Sunday, December 14, 2008

Baltimore: The city that needs to be burnt to the ground

...don't forget to salt the earth.

With thanks to Mac for the hot tip!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A reminder: Today is JB's birthday bash at Melba's place

At a store in The Greatest Shopping District in America, not too far from Melba's place actually, a woman and I stood side by side browsing a display. She picked up a pair of earrings off the $0.85 rack and turned towards me.

"I always buy real jewelry for everything else, but not earrings." I just nodded. Not to be mean-spirited, but I had never seen more hair on a woman's face in my life, and it was really quite distracting.

She continued, "My grandson, every time he comes over, he eats one, guaranteed." I noticed that her bristly mustache half obscured her upper lip.

Either she didn't notice my involuntary staring or she was used to it and just kept speaking "He don't touch nothing else, but the first thing he does whenever he comes over is run straight into my room and eat an earring. And always only one out of a pair, just one!"

The hair on her cheeks was long enough that it almost looked soft. I forced my eyes away.

"So now I get gold on the rest of my jewelry and such, but I given up on nice earrings."

With that, she grabbed a handful of earrings and headed towards the register, leaving me wondering just how old her grandson is.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Overheard in Baltiless

So, uh, you got any plans for, like, a month from now?

How do you measure the spirit of a city? What metric is there that can record the collective temperament and mood? To my knowledge, there is none better than overheard conversations. Especially in Baltiless, the insight these afford into the human condition.. and hygiene.. is both profound and uncanny.

These four vignettes reveal more about life in Baltiless than any statistic.

Three women meandered across a busy street together. The ear-splitting volume coupled with the rapid-fire pace of the conversation made it nearly impossible to understand, but that may have been for the best. One of the women, prepared to make her point. Three feet from the median, she stopped dead in her tracks for emphasis and shouted "Sometime big girls, they don't know how to wash they pussy! And that shit get naaaaaaasty!"

The bus driver stubbed out his cigarette and headed towards the bus to begin his route. People started to stand up and amble over but one of the passengers-to-be, an antsy, excitable, be-ponytailed man, lunged right to the door, pushed the driver aside, and managed to be first onto the bus. The driver muttered "You're so excited, maybe I oughta just let you drive." Shouting over his shoulder as he raced to the back of the bus, the man answered "I WOULD, except they took away my license!"

Little girls, they grow up so fast! From a conversation about parenting: "My daughter, she wanna get nails longer'n mine, and i says 'you don't even wipe your cootie right half the time, what you want nails for?' Know what I'm sayin'?"

Driving through a neighborhood one night, I found myself in the midst of the very definition of hootin' and hollerin' and carryin' on. A young lady of the night pranced back in forth in the street, blowing kisses to and shaking her thang at every man she passed. The people sitting on their stoops were all yelling at her, and she just smiled and waved right back. I sat at a traffic light, watching, and finally I understood what they were shouting. "Hey pretty lady! Hey pretty lady!" A tiny gray-haired old woman elaborated, hollering "Hey pretty lady! I want you to come over here but I ain't got no money!" before collapsing in laughter.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

More from the people who brought you "Safe and Reliable"

This city has many, many problems, but it also has a bright spot: the metro. Some preliminary research reveals that many Baltilessors were surprised to learn that there even is a metro here, let alone a world-class system. Prepare to be stunned, because right beneath your feet sprawls a truly remarkable transit system, running from Columbia Town Center to Hunt Valley, from I-70 to Martin State Airport, etc etc.

The schema, approved in 2002, coincidentally bears a striking resemblance to DC's, the final leg of which was completed in 2001.

That's where the similarities end. The Washington DC Metro serves two states and our nation's capital with a combined population of 4.4 million, all with 5 puny lines and 106.3 miles of track. On the other hand, the population of Baltiless is 600,000, shrinking with every murder. Even the crabs are bailing out. With stats like that, it's plainly obvious that this is a bustling metropolis full of sophisticated, industrious commuters who clearly need a vast underground mass transit system, one that's superior to DC, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Wait, what?

