Saturday, April 10, 2010
There is almost nothing about my life that looks the way I had anticipated.
When I moved here to Baltimore, three years ago last week, I signed a year lease that I ambitiously thought I could break. I moved into a piece-of-crap row house on a street where the pavement buckled up like tectonic plates and the corner store had that awful buzzing fluorescent light and a single AC window unit that hummed non-stop in the summer when I flip-flopped down the block to buy one of those chocolate-chip cookie ice cream sandwiches and a roll of paper towels.
I had my sights set on something else when I moved here; a stop-gap effort to get away from the sand, the mosquitoes, and the glaring heat of the Gulf coast of Florida. I was sick of lizards finding their way into our house, sick of the violent and haphazard lightening storms, sick of cockroaches the size of small mice, and had had my fill of mojitos and cafe con leche with chickory and even the beach. I was even sick of the beach. Miles of white sand, twenty minutes from my house, and the water of the Gulf, flat and turqoise and bathwater warm and reeking of dead fish and full of things that sting.
I moved here expecting to hate it so much, it would spew me further north to a place I couldn't afford: New York. I moved here expecting to suffer. Save some money, get my bearings after three years of hurricanes and Floridian Evangelists, and propel onward.
And something happen: I stayed.
It wasn't for the view.
One of the things I love the very most about New Orleans is that the city can be conjured up in imagery, smell, and sounds. Sensual clues that, were you blindfolded and stuffed in the back of a truck and driven thousands of miles southward, would somehow be indicators of your location if you found yourself dropped off in the center of town, still blindfolded. A whiff of cajun seasoning, fresh flowers, sticky sweet liquor, salty fishy canal, and something underneath slightly fetid and mostly wild. New Orleans can be understood in a complex jazz sentence, in the vision of sun breaking through oak limbs and bathing wrought iron gates and fleur de lises in front of houses with columns.
I think I love it because it reminds me of Baltimore.
Baltimore is crabby, fishy, salty, beery, loud, dirty, rude, and completely obnoxious. Baltimore is old trees shadowing crappy city streets, rowhouses lumped up on one another. It's an expanse of city park, the grass so completely green it's obscene. It's parallel parking and oysters on the half shell and that same fishy, damp, salty canal smell. There's a sisterhood to be found between Old Bay and cajun seasoning, and everybody knows it. Baltimore is constantly at risk, the way New Orleans is. Why rebuild on below-sealevel land that's subject to Category 5 hurricanes? Why rehab another slice of neighborhood deep in drug land that's subject to gang cross fire? We do it because we can, because we believe in progress and change, and because there's a part of us that relishes the danger. We love The Wire. And we also love Ace of Cakes. We dig this grubby city that bakes in the summer and ices in winter. Baltimore can be understood in muddy, shallow water and cheap beer and sailboats and hope.
I don't know how long I'll stay here, or if there's a future here for me but I do know this: on my third anniversary here in Baltimore, I recognize that she and I have come to regard each other with much affection. I expected to hate it and, instead, I find it's become a part of me like my straight, thin hair and the fact that I'm almost certain my eyes are crooked. It's not something I love, but it's a part of me more genetically than anything else. And, mostly, I find myself loving it. The changing of seasons has become recognizable to me and the shift has me craving ice picks and raw oysters in an al fresco environment. I can't picture living anywhere else in the spring but here. I haven't yet grown disenchanted, I'm still conversing, and I'm still finding that there is something almost spiritual about Baltimore.
There's a reason I have such a soft spot for damaged, hard, wild, sticky sweet New Orleans. Because it reminds me of home, and the thought of some catastrophic event torching my own home is unbearable.