The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Monday, July 25, 2005

For reasons known only to whatever weird pagan deity controls the human impulse to move on with their lives, everyone I know who has ever moved has chosen the most absolutely inopportune time to do so. And so it came to pass that today, the most unspeakably steamy (if not the hottest) to date in 2005, I helped a friend move.

Fortunately, the friend of whom I speak is a reasonably well-organized person and also a person who does not believe in accumulating large amounts of unnecessary crap. As she is moving in with another friend, she also had the good sense to divest herself of possibly-duplicated crap. Therefore, we really only had to move a few boxes of things, a couple of lamps and fans, one particularly belligerent futon which took every opportunity to injure us, and a legless orange velour chair that could only make its 1969 origins more plain if it held up a little placard that said “California Or Bust” right under a peace sign.

James Lileks, who won my eternal admiration with his “Gallery of Regrettable Food” (and promptly cashed in some of the aforementioned admiration by endlessly worrying about suicide bombers and terrorists), recently followed regrettable food with regrettable decoration. “Interior Desecration” is a celebration of everything we loved in 1972 and grew to loathe by 1980. My friend’s orange chair — in its somewhat dilapidated state, right before we threw it into the dumpster — was for a short while, this evening, my decorating madeleine.

The clothes of the early ’70s were Godawful enough, but it’s easier to go to a department store and buy new clothes than it is to replace a sofa.

Which is unfortunate, because early ’70s furniture probably scarred the minds of my generation more than the tail end of ’Nam, Ronald Reagan, two Gulf wars and ’80s puffy-sleeved evening gowns combined.

The stuff was plain nasty, and it pervaded all walks of life. More plebeian sorts had this burlappy (“Early American,” I’m sure), plaid-ook upholstered furniture. It was actually comfortable, for the most part, but a little scratchy and inevitably smelled like wet dog after a few months, whether or not its owners had a dog. The Early American thing was big, since the Bicentennial was approaching, so the middle class was way into furniture that supposedly evoked the colonial era. Some of it might have been vaguely Colonial, but I have observed that very little actual Colonial or Federal furniture features upholstery emblazoned with George Washington’s bust and off-color pictures of the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence and butter churns. (Sad to say, my parents had such a sofa. It was hideous, but at least it didn’t smell like dog, and we did have a dog. Although, in very unpatriotic fashion, she was so terrorized by the fireworks in 1976 that she peed all over the house — thank God, not on the sofa.) Other fashion trends included the particularly hideous “Mediterranean” furniture. I’m pretty sure that Italy, Spain and Greece all considered declaring war on the U.S. for having been associated, however vaguely, with what surely must have been the ugliest furniture to ever roll out of Grand Rapids and High Point. Beyond these department-store style offerings, High Couture of the early ’70s offered stuff so bizarrely ugly that most of it thankfully didn’t even make it as long as 1977.

Most furniture styles, no matter how absurd or grotesque, manage to make a periodic comeback. My beloved Sheraton and Chippendale styles have remained somewhat fashionable since their very inception. My ultimate favorite, Empire furniture, went out of vogue in the 1830s only to reappear in the early 1900s. The various Victorian styles, most of which resemble medieval torture instruments, quickly faded from view only to reappear in — you guessed it — the ’70s. The era seemingly required ugly furniture. Victorian things, though, embody a certain taste and style; to like their ’70s counterparts requires a complete brainwashing.

When we tossed the orange velour chair I had one of those momentary trains of thought that blissfully derailed before it got anywhere. It occurred to me that this, too, having passed, would come back. Should we save some of this stuff in the basement, and sell it as “retro” when it comes back in style? I recalled happy childhood with the Bicentennial sofa and shag rugs. I considered “stoneware” mugs full of instant cocoa in the kitchen floored with linoleum patterned with “bricks.” Perhaps, I thought. Perhaps a split-level in Timonium with a rumpus room in the basement, fitted out with an 1890 upright piano painted Day-Glo pink. And a redwood-railed pool in the backyard, and “sculpted” moss-green carpet in the “family room.”

