum
800 Key Highway
Baltimore, Maryland 21203
Appropriately, the annual dog costume competition takes place at The Can Company, a former manufacturing plant that has been transformed into trendy shops and hi-tech offices. This is the symbol of new Canton, complete with gourmet wine bar, health spa, investment firm, and multiple coffee shops, standing in contrast to old Canton, with its screen painting, row houses, and marble steps. It makes for an interesting blend, to say the least.
On this sunny Sunday in October, new Canton flocks to The Can Factory with their canine companions in tow. Now, I have to confess that I hadn’t even been to a dog show let alone a dog fancy dress competition, so my expectations were perhaps understandably low key. I thought I’d find a few dozen hounds sporting hobo and clown costumes, with perhaps the occasional werewolf thrown in for effect. Nothing prepared me for the numbers of entries, the unleashing of imagination, or the intensity of the competition at this innocent-sounding event.
To say that some people got carried away would be an understatement. Take, for example, the largest entry, featuring a crew of dog "sailors" pulling full-scale replica sailboat joined by—brace yourself—dogs outfitted in Maryland crab costumes. A close second was a team of "reindeer" Scotties pulling a sleigh with a Scotty Santa. There were, in fact an impressive number of multi-dog entries: matched sets of greyhounds in pale orchid chiffon (quite fetching, I assure you), Huskies and owner in matching camouflage outfits (no doubt from the nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground), and, predictably, a group of Hair Hoppers inspired by John Waters’ Hairspray.
The dogs, for the most part, were remarkably good natured during all the commotion, though some would gnaw at their costumes. The things dogs will tolerate are, simply put, amazing. Enormous dogs wore pony saddles, cowboy hats, six shooters, and boots; "Charles Lindbark" sported a miniature flight jacket, scarf, and aviation goggles; a "Breakfast at Tiffany" dog wore an elegant tiara, rhinestone necklace, and little black dress in impeccable taste. A blushing bulldog was arrayed in full bridal attire, and jowls and bowlegged stride notwithstanding made quite a lovely bride.
Some entries were one-liners; of a dog dressed as a black crayon, the owner quipped, "He always leaves his mark." A poodle sashayed down the runway in a "human skirt." Groans of appreciation greeted the better of the bad puns, but, it goes without saying, the loudest cheers were for the dog with an uncanny resemblance to the original Baltimore Hon.
The Howl-O-Ween Fancy Dress Dog Competition
The Can Factory
Later, when I read that Baltimore holds an annual Garbageman Appreciation Day, I grew even more excited. (I must pause here to applaud that politically incorrect term, garbageman, which has somehow escaped becoming “garbageperson.” I note with some chagrin that the Queen of the annual Garbageman Appreciation Day Parade is known as “Ms Garbageman Appreciation Day.” So, as you can see, the waste managers of Baltimore do move with the times.)
The world’s largest trashcan – 18 feet high and holding over 15,000 gallons – sits outside the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company (BRESCO) plant on Russell Street. The plant turns solid waste into steam, which is then converted into electricity. I’m not entirely sure how this process works, but it sounds like a worthwhile enterprise: from trash to energy.
So I’m driving south on Russell Street, past the stadium that’s home to the Baltimore Ravens, keeping an eye out for the Bresco plant. Suddenly, there it is, on the other side what is now a divided highway. I wave at it as I whiz by, for suddenly Russell Street has become - hey, wait a minute! - an expressway.
Before I know it, I’m heading out of Baltimore on 295. Silly me. Had I consulted a bigger map I’d’ve known that Russell Street becomes the Baltimore-Washington Expressway. I’ve just passed the only place I could have conveniently turned around within the city limits, and I’m deep into the suburbs before there’s an exit. Somehow – blind luck, basically - I manage to work my way back onto 95 north, and then lo and behold I see an exit for Russell Street. Going north this time.
I feel positively lightheaded making my way toward the Bresco plant. I can see the enormous smokestack with BRESCO written on it, and soon I’m in front of the plant and there’s the trashcan. However, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere in particular to park, so I pull up to the security booth near the gate to check.
Wearing what in retrospect must have been an idiotic grin on my face, I get out of my battered pickup and walk toward the booth. A middle-aged woman wearing a “what sweet hell is this?” expression on her face looks at me soberly.
“I made it!” I crow. “The world’s biggest trashcan!”
A very long couple of seconds go by before she responds. “Yeeesss…it’s here.”
“You must get visitors all the time,” I enthuse. “Is there somewhere I can park my car while I get some pictures of the trashcan?”
