Wednesday, June 27, 2012

800 Words: It’s Called Pigtown – A Barely Fiction

“You’re not moving to Station North. You’re going to get stabbed!”

“No I’m not Mom, I haven’t even told you about the place.”

“But that kid was stabbed right near Penn Station!”

“That can happen anywhere in Baltimore.”

“Don’t think I don’t know that. Are you sure you wouldn’t want to live in the County? It’s closer to work!”

“Mom if I live another year in the county it’ll be me who stabs someone. And this apartment is an entire floor for $600 a month and comes with a full basement.”

“Is there crime on this block?”

“There was apparently a big drug bust across the street last week. But everybody who lives there's now in jail so it’s totally sa-...”

“-You’re not moving to Station North!”

“It’s all I can afford.”

“We’ll help you make rent. Just find a place in Roland Park!”

“Good luck getting that past Dad.”

“Let me worry about Dad. You just keep looking for places.”

Oh how different this is from Washington – that magical city where the Washington Post announces that a black neighborhood is gentrifying, and within the next six months a mob of rich white hipsters descend upon it to fix the housing stock and repaint when they’re not watching The Wire or listening to Robert Johnson. Within two years there’s inevitably a Best Buy and an IHOP and hipsters bemoan how the neighborhood’s losing its black roots. Those of them who still haven’t bought baby bjorns move on to whatever next neighborhood the Post tells them.

Washington! My Washington! That shining city upon a hill where you can debate the latest economic numbers until four in the morning and nobody will beat you up for it. That thriving metropolis where the scariest person on the street is the Republican congressional aide holding his blackberry. Washington, the only place in America where people can get a job!

Yet here you are back in Baltimore. Anyone in America can get a job in Washington, except you. And day after day you sit at the desk in your father’s office, endlessly posting on twitter during whatever minute Dad isn’t telling you to turn the music down. You try to turn every business meeting into a political argument – and Dad inevitably takes the bait and the two of you spend twenty minutes debating whether we should buy more urban properties because America has to fix its public transit system. After twenty minutes your brother asks what this has nothing to do with why people park overnight in the lots of our buildings, and
you then have nothing of value to add and stare intently at your cup of tea.

And so you move into that Roland Park apartment which for which your parents help pay… If it gives them peace of mind, sure, I’ll take your money… But you don’t meet anyone in Roland Park. You bike in the evenings, and everybody you pass on the street looks like a Hopkins sophomore or a WASP-y housewife walking her dog. You ride your bike through Hamden and Remington and watch hipsters with all the ripped clothes and asymmetrical hair of those in Washington. But the Baltimore hipsters look less talkative, less energetic, sadder, like real hipsters. Regardless of how; people move to DC to change the world. People move to Baltimore to…does anybody move to Baltimore?

So you go back to Washington every weekend to relive the ever fading glory of your Washington existence – always visiting with your latest group of close friends whom you once thought of as friends of friends of friends before another circle of yours moved away. At parties you talk to all the girls you never hooked up with, and they're all now married. And as you push thirty, the mere thought of driving forty miles to get drunk and sleep on couches makes you feel ever more pathetic.  

At work, you complain daily about your Baltimore exile on g-chat to some of your best friends who’ve long since left Washington to chase such political glory as to be an aide in the Maine house of delegates, or an economist for the State of Massachusetts, or an elected New Jersey school board supervisor. Their inevitable response: “You just need to meet more people.”

Every day is a reverse commute to the county, which means that you drive ten miles in 40 minutes rather than 60. Lunch is at the house where you grew up, and three-or-so times a week you save money by eating dinner with your parents too. Baltimore is home, yet you hardly know anyone because even your childhood friends moved to DC. In point of fact you neither know this conurbation nor barely a soul in it. Every time your Dad navigates you to assist him looking at some out of the way run-down building in East Baltimore, you’re astonished that anyone could know their way so well around this phantom megalopolis.

Your parents have long since moved out of the old neighborhood. Dad swears that its main intersection is currently an outdoor one-stop-shop for heroin and meth disguised as a wholesale market, but he hasn’t been back there in thirty-five years, so how does he know? Mom lived there until she was 20 with her parents, grandparents, and great aunt: her and her brother the youngest members of her block's last white family. Some of their new neighbors let them know just how unwelcome they were to stay.

