Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Rodricks: Look up from your smartphone; you're missing out

You could walk here and walk there, never looking up and never looking down, rarely looking left and rarely looking right, and you would miss just about everything: the woman in what appeared to be a purple panda outfit at the bus stop on Baltimore Street, for instance, or the woman in the black hijab marching along with a baguette like a drum major with a baton.

On Wednesday, you would have missed clouds like wedding cakes over the grand old beaux-arts B&O Building. You would have missed the cheerful red and yellow touches on the upper floors of a Calvert Street bank converted into an apartment building.

If your eyes are on your smartphone as you walk, you risk collision and injury — especially at the intersection of Fayette and St. Paul, when they let the jurors out of the courthouse for the day.

But even more important than personal injury, if you never look up and never look down, never look left and never look right, never look beyond the electronic device in your hand, you risk missing the great pageantry of beaten-but-unbowed Baltimore.

I got into this over drinks at the Laughing Pint in Highlandtown, and the women seated at my table, all of them artists, understood exactly: If you spend too much time texting and tweeting, you miss stuff, like the monogrammed stained glass windows of Zannino’s, the funeral home across Conkling Street from the bar, or the old balustrades and terracotta on the building at Charles and Hamilton, the one that houses Gian Marco Menswear. I bet I’ve walked past that place 10,000 times but never noticed those touches before.

So the other day, so warm it could have been Opening Day, I kept my gaze up and my phone in my pocket.

At the crowded bus stop on Charles Street, I nodded hello to a large man in black gym shorts, an Orioles jersey and an Orioles hat. A panhandler in a T-shirt and jeans held up a small cardboard sign that said, “2 Humble 2 Steal.” A stoic and impeccably attired man I took for an attorney, because of the fine leather briefcase in his hand, walked right through the gathering. And right behind him came a woman in a T-shirt, a Tootsie Pop in her mouth, pushing a stroller.

A large, round frown of a woman asked a man with a beard for money so she could get something to eat, and he said something that set her off. Suddenly, there was a sidewalk eruption of mean metaphors. And just then, and just like that, the man’s bus arrived; its hydraulics sighed, the door opened and the man fled into the middle seats.

I had just come from the post office in the old courthouse on Calvert Street. I mailed a cookbook to my brother, and the postal clerk could not have been nicer about the whole thing, making sure I knew that the book rate would get the package delivered in three days at half the cost of first class.

There are heavy brass doors at the old post office. I held one open for two women, and one of them said, “Thank you, sugar.”

I walked across Calvert Street along Fayette, careful not to slam into any of the jurors happily dismissed from duty and departing the courthouse.

I looked at my phone long enough to see a message from the Baltimore Police Department: “At approximately 1:30 pm, officers were called to the 500 block of McMechen Street for a report of a shooting. When officers arrived, they found a 32-year-old man with gunshot wounds to his body. The man was transported to an area hospital where he died from his injuries.”

I know it’s happened many times before: killing in fine weather. But you would think that, on such an unusually warm and crazy-beautiful winter day, perhaps the meanest, angriest human beings in this city would be moved to liberation and revival rather than anger and violence.

You would think.

I put the phone back in my pocket. Just then, down at my feet, I noticed something: rows of glass-block skylights in the sidewalk. The historian Wayne Schaumburg mentioned these to me a couple of years ago with regard to the Great Fire of February 1904. It has long been suspected that someone tossed a cigar or cigarette onto a sidewalk on the west side of downtown, and this cigar or cigarette rolled into a broken skylight above the basement of a dry-goods business. That is said to have ignited the fire that destroyed Baltimore’s business district. Some of these sidewalk skylights remain, Schaumburg said, and had I not looked down the other day, I would have missed them.

But then, had I lingered, I would have missed my bus, and I would have missed the moment when a woman sneezed, and four passengers at once said, “God bless you!”

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