She is now regarding me suspiciously, as if any minute now she’ll hear an APB on her poh-leece radio about an escaped lunatic fitting my description. “Actually, you’re the first one I’ve ever had. This is only my second week on the job, see.”
I nod sympathetically, somewhat proud to be her first trashcan tourist.
Gesturing to a small space between orange traffic cones, she instructs me to park there. I do what I consider a very spiffy parallel parking job between the cones, suddenly remembering the day I got my driver’s license and how I’d dreaded the parallel parking portion of the driving test.
When I step out of the parked car, the guard beckons me over. She looks pleased. And, somehow, relieved. “It’s okay. I checked with my supervisor and he said you can go on over and take a picture of the trashcan.”
Somewhat baffled that this merited checking with her supervisor, I politely thank the guard, then walk over to the grassy area housing the trashcan.
Now, I don’t mean to sound small minded here, but I just have to say that the idea of the World’s Largest Trashcan is more satisfying than the thing itself. It’s a can. A very large one. What impressed me most, I suppose, was the large sign directly in front of it, proclaiming, “WORLD’S LARGEST TRASHCAN” in great big letters. And, even more impressive, there’s a large wooden viewing platform that supports the sign. If anyone had been with me, I could have had my picture taken standing on the platform in front of the trashcan. I briefly consider asking the guard to do the honors, but I doubt she’d leave her post. She seems to take being a guard very seriously.
I photograph the trashcan from several artistic angles. Then, looking up at the phallic looming Bresco smokestack tower, visible for miles and one of Baltimore’s more prominent landmarks, I photograph that, too, just for good measure. I stand for a couple long minutes, to mark the occasion of my visit. There really isn’t much to do after you’ve just seen the biggest trashcan in the world, I’m afraid. It’s a bit anticlimactic.
As I head back to my car, I see the security guard beckoning me again, in apparent agitation.
“You were supposed to take pictures of the trashcan,” she said, accusingly.
“Yes?” I’m keeping my polite tourist smile plastered on my face, though an alarm bell is sounding faintly in my skull.
“You took a picture of the tower. No one gave you permission to do that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I had no idea… It’s quite a prominent landmark, you see, so I never imagined there was a restriction.” More memories, this time of being upbraided by an army guard in Red Square for pointing my camera in the wrong direction, come unbidden into my head.
“And you’ve got one of those swan stickers on your truck.”
“Swan stickers?” I’m now completely at sea. What on earth is she talking about? Then I realize what she’s referring to. “Oh! Yes! You mean an Audubon Society sticker.”
“Yeah, one of them.”
“Well, yes, I belong to the Audubon Society. And, as you can see, there are also stickers for the Smithsonian Associate Program and Montgomery College, where I work. But what’s that got to do with the tower?”
I’m playing innocent, but I know what’s she’s thinking: I’m an environmental activist, out to make trouble at the municipal waste recycling plant. It doesn’t really make much sense, but perhaps she’s been told to keep an eye out for Green Peace types. Just in case. You know the sort: they drive battered vehicles, bumper stickers basically holding the rusted hulks together.
Oh dear. I see, in a flash, what the guard must see. “I’m at that awkward stage between birth and death,” proclaims one of the stickers on my pick-up''s bumper.
Rather than answer my question, she narrows her eyes and announces, “Wait just a minute,” pointedly turning her back to me as she makes a phone call. Long minutes go by. I feel like a child again, standing outside the principal’s office. Honest, Miss Green, I didn’t mean to trip Johnny. It just happened.
I snap back from my guilt-ridden reverie as she hangs up the phone and swivels to face me.
“Now, normally what we do in these circumstances is to confiscate the film,” she says. Then, observing my somewhat slack-jawed incredulity, there’s a pause before she goes on magisterially, “But seeing as how you’re from Maryland and all,” she gestures at my license plate, “we’ll just let it slide.”
“Thh-thh-thank you,” I stammer.
She’s got me squirming now, and uses the occasion to let me know how badly I’ve betrayed her trust. She continues, in rising tones, ex cathedra: “No sir, it shouldn’t oughta ever have happened, that’s all.” She shakes her head solemnly, letting the lesson sink in. “It. Shouldn’t. Ever. Have. Happened.”
“I’m truly sorry,” I repeat, edging toward my truck. “I won’t even download that picture. This camera’s digital, see?” This seems to confuse her, and I mentally kick myself. Is she going to check with the supervisor about that, too? Before she has time to pick up the phone, I’m in my truck. Giving her a cheery wave, I pull away.
