A FRIEND of mine told me that on the Monday morning after he’d attended my first book-release party back in 2004, a co-worker asked him politely how his weekend had been. I should explain that this had not been a typical New York publishing-industry book-release party, which are less like parties than the sort of thing parties were invented as an antidote to — it was a raucous, bawdy, brawling affair in a south Baltimore dive bar. And by dive bar I do not mean a New York “dive bar,” which is more like a dive-themed bar with sexy barmaids and a video hunting game and $5 Pabst Blue Ribbon drafts — I mean an actual dive bar, with skanky patrons and pop country on the jukebox and cases of Miller High Life takeout at last call, a place where you might, on occasion, get punched in the face for no reason at all.
In attendance were cartoonists, novelists, a NASA engineer and a Homeland Security physicist, a transgender memoirist, the first girl I’d ever had a crush on, (at least) one prostitute, some people I knew from Sunday school and the Evil Ben Walker. Tiny meatballs were served. A female designer of light shows for a famous rock band danced so provocatively with a dominatrix that the local ladies, not to be outdone, tore off their own tops and danced. We played a slapping game, whose object was to slap one another in the face very hard, until we wept with laughter.
My friend, considering how best to answer his co-worker’s question, decided maybe it would be easier just to skip the details. He said: “I was in Baltimore.”
His co-worker’s eyebrows went up. “Oh,” he said, as though in an instant all had been revealed. “Baltimore.”
H. L. Mencken once wrote that Baltimore was known up and down the East Coast for the excellence of its food, the pulchritude of its women and the genteel charm of its domestic life — all of which, sadly, reads like a joke now. Like Sodom and Hiroshima, it is a city best known for its destruction. The Baltimore where I reeled around drunkenly for years, and got hassled by the cops exactly once — for impersonating a deity — was White Baltimore, which, if mapped, would look like a tenuous network of interconnected nodes laid over the terra incognita where the majority of the city’s inhabitants lived their lives. That other Baltimore, hungry and disenfranchised and heavily armed, written off by politicians, pushed around by the cops and called animals on the Internet, was always a block away.
Ever since I left more than a decade ago, I’ve followed my home city’s decline from afar through the bizarre and disturbing news items that emanate from it (a burglar’s hand lopped off with a katana) and the increasingly crazed denial of its official slogans (“The Greatest City in America”). I still get nostalgic watching episodes of “The Wire” when I see real locations that look like sets from a postapocalyptic movie, scenes of off-duty cops vomiting on the sidewalks outside bars at 2 a.m., totally unremarked upon by passers-by, or hear the shrill nasal twang of an authentic Baltimore accent, apparently irreproducible by actors from anywhere else.
Maybe the city I miss is just the city of my youth, or the city of drunkenness. Ernest Hemingway famously described Paris as “a moveable feast”; Baltimore is more like a permanent hangover. Once you have lived there, you will never be entirely sober again.
We drank National Bohemian and Mystery Shots and a bottle of Kiwi/Lemon Mad Dog we providentially found unopened in the snow one New Year’s Day. We got kicked out at last call and headed to ghastly after-hours clubs like Medusa; we waited in line outside the Sportsman’s Lounge, a transsexual bar that opened at 6 a.m., where dancing was forbidden by official signage; we once cajoled a bartender to open early for us, claiming to be “businessmen from Philadelphia” who simply wanted a quick cocktail before catching our flight home. After a few hours, he caught on to us.