Turns out this is just the proposed metro line, approved by the Maryland Department of Transportation. These are the same people who endeavor to build a train station around some actively running Amtrak tracks next to the extant Travel Plaza*. By 2050. Does the local government intentionally cultivate this kind of cognitive dissonance or is it due to the tainted water?

No, I'm afraid the metro system here begins and ends with a single line. A lifetime Baltiless resident told me that they built the single line with the intention of building more if people rode it, but unfortunately I've been unable to source that. The metro features 15.5 miles of track with 14 stops, and is an excellent mode of transit as long as you're planning on going somewhere between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins Hospital. Also, as long as you're planning on going Monday-Saturday, because the Greatest Metro in America doesn't run on Sunday.

Obviously I needed to experience this for myself. With the intention of seeing as many passengers as possible, I chose to visit on a beautiful warm Saturday afternoon and hopped on at the Charles Center stop- near the Inner Harbor, the popular Gallery Shopping Center and several other attractions.

You see only person in the station? My assistant. Looks like those other lines won't be built anytime soon.

After buying my ticket, I tried to enter the station. Every single turnstile had a red "do not enter/out of order" sign on it. There was no one in the attendant booth. The place was abandoned. With no other option, I just gave an apathetic Baltiless shrug and entered.

There were actually three or four people waiting on the platform downstairs. Who knows how long they'd been there. Suddenly, blue police lights flashed on the walls. An alarm sounded. If you've ever seen a prison movie, you've heard this alarm. When you hear it, your instincts plunge you right into the action. There's a riot in cell block G and the warden is out of his league. Lockdown! But it's too late! The warden has no choice but to entomb the whole thing with 900 tons of concrete**. That's what this kind of alarm tells you. I tried to come to terms with my impending death.

I was at about the 4th stage of the Kubler-Ross model (I was able to accelerate the process due to nearly two years of the daily grief caused by life in Baltiless) when a train pulled into the station. Totally sans concrete. Evidently, Baltiless City had some lights left over after installation of the BELIEVE cameras on the streets and some alarms left over after construction of the prison and they decided they might as well just slap 'em on into the metro.

And then train ride.... wasn't actually that bad. True, my standards were very, very low - I'd been expecting feral children with flaming brands fighting rabid dogs in the tunnels, with the occasional unidentifiable corpse being gnawed on by giant mutant rats - but none of that happened! I could have been on any sub-par unused metro anywhere. I rode it to Owings Mills and back, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but if (when) it did, it happened after I'd left.

To get out of the station, you have to swipe your card again, just like in DC. Except it makes sense in DC because the fare varies by distance traveled, whereas it's a flat rate in Baltiless. Hey, why the hell not? Makes sense to me. Confidential to Baltiless and MDOT: Next time you copy off DC's paper, at least be a little more discrete.

Want to go?
There are 13 convenient stations to choose from! Note: there are no connections to light rail, Amtrak, MARC, BWI Airport, or the bus depot. Give it another 42 years and try again.

*AKA the "TR L PL Z ", as the sign actually reads
**Actually, that's a pretty good plan for Baltiless too.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Let Freedom Ring

The 4th of July. Cook-outs. Patriotism. Long summer nights. And of course, fireworks. For over 200 years, citizens of all ages have celebrated the Declaration of Independence with spectacular displays of pyrotechnics. Or in Baltiless, a fusillade of bullets.

As we sipped coffee on the sidewalk, we overheard a young woman on her cell phone and realized that not everyone had enjoyed the same lavish city-sponsored entertainment that we did.

She nonchalantly said that she'd wanted to see the fireworks, but hadn't been able to. In the same tone of voice you or I would reserve for talking about neighbors having a loud party or a pizza delivery that never arrived, she complained that everyone on her street had been shooting guns out of the houses all night, so she hadn't been able to see anything.

"Idiots" she muttered.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Friday, May 9, 2008

Baltiless Crime Map

The last 6 months have seen a precipitous drop in the murder rate, and it seems like everyone's patting themselves on the back over it. But do those stats actually impress anyone outside of city hall and The Baltimore Sun? Sure, officially, murders to date have decreased by 1/3 compared to 2007 (67 now vs 105 at this time last year). If one's in a charitable mood, the best that can be said about these numbers is that they seem a bit.. um.. optimistic. The sad reality is that's it's probably just business as usual in good ol' Bodymore, Murdaland.