“Good GRIEF!” I exclaim to no one but my trusty vehicle. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
I’m still feeling a bit rattled driving back toward downtown Baltimore, when I see one of my favorite Baltimore landmarks ahead, the Bromo Seltzer Tower. The mere wackiness of this Italian-style campanello built in 1911 to advertise a popular bromide exerts a peculiar calming effect upon me.
It is with some satisfaction that I pull into a parking spot on South Paca Street, get out, and start photographing the tower from every conceivable angle. People in business suits coming out of the Convention Center are looking at me a bit oddly, but they can go to blazes.
No one’s going to stop me this time.
The restoration of once-neglected Patterson Park is one of the most successful of Baltimore’s urban renewal projects. Now dubbed "Baltimore’s Best Backyard," the park hums with recreational sports leagues, community gardens, karate classes, art seminars, winter skating, summer swimming, and various festivals, attracting assorted bird watchers, dog walkers, picnic goers, joggers, bicyclists, strollers, and, in sum, all those who enjoy life’s gentler pleasures.
Presiding serenely over the park is a quirky edifice that has come to symbolize this renewed spirit of civic pride, the Patterson Park Pagoda. Originally built as an observation tower in the 1890s, the quaint Victorian structure had fallen into decay and was closed in the 1950s, but, after a lengthy renovation, was reopened last year to great fanfare (literally), with 100 saxophonists serenading visitors at the opening ceremony.
Riding the wave of Pagoda enthusiasm, the Friends of Patterson Park and the Creative Alliance planned a 2002 Halloween celebration of a correspondingly ambitious nature. Part whimsical parade, part performance art, the Great Halloween Lantern Parade was quintessentially Baltimorean.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect the Saturday evening before Halloween, as I made my way toward the corner of Patterson and Lombard Streets, the staging area for the parade. While I’d come to watch, it was obvious that the line between onlooker and participant had been erased. Marshaled near a statue at the far end of the park, a small army of volunteers was busy organizing the assembling masses. Weeks, if not months, of preparation had clearly gone into this event. Hundreds of colorful hand-made lanterns made of paper and balsa wood had been prepared, along with banners, balloons, and scores of noise makers such as kazoos and whistles. Volunteers had also constructed large effigies made of tissue paper and wood: several human figures, a miniature replica in red tissue paper of the Pagoda, assorted whimsical objects, and, most impressively, an enormous creature that I gaped at for a moment before realizing, with delight, was a giant squid.
A giant squid? Fascinated, I inched forward to watch several people put the finishing touches on the creation, installing battery-operated lights to illuminate it from within. "I just watched a Discovery Channel special on squid," I blurted to a young man rigging lights behind the platter-like eyes of the squid. Beaming, he turned around, "I saw that, too!" Soon we were deep in an enthusiastic discussion of the mysteries of deep sea life, interrupted only when a woman came up and asked if I’d mind carrying a flag during the parade.
Before long, several hundred people had been organized into a rough marching order, each person carrying a lantern or perhaps some sort of musical instrument or noise-maker, while others carried banners or helped hoist one of the effigies. It took a mass effort to launch the squid, while another group gently lifted the miniature pagoda borne on a regal palanquin. I was surprised to find there weren’t many traditional Halloween costumes--few monsters, ghouls, witches, or vampires. Instead, in keeping with the more innocent themes of lanterns and light, people had come dressed in flamboyant carnival-style costumes, some with immense headpieces, silvery breastplates, or gossamer wings. It was if a costume designer for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had gotten a little confused and scheduled a dress rehearsal outdoors in October.
Into this swirl of organized chaos, a sense of happy anticipation built and bubbled over, inciting impromptu saxophone solos and giddy dancing. Someone standing near the squid suddenly declaimed, "Long live the squid!" A few more people took up the cry. "Long live the squid!" A phalanx of kazoo players began tootling in cadence, "Long live the squid!" A bass drum pounded the rhythm, "Long live the squid!" as the parade, like a vast caterpillar, began to crawl forward, lanterns bobbing, flags waving, feet shuffling. "Long live the squid!"
Patterson Park is vast, with winding asphalt paths snaking past tennis courts and pavilions, through groves of mature trees and up gentle hills. The lantern parade followed the most direct (but, in truth, rather circuitous) route through the park toward the Pagoda, which sits on the highest aspect of the park, with commanding views over east Baltimore and the dock areas. By this time, it was completely dark, save for the gentle glow of the lanterns, and so as the parade marched into the heart of the park it seemed to the more imaginative that perhaps the path was meandering through an enchanted forest.
