From cheap to chic: Such ordinary things as beer and T-shirts have gone to higher callings


Only a few years ago, nerds were the main buyers of Swiss Army watches, the ones with the red heart logo on the dial. But judging from the way these things sell today at the Inner Harbor, there is not the least hint of style incompetence associated with the watch I once thought only Appalachian Trail walkers and science teachers owned.

What is it today? The most ordinary, commonplace objects have been transformed, then marketed into semiluxuries.

We buy T-shirts with silk-screened blue crabs and the word "Baltimore" on the front. The price? $17.

It dawned on me this summer why certain beers have become downright expensive. Beer used to be thought of as a working-class beverage, while the expense-account crowd ordered mixed drinks and cocktails.

Now that's all been changed. The ingredients in these select beers have grown as complicated as the recipe for a Morning Glory Fizz, a 1920s favorite:

Juice of half a lemon or 1 lime, half tablespoon powdered sugar, 1 egg white, 2 dashes Absinthe, 1 glass Scotch; shake well, strain into long tumbler and fill with siphon soda water.

If this formula sounds ridiculous, consider the sound advice a waiter gave me recently at a Pratt Street bar. "Don't order that beer. The customers say it tastes like sweet wine."

There was a time when you couldn't give a fountain pen away. They never went out of production, but they were considered fussy curiosities that only a few dandified types sported.

That's changed. A few weeks ago I watched a neighbor push mow (push lawn mowers, possible new lawn-care status symbol?) his backyard grass with a deluxe European quill clipped rakishly across his shirt front. No. It was not secured in the pocket, but attached on the diagonal near the buttons so all would note its presence.

Those of us trained in the art of penmanship under the rigors of a Catholic education are familiar with fountain pens.

In the 1950s, we were indoctrinated that ball points ruined your fingers and made your writing illegible. We bought inexpensive but reliable Sheaffer pens. The ink got all over the paper and it ran on envelopes that got wet during a rainstorm. The ink bottles were even more fun.

We hardly considered fountain pens to be status symbols. Like T-shirts, they were merely commonplace, useful objects.

If we've elevated beer, fountain pens, Swiss Army watches, we've also transformed iced tea.

The aggressive promotion of the commonplace strikes again.

Iced tea has long been one of my favorite beverages. It is one of the few drinks that tastes great on a stinking hot day. It is also very inexpensive to make. Tea bags cost about two cents each. Five will make enough iced tea for a day -- and that's if you drink a lot of it. Sugar and lemons will add to the cost.

Now I see people shelling out $1.29 for bottled iced teas. More when they buy a carton of the stuff at a grocery store.

If iced tea has achieved a certain prominence (and price), coffee is today's crown jewel of commonplace promotion.

A cup of Java was once the universal drink. You didn't even think about it. It was just coffee.

The magnification of the commonplace has rocketed coffee to the heights. Coffee drinking is now so stylish there is a magazine devoted to the subject. I watch people enjoy their Colombian roast accompanied by a scone, or what is always called a "freshly baked" scone. Can you imagine eating a stale scone?

Along with coffee, there is the cigar. Here is another example of the elevation of the ordinary, one that flies in the face of medical advice, too. Try walking into the Explorers Lounge of Light Street's Harbor Court Hotel at 10 p.m. without inhaling a cloud of Honduran smoke.

My grandfather loved his cigars. Every mirror in the house where we all lived had a trace of his cigar smoke on it. He also liked coffee, iced tea and fountain pens. And, he was crazy for stewed prunes, but don't count on dried prunes to make a comeback.

I wonder if anyone will ever aggressively market such Baltimore favorites as stewed tomatoes, scrapple, cole slaw or Bergers and Otterbein cookies. (Crab cakes, by the way, are in the early stages of national mass marketing and promotion.) But as a long shot, I'll nominate stewed muskrat as the least likely dish to make it big in the come-from-nowhere to bright-spotlight status.

After all, stranger things have happened. Stylish types who once drove BMWs are now switching to utility vehicles -- Jeeps, Explorers, Land Cruisers and plain old trucks. I once thought only civil engineers, game wardens and farmers traveled this way. Not so. Just glance at the street or your neighbor's car.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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