As prophetic as The Wire has proven to be again and again and again, isn't it about time they started kicking in the doors of the vacants?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Hypothesis

In the better part of three decades of teeth ownership, I hadn't had a single cavity. Almost exactly a year after moving here, I developed two. Now, seven more months down the road, I'm up to five!

I ain't saying it's something in the water, but then again I ain't saying it ain't.

PS: I initially went to the Greatest Dentist in America, who just-so-happens to have a practice in Baltimore. He treated me to a horrific Baltiless-style ordeal involving Novocaine injections that paralyzed my eyelids without numbing my mouth and fillings that fell out less than a week later. I now attend to all serious business, including dental work, outside city limits.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Truth in Advertising

"BELIEVE". "The greatest city in America". "Get in on it". They couldn't pick just one slogan, so they got the valu-pak. City council's tipsy with blind optimism, but that's not reflected in the business climate. People are much more pragmatic when it's their own money on the line.

Advertising is a great example. Billboards are a reflection of the perceived worth, interests and purchasing power of their viewers. In
order to characterize the perceived
worth of the Baltiless consumer (black market excluded), I paid attention to the billboards I see on my 14 mile round-trip commute through the heart of Baldamer city on a given day.

Instead of replacing the damaged ad for food stamps, they just put a new one up next to it. This is what the pros call "market saturation".

They fell into four general categories. n=26.

PSAs: 38%
Posting a PSA means the ad agency has just given up. Trying to rent the space out isn't even worth their while. Baltiless advertising companies have found advertising in Baltiless isn't worth their while 38% of the time. Instead, the area's blanketed with messages about everything from abstinence to donate-a-boat-to-charity campaigns. And thus, the people are educated, minds are opened, citizens are empowered and lives are changed. Right?

Gambling and alcohol: 11.5%
On the date surveyed, coverage of these hobbies was unusually light. Odd, when you consider it's one of the few products that might actually interest the residents.

Funeral homes: 15%
In any other city, this would be bizarre. I'd never seen a funeral home billboard before moving here. Nevertheless, they've been springing up lately and on 14 miles of road, there are four (4!) of them. What with the recent down-tick in murders, they must really be struggling to stay afloat

Commercial: 34%
Actual commercial websites, for actual goods and services (unrelated to death or intoxication). Only 34%. Even of these, two of them are leftover from events that happened months ago. Evidently, there's not much demand for that real estate.

She looks on, mildly surprised, as half her head is torn off.

Content is only one symptom. It's the signs themselves that clinch the nomination for Greatest Outdoor Advertising in America. Perhaps they make the paper out of hilariously substandard material. Maybe it's due to the toxic haze permeating the city. Maybe it's a combination of the two. Either way, that shit don't stay up.

Soon after being posted, sometimes even within the week, the paper begins to crease and tear,
finally peeling off in strips. As it sloughs off, it reveals and adds to the ghostly decoupage left behind by all the other billboards that peeled off before their time. It's like removing old wallpaper, except wallpaper is more durable.

My goodness, what an eyesore! Surely the company who posted the billboard cares? Or maybe the company featured on the billboard? Perhaps the owner of the billboard space? Local merchants and residents? Civic boosters? The answer is No. No one cares. The end.

The message: the only way to get a low rate on car insurance in Baltiless is to not have a car.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Return of the Revenge of the Son of Lord of the Flies

Shorties takin' over.

One of Baltimore's largest employers values the safety and security of the employees. They do this by aggressively opening offices outside of Baltimore. Unfortunately, most of the employees are still condemned to living a half-life of toil and terror, earning their paycheck in Charm City. All they get is a lousy crime bulletin in their email.

In the span of 30 hours, security sent out three bulletins about three separate robberies involving youths of 8 to 14 years of age. All occurred after school hours- good to know that elementary and middle-schoolers in Bawlmer City are applying themselves both as scholars and entrepreneurs.

The alerts (slightly anonymized):

Attempt Armed Robbery

WHERE: 800 block of Rutland Ave.