Thank God, we heaved the chair into the dumpster before any more of the chemicals designed to preserve its upholstery had a chance to seep into my pores.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Every year the City of Baltimore throws about nine hundred different beer-and-funnel-cake street festivals. Some are ethnic (Polish, German, Italian); some are neighborhood-themed (Hampden, Little Italy, Hamilton); and some are rather more high-minded.

They’re still beer-and-funnel-cake parties, though. The Book Festival is amusing primarily because a couple of local publishing companies set up temporary shop. Also, like the Flower Mart (which is still a pretty high-toned affair and is run by Nice Ladies from the Social Register, rather than the city government) it happens in the cruciform front parlors of the city, Mount Vernon and Washington Places.

Artscape is in theory a celebration of the visual and performing arts in Baltimore. Give me a break. Baltimore just isn’t an artsy city and it never was. Granted, we do have the Maryland Institute College of Art. I understand that it’s thought of rather highly in the art world, but since I only like art that involves flowers and nekkid people, the Barbie heads suspended in Jell-O that art students like to produce leaves me colder than a dead polar bear on an iceberg.

Of some note: The Maryland Institute, whose building is one of my favorites in the City, once upon a time existed all the way downtown. In inception, it was to be a Great University. Unfortunately, Baltimoreans were even then much more interested in commerce, turning a buck and getting wildly drunk on rye-based cocktails than they were in building a Great University, so the Institute always languished on the city’s communal back burner. In any case most proper Maryland families sent their sons to Virginia for book-learnin’ anyway. Since proper people didn’t become artists, though, the Institute did manage to establish a College of Art, which is the only part of the original concept to survive.

Having digressed, I now return to Artscape. Bleah. It always manifests on one of these late July weekends and is therefore always miserably hot. It’s infested with college students — and not the nice kinds. There are no sweet Delta Gamma girls or lacrosse-ish Sig Eps here. These are the dreadlocked creepy kids that I avoided in college and continue to avoid now. And, of course, to keep the mix multicultural, Tyrone and Tyquisha from Gilmor street usually show up, too.

I could probably deal with the icky people and the grotesque heat if not for the simple fact that the freakin’ beer is $6 a pop. Where the hell do these people think they are, New York? Oh — that’s right — they’re in the pressure cooker that is midtown Baltimore in July. People will sell their firstborn spawn for a cold beer, given the right motivation.

Oh, and if the pissy Old Baltimore menu I posted last time was a little too Old Guard, try this website for size: this is the best restaurant in Tidewater Virginia and one to which I took countless dates before fraternity dances.

Normal food, normal place, and fair prices. If you don’t have a fine meal at the Surrey House you need mental help.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The heat seems to have broken a little bit, and I’m sitting at the computer listening somewhat unhappily to music brought to me via ’net at RealAudio™ or ® or whatever. I am, as a matter of fact, listening to one of my favorite songs: “Oriental Love Dreams,” a big hit in ’24. If I would simply bother to get up and find the record, wind up the Grafonola and play the damned thing, it would play just fine and would sound good. I’m trying to be Up To Date though, and so I am cursed with frequent little farts in the music as my ISP tries to decode exactly what the hell I’m playing. Yes, Virginia, sometimes the old way is better.

Today’s issue of the Unpaper — Light for None — informs Baltimoreans that our city’s only five-star hotel is for sale. Is this supposed to bode ill for the city? It might, if it weren’t for the fact that the “five star hotel” is a piece of crap.

When I noticed the article, I was surprised to learn that we even had a five star hotel. These days, the five-star designation is rarely given to hotels in any city that isn’t New York, Washington, or Los Angeles. Older and more elegant cities, with older and more elegant hotels, rarely rate. At that, I remained surprised because in my mind there is only one decent hotel left in Baltimore.

The Hotel Lord Baltimore was never, despite its lofty title, the city’s most fashionable. Oh, yes, it’s a big and rather grand hotel. It was built in 1928 and as such embodies as much of the Jazz Age as ever affected the Maryland Metropolis, which had been reluctant enough to enter the twentieth century at all, much less the era of Flaming Youth. The Lord Baltimore is beautiful and makes some concessions to Art Moderne, but is for all practical purposes a Georgian skyscraper. The largest hotel in the State when it opened, it was always trumped by the very snooty Belvedere, the very entertaining Kernan’s, the affordably gracious Southern and the bombastically elegant Emerson.

