Baltimore has a cultish and devout following. John Waters’ over-the-top kitsch and the gritty appeal of The Wire notwithstanding, the lure of actually living there seemed to me somewhat… arcane. So a few weeks ago, I went to visit my lovely friend Nicole to try to get a better sense of what pulls people to Charm City.
Nicole and her newly, lawfully-wedded Carl live on a pleasant avenue in the general vicinity of Hoes Heights/Hampden/Roland Park, lined with big houses and even bigger trees. I’m not sure if it was the smell of damp autumn leaves or the crisp air, but the street reminded me of New England—Rhode Island to be exact—especially when we came across beautiful old residential gems like this:
I felt that after spending just a few hours there, I was starting to get it. Life is cheap. People are friendly. Local businesses abound. The young people seem hip, laid back and multi-faceted—not as tediously career-driven as Washingtonians, and not as culturally arrogant as New Yorkers. Hair dressers hang with Johns Hopkins students; single mom waitresses chat with John Waters at the dive bar (no really, he was at the first bar I went to). These struck me as interactions that would be less easy to come by in my circles of friends in either NYC or DC.
As Nicole and I strolled, stopping into consignment shops here, stumbling upon a live auction there, grabbing nachos, I was struck by the fact that even in this residential neighborhood, Baltimore residents go crazy for their totems. The flamingo, the crab, and ‘the Hon’ are favorites, with decidedly blue-collar consumption staples like local beer Natty Boh, local seafood seasoning Old Bay, and the sports franchises The Orioles and the Ravens wielding an almost alarming amount of totemic currency.
Here a giant flamingo dominates the facade of the Cafe Hon, whose website will give you an introduction to this aforementioned Hon culture.
The Maryland flag, which I found ugly and busy as a child but have grown to adore, also makes its mark on just about any object fathomable. Pictured here is the handiwork of the local merchant Razzo, whose tiny store is the essence of Baltimore symbolism. Razzo paints screens (a Baltimore folk art tradition) and crab shells with images of Maryland lore. It doesn’t get any more distilled than this.
A touch of class, Balmer style.
But my personal favorite thing about Baltimore is, without a doubt, the accent. Wikipedia offers this fairly concise introduction:
Baltimore’s accent exemplifies a dialectal continuum between Tidewater American English, a southern American dialect, and Delaware Valley American English, a common coastal dialect, loosely possessing the vowel shifts of the former and general pronunciation of the latter. For instance, “Baltimore” is pronounced “Baldimore” or even “Balmer,” and “Maryland” becomes “Murland,” “Murlan,” or “Merlin.” Other common pronunciations include “ool,” “amblance,” “wooder,” “warsh,” “sharr or shaow,” “dug,” “couwny,” “tew,” and “zinc” (oil, ambulance, water, wash,shower, dog, county, two, and sink respectively). There is also a popular summertime phrase, “goin’ downy ayshin” (going down to the ocean, usually referring to Ocean City, MD)
This was another thing I despised growing up, an attitude certainly inherited from my scoffing Connecticut-transplant parents. If you’re lucky, you may have even heard it ridiculed on primetime. Try as I might to have escaped it, I do occasionally catch myself letting a weak “o” slip, but prefer to think of that soft “o” as being closer to the British than Appalachia…
But I digress. I’m hoping to spend more time in the charming Charm City in the near future. It certainly packs more of an organic punch than the likes of DC, and is a refreshing getaway. Who knows, maybe someday soon I’ll even get back in touch with my Orioles fan roots. It would scare you to know how many baseball cards I once owned… Shoot, I was even in the Ripkens’ box on 2131… a story for another day.
Opening day 2011, anyone?