THE LAST OF FELL STREET FOOTNOTES

Baltimore

Foggy Weather

POB

Pride of Baltimore Memorial


saying good-bye to Baltimore

I have made my way across water to this garden where a tall mast memorializes The Pride of Baltimore, an ambassador ship lost at sea in 1986. The city stands ghostlike across the harbor, Federal Hill behind me, the day a pointillism of gray light brightened by the outrageous red of burning-bushes, the poplars and birches and maples thinned now. Everything has quieted. Birds scratch and chatter just around my bench. A car bumps along the road. It’s all noise but not noise, the way a city inures or urges one into an insulating capsule even while present and a part of it with breath and commerce, gravel-shift underfoot on shared paths and sidewalks and roads, the murmurings of couples, a foghorn, a swinging door.

Here’s what I want to record, though: how I find my hand reaching out to shake another’s with whom I’ve had a passing conversation, like the waterman who taxied me over, my Baltimore Charon giving me back to my other life, even as we die in a way to this one; how I want to touch the shoulder of a friend I’ve met here, only an acquaintance, to be honest–to keep her, to pull her along to the realization of that potential friendship; the near-tears brought by a simple gift—or a big one like the art my photography tutor gave us—that are an expression of connection. I like to think it means something when lives converge, even briefly. I know some enhancement, some broadening of vision occurs. And the new and deepened and enduring friendships: these will follow wherever we go. These friends have given me in many ways the spirit of this town—geography and culture and food and character and shared presence.

The city wears a veil of fog today. Majestic and stocky and tough and kind. Not so secretive. Busy. Available. City of contradictions. My thanks, I say aloud to it like a prayer, for taking care of me, for inviting me in many ways to be a part of it, a happy borrower as I’ve wandered these old shores.

WHAT’S IN A NAME: PENNY BLACK AT FELL’S POINT

Penny Blk photoWHAT’S IN A NAME: PENNY BLACK AT FELL’S POINT

No one would have named a pub Penny Black in 1840, when it was first built to offer lodging, food, and drink to sailors and dock workers in Baltimore’s Fells Point. Memories of the British invasion during the War of 1812 embittered the residents of the time toward anything smacking of the British, even though Thames Street, Fleet Street, Bond Street, Pratt, and so on attest to the area’s English heritage. Subtle resistance exists even now, though. Baltimoreans do not say “Tims” Street; they insist on pronouncing the TH and say the word with a long A.

Penny Black was the first adhesive stamp to be issued, created in 1840 in England. Charles Doering, a stamp collector, has owned the pub with his wife, Melissa, since 1976. In addition, their daughter and son, Eliza and John Doering, have a band called Eliza Doering and the Penny Black. After 200 years, the name evokes Old World charm, as does the interior of the tavern at 1800 Thames Street.

The building has hosted travelers and the just plain thirsty under several identities over the years. Norwegian seamen slept in it as The Holmes Hotel. Later, it became Zeppi’s 5-Point Tavern. In 1976 it became John Steven Ltd. (named for a Teddy Bear) under the Doering family’s ownership and enjoyed such a strong reputation that when its doors closed because of a lessee’s poor management, many in the neighborhood began to clamor for its reopening. “John Steven is a Fell’s Point icon,” they complained. The Doerings decided to reopen it, and, watching, waiting, eager, and I suppose nosey, John and I stopped by often while they were refurbishing. At last, ready for business, they gave it a new name for its new start. Once again, the corner of Thames and South Ann Street is lively, popular, and serving delicious fare that goes way beyond most bar food.

We feel good just walking in the door. The atmosphere, polished and cozy in the old style, upbeat and friendly, pulls us in, as do the stories Charles and Melissa Doering tell about the history of the place. The mahogany bar, they said, came from a German ocean liner decommissioned in Fell’s Point and was installed in 1910. The man behind the bar, Jeff Bejma, is a magician with drinks and a great storyteller in his own right. He possesses a deep knowledge of spirits: their origins and properties and just how they might be manipulated for a patron’s pleasurable drinking experience. I love a person with a passion for his or her craft. Sometimes his rises to the standard of art.

Penny Black will continue to grow. A beautiful dining room with a fireplace gave us comfort and the feel of a special occasion one stormy night when our family gathered there and shifted in from the patio. The breeze and aroma of rain through the window, the candles on dark wooden tables, great food for all tastes, and servers and proprietors who treated us like close friends—it was perfect. Upstairs, on the second floor, the Doerings are preparing a music lounge. The family occupies parts of the second and third floors, where there are ten rooms and from which, I imagine, one can see the harbor as well as all the activity along Thames Street.