Somehow, the Lord Balto outlasted all of the hotels that had once shoved it into the background and remains open. It is not, however, our “five-star hotel.” It is still being shoved into the background by more fashionable hotels.

I understand and appreciate the mentality that once ignored the Lord Baltimore. It was too flashy and too modern for Baltimore. I am terrified by the mentality that ignores it now.

Our current “five star hotel” is a hideous piece of mid-’80s crap along the harbor. I realize that out-of-towners do not cherish the mistrust of the harbor that Baltimoreans do, but do they really want to stay in an oversized Days Inn when they get here? The Harbor Court is a miserable thing. It features some of the ugliest architecture in town — one of my friends refers to it as the “Zipper Building,” a concept that I would describe if not for the fact that it would take me six paragraphs to do so. I hate wasting column space on something I hate, so I’ll just let you all imagine how awful the thing is. While the Lord Baltimore has a larger-than-life marble staircase sweeping between its Baltimore street entrance, its Hanover street-level lobby, and its mezzanine ballrooms, the Harbor Court Hotel has this creepy weird spiral staircase that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. Worse, the creepy weird spiral staircase was obviously built with components purchased at Home Depot.

I could probably forgive the crap architecture. Considering hotels objectively, Baltimore’s have never really been that beautiful. Richmond always trumped Baltimore in hotel architecture; the Belvedere and the Emerson were the most grandiose, but were never the sort of place that would knock your socks off. There were a lot of very nice hotels here, but nothing that would shock and amaze, aesthetically.

But then, that’s not Baltimorean style. We do not like to shock and amaze because — well, it’s shocking, and our local art form is doing everything precisely the way it’s been done since Christ was a corporal.

Our other local art form is superlative food. The Harbor Court does not have it. I have eaten there and it’s indigestible. We do not go in for “tall food” here. We favor Maryland fried chicken, stuffed hams, panned oysters, Imperial crab, and roast duck. We also like homemade ice creams, red velvet cake and Lady Baltimore cake, and fruit comports. While we do love the unfashionable iceberg lettuce we whoop it up with a lot of good fresh (in summer) or preserved (in winter) vegetables from the endlessly fruitful Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The Harbor Court thinks that it is absolutely A La Mode because it offers entrees that take an entire paragraph to describe and yet remain absolutely inedible. It does not elect to fry anything and yet has the audacity to tell its guests that it has “real Baltimore crabcakes.” If those things are crabcakes at all, much less Baltimorean, I am the Chinese Emperor. Sticking a branch of rosemary into an undercooked piece of pork roast makes it fashionable, but doesn’t make it good.

Charles Dickens once famously visited the United States and hated every last second of it, excepting his visit to Baltimore. He stayed at Barnum’s City Hotel — an old rattletrap that was torn down for the beautiful “new” Court House in 1895. Upon his visit he enjoyed an “enchanted julep” and decreed Baltimore the “gastronomic metropolis of the world.” It still is, but these days you have to go to a private dinner party to learn about it.

I am happy that the nasty place is for sale. I hope that some nice normal Baltimorean will buy it, tear it down and offer the public a real hotel again — one that will show visitors what food and hospitality really are. Perhaps they could reconstruct the old Hotel Rennert. That unlovely edifice once upon a time stood at Liberty and Saratoga. A hallmark of the Spiky Victorian school of architecture, only a sadist could have found beauty in its crenellated and tortured brownstone facade, but the entire United States and most of Europe recognized it as one of the premier homes of edible art.

