Check out dem plates, hon!
When Dave Desmarais looks in his rearview mirror, he often sees people in the car behind him pointing at his beat-up Subaru.
Motorists following Mr. Desmarais get all worked up when they see his celebration of a way of life emblazoned on vanity license plates.
The tags on the '82 Subaru scream: BAWLMER.
Bawlmer: the colloquial slurring of the jewel on the Patapsco.
Bawlmer: the unself-conscious universe where people
affectionately call friends and strangers "hon"; where rowhouse dwellers paint their window screens so people can't look in on hot summer nights and see them sitting in front of a fan in their underwear; where the Baltimore Colts Marching Band plays on and on nearly a decade after its team left town.
As the city's population dwindles with each burial of another old-timer from the working class and each moving van that hauls yet another family over the city line, Bawlmer shrinks toward an existence solely in memory, folklore and Dave Desmarais' license plates.
"It's a way of letting people know that I love the city," says Mr. Desmarais, a 35-year-old resident of Arabia Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. "I don't pretend to be the epitome of the Baltimore 'hon' person, but I'm not poking fun either. When Motor Vehicles [Administration] said you could put seven characters on a tag instead of six, I rushed down to claim the plate.
"Of course, a lot of people don't get it."
No 'deep, deep roots'
Dave Desmarais didn't get it for years.
With a French-Canadian father from New England and a Pennsylvanian mother, Mr. Desmarais moved to Baltimore at age 4 and grew up in Northwood. While young Dave had everything a kid might need, the boy was so culturally impoverished that by age 18 he had yet to eat a steamed crab or vacation in Ocean City.
This is a guy who introduces himself as "Dave, from Baltimore" when he's out-of-town?
"I've got this BAWLMER tag," he says, "but I don't have the deep, deep roots."
It wasn't until he left Calvert Hall High School in 1976 to study at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., that the idea of Baltimore as a place unique upon the Earth began to enchant Mr. Desmarais.
"I knew I was a true Baltimorean when I found myself defending the city against people who didn't know anything about it," he says. "I began to get this emotional sense: 'Hey, I'm from Baltimore,' and decided to educate myself so I could defend it with some knowledge."
To that end, he wrote a college paper on the city's Inner Harbor and dollar-house renaissance and, after graduating in 1980, he returned to the burg he had so viscerally defended -- home to Baltimore to explore in person what he mostly knew from books.
"I walked and drove everywhere. The harbor is the pretty face that people fall in love with, but I fell in love with the personality beyond the harbor," Mr. Desmarais says. "I went through all of the western part of the city, all of the forests in Leakin Park and Dickeyville. I walked the old Ma and Pa [Maryland & Pennsylvania] railroad line from North Avenue through Wyman Park and over to Cold Spring Lane through Roland Park, talking to people along the way and taking notes."
After immersing himself in the historic Baltimore of Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill, Mr. Desmarais began wandering the city's "industrial wilds," nosing his way along Erdman Avenue, North Point Boulevard -- areas he has yet to exhaust -- and stretches of Canton waterfront not yet transformed into marinas and condominiums.
"A lot of these places have been cut up by highways," he says. "I like to investigate the parts in between, the remnants."
Dave Desmarais' adventures take place between trips to pick up and drop off clothes for Park Charles Cleaners, his downtown business. If recently you found yourself behind him in traffic and hankered to see just where BAWLMER leads, you might have been delivered to the fabled Sip & Bite diner on Boston Street, a crab house in Dundalk or Mr. Desmarais' latest discovery: Morrell Park and the communities along Washington Boulevard.
Mr. Desmarais first glimpsed the area from the sterile elevation of Interstate 95, a modern highway of convenience that allows people to travel quickly without having to stop or meet anyone.
"I like to get off the highway just to look around," he says. "I saw a neighborhood that I knew nothing about just sitting there. I don't have any great revelations about Morrell Park to share except that it has some nice homes and some run-down areas. But it's exciting to stumble across a piece of the city I didn't know before."
And when Mr. Desmarais is entertaining out-of-town guests, exploration gives way to tried-and-true touchstones such as the ruby magnificence of the Domino Sugar sign in Locust Point.
"I like to tell them it's a neon sign the size of a football field," he says. "No one ever believes it."
As Mr. Desmarais roams the streets and alleys of Crabtown -- thrilled now and then to find himself idling next to the car with DUNDALK vanity plates -- does he detect a wane in the city's idiosyncratic pulse?
'Matter of principle'
"I think the 'hon' way of life is disappearing," he says. "The hons are leaving the city and moving out to White Marsh and Perry Hall. The hon stereotype [derived from white ethnics] is the Bawlmer stereotype. The people in Roland Park don't talk that way, and they've been entrenched forever. Blacks don't talk that way, and they've been here as long as anybody."
The "hon" part, says Mr. Desmarais, is the fun part.
Having worked with a local preservation group, his community association and the Downtown Partnership merchants association, he knows that the erosion of Bawlmer is nothing compared to the erosion of Baltimore.
"It takes a certain kind of person to live in the city by choice these days. I live and work in the city as a matter of principle," he says. "But the school system is dying and people get murdered every day -- I don't cower from crime, but the deterioration of the neighborhoods and the flight of the middle class, that's the real tragedy.
"Young people like me buy their first homes in the city and then leave when their kids get ready to go to school," says Mr. Desmarais, who is single and certain, for now, that he would remain in town if he has school-age children.
"We've got to reverse the population decline. We've got to pay attention to the neighborhoods, the schools and the libraries."