We’ll be sad to say good-bye to Charles, Melissa, Eliza, John, and bar master Jeff, as well as to Chef Amos Estes, who continues to develop a menu featuring thoughtfully prepared offerings. Imagine an appetizer plate of tasty escargots, scallops in ratatouille, velvet-on-the-tongue gnocchi, the best burger anywhere, mussels that will make you sing, and more. Melissa’s poppyseed cake with Chef’s caramel sauce is big enough to share, but might cause a feud: best to have my own piece.

Penny Black has been a good place to drop in for a light—or sometimes not so light—supper. Everyone should know their name.

Ground, October

Ground, October

Summer is dessert, temporary as whipped cream,
while winter’s permanence
breathes out and in the core of us,
laying down fat and the protein
of sustenance. Look how

the deck chairs lounge at angles,
like lazy guests, ready to go
when the signs turn.
We bring them out for light chitchat,
pliant to fold and put away.
Adirondacks grace the lawn
like ladies in gauze
and white portrait hats.

The chairs seem grounded, dug-in,
but with the first breath of hearth-smoke
one October afternoon,
we nestle them in the shed.
And anyway the ladies after a month
have gone back to the city
and tightened their days,
stitching their lives to order and plan,
stitching their speech to matter.
Summer offers recess.

In winter we live up to our chins
in all that is expected or hoped,
our shoes in line on a shelf,
dinner at six, chairs
upholstered in geometrics
or stylized flowers remembered
but held in brocaded place.

Here we build countries
and laws and philosophies,
and poems about impermanence,
the garden’s death and the solid
grounding of winter days
holding deep surprise
and what we’ve always known.

Hands

A glass holds one rose on the kitchen shelf.
It begins to grow soft and yet I keep it.
A girl carrying two gave it on impulse
to me, an oldish woman on a bench
with only an ice cream in my hand.

She knew, I’m guessing,
that one rose was enough for her,
one hand in her lover’s hand,
and that perhaps
I could use a single flower
kissed by young blood,
young dreams of how life will be.

I buried my face in its scent
and took the hand of my husband,
procurer of deep chocolate in a waffle cone.

From the Wharf I Watch a Cormorant

CormorantCormorant

Some call them snake birds
the way they swim with their heads up,
a long twisty neck just visible beneath.

But when they become birds again
drying outstretched wings
I call them something else—
dark angels maybe.

Yesterday when one stood like that
on a piling barely submerged
it seemed to stand on water,
like Jesus, and with those
angel wings fluttering like fingers.

I stand like that, I thought,
to dry my underarms,
flapping and cooling myself
as Jesus must have done, too,
in that hot middle-eastern land.

The Christ in me, the One
in a cormorant: we greet each other,
one tick, all of us, from a reptile

Blue Kayak on a Silver Truck

Kayak #3Fells Point HomesFells Point with KayakI finally met a friend of mine—whose truck I’ve been photographing for a year. A blue kayak sits bound to the roof of his silver Tahoe. Sometimes I find it in front of a blue door, sometimes across the cobblestone street in front of the red door, usually on Fell Street, occasionally on South Ann or even Wolfe, depending upon traffic so near Thames where tourists and tavern-hoppers cruise for a parking spot. But he’s clearly a resident, and I’ve bet on the blue door, deeper blue than the hopeful sky –blue kayak—deeper, more anchored for the spirit of a man who still keeps a wild-river rapid in a safe place in his mind.

I have snapped it in snow, in the steely sun of winter, in the season that at last brought out geraniums potted with potato vine spilling over rowhouse railings, although his house—I’ve thought it was his house—has no railing, only two steps to raise its main room above the level of land and harbor—just an honest door, a step up to enter, against an old harbor home rising three floors. Honest like the truck with tis kayak on its sleeve, like love and hope and yearning and keeping.

His name is Van, a vagabond’s name, in a way, I thought, smiling when he told me. Children ready for a birthday party were spilling out of the silver truck; they had crazy hats on their heads, some having become pirates, some firemen, some outright princesses. He was corralling them, a little flustered, and I parted the sea of them and stuck out my hand and told him I’d known him for a year, though he didn’t know me, and that my affection for his truck and his kayak (transferred of course to the ghost-owner of these) had led to a series of photographs at every season. He seemed not to mind, seemed shifted a little, there in the midst of his duties with the small children, and we exchanged first names, and I crossed the street in front of his truck and blue kayak and wandered home on down Fell Street toward the sun and wind of the harbor’s rim.

Elemental

a swimming hole, a fishing pole...ahhh.

a swimming hole,
a fishing pole…ahhh.

