We 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.