WHEN: Monday, February 4, 2008; approximately 5:40 p.m.

HOW: An employee was walking to his vehicle (which was parked on
the 900 block of Rutland Ave.) and talking on the cell phone when he
was approached by six African-American male juveniles, two of which
were armed with knives and demanded his cell phone. A Public Safety Officer observed
what was happening, responded and shouted to the juveniles which
caused them to run without obtaining the cell phone. The juveniles ran
into the Target City development.

WANTED: 6 African American Males, between 8-14 years of age. No
further description.

Attempted Armed Robbery

WHERE: 1600 Block E. Madison Street at N. Broadway

WHEN: Tuesday, February 5, 2008; approximately 7:00 p.m.

HOW: An employee was walking westbound on the north side of E.
Madison at Broadway when two juveniles approached him. One of the
juveniles displayed a knife and demanded money. The victim refused to
comply and continued to walk westbound. The suspects fled the area.

WANTED: 2 African American Males, between 8-14 years of age; wearing
dark hoods and dark pants. No further description.

Armed Robbery

WHERE: 1600 Block E. Madison Street at N. Broadway

WHEN: Tuesday, February 5, 2008; approximately 10:35 p.m.

HOW: A student was walking westbound on the north side of E.
Madison at Broadway when 6 to 8 juveniles approached him. One
juvenile displayed a knife and demanded money. An unknown juvenile
pulled the victim's wallet from his rear pocket and the victim grabbed
it, ultimately giving them his cash ($40.00). The suspects fled
westbound on E. Madison Street. The victim went home and called the
Baltimore City Police Department which took a report.

WANTED: 6 to 8 African American males, between 8-15 years of age;
wearing dark hoods and dark pants. No further description.

As a side note, what the hell is wrong with a town that would make them think naming a housing project "Target City" could possibly be a good idea?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Beating the traffic cops at their own game

Now and then, I enjoy taking my life in my own hands and riding a commuter shuttle to work. The afternoon passengers are typically weary workers with spirits crushed by life in Baltiless but the ride to work is more raucous. The driver told me once that methadone maintenance patients ride that route in the mornings in order to get to the clinic first thing.

One young lady was using the ride to finish her morning toilette, including applying a coat of heavy makeup in a minibus that's hurtling over the Crappiest Roads in America. The effect was....stunning. Eventually, she finished getting all dressed up for the clinic, and joined in on the hootin' and hollerin' and carryin' on, to use a favorite phrase of my grandma's.

On this particular day, the conversation had turned to DUI convictions. Most people seemed to have them, often coupled with charges of reckless driving and/or driving without a license. They wondered how to get out of them, and how on earth they could possibly avoid them. How indeed, readers?

Our protagonist had a suggestion. "Last time I was pulled over for a DUI, the cop let me off because I was pregnant."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Ace of Cakes

One beautiful Baltiless morning, I was walking from one building to another on my employer's campus. On a tray, I was carrying a styrofoam cooler with a test tube rack sticking out of the top, some pipets and some vials of liquid. In short, it looked pretty much exactly like a science experiment, which it was, and pretty much nothing like something to eat, which it was not.

A disheveled elderly man was walking towards me down the sidewalk. His face was red, his gray hair yellowed and sticking up in all directions. His massive grin displayed most of his remaining teeth. As I approached, he began to grin even more widely and slowed from an amble to a slow wander. Soon he had stopped walking entirely and stood directly in front of me, looking me full in the face with an ecstatic grin. What could I do? I paused too.

He cheerfully announced "I watch that show, Ace of Cakes!"

I answer "Oh really?", attempting to convey surprise, dismay, profound disinterest and l'esprit du please-leave-me-alone while also making him aware that he was breaching social etiquette, all in just two words. It didn't seem to work.

"Yeah! Do you?" he asked. I was forced to admit that I did not. "Well, I watch that show" he explained enthusiastically, "and I thought you was carryin' one-a them fancy cakes, but now I see you ain't." The excitement was palpable.

I acknowledged that I ain't and started walking again. He remained in place as I passed and turned to watch me go, carrying my fancy cake.