It will be a beautiful day for Baltimore and the world when the Harbor Court, with its tacky staircase and “Roti of Pork en Croustade with bla bla bla, dusted with a touch of bla bla bla, sauce of bla, and finished with bla bla” is replaced once and for all with a real Baltimorean hostelry — no matter how ugly — that will serve the following prix-fixe menu:

Oysters Chesapeake (with Virginia Bacon)

Chilled Cream of Celery Soup, with Sippets or Virginia Peanut Soup
Planked Rock Fish Crab Flake Maryland
Terrapin en Casserole

Roman Punch

Roast Canvasback Duck
Washington County Apple and Walnut Stuffing

Stuffed Ham, St. Mary’s County style
Roast Frederick County Pork
Pennsylvanian Creamed Chicken with Cream Waffles

Vegetable Selections — Fresh from All Maryland
Haricot Beans, Summer Squash, Butter and Lima beans, fried Green Tomatoes, Hanover Tomatoes, Anne Arundel corn

Lady Baltimore, Red Velvet, Johann-Strauss-Torte, Linzertorte, Baltimore Peach Cake

Tipsy Squire, Macedoine of Maryland melons and strawberries, Whiskey ice-cream

Now, simply think of all this served to you on the snowy linens and sparkling napery of a gracious old household, by a waiter who pointedly does not say something like, “Hi, I’m Joe and I’ll like be your waiter tonight” — or, indeed, says nothing at all — and you will get the idea of real food.

San Francisco would wet itself in confusion and terror.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

And on a less literary note: Dan 1, Fruit Flies 0. I discovered that they were obsessing over a dinner plate which had been rinsed clean but was not yet scrubbed and so, washed and dried said plate and then attacked with my trusty “Raid Flying Insect Spray,” calculated to destroy wing’ed pestilence and probably also calculated to reduce the lifespan of cats and drunks by a couple of years. No Pyrrhic victory that, I’ll sacrifice a year or two if the remainder are free of fruit flies.

Summertime always equates, to me, a lot of reading. Actually winter does too but winter reading has always had something to do with school, as either student or teacher.

Here in ever-stylish North Baltimore we have this wonderful establishment known to man as The Book Thing. It used to be in the basement of a rowhouse on Charles street but it has lately moved to new digs in Waverly. Some of the fun is gone: in the basement, it was a rathole full of gigantic stacks of books. (I was tempted to call it a rabbit warren but I figure that rabbit warrens are somewhat more organized and clean.) There were stacks of books six feet high and seven stacks deep — God alone knew what might be in the rear of the stack, and He wasn’t telling. Now it’s all well-lit and reasonably well-ordered, so you can actually find what you want, but it’s much less entertaining. Best of all, the books are all free. It’s very Utopian; you can take as many books as you want, donation of books you’ve read is encouraged, and the staff is volunteer.

In any case summer usually involves several Book Thing trips. I love to sift through the stacks, discovering random weird things to read while sacked out with a Tom Collins in the backyard, or, occasionally, on the beach.

I decided at the last minute this morning to head to Sandy Point (a bay beach, near Annapolis), so I didn’t want to fart around picking out reading selections. I just grabbed one of my Book Thing finds and zoomed down to the bathwater-warm Chesapeake.

Yesterday I read one of the finds in about two hours — a sweet little novel of 1908 entitled “The Romance of an Old-Fashioned Gentleman,” by F. Hopkinson Smith. The author evidently had some connection to Maryland as he’d set the opening chapters in (as it turns out later) Frederick county and sets you up with a pretty romantic vision of Western Maryland as it must have once been. The conflict of the story revolves around a young artist who’d fallen in love with the pretty young wife of a much older man. He never does anything about it, but the implication is there and of course, being a gentleman, he leaves the scene and goes to Europe without doing a bloody thing about it. Marylanders, in 1908, were clearly perfect gentlemen in novels if not in fact.

Today’s selection was one that I’d picked up chez Book Thing (I wonder: if they open a Washington branch, will it be named “Le Chose des Livres?”) because it was an icon of the mid ’40s, something that my parent’s generation snickered about in school lunchrooms, purloined from Mom’s bedside table and perused with eyes opened wider than Eddie Cantor’s. Essayist par excellence — nay, sans pareil — Florence King has recalled Forever Amber in her jaded recollections.

