Sixteen years ago I wandered Manhattan for The Sun to ask 100 New Yorkers a simple question: "What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Baltimore?"
My 15-year-old daughter, Amelia, accompanied me and we stayed at the storied Hotel Chelsea, long known as a hangout for writers and scientists and artists and weirdos, but to be remembered by us for the Yankee fans working the night desk.
No time is a good time to root for the Baltimore Orioles in New York, but last weekend was especially humiliating.
We left Highlandtown on Friday morning, the day after the O's avenged their Yankee Stadium loss to the umpire in cahoots with the 12-year-old in the bleachers.
At the Chelsea, we unpacked our bags with optimism. Three consecutive games would be played at Camden Yards and, while our Manhattan weekend would be busy with shopping and sunshine and oddities one sees only in the Apple, baseball in Baltimore was never far from our minds.
The third-grader inside of me -- the kid who still savors the World Series sweep of the Dodgers in 1966 -- thought the O's could make short work of the Yanks and head for the Series. Was it so fantastic to think they'd take two out of three? Surely they'd win at least one.
Friday began with a chunky lady cab driver from Russia eavesdropping on a conversation about a story I was working, one in which a man abandons his family, drops dead in another state and lies in a pauper's grave for years. And all that time his family, ignorant of his death, thinks that one day Papa will walk through the door again.
(It's sort of like a grown man thinking the 1996 Orioles will sweep the Yankees at Camden Yards.)
"You are private detective?" asked the cabbie.
"You can maybe find someone who does not want to be found?"
And then she scribbled down the name of a political exile with whom she'd like a few words. Of serious matters, such as baseball, the hack did not venture whether Mike Mussina would prevail that night.
We walked for miles through lower Manhattan. Amelia entered ** every shop offering clothes you can't find on Eastern Avenue -- not even at Shocket's -- and I waited outside for her, watching the daughters of sultans and surgeons and steamfitters walk by.
You don't see faces like these in Baltimore. Not even at the Circle Bar-B-Q on Dundalk Avenue.
We returned to the Chelsea to get ready for dinner and left with the O's ahead on an early home run, turning our backs on the desk clerk when he cautioned that it was only the first inning. For the next eight innings, Gene Hackman's portrayal of a death row racist in "The Chamber" kept us from an updated score.
Back at the Chelsea, we could see the guy behind the desk smiling from across the lobby, and our hearts sank as he stood for an impersonation of Cecil Fielder crushing a home run. As the elevator closed, we heard him cackle in that most annoying of all urban accents: "How 'bout dem Yankees."
The next day, in honor of Oriole attempts to catch and throw, New York Post headlines screamed: BIRD BRAINS.
Saturday morning, we met an old buddy from Roland Park, J. B. Howard, at the Coffee Shop on Union Square West. Now hip-slick-and-cool, the Shop was once the kind of deco lunch room that existed here on a street named for one of J. B.'s distant relatives, John Eager Howard.
Unlike us, J. B. had watched the previous night's entire game, although his concentration broke slightly when a bachelorette party descended on his quiet pub. Drinking heavily, the young women proceeded, he declared, to remove their blouses while dancing around the bar.
Nonetheless, said J. B., recounting the O's horrific eighth inning, the evening was "a disaster."
The rest of the day was again spent on the Lower East Side, where we stumbled upon the weekend's rarities.
The first was a hippie bus, one of those half-sized school buses converted into a mobile home complete with a Dutch door and cacti growing on the dashboard. The kicker was on top of the bus, where the groovies had welded the hollowed-out body of a Volkswagen van.
A skylight? "No," said a guy in his 20s. "It's my Dad's master bedroom."
Later, we were treated to something even more surreal: a wooden coffin sticking out of the trunk of a yellow cab.
The record 48,974 fans who showed up at Camden Yards that night could have used it to bury the home team, who fell to the Yankees 8-4 behind four New York home runs.
Returning from a screening of Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard" at the Angelika Film Center on Mercer Street, we were again greeted by our friend behind the Chelsea desk.
"Let me give you the instant replay," he said, pretending to be Darryl Strawberry. He hit one imaginary home run and repeated: "Let me give you the instant replay."
Why? Because Darryl hit two homers. The Post gloated: BOMBERS AWAY!
Sunday was the day we went to see the long-lost "Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus" at Lincoln Center. The film started at 4 p.m., about the same time Game 5 got under way in Baltimore. By then, it was hard to believe that the Birds were in much better shape than the Stones' Brian Jones -- dead -- but we nurtured hope that it ain't over 'til it's over.
Outside the theater was a poster for an Oct. 28 concert called "I Am Anne Frank." Inside, a young Mick Jagger sang: "I rode a tank, held a general's rank, when the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank "
Does anyone else believe that Mick has a debt to settle in the world to come?
The "Circus" was superb. John Lennon sang the blues, there was priceless footage of the incomparable Keith Moon, and the crowd applauded nearly every song except the one marred by Yoko Ono.
On the ride to the bus station, the cabbie had the game on with the Birds down 6-0. Cold comfort was not having to face the home run-hitting desk clerk again, who on this day could have imitated his boys three times.
On the bus ride home, we asked no one for a score, simultaneously trying to forget while indulging in the folly of a comeback. They wound up hitting three homers late in the game, only to lose 6-4.
At least the news was delivered by a friendly face on hallowed ground. A chum picked us up at the O'Donnell Street bus station and tossed our bags into his trunk with the old balm: "Wait'll next year."
Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun.
Pub Date: 10/20/96