By chance I found myself marching alongside a shepherdess, in flounced skirt and bonnet, her crooked staff decked in colorful ribbons and likewise the neck of her very fat and preternaturally calm sheep. "Nice sheep," I commented by way of a conversation opener. "Oh, thank you," replied the shepherdess, "She seems to be having a good time tonight." (And, indeed, I’d never seen a sheep that was as content looking or, for that matter, as well behaved.) A young man with beautifully braided hair, looking like a cross between Adonis and Kunta Kinte, joined us in our admiration of the sheep, which seemed to bask in the glow of our praise. "Long live the sheep!" we cheered, in a minor counterpoint to the larger cry supporting the squid.
After some twenty minutes, the parade approached its final rallying point, the Pagoda, perched beacon-like on the summit of a hill. Just beside the Pagoda, a second structure had been erected, a tall, narrow scaffold covered with white sheeting, below which a small stage had been constructed. As the parade spilled up the hill, musicians on the stage began playing an indescribable theme--driving and insistent, yet loose and ethereal--encompassing the marchers in an ocean of sound. At the same time, the scaffolding screen came alive with a strange pantomime cast in shadow puppetry, an ambitious son et lumiere spectacle.
There was a vague narrative thread to the light show, which involved a boy living in a house populated with sinister figures. This desolate urban vision alternated with images of sea life--octopi, fish, and jellyfish. As the music rose and wailed, the light images grew more random and frenetic, morphing into images of the sun, moon and stars; now the boy was on board a hot-air balloon, rising in the heavens. This theme of ascent was echoed by white "balloon" lanterns that rose along guy wires rigged to the stage and by fluttering white bird-like objects that appeared spot-lit in nearby trees.
Then, as the maelstrom of light, images, and sound climaxed, a blizzard of confetti suddenly burst over the crowd, greeted by ecstatic cheers and whistles. Just as suddenly, all the lights were extinguished and the music stopped. Only the cheering went on for some minutes, until the audience was completely spent.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The following morning, I returned to the pagoda in the clear light of a peaceful Sunday morning. The air was crisp with that delightful tang of late October, and the sunlight gilded the late autumn foliage of the trees. I can’t say exactly why I’d come back here, but I think it might have been to assure myself that what happened the previous night had been real.
I was surprised--and yet, at the same time not surprised--to find a small cleanup crew hard at work, their task nearly completed. Little remained of the confetti snowstorm and the scaffolding had already been disassembled. The previous night the Pagoda had been thronged and I’d been frustrated in my attempt to make my way to the top to look out over the city. The following morning, however, only a small group of people was inside, talking animatedly about the previous evening’s festivities. I recognized two of them: the shepherdess, minus her sheep, and the black Adonis, with his trademark dreadlocks. We greeted each other like old friends. After a time, I broke off from the group and climbed, alone, up the circular stairs to the top of the Pagoda.
Ah, Baltimore. How beautiful you can be.
The days of the sideshow freak have vanished. Modern sensibilities rightly find the idea of putting human deformity on display distasteful. However, there’s still a market for outrageous displays of virtuoso insanity, as the success of acts such as The Jim Rose Circus and Penn and Teller attest. Many of these hip performers owe a considerable debt to the tradition of sideshow performers, however--the fire-eaters, knife-throwers, escape artists, contortionists, snake charmers, mesmerists, and magicians who perfected the art of showmanship.
"How would you like to go to a sideshow?" I asked my twelve-year-old son as we drive to Baltimore one weekend. He looked up from his Gameboy, "A what?"
"A sideshow," I repeated. "You know, like circus performers."
He heaved a great sigh of long-suffering martyrdom. "Alll riigght. If there’s nothing else that’s better to do. But I want to go to the Science Museum first, like you promised."
It was nearly sunset when, after a long day at the Inner Harbor, we drove to the campus of the Maryland Institute College of Art. I’d seen flyers for "The World-Famous Insanitarium!" earlier in the month at the American Dime Museum, which was co-sponsoring the event with the college. The Insanitarium was to run for an entire week, with shows held from the late afternoon until midnight, roughly every other hour.
We had no difficulty finding the large tent that had been set up on campus to house the Insantitarium. It was, miraculously, the sideshow tent of my childhood memories, complete with enormous banners depicting the wonders within. The sideshow spiel was, alas, a taped recording, but even so it featured all the hallmark patter of old.