“The Romance of an Old-Fashioned Gentleman” is the 1908 version of a bodice-ripper. In 1908, the implication of a less-than-respectable romance that never came to fruition was enough to set the lace-fichu’d bosoms of proper Grove Avenue ladies to heaving. By 1945, Kathleen Winsor had managed to complete the circle that 1908 could only imagine. The prologue sets us up for things to come with a pairing of two aristocratic youngsters who, without benefit of clergy thanks to warring family interests, manage to spawn. The girl, however, feels married after the dirty deed, so this probably goes a short way to assuage any raised eyebrows.

The spawn, though — the titular Amber (ha ha, I said “titular”) — by page 18, where my little purple leather Sig Ep bookmark currently resides, has already:

a) been established as a beautiful but “different” girl resented by her peers, mostly because she has
b) evidently been shagging her way through all the local farm boys, but
c) has become a Strong and Resourceful Woman (read: is willing to boink her way to success.

If “ Old Fashioned Gentleman” is the ancestor of bodice-rippers, Forever Amber is the bodice ripper in puberty. It hasn’t quite grown into having a paperback edition with a swooning woman being carried off by a shirtless, long-haired muscle dolt, but it does contain this paragraph:

“Amber felt her bones and muscles turn to water. She stood and looked at him, cursing herself for her tongue-tied stupor. Why was it that she — who usually had a pert remark on her tongue for any man no matter what his age or condition — could think of nothing at all to say now? Now, when she longed with frantic desperation to impress him, to make him feel the same violent excitement and admiration that she did. At last she said the only thing she could think of...”
— Kathleen Winsor, Forever Amber

I shit you not, that’s really direct from page 18. I dunno — why IS her tongue tied? Because she wants to bang his brains out, and from the way Amber’s been set up already, she’s going to. Now, being a modern boy, my impulse — the only thing I could think of, when longing with similar frantic desperation — the only thing to inspire violent excitement — would be to stammer, with heaving pectorals and artfully batted lashes: “Dude, nice package! What do you like for breakfast?” Fortunately, to keep her heart a bit more pure under her straining, black-laced stomacher and — how does Winsor put it? — “her breasts which were full and pointed, upward tilting,” Amber coughs up “Tomorrow’s the Heathstone Fair.” This clearly goes a long way to illustrate why I gave up on writing romantic fiction.