ELEMENTAL

 Near Flint Hill, Virginia, which is to say also near Little Washington and Sperryville, in Rappahannock County

 Indigo mountains scallop the horizon, green meadows undulating here to there, mountain creeks ripple and wind among stones with a music nearly as loud as the fevered crickets, the tree frogs, all the crazy, drunk insects. Tiger Swallowtails with their great flappy wings are in love with the purple flounces of butterfly bushes—as we all must be.

Maria Montessori said that a person will never feel so at home as when in her native place. Northwestern Virginia is not my birthplace or my old homeplace, but its thick green, its vine-laden August woods of poplar, beech, and maple, sumac and walnut, its Queen Ann’s lace and bachelor’s buttons, hawkweed, and black-eyed Susans, its swat of gnats and hover of morning dew-rise–all welcomed me into its element this past weekend, and I recognized in my bones a familiarity and I slept like a baby born in these arms.

In addition to Middle-Tennessee-like terrain, those blue mountains etching the distance reminded me of my old love of trails and the rich gifts of panoramas they offer, the thrill of being witness to something grand and gifted. I felt away on vacation as well as very much at home, and that is a very particular satisfaction. Four fanciful yellow metal yard chairs circled a fire pit. I could almost hear the children playing tag and chasing lightning bugs around them while their parents talked and stared at flames and let their weekday bustle dissolve into the night. Blessings on these adult children of our hosts for letting us be in this place!

We walked down the road and across a pasture through a curious herd of Angus cows and their young, on over thin soil and rock-strewn paths to the swimming hole. The large fish-stocked pond teased with warmth the first two inches, then startled with cold spots beneath. Perfect. Sunlight on our faces. Frogs calling. Floating on a summer Saturday afternoon. The creek that feeds it rippled nearby, gurgling through child-built dams and falls.

How hungry I must have been for this element after almost a year of bricks, stones, and concrete. I am enjoying the city, my bold negotiation of its driving culture and its one-ways and arteries, its alleys and highways. I like the city’s neighborhoods, its people and their particular ways of being and seeing, its hardness, its heart and heartiness, its art culture. Few negatives come to mind about our year here on this historic harbor and our own zone of eighteenth century homes and old warehouses repurposed, its cobblestones and stories of town founders and their industries around ships and fishing and trade. I sense a different energy here—not New York, not Nashville, not San Francisco—but uniquely a Baltimore vibe. It is not my element, but it’s an element that infuses me with a new attentiveness, a stimulus to explore places and people in my sphere of walks and shopping and visiting historic sites, galleries, markets, museums, festivals, and harbor activities. I’ve gained something new under the skin I was born in. I’ll take that home in November, where I’ll slide back into the Middle-Tennessee soul of me.

 

 

Baltimore and Home

HomeBaltimore and Home

It’s the clang and flap of halyards

and flip of lines in the morning’s stir

and their present silence at night

on dark water where the lighted shore

shimmies on silk waves

I’ll miss

when I return inland.

Now I bring to mind

the green shaft of slanted lawn,

sun tickling still damp trees

towering like these masts, rustling

above firm ground.

 

It’s the cheer and clutter of these colored streets

spilling masses of beer-soaked

voices and the stories I overhear bits of

corner to corner I’ll miss:

young men working on sidewalks in spattered aprons

and cracking colored glass to make art

and shopkeepers, tavern workers, and loiterers

and young girls with skimpy tops

talking about boys and guys talking

about Orioles and Ravens, their tee shirts

speaking the news of sports or beer,

politics or anatomy, eyes darting.

 

I’ll miss the age: cobblestones and rowhouses

with their improbable vertical arrangement

of space, with their flowerboxes spilling

petunias and potato vines and their doors

bright and alleyways intriguing—our dog

peeks down every narrow gated space between them,

where sometimes a cat crouches, sometimes

the back garden is visible or maybe

just imaginable and enticing to us both—

 

and all the shouting history along wharves

where brackish water joins the salt,

then all the world. The tugs, the giant ships

gray like enormous specters,

coming and going in the night.

Yet side by side the missing,

I find ahead

 

the comfort of quiet that waits

where deer graze on the yard

and ground softens underfoot,

where soil spins the miracle

of flowers and herbs

and a piliated comes to feed.

The dog will be unleashed to chase

the wind and all its scents.

 

There’s where we will kneel and plant

for the tens of years of sun allotted:

those loves of children and friends

and our own stars guiding

our private translocations.

 

From each I will open windows

to sight across the distances,

and, as now, reach from here to there,

and gather from there to where I bide.

