IHAVE NOT had much luck thinking up a new slogan for Baltimore. But after the events of this week, I do have a new candidate for the city's mascot. That would be Joe Bfstplk the Li'l Abner comic strip character who walked around with a rain cloud over his head. Joe Bfstplk was a human jinx, wherever he went, calamity followed.
Let's recap this week in our town.
A freight train carrying carloads of chemicals that could peel the skin off a Tyrannosaurus catches fire in a tunnel that runs for almost two miles underneath Howard Street on the western edge of downtown. At both ends of the tunnel, one at Camden Yards, the other near the Maryland Institute, College of Art, columns of smoke thick enough to choke a horse fill the air. Deep in the tunnel, the fire barbecues boxcars and apparently fricassees a 40-inch water main that ruptures, turning the Howard and Lombard street intersection into an imitation of the Okfenokee swamp. As of yesterday afternoon the situation in the tunnel could be described as "still frying."
Later in the week, the federal Office for Human Research Protection flexes its muscles and cuts off millions of dollars of research funds to medical units of the Johns Hopkins University, effectively putting a choke hold on medical experiments using human subjects. The feds took the action after investigating the death of a healthy 24-year-old volunteer who died after participating in an asthma study, and finding what it deemed as lapses in safety procedures. Hopkins is a big deal in this town. Cutting back the flow of federal research funds is a blow to any teaching hospital, but it hits Hopkins, the nation's largest medical research institution, especially hard. It is like the Health Department telling a Baltimore restaurant that it can't serve crabs.
Meanwhile, the city closes five more branch libraries. The libraries were said to be inefficient and out of sync with the needs of Baltimore's shrinking population. Interestingly, this desired streamline government does not seem to apply to City Council, which continues to operate at the same size it was 30 years ago. While the number of city libraries has dropped, City Council salaries have risen. A few years ago, council members even voted themselves a 30 percent raise.
Summing up, parts of our downtown are either on fire or underwater, our world-famous medical institution is in the federal doghouse, and we've got a government that is giving itself raises while closing libraries.
Welcome to Baltimore Joe Bfstplk.
If I sound chippy, that might be because I haven't slept well this week. You probably wouldn't either if you went to bed after being told to keep your doors and windows shut, your air-conditioning turned off, and to be on the alert for a toxic cloud that could float through your neighborhood.
Sleep tight; don't let the hydrochloric acid cloud bite.
For several days running, those of us who live near Mt. Royal Avenue and Howard Street, or what a friend of mine aptly described as "the chimney end of the Howard Street tunnel," have been breathing the smoky air and listening to warnings about toxic gases. We sniff the air and debate whether it smells more like charred wood or burned wiring. Most evenings there has been a haze, or as we like to call it, an "urban fog" wafting through the pear trees.
Like a lot of folks in this town, I got stuck in traffic snarls resulting from the fire. Wednesday afternoon when the fire started, I was headed down to an Anne Arundel County crab house when I encountered the Camden Yards mess. There, the combination of rush hour traffic, an abruptly canceled Orioles game, and clouds of dark smoke streaming out of the south end of the Howard Street tunnel had turned downtown traffic into a quagmire. Fortunately, I was in a Volvo driven by Steve "Cannonball" Kaiser, a man innately familiar with the back streets and alleys of this city, if not its traffic laws. We went through parts of South Baltimore where no Volvo has gone before, but we got out of town and down to our crabs.
However, later that night when we tried to get back home, we found ourselves riding the Beltway, two taxpayers barred from our city. Police had closed the entry ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. We were also repelled at the I-95 ramp, and discouraged at the U.S. 40 ramp. We continued to head west on the Beltway and somewhere around the Social Security Administration complex, Kaiser penetrated the defenses, slicing through an industrial park and snaking his way onto Northern Parkway. By then, the Jones Falls Expressway had been closed - Baltimore's first response to any emergency, ranging from snowfall to a train tunnel fire is to close the Jones Falls Expressway - so we ducked down Greenspring Avenue and scooted through Druid Hill Park and eventually arrived at my house in Bolton Hill. In Baltimore, it pays to know your back routes.
When I arrived home I saw a policeman standing on the corner, rerouting cars from the nearby smoldering train tunnel.
I tried to look on the bright side of the hazy evening. The tunnel fire had done what years of lobbying by neighborhood groups had failed to accomplish. Namely it got police officers out of their cars, working the neighborhood on foot.
Yesterday, as the brave workers removed chemicals from leaking cars, and tenacious firefighters tried to get the upper hand on the smoldering tunnel, I tried to maintain that upbeat attitude and put a positive spin on the week's events.
True, the fire was scary and did raise a series of questions about the safety of transporting chemicals through old railroad tunnels. The fire and its aftermath did cause the Orioles to postpone several games at Camden Yards. But on the other hand, the Orioles were in a tailspin, losing eight of their last 10 games. So the fire might have done the O's a favor.
Moreover, we should be extremely grateful that trouble struck this week, and not one week earlier when thousands of folks were at Artscape, sitting on the hillside next to what is now "the chimney end of the tunnel," and listening to Smokey Robinson.
Come to think of it, I might have a slogan for our town, "One week Smokey Robinson, the next week smoke." We could put it on T-shirts, above an image of Joe Bfstplk.