While I was rather shocked — yes, shocked! to see this sort of thing in a 1945 novel, it was enlightening. Forever Amber was the first bestseller to actually go this far and, really, it is pretty racy. I’ve pretty much established, less than a score of pages into the action, that this ain’t a hallmark of Lit. It does, however, set the stage for the zillion-page paperbacks that my college roomie and I referred to as the “naked people books” in the supermarket book-and-magazine aisle. Winsor does pretty well with her history; most naked-people-book readers of 2005 probably wouldn’t know who Oliver Cromwell was if he were to fall in their Twinkie-laden laps. She did, however, create a genre. Historical romance (and its B-side, hysterical romance) had existed for eons, as evidenced by the F. Hopkinson Smith and the Old-Fashioned Gentleman, but Winsor gave her audience some soft porn and made it legit.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Oh. NO. They’re back. My nemesis species. I have a neighbor who, despite having spent his entire life in this rat-infested burg, harbors a paranoia of the rodents that borders on maniacal. Honestly, I don’t care if the rats have organized dance parties in the alley every night. (They usually hold it down to Fridays and Saturdays, and it only becomes a problem when some domestic rat violence breaks out, but then the rat police show up and they all go quietly back to their holes.)
Rats usually have the decency to stay outside and not bother inhabited dwellings. They really only get on my nerves because they insist upon dying right in my garden, right in front of one of the rosebushes, and usually right before company arrives. Nothing says garden party like decaying rat corpse.
My infestation paranoia revolves around fruit flies. I absolutely do not understand these stupid things. I realize that I am one of the world’s worst housekeepers, but I do not as a rule leave rotting fruit lying around the kitchen. They don’t even seem to have any interest in the kitchen garbage can. Their obsession, apparently, is swarming around the sink whether it has any dishes in it or not. They die in record numbers, leaving their nearly-microscopic mortal coils stuck to the dish towels and kitchen curtains. If there does happen to be a dirty dish in the sink they flock to it, drown in whatever water remains in the dish, and float about until I wash them down the drain. Understandably, they’re not the Einsteins of the animal or even the insect world, but one might think that they’d have the sense to aim for a more reliable source of food. Every summer that I spend in Baltimore I become more swayed to the medieval belief that life spontaneously generates. I have left the house for a weekend, having cleaned in full-blown Prussian mania before going–no dirty plates or pans, empty and dry sink, nothing remotely edible anywhere outside sealed canisters or fridge–and come home to discover a fruit fly infestation. These Stygian little pests generate themselves out of thin air.
They don’t really DO anything to you. They don’t bite, as far as I know, and anything they do attack is probably already spoiled or thrown away. I’m not sure why they bother me so, but I grimace every time a cloud of them (and they DO form clouds) rises over the kitchen sink.
Bugs are a part of everyday life anywhere in the South. I will concede one thing to the New Yorkers: they’re perfectly willing to call a roach a roach. Baltimore has the usual cockroaches and also this other, larger, more disgusting strain of roaches. Of course, civic pride won’t allow us to admit that the city is annually swamped with roaches, so Baltimoreans try to calm panicky visitors by explaining that "it’s only a water bug." Water bug, my ass. It’s a roach. A BIG roach. On Virginia’s otherwise genteel and beautiful peninsula, one might be sitting on a screened porch (Wonder why they’re screened???) enjoying a drink, before noticing that the moonlight has been blocked out. One then discovers that the entire screen has been covered in roaches. WINGED roaches. "Oh," the Tidewater native will casually tell the visitor, "those are only palmetto bugs." Again, I say, palmetto bugs my ass. They are big, disgusting and WINGED roaches. In the Tidewater, roaches can FLY, and they obviously derive considerable glee from doing so.
I will always recall the impression that a Northern friend took back from a visit to Macon. He was staying with a very nice old family and had many cocktails. Before they all retired, he offered to take the glasses out to the kitchen. The matron of the family thanked him but advised him to, if he would, rinse the remaining dregs out of the cocktail glasses "because, dear, we ARE in the South and we DO have bugs."
One of my more jaded friends, a longtime Baltimore resident but native of suburban Washington, finds great humor in the fact that I refer to certain geographical areas as "buggy." Note to jaded friend: if you ever have to spend a night in Chincoteague or Fort Story, "buggy" will take on new meaning. We all know what happened to the First Settlement at Croatoan: the mosquitoes carried the colonists off to feed to their young.
I think that I’ve lit upon an explanation of a major cultural mindset. Cleanliness is just not that much of an issue for Southerners, even aristocratic Southerners. If your silver is polished and the chandeliers glitter, it doesn’t really matter if there’s a foot of cat hair underneath the sofa. My mother has a friend from the Midwest who thinks that the greatest compliment one might bestow upon a woman is that "you can eat off of her floor." To this my mother always responds "That might be, but why would you WANT to eat off of the floor?" We know that keeping one’s nice things clean and shiny is important. We do not need to eat off of floors because we have four different Limoges patterns representing different generations and tastes. (Personally, I am armed with enough rose-bedecked china to feed the entire Imperial German Army, which come to think of it isn’t such a bad idea.) I am now starting to understand that the reason we don’t worry about obsessively scrubbing everything else is that we know, no matter how much we scrub, bleach, deodorize and sanitize, we will have bug infestations anyway. All that time spent cleaning is time that I could, much more happily, spend with a few drinks and a Thomas Nelson Page novel.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Today: Dan’s Semi-Annual Visit to Washington. I probably do visit there a bit more often but it seems that I only really make it down for a pleasure trip about twice a year. I dislike Washington for the most part, but since I have some great friends who live there I don’t mind making the occasional visit. Also, it’s refreshing to see a different city once in a while.