Even if you haven’t inherited their fear of Baltimore, you can’t help inheriting a certain dispiritedness at having come back. Baltimore is a city which peaked more than two hundred years ago. For centuries, it's been one of the East Coast’s ‘other' metropolises: a city whose low prices attract immigrants in the hope that their grandchildren can one day have the unlimited opportunities which DC or New York can afford them. You were going to be the one who got those unlimited opportunities, yet here you are, back in the family business, so that one day maybe your grandchildren can get the opportunities you didn’t.

But all is not lost. You do have two good friends in Baltimore - from the Washington days of course - a married couple who commute to Federal Government jobs whom you knew long before they were married or working at the Commerce department; and in all those years you never once observed them fail to curse the soul-crushing fakery of our capital. It’s a high-gloss high-priced, synthetic city full of synthetic people who pretend they mean to change the world as a means of massaging their egos and keeping it exactly the same. You always thought this argument was stupid, merely the ersatz sour grapes of people who failed to find what they wanted in Washington - but now the person who failed is you. And everything you loved about that celestial city of your dreams is now seems as smelly as rotten cheese. Something in you dies every time you meet a guy at a party who says he plans to move back home to build connections for a congressional run or yet another girl who tells you she works at a non-profit.

These two don’t know many people either, but the three of you are pretty happy together - seeing each other at least once a week and bound together by mutual resentment of your old stomping grounds. They take you to what they tell you are all the great Baltimore establishments: Does Washington have a bar devoted to nothing but scotch? Does Washington have an entire Greek enclave? Does Washington have crabcakes as good as Faidley’s? And you have to come around to them in some degree, because if there’s anything which Baltimore does better than any city in the world, it’s crabcakes, nostalgia, and venereal disease. They even tell you about a group for which you can get a political fix; a liberal politics meetup where you discuss the latest outrages at a bar while getting drunk. They can’t go this week, but you should.

You arrive for the meetup and the waitress points you to a table with four people. You make your introductions: a post-grad resident at a Hopkins biology lab, a MICA graduate who teaches high school art, a musician who quickly lets it slip that he knows Dan Deacon, and a retired government file clerk.

The conversation goes something like this:

“It’s terrible what’s happening with the Supreme Court and healthcare.”

“Could you believe how Scalia’s gloating?”

“It’s like he doesn’t even care if people know he’s openly partisan.”

“Well, what’s especially ironic about Scalia was that he was appointed to the court because he convinced the Senate that he was an impartial arbiter of the law after Robert Bork was absolutely upfront about advocating for conservative doctrine. But a year after he was appointed, Morrison vs. Olson happened and everybody knew that was bullshit. Scalia's dissent was thirty pages long and Harry Blackmun said it could be cut down to ten pages if Scalia took out the screaming.”

(long silence...)

“Yeah! And Alito’s just like him!”

It goes on like this for two and a half more hours, and after fifteen minutes you’ve already resolved that you’re not going back.

That Friday night, you’re back at your usual seat at the front bar of Club Charles with your married friends. Is there anywhere in Washington like Club Charles? You and the wife play the usual game: spot the cute hipster girl - on scales of 1 to 10, you rate them on attractiveness, ironic fashion sense, and the sourness of their demeanor. There are a plethora of over twenty-fives in the bar tonight, and you admit, you’d find every one of them attractive enough strike up a conversation if you didn’t think they’d be completely unimpressed by what you have to say.   

But then a completely new type, a familiar type, walks through the door. Everybody else in her group has the usual cute hipster attire, but this girl is wearing a black women’s dress jacket with a matching miniskirt and leather boots; a career pantsuit in a bar where most of the women make jewelry.

This bears more checking out. You walk past her table on the way to the to the bathroom just to see if your impression is right. Even from the top of the staircase you see that she’s extremely cute in that weird-faced way you like. But the second thing you notice is that all the other girls are drinking Natty Boh, but she’s drinking what looks like whiskey. You haven’t seen a girl like this since well... you know...

You force yourself to take a whiz, and then you double back. But right as you walk by, a little more slowly so you might get a little earful of what the girls are saying, you hear one say:

“It’s like that Scalia guy doesn’t care if anybody knows he’s got an agenda.”

“Well, everybody’s known that since Morrison vs. Olson.”

You know what’s coming...

After a silence a little too long, you turn to them just so you can say “don’t forget Mistretta vs. United States when Scalia called the Sentencing Commission a junior-varsity congress.”

Everybody but the pantsuit laughs uncomfortably, a bit shocked that someone heard their conversation. But this girl turns to you and says she’s going to buy you a drink. When you get the waitress's attention you order a Laphroaig and offer to pay for it yourself, she says that's nonsense and ‘Make it two.”