 

 

 

ARTSCAPE AND THOUGHTS ON IMAGINATION, DRINK, AND TRASH

Lobo'sYoung drumsArt TrashWe headed out to the Charles Theater for a Sunday afternoon movie. We had forgotten that the ambitious Artscape Festival had been going on all weekend, and cursed mildly when we hit a traffic jam and realized that a large section of road had been blocked off for the event, reportedly attended by 350,000 people over three days. People swarmed everywhere, and not a parking space was available on the street. It pained us to pay $10.00 to the guy in khaki shorts, beer can in hand, and wondered later if we’d paid the right person for a spot in a sort-of lot between two buildings. A sign clearly stated, “Pay at Pay Station, not to anyone else,” but we didn’t notice it until too late.

In the restroom, after the movie, I washed my hands next to a young woman wearing a long red tutu with sequins and rhinestones all over it. Ah, the festival, I thought. We blinked our way into the street behind her, and she joined a group of other sparkly girls and disappeared. The festival was winding down, galleries now closed, but music still drifted up the street, people gathered around tents to watch painters of Baltimore scenes, colorful abstractions, faces, and tee shirts; around food vendors selling every represented nation’s variety of hotdog—burritos, falafals, spanakopita, chicken-on-a-stick…; around games of some sort; interactive musical displays; cars painted and collaged with pompoms, pictures, musical instruments, and images. Making art on cars seems to be a Baltimore thing. Children beat impressive rhythm on a drum kit made of cans and wheels and such, and a man sang to their background music played by a band in a nearby tent, and then another sang; anyone could try.

And drinking. Lots of beer flowed. Pink drinks in plastic cups and clear unidentifiable drinks. Drinking: it is to my, albeit limited, view more a part of Baltimore culture than any place I’ve ever been. It comes across as a featured source of pride. Maybe it’s strongly in the youth (and young adult) culture countrywide, and I’m just not very aware of it. Maybe if I hung out in The Gulch or Twelfth South in hometown Nashville, or a couple of other trendy places there, I would feel the same vibe. Nevertheless, in Baltimore, drinking seems to be a way of entertaining (and sustaining) oneself, no matter the age.

At Fells Point, the harbor-front neighborhood where we happen to live, there are more bars per capita and per square mile than anywhere in the U.S. Therefore, weekends fill up with partygoers trying out all the pubs. Here at the old port and shipyards, rough and tumble has been the way for over two hundred years, and it must feel like “anything goes” with so much musical cacophony, so many eateries and pubs, buck-a-shuck oysters on the sidewalk, old Dennis with his hand out for a dollar or a sandwich and his payment of cheer. Trash and bottles land in the bay for the water-sweeper boat to gargle up in the morning and I think, maybe these folks recycle at home when they’re sober. But a place like this is a venue for being lawless, somehow, as though the whole neighborhood is a big hotel or a big concert and part of the price of being here, of dinner and drinks, is that somebody’s job is to clean up after you. Baltimore City does a darn good job of it, too. Every morning City sanitation workers sweep and collect trash before the day reaches full swing. Every morning the water-sweeper boat makes its rounds. Big rubber barriers catch the trash from up-river before it can reach the harbor proper.

I like even better the method the Artscape Festival employed. Not only did they provide an artwork-in-progress for the collection of plastic and tin drink containers—a long snake of a trough that glittered in the sun with the multiple colors of bottles and cans—but also young uniformed workers with brooms and tall-handled dustpans were sweeping everywhere. I firmly believe that when cleaning is ongoing and visible, people tend to clean up as they go, that is, throw the trash in a bin, add to the trash art, avoid being the one who throws down debris on a clean street.

Meanwhile, I applaud the fact that crowds arrive in our own neighborhood, Baltimore crowds and the ones who come as tourists to see this historic port and enjoy its history as well as its libations and port cuisine. Their presence supports the preservation of the area’s historic buildings and streets even as it threatens them, and their thirst and hunger sustain old atmospheric establishments like Lobo’s, a favorite pub of ours on, of course, Wolffe Street, Rip-Tide, The Thames Street Oyster House (arguably the best food at the Point), Duda’s, One-Eyed Mike’s, The Point, The Red Star, The Cat’s Eye Pub, The Wharf Rat, Hail Mary’s, and The Horse You Came In On, just to name a few.

Efforts to return the Chesapeake to cleanliness are underway and focused. In twenty-five years, they say, it will be accomplished. On shore, attitudes must align with those of the ecologists and concerned citizens behind this effort. As always, it’s a matter of education. In addition, policing and punishing—perhaps it’s almost as important to future generations as policing behavior in the heart of a city that can produce a grand festival devoted to the highest human achievements: Artscape, Baltimore.

Our car was in place and intact when we returned to the sort-of lot where we’d left it, though not a soul was around to guard comings and goings. We weren’t sorry we’d contributed to whoever’s pocket we’d given our ten dollars to. We’d gotten our money’s worth.