I always forget how STINKING HOT Washington is, though. When Baltimoreans are told that our city is miserably hot (it is), we usually respond that at least, we are not living in that cesspool that is Washington. Baltimore’s center city does, in fact, seem hotter than Washington, probably because it has narrow little streets that trap heat and few trees to relieve the beating sun. Once you leave the busy confines of the central district, though, there seems to be some relief here. Washington is just plain, nasty, broiling hot. Now I remember why the place is full of fountains; the glimpse of water makes you feel about 1/10 degree cooler, and that’s enough of a relief to make them worthwhile.
No particular news from the Nation’s Capital this time–just lots of observations along the way.
In the Baltimore train station: woman about my age, mid ‘30s, very pretty, wearing longish white linen dress and a pale blue straw hat that would have looked grandmotherish in 1915. Possibly trying to imitate Phoebe Snow? Sorry, honey, the Lackawanna RR and its clean-burning anthracite are long gone. Possibly trying to make a statement? Didn’t seem like the sort. Possibly just really outdated? Well, who the hell am I to point fingers in that direction?
On the train: Nice Family en route to a pleasant day’s trip through the museums. Nicely dressed Daddy and Mother and three kinder, cheerful and well behaved. Evidently planning to soak in some culture and a Real Train Trip. Also, Evil Tourist Redneck Family from Hell. Grubby kids shrieking and running in aisle; visibly hung over Dad, harried Mom who may have last washed hair in 1997. Evidently planning to annihilate peace of mind of all Washingtonians, make terrorists look like well-mannered guests at tea dance. Pleasant Russian couple apparently terrorized by American railroad, who’d learned the name of their destination (New Carrollton) and proceeded to ask everyone on train if this stop was it. One snobby Washington Businessman type: Armani-ish suit (too heavy for the weather), laptop with Power Point presentation apparently going wrong. One snobby Baltimore Businessman type: seersucker suit, white bucks, extremely expensive fountain pen and large disorganized sheaf of paper. Both busily looking annoyed by having to share rail car with great unwashed. Two groups of collegiate girls; one Riot Grrl set (Maryland Institute?) and one Susie Sorority (Sweet Briar?). Evidently on the way to protest World Bank and shop at Galleria, respectively. First group gave me nasty looks, second gave me Sweet Old Uncle looks. Self: attempting to project air of leisurely Baltimorean investigating neighboring city; polo shirt, linen shorts, dirty bucks with no socks. Evidently going to meet similarly stuck-in-1987 friends for afternoon of heavy gin and tonic.
In Washington: Train station full of confused tourists. Friend who works at Smithsonian has pointed out that this is the time of year when all the Gee-Golly-Gosh tourists show up in Washington, and is he ever right. You could drop a sizable bomb on Cedar Rapids and do no damage whatsoever, because the entire population is busily Seeing Washington. I’ve always found train stations to be extremely straightforward places. Even the gargantuan Union Station–which I do believe to be one of the world’s most beautiful depots–has very clear signage and lots of information desks and pleasant people to tell you where to go (bathroom, train platform, hell). This manages to evade the scope of Middle America, and so there are large gaggles of very confused, very hot people wandering aimlessly about the Grand Concourse. Outside train station: gaggle of not confused, but visibly wilting, tragically hip German tourists–all wearing black. Evidently not informed by Duesseldorf tourist agency that Washington is very hot in summertime, all-black outfits not good plan.
En route to museums: Many, MANY vagrants sleeping on benches. Wow. I thought Baltimore was plagued with (hmm, take your pick according to your level of political correctness: homeless, vagrants, winos, bums). Still, their presence didn’t distract from the otherwise beautiful gardens surrounding the Capitol building. These gardens are a 20th century phenomenon; until the lush era of the 1900s and 1910s the blocks verging on the Capitol were full of stodgily proper rowhouses. The City Beautiful movement did those in and now there are acres of pretty garden squares. Oddly, these are all planted in very Victorian fashion–lots of cannas, hosta and elephant-ears. Particularly beautiful when set off by the cascades of the aforementioned fountains.
While seated on a bench smoking a cigarette: Tourist-o-Rama. Nice Tourists, Tacky Tourists, but mostly Confused Tourists. One woman who marched up to me and said "That’s disgusting." Evidently not Virginian, not aware that I was observing correct etiquette by sitting down to smoke. Was unable to resist: informed woman that I was not the one wearing aquamarine stretchy shorts and a bad dye job.
After dinner and a few drinks, I headed back to Baltimore to run headlong against typical Baltimorean mentality: three scheduled uptown cars did not appear and so I got to spend twenty-five minutes waiting for one. By the time it showed up I’d become involved in a fairly interesting conversation with a group of people, two of whom proved to live a block away from me. Washingtonians decidedly do NOT begin conversation while waiting for buses.