Over the next two hours you learn that she’s an environmental lobbyist who moved to Station North just three weeks ago and commutes every day on the MARC train. She’s exactly your age, worked on six congressional campaigns, and lived for two years in Northern Africa when she was in the peace corps. You tell her some of your history with Washington, and your lack thereof lately. The two of you discuss how Anthony Kennedy is going to find a way to kill the Individual Mandate while still looking like he’s compromising, what obscure justification Roberts will find for his majority opinion, and how this will affect Obama’s campaign in Ohio and Florida. Within two hours, you’re back at her townhouse on the corner of St. Paul and Fayette to spend the night.

Late the next morning, you wake up in her bed. She left a note on the pillow saying she’s already downstairs making brunch. You go down two flights of chandalier-adorned staircases to see her on the other side of her cavernous kitchen. She's still cooking, but on the counter you already see 
blueberry pancakes, french toast, belgian waffles, steak, smoked salmon, applewood bacon, eggs benedict, homemade bread, grilled scallops, wild mushrooms, pickled olives, sliced bell peppers, fresh fruit, danish, orange juice and champagne on ice. She points to a door and says to go through there to the dining room to meet everybody. 

So there are three people sitting at the dining room table; her flatmates - or technically her tenants. Directly to your right is one of the hipster girls from last night. She tends bar part-time at Ottobar and sells homemade jewelry online. The other two are much older - to your left is a 50-ish divorcee who tells you her kids are now in college and she’s looking to start over. Sitting across from you is a gay guy in his sixties who goes from house to house redecorating in exchange for free room and board.

You’re called back into the kitchen because she needs somebody to help wrap up brunch - lots more people are arriving in an hour and she needs somebody to put everything back in one of her two refrigerators. It’s an amazing spread, but why are you helping her instead of the roommates. You can’t ask her, because she’s on the phone explaining to someone how to get to her house from route 70.

“I should really be going.”

“Oh no, please stay. You’re going to love the other guests. They’re all coming out from Washington - all people I’ve worked with over the years. They’re great. Besides, you never know who you might meet.” ..then she gives me a wink..

So the wink either means she isn’t thinking relationship or she’s super-clingy and already trying to get a DC job for a potential boyfriend. Either way, this is probably win-win. And as you muse on that, you remember that you have a meeting at 2 to look at a building in Parkville. You dial home to try to get out of it.

“Dad, do you need me at the meeting?”

“Why didn’t you call earlier this morning?”

“I was asleep.”

“Well you should be driving already. We’re late too.”

“I thought the meeting’s at 2!”

“It’s at noon.”

“Is there any chance I can get out of this meeting?”

“It’s with Ted Diakanos. We can’t have this meeting without you.”

“Well can’t you just explain...”

“We need you there.”

“...Alright, I'll go...See you then....Bye” 

You hang up the phone and before you can form a word she says:

“You have to go. I’ll pack you a plate.”

“I really have to rush.”

“Don’t worry it’ll just take a second.”

It takes a little more than a second. But as she packs you three plates from her spread with a special bag with three compartments to separate them, she also makes you a mimosa in a plastic cup for the road, and in the seventy-five seconds she takes to do all this you two get to talk in the light of day. She gives you her number and she tells you she's busy during the week but she'd be up for something some weekend.

“Yes, I‘m the dream. Living in Baltimore, working in DC. I don’t understand why more people don’t do it. Even if all the jobs are in DC there are so many cheap places to live here.” She says as she finishes wrapping up the plates and hands me the bag. We start walking to the door.

“Well I can’t imagine it’s quite as easy unless you’re near the train station.”

“That’s not true, there are all sorts of neighborhoods around the 95 junction that are getting all kinds of Washington people. They’ve even called one of them Washington Heights to attract DC’ers. It’s gonna become known as a DC enclAAAAAAH!” She let's out a scream a split second after she opens the door.

And on her stoop lies a man whose mouth is wide open as though he’s snoring. His lips are invisible from his Hemingway beard but 
clearly he has no teeth. He’s wearing pea green suit but with no shirt to wear underneath and his fly is completely open. It’s obvious he’s neither wearing underwear nor circumcised. Out of the corner of your eye, you think you see a needle on the stoop.

The scream made him open his eyes, he raises his head up for three seconds, then says “It’s not Washington Heights. It’s called Pigtown,” and goes back to sleep.

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