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Seeing our town, the way the tourists do

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A funny thing happened on the way to Fort McHenry last weekend. The cab driver got lost, tried to pass off Federal Hill as the historic military post and then rattled off hot spots in the city, including the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, a striptease parlor on Pulaski Highway and the "African polar bear" exhibit at the Baltimore Zoo.

And that, dear friends, was just the beginning. . . .

The plan was to spend last Saturday acting like foreigners in a familiar land. With some 150,000 tourists expected to descend on Baltimore for the All-Star Game, we wanted to eat, shop and sightsee as if we'd never been here before. If self-perception counts, we're the city that feels like a small town. The land of steamed crabs and marble steps, "hon" and the harbor, Barry Levinson and Orioles baseball.

But from the outside looking in, how did the city stand up? Were we friendly, helpful, knowledgeable?

Or was Baltimore, as the governor recently groused, "missing the boat in tourism?"

With his advice to the hospitality business ringing in our ears ("All you have to do is say to tourists, 'Gee, we're glad you're here' ') we set out on a steamy morning for an adventure in Baltimore.

Trouble surfaced when we arrived at the Omni Hotel, and the parking attendant told us to remove our car keys from the chain.

"That way if we lose them," he said with a shrug, "you won't have to replace them all."

We shuddered. Before breakfast, Baltimore was already losing points.

But after pancakes at the hotel cafe and a side trip to the gift shop, during which the salesman restored our faith in the service trade by cheerfully cleaning our cheap new sunglasses with Windex, we were ready to meet the day.

Hailing a cab, we had been told, would be our greatest headache. Considering the horror stories we'd heard (40-minute waits, fights with other tourists, cabs that simply never arrive), we felt relieved to spend only 10 minutes furiously flailing our arms at the corner of Light and Lombard. Off we went to our first attraction: Fort McHenry.

Well, almost.

The trip, our affable cab driver told us, would cost $4. What he neglected to mention was that he didn't have a clue how to get there. Nor did he say that we would spend an hour in South Baltimore, get stuck behind a train unloading cargo for 38 minutes and be trapped in the back seat with no air conditioning and very loud reggae music ("Take your clothes off. Take it all off").

Our Bermuda Triangle

We knew we were in the tourist's Bermuda Triangle when our cabbie, who said he had lived in the city for 30 years, drove to the top of Federal Hill and tried to leave us there.

"Here we are," he mumbled. "Fort McHenry."

After we gently informed him there was no fort here, he said we must want to see "the other part" of Fort McHenry and drove around asking people for directions to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

"No, no," we wailed. "Fort McHenry. You know, Francis Scott Key, the Star-Spangled Banner."

In his defense, he turned the meter off at $4, and there's a detour to the Fort these days which makes it a more complicated trip. But still. . . .

There was also the problem of misinformation. During our time together, he offered his list of must-sees in Baltimore.

They included:

1. The Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center.

2. The Baltimore Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

3. German restaurants on Marketplace.

4. A men's striptease parlor on Pulaski Highway.

5. The "African polar bears" at the Baltimore Zoo.

(For the record, we checked in with the medical facilities afterward. Officials there said they were flattered but generally discourage tourists from dropping by, unless they are sick. The VA Medical Center does give tours on Thursdays by appointment only. If there are German restaurants along Marketplace, we have never seen them.

And while the Zoo does have two polar bears -- Magnet and Anana -- they are of the Arctic variety. "There's no such thing as an African polar bear," spokeswoman Jane Ballentine said between chuckles.)

A great place to visit

Before he dropped us off, the driver let us in on a secret.

"This city is interesting for tourists," he said. "But to live here is boring."

Once at the fort, our relief over safely leaving the cab overshadowed our interest in the historic site. The cannons, the guns, the guys dressed up like soldiers were swell, but what we appreciated most was the vending machine with cold soft drinks and the air-conditioning in the visitors center.

On our way to lunch, cabs again made the city seem an ugly thing. After calling a company, we asked how long the wait might be.

"I have no idea," said the dispatcher. "Thank you for the call."

Click.

Tsk, tsk, we thought. What would the governor say?

Thank goodness for Lexington Market. The smell of Old Bay in the air. The jazz trio in the courtyard. Faidley's crab cakes off in the distance. Forkfuls of lump crab -- golden brown on the outside, snow white within -- made us glad to be alive and well in Baltimore. While the platter wasn't cheap -- $10.95 -- for a softball-sized crab cake, fries and cole slaw, it was plenty for two.

Trying light rail

Our hunger fed, we were ready to take on another tourist pastime: waiting and waiting to enter the National Aquarium. This time, we decided to give light rail a try. Getting the ticket at Howard Street proved easy, even if a young man was spitting into the street and another was cursing over missing the bus.

As we waited with a dozen people, a homeless man wandered over.

"Being the devil ain't easy," he said as he tipped his tweed hat and walked away.

We were foolishly optimistic when we saw the short line at the aquarium. At the ticket counter, the attendant informed us there was a two-hour wait. So we wandered around, window-shopping, cooling off with lemon Italian ice and watching an older woman in a blue housedress hand out pamphlets: "Behold! The Ride of the Seven Headed Beast is Coming!!"

By 6 p.m., our moment had arrived. After a day of sweating in the hot sun, there was something soothing about watching dolphins and stingrays glide through the water.

We posed what we thought was a simple question to the staff: How many fish are there here? Of the seven people we found (some of whom were stationed at information desks), no one could answer. The replies ranged from "lots" to "a whole bunch" to "maybe 20,000."

Good thing we didn't ask what the Smooth Dogfish had for lunch yesterday.

(In fact, 5,000 "animals" -- including birds, fish and mammals -- call the aquarium home, according to spokeswoman Vicki Aversa.)

We ended the day in true tourist form, waiting again, this time for a table at Phillips Harborplace. On Saturday night at 8, the place was mobbed. The line just to put your name on the waiting list snaked out the door. At the bar, people were clamoring for the drink special of the night, an orange slush and vodka concoction that the bartender said tasted like Tang. (That's a selling point? we wondered.)

Twenty minutes later, we got our table. It was cold there. Children were crying nearby. And it took 10 minutes to get a basket of dinner rolls. The meal itself -- mushroom caps with crab imperial, shrimp cocktail, Caesar salads -- was mediocre. But who noticed? We were in the heart of tourist country.

In the end, we discovered it's not cheap being a tourist in this town. Our day-long total for two: $158. And it's not easy. But once you get beyond the fatigue, the frustration and the heat, it can be almost fun in a perverse sort of way.

Our only real disappointment?

No one ever called us "hon."

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