In a reversal of sideshow tradition, the friendly carny-selling tickets ($2) out front seemed reluctant to take my money. "Kids are free," he declared, waving us onward into the tent. "But he’s twelve," I protested. "Never mind that; kids are free." And so, unexpectedly, I found the only place in town not trying to buck off me was, of all places, a sideshow.
The show hadn’t yet started, so we spent time looking over the exhibits on loan from the American Dime Museum, most of which we’d seen on our visit there earlier in the month: an enormous mummy, a collection of two-headed animals, the Devil Man, and other now-familiar wonders were ranged along the side of the tent. Facing the entrance was a particularly fine specimen: a buck with a machine-gun nozzle grafted onto his nose. Yes, it was a hunter’s worst nightmare: a deer that could shoot back.
The crowd was sparse on a Sunday evening, but soon a handful of local kids and art students from the college filtered into the tent. Several people emerged from the back of the tent; I recognized James Taylor, one of the curators of the Dime Museum, and guessed that the older man he was deep in conversation with was King Bobby Reynolds, "The Greatest Showman in the World." However, it wasn’t Reynolds or Taylor that announced the show, but a genial fellow who promised to show us secrets of card swindlers. Standing not on stage, but gathering the audience around him in a tight circle, he performed trick after trick: three card monte, for instance, and other sleight-of-hand passes that went by too quickly for me to fully grasp. While I am always somewhat stupefied by card tricks, this guy made me feel particularly dull-witted.
The next performer was Matt Hely, an astonishing fellow who, as near as I could tell, had mastered the full gamut of sideshow acts. Now, the thing that always surprises me, but shouldn’t, is how normal sideshow artists appear. Hely, for example, looked like he could be a minister, or perhaps a junior high school science teacher. He had the open, guileless look of a person with nothing up his sleeve. That look, I suppose, is either a natural-born talent or takes years to perfect; either way, it is an undeniable asset for a sideshow performer.
He opened with a demonstration of fire eating. After soaking several torches in lighter fluid and igniting them with an impressive POOF!, Hely placed them in his mouth, passing them back and forth over his tongue, all the while keeping a pleasant, "How about this, boys and girls?" expression on his face. His demonstration was casual, almost off-the-cuff, and as he put the fiery ends out with a flourish (and audible sizzle) on his tongue, he barely acknowledged the gasps from the audience.
Then, in rapid succession, he ran through an astonishing repertoire. He lay shirtless on a bed of nails, for example, and invited an attractive young lady from the audience to come up and stand on his chest. Next, a scruffy-looking student wearing long johns and a skirt (this was a guy, mind you), enthusiastically volunteered to lace him into a straight jacket and secure him with padlocks and chains. Sheepishly, I raised my hand when Hely asked for a volunteer to time him while he escaped. To make the escape a little more interesting, as he put it, he stood on shards of broken glass as he heaved, shrugged, and wriggled his way free. "A minute and forty-five seconds!" I called as the straight jacket fell to the floor.
Next came an eye-watering series of apparent body mutilations, which seemed to arouse the particular admiration of the members of the audience with multi-body piercings. However, instead of anything as mundane as rings or studs, Hely proceeded to sew a button onto his bare forearm. Then he inserted a ten-inch nail up his nose, but not before beaming at my son avuncularly and proclaiming, "Kids, don’t try this at home!"
The finale was an electrical feast. Running an electrical current through his body, Hely lit up a long fluorescent light tube he held in his hand. Then, obviously feeling that the audience had not squirmed sufficiently, he volunteered, in much the same tone of voice as someone might offer to get you a beer from the fridge, to eat a light bulb. He held the bulb aloft, regarding it with apparent relish. Crunch, crunch, crunch . . .
"Mom! Is that real?" whispered my son, aghast. "Well, it sure looks like it is," I answered. "But even if it isn’t, I think it’s great."
The third and final performer was Johnny Fox, billed the "World’s Greatest Sword Swallower." Fox was a more somber character. Rather than humoring the audience, he seemed to relish baiting them a bit. "Why are you laughing?" he asked when several members of the audience tittered nervously as he brandished an enormous sword. "I’ve got your money!" He then proceeded to give the audience its money's worth, swallowing that sword, an even longer sword, and several swords simultaneously. By the end of his act, I’d little doubt that Fox was indeed possessed of a rare gift.
"So, what did you think of the sideshow?" I asked my son as we left the tent.
"That was AWESOME!" replied my formerly blasé offspring. "Can we come back and see it again?"