Friday, July 01, 2005

A couple of weeks ago I was lurking in a bar over in Remington (one of the city’s less-fashionable neighborhoods, to be polite about it). Said bar is also one of the more entertaining because it caters to a wide variety of people and has incredibly cheap beer. What do you think is really the main attraction?
I was joined by a few friends and acquaintances, who also represented a wide variety of local wildlife. The four at my table, in particular, were fairly diverse (Oh, sweet Jesus, how I loathe that word–the bon mot of the apologist Loony Left), with an aging fraternity boy, a just-this-shy-of-radical feminist, and a couple of bohemian intelligentsia types. You do the math and figure out which one of the above I was.
One of the group is very, VERY up to date, very, VERY de trop and very, VERY sophistiquee. This might play well in New York but just seems rather foolish in the city that still insistently hangs fly-netting over chandeliers during the summer. This sophisticate is also a devotee of raves.
I have finally reached the point at which I realize that, although it’s perfectly normal to still wear my letter shirts around, I can no longer actually show up at undergraduate Sig Ep parties without looking desperate, creepy or both, except at Homecoming when there are plenty of octogenarians floating around. Never a fan of the rave scene, I came to that same realization in that respect over ten years ago. People who were brought up to attend the Bachelor’s Cotillon and the Richmond German are always slightly out of place at raves anyway, so I didn’t enjoy myself at them even when I was in the right age bracket. The last time I went to an honest-to-criminy rave I was twenty-five, and I was clearly the oldest person there. I am therefore ever-so-slightly bemused by the aforementioned sophisticate’s devotion to the rave scene at the no-longer-tender age of twenty-eight-ish.
If the devotion bemuses me, the sophisticate’s down-the-nose attitude concerning her awareness of the very latest rave "music" amuses me. It’s one thing to have a Mozart purist sneer at you; quite another to be lectured about the superiority of "world famous D Js," who are, after all, playing records. Hell, if record-playing skill is the prerequisite of modern fame, I should be the brightest star in heaven. Having been blaring 78s for twenty years, I can change records in, er, record time, and know the all-important rule that every "set" includes six fox-trots, two waltzes and two novelty numbers. Really, it was the superiority look that got to me, though. (To be fair, I was probably looking down my own nose at the time–our sophisticate is one of those types who finds herself far too Creative, Individual and Enlightened to ever belong to a collegiate sorority or a city Ladies’ club, which plants her pretty far outside my pale.)
I look down my nose for one reason that supercedes any social organization. Today, I visited Fort Armistead, down at the city’s very southern tip. Before any of you cretins comment, Fort Armistead has not been garrisoned for over eighty years, so I was not doing anything naughty. It is one of the old coastal defense forts, was decommissioned in the ‘20s and has been a city park for nearly fifty years. It is also one of the filthiest places I’ve seen in recent memory.
If Fort Armistead were in one of Baltimore’s admittedly numerous downtrodden ghettoes, I could understand the grime. And, I understand that an overtaxed Parks department probably doesn’t pay much attention to a park in the city’s equivalent of Pluto that few ever utilize.
However, Fort Armistead is the scene of many local raves, and has been for many years now. Before that dawning, it was much cleaner. How do I know, you may ask? If you’ve forgotten, I grew up here and I know a lot of other people who did, as well. It was cleaner in the pre-rave era. Fort Armistead has evidently become known as a party skankhole.
Those same people who are "into" the latest vibe, are quite Aware and Enlightened, who think that I am elitist scum, have no qualms whatsoever about trashing a city park, leaving their paraphernalia and detritus behind.
If I am an elitist–oh, hell, of course I am–it’s because I’ve rarely been given a reason to be anything else.