I see a guy I haven't seen for a long time. He's leaning on the wet, wooden counter at Faidley's raw bar in Lexington Market, the one with the sign that says, "Forget Viagra, eat oysters." I say hello. Right away, Tom -- that's the guy -- announces that he's getting out of Baltimore. He hates this town. It's a backwater.
Tom, I say, what's wrong? What happened?
"Everything," he says, in answer to the first question.
I don't know how long Tom has been standing at the raw bar, or whether he's been imbibing malt beverages. All I know is, it's 2 o'clock on a Monday afternoon, Lawrence Bell has just campaigned here, the place is full of life, and I've been enjoying political conversation with all sorts of people on a stroll from the Paca Street building to the Eutaw Street arcade.
Tom's buddy, standing to his right, appears to be enjoying a plateful of juicy clams. It's a nice scene, one of the reasons I like the markets so much -- white people, black people, Asian-American, blue-collar, white-collar, all attracted to the great good place, hangin', talkin', eatin', doin'.
I was just getting in the mood for this classic Baltimore experience when Tom hits me with the Nickel Town Blues.
He says the city is backward, decrepit, down. Panhandlers everywhere. Drug dealers and drug addicts hanging on the corners. "Did you see that mob hanging outside the market?" Tom snaps, with disgust.
As a matter of fact, I did.
There were lots of guys between 15 and 35 standing on Eutaw. It didn't bother me, though; the intersection of Eutaw and Lexington is almost always like that. City streets are supposed to be busy and crowded. I managed to get past the body-oil salesmen without getting a free sample on my arm. (Sorry, fellas, the fragrances are a little on the pungent side.) I walked into the arcade, said hello to Paul Devine at the Crab Pot, walked through the main market, checking out the eats -- the big, steamy mound of beef grilling for cheese-steak subs, the homemade pound cakes and cookies at two bakeries, the fresh red meats in glass cases, loads of fresh fruits and vegetables.
It's nice to walk into Lexington Market, just to see how it's doing -- and it always appears to be doing well. Based on what you see in a few minutes in the old hall, you become convinced that all those grim reports on Baltimore -- such as last week's in Time magazine -- are exaggerated.
If a guy doesn't feel good about his city while walking the streets, or while watching the 11 o'clock news, he should at least feel good about his city while standing in Lexington Market.
That's why Tom took me by surprise.
Then he sang an old, familiar song. He moaned something about wanting to leave Baltimore for good, to move to a more cosmopolitan and civilized city -- and he didn't mean White Marsh.
Tom probably has in mind New York or Boston or maybe Atlanta.
But you know what?
He didn't sound very convincing. As feisty as I found him, he didn't really sound determined to go.
I've heard that tune before. It's the Nickel Town Blues: "I hate this city -- man, it's a hard town -- but I ain't goin' nowhere."
The sentiment -- that fed-up, disgusted feeling -- exists right alongside civic pride. It rubs hard against the remnants of love for old Charm City.
This special mixture of feelings stirs not so much in the souls of the departed -- the thousands who've left Baltimore during the last two decades -- but in the hearts of those who stay and pay the high taxes, who put up with the annoyances of city living, who struggle with all the obvious contradictions of this town.
We don't see things changing for the better.
Especially when it comes to drugs and crime. Heroin has killed whole swaths of Baltimore. When are we going to get that out of our system and move on? The junkies, shall they always be with us?
I know that song Tom was singing. It's so frustrating, this town.
A Baltimorean could read last week's Time magazine story on the mayor's race and the state of the city, and feel weary resignation -- drugs, crime, declining population, substandard schools -- slamming hard against faith in the city's future.
That's why we had the hunt for Mayor Big this year. It explains the long, ultimately fruitless effort to seduce Kweisi Mfume, a man with a big personality, biracial popularity and a mastery of words and symbolism, to run for office.
We're frustrated. We're looking for a local hero.
Once there was a Baltimore Renaissance, and the Baltimore Renaissance was supposed to take the city to a higher place. There was supposed to be a Baltimore Renaissance Redux, too. All the money and effort that went into the Inner Harbor, the stadium complex, the empowerment zones -- all that was supposed to spread the wealth and good feelings around downtown and to the neighborhoods, to keep or make them livable. Instead, drugs and crime keep poisoning the lifeblood of the city. And the schools struggle. And the population falls. And rowhouses disappear.
It's a huge weight, all that.
The next mayor has to accept it.
The next mayor has to hit the ground with all engines in gear.
The next mayor has to give those of us who still live here -- those of us who sing the Nickel Town Blues -- a reason to stay. The next mayor needs to convince us, with fire and passion, that things are going to change.
Pub Date: 9/06/99