Long time fan of CTB and SoBo resident A. Palmer, author of The Rambling Traveler, offers up her Baltimore Adoption Story. Got one of your own? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll print it.
I grew up as a DC kid by default, not necessarily by choice. My first 18 years of life were spent in Gaithersburg in Montgomery County. Being so close to the nation’s capital had me there frequently for family outings, field trips, and as I got older, the odd Taking Back Sunday show at 9:30 Club. Every Christmas, we hung our Redskins ornament proudly (on the back of the tree [that is most definitely a thing]).
On vacations out of state, when asked where we were from, we always replied DC for simplicity’s sake, which naturally led people to believe we were probably a bunch of assholes. But most notable, and important to this story, was the fact that I came to learn the “Battle of the Beltway” was and will always be about more than just sports.
I can’t recall the first time I heard a Baltimore joke or was warned to stay away; maybe they had always been with me, hardwired into my DNA the moment I came screaming into the world at Shady Grove Hospital in Rockville. All I remember is, we steered clear of Charm City. “Don’t go to Baltimore,” they said. “You’ll get shot,” they said. So I didn’t go.
A fair few happy (and sometimes very drunken) years passed before my life was set careening toward rock bottom. After graduating from WVU in 2008 and being slapped full in the face by the economic crisis, I was broke, jobless, and miserable. Luckily, my older brother had his shit much more together than me and offered up a room rentfree in his condo. I packed my bags and headed back to the DC suburbs. A temp agency was my only source of work and said work was all over the place; one day restocking grocery shelves, another sitting at the reception desk in the empty basement of a government building. I knew something had to give.
I had been considering graduate school as a very real way to get me back on a socially acceptable path (it’s the DC vanity in me talking) so I contacted a couple schools that were relatively closeby. UMBC’s program chair called me personally to discuss the course options and degree. George Mason didn’t bother to respond. The choice was clear to me. And it was a good one. Northern Virginia is even worse than DC.
Once I started the program in the fall, I was commuting from Gaithersburg to Catonsville three times a week all while balancing a fulltime, 20K a year teaching job that I took simply because it existed and offered me the only interview out of the 600,000 job applications I submitted. I very quickly tired of the mindnumbing traffic during the 40 mile commute; in fact, each time I made the drive during rush hour, I was tasked with stuffing down the growing fury within (editor’s note: I mean, what’s the deal with Maryland traffic?). That internal rage receptacle was reaching maximum capacity after about two weeks and I feared what might happen if I kept on the way I was. Serenity now, insanity later, perhaps.
But like an act of sweet, sweet providence, an old college friend from the County got in touch. She was living with her parents and looking to move out. I was on the edge of a psychotic break. A winning combination. Our rental search was rocky throughout, mostly because I had never actually been anywhere in the city short of being bused to an O’s game once, and the time I got lost in West Baltimore looking for the UMBC campus. My knowledge consisted mostly of my childhood prejudices and the hours I spent poring over the BCPD’s interactive crime maps (dear Lord, why, the car breakins). I knew even less about Baltimore County.
After viewing some rental prices in Rosedale and Dundalk and feeling very satisfied with the proximity to both the city and the university, I sent a few listings to my future roommate. She replied with a oneliner, “Dundalk is where white trash is born.” (Her words, not mine, people.)
She convinced me to meet her in Federal Hill at Mad River for dinner before class one night, adamant that the trip would change my perception. As I drove down South Charles toward the Cross Street area, I was immediately struck by the beautiful rowhouses on the treelined street. It wasn’t what I had expected at all, and I loved it. It seems funny to me now that the first Baltimore City establishment I set foot in was Mad River, possibly the worst bar in all of Federal Hill, but at that moment I had no frame of reference and liked what I saw. After we ate, we took a short walk around the neighborhood. I was sold. Sorry, Dundalk!
After an extensive and sometimes heated search, we settled on a house on Clarkson Street, close to the very end of the line in South Baltimore (which we convinced ourselves at the time was Federal Hill). I immersed myself in the neighborhood by becoming a regular at No Idea Tavern; a place where I developed a love-hate relationship with the owner, who for his part mostly hated me and loved to drop the ban hammer (this is another story for another day – stay tuned, kids). Over the subsequent years that followed, I got to know other business owners, quirky locals, and neighbors of all kinds, every one of whom exuded that signature eccentricity that makes Baltimore, Baltimore.
Nights spent sweating my ass off while dancing 2 feet from John Waters in the dingy basement of the Lithuanian Hall, or just hanging in someone’s backyard crab feast with a mallet and a Boh are experiences that are uniquely and magically Baltimore. Could I slam a bunch of picklebacks and do the worm in the middle of a DC bar floor without fear of being scorned? Does DC regularly host events showcasing everyday freakazoids on stilts or ladies with gigantic hair? And the most important question of all: would a night in the nation’s capital end up with you drunkenly stalking someone down an alley only to find yourself inside a warehouse rave (more on that later)? I had come, studied, then stayed. Now I wanted to permanently live that townie life.
While the market was down, but with the beginnings of an upswing, I snatched up a short sale in SoBo. Previously inhabited by two newly graduated frat dudes, the place was grimy and sprinkled with pubes (I mean, they were everywhere). Shortly after moving in, construction began on four highend rowhomes on a once empty lot directly to the right of my house. One Saturday, I was out front with my new weed whacker, putting on an apparently interesting and amusing display for the neighbors. I tried to pretend I couldn’t hear the pro tips they screamed to me from across the street as I hacked my way through my postage stampsized front yard. Finally satisfied with my work, one of the men from the peanut gallery drifted over my way. “They’re building them houses, but what’s gonna happen to your winders?” He asked, motioning toward the side of the house they were building onto. “My…what?” Following his gaze, and obviously unfamiliar with Baltimore-eze, I suddenly realized what he meant. “Oh. There aren’t any windows on that side.”
In 2014, I relocated to Madrid on a whim to teach English for a year. Most people I met there knew Baltimore from The Wire, and I’d like to think it lent me some street cred. I thought about the city often, and worked it into my lesson plans, showing my kids pictures and videos of home. When the riots started raging that day in late April, I watched WBAL’s live coverage online until 3 in the morning, Madrid time. I was nothing short of completely devastated. Several hours later I awoke to a Facebook news feed filled with photos and the frantic posts from my friends and neighbors as the rioters edged closer to SoBo. Sitting on my bed with my laptop on my knees, feeling utterly helpless, I burst into tears. A few days after the riots ended, a guy from Texas I had met at the hostel when I arrived in Spain wrote a Facebook status update on his views regarding the situation and prefaced it with this:
“This summer in Madrid, I met a girl from Baltimore. She loved her city and raved about it. She’s the only person I know from Baltimore, and if people are products of their environment, then I want to visit Baltimore.”
Until I read that, I never realized how hard and sincerely I repped my city to strangers. When summer rolled around and I returned to the States, I made the drive back home for the first time in a year. I remember seeing that iconic skyline from 95 and knowing I was home. This love affair has defied all the odds. My biological parent, DC, frowns upon the match but I would take the grittiness of this city over the haughty pretensions of Washington any day. You can get weird with it, and stay weird here and you’re in good company. Baltimore is a part of me now, and I mean that in both the figurative and the literal sense: I have part of the flag tattooed on my person.
“Don’t go to Baltimore,” they said. “You’ll get shot,” they said.
Maybe, but it’s worth the risk.