On the eve of a hard-fought primary election for mayor, The Sun's editorial page staff decided to look beyond the gloomy statistics that so often are used to characterize Baltimore.

Members of the staff fanned out across the City to examine how Baltimoreans live, work and play -- at all hours of the day and night. Here's what they saw:

6 a.m., Broening Highway

The day dawns with thunder and lightning in southeast Baltimore -- a storm brewing inside 2122 Broening Highway, with the clatter of metal against metal and sparks flying.

General Motors Corp.'s Broening plant, Baltimore's largest manufacturing employer, has begun another day making vans. The factory's beneficial impact on the region m immense: It contributes $1 billion to the local economy, employs 2,800 people and is responsible for 4 000 jobs at outside suppliers.

That's why Maryland's congressional delegation, the governor and mayor have been lobbying GM to keep manufacturing vehicles in Baltimore even if it discontinues the Astro and GMC Safari models made here.

About 800 vehicles will be made at Broening Highway this day, like most others. The manufacturing floor is so immense -- 3 million square feet -- that workers get around on old single-speed bicycles, like a scene out of Beijing.

At 6 a.m., the line begins with a floorpan, a piece of metal small enough to hold in your arms. By 5 p.m. the next day, it and 1,356 other pieces will form a vehicle ready to drive out the door.

The intricacy of the process is mind-boggling. Every van has a manifest that describes the final product in detail: what size engine, what style tires, the color, whether it has a CD player.

When a vehicle passes a particular station along the seven-mile assembly line, the part needed on that particular van not the one before or the one after - better be there. Just-in-time inventory, a concept adopted by American manufacturing years ago, makes the task even more exacting since the supply of any given part is so limited. Most pieces arrive by train or truck just hours before they're placed on a van.

There are 175 robots in the plant, spot-welding here and spray painting there But some tasks, such as making sure the radio plays the correct station, require a human touch.

At this sprawling plant, nondescript but for the painted logos of the company and auto workers union on an adjacent railroad bridge, you uncover clues about what happened to cities like Baltimore -- and maybe a silver lining.

When more people made things with their hands, when they felt a purpose as keenly as these men and women apparently do, cities prospered -- economically, but also psychologically.

Many manufacturing jobs have moved to the Sunbelt or overseas. Perhaps they'll never come back. But whatever heavy manufacturing opportunities do arise are best suited to sites like this, near rail, highways and a port.

The suburbs increasingly are rezoning what little industrial land they have for residential subdivisions. The state, if it can afford the incentives to lure this kind of work, won't likely be able to pay for the infrastracture to accommodate manufacturing at places other than Broening or near it.

People who don't think real work happens in the city anymore haven't been here.

7 a.m., Cross Keys

They walk from the elevated Cross Keys parking lot past a shop called Gazelle, past boutiques named for Italian and French designers to reach the Crossroads, an any-place dining room with the reputation of being someplace.

They don't come for the eggs. They come to pitch themselves and their ideas -- to make a relationship or flash their credentials as someone to know.

These are the deal-makers, the facilitators, the zealous schmoozers.

Regulars at this power-breakfast mecca include Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin; developer Theo Rogers; Rouse Co. executive Tony Deering; Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick: Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; Maggi Gaines of Baltimore Reads; and mayoral candidate Carl Stokes.

Mr. Stokes, who makes the Crossroads an unofficial office these days, came one day last week with a financial backer and the backer's partner, hoping the partner could be persuaded to make a contribution. Mr. Stokes proffered his warmest two-handed handshake.

"I see a lot of people I need to see here," he told an acquaintance. "The Post do anything today?" he asked, hoping the Washington paper will have given him more of the exposure that makes a candidate seem like a good investment for those seeking friendly ears in government,

On another morning, Mr. Stokes scheduled back-to-back breakfast sessions. He stepped from one group to another, table-hopping of a higher order not uncommon at Crossroads.

Of all the noted breakfast spots in Baltimore -- from Windows at the Renaissance Hotel and the venerable Werner's to the funky Papermoon in Remington, Jimmy's in Fells Point and Cafe Hon in Hampden --Crossroads may be the most accommodating.

Manager Vernon Adams will wait while you see if your party has arrived. If it hasn't, he will find you a table, (He can give you a room for 20 if you need it.)

Regulars get personal care from an attentive, unobtrusive wait staff. Lainy Lebow-Sachs, chief aide to Comptroller William Donald Schaefer when he was governor, says her V-8 is virtually there to greet her.

Ms. Lebow-Sachs, a senior vice president at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, remembers when the place was called The Roost and featured a tight maze of cozy banquettes.

"If you didn't know everyone in every banquette," she says, "you were nobody."

But if you were nobody, you weren't there.

8 a.m. Cross Street Market

By this time at Cross Street Market, 41-year-old Dorothy McClosky has sold a few dozen donuts, eclairs and muffins and dispensed her take on the problems facing South Baltimore.

"I don't know why they keep working on things that don't need more working on, like the Inner Harbor," she says from her perch behind the counter at Donuts, Pastries & Bakery. "What they need to do is concentrate on getting small businesses back around here. Good businesses that people can afford."

Places like Epstein's and the Princess shop, she says between customers. Or how about Al Bass men's clothing store or the Rainbow Shop for women and children's apparel? Those were affordable Light Street destinations, but now they're gone, too.

"Used to be, you could buy anything you needed right around here. You didn't have to go anywhere," she says. "Now, all the affordable stores are out at the mall. You'd be lucky if you can find a decent place to buy a handkerchief down here, It's sad,"

Here, just blocks from the Inner Harbor, lies the crossroads of urban renewal and decay in Baltimore

Half-million dollar houses sit not more than four blocks from "shooting galleries" where heroin junkies get their fixes. And higher rents along the commercial streets have pushed many family-oriented small businesses out, while upscale Federal Hill tastes have attracted trendy bars and restaurants to take their places.

Not much of value remains for working-class Baltimoreans along Light, Hanover and Charles streets. Ms. McClosky says. It's either super-high end or absolutely undesirable. The number of coffee houses seems to grow each year, but so does the number of pawn shops.

Cross Street Market is where the two worlds of this neighborhood collide, where professionals brush by men whose names are stitched on their shirts. Along the aisles of the market, fancy wine and cheese sellers have sprung up near the barbecue stand and lunch counter. Fresh flowers are sold next to pounds of meat mid fish.

Mary King stops by the donut stand to pick up coffee and donuts on her way to work at a dental office near the harbor, Ms. McClosky asks about the house she just bought on Hanover Street -- a low-priced fixer-upper that Ms. King and her fiancee will renovate. Like so many others, they are hoping to capture a piece of the Federal Hill boom.

"It's not my favorite area, and I'm not planning on sitting out on my front steps anytime soon," said Ms. King, whose house is far enough south to be considered in a marginal area. "But I hope it gets better. If we just get some businesses on the south end of the neighborhood, it'll come back."

Ms. McClosky, who has worked in the market for eight years, is friendly with regulars from both ends of the neighborhood's spectrum.

But as they leave their morning respite, headed in polar opposite directions, Ms. McClosky wonders: What will it take to make the differences in the neighborhood -- and Baltimore -- more seamless?

9 a.m., Bolton Hill

One-hundred twenty students, each dressed in navy blue sweaters and skirts or pants and white polo shirts, bound into the basement cafeteria for the morning routine of the Pledge of Allegiance, "My Country 'tis of Thee' and the school song. On a board in a nearby classroom is the note: Welcome everyone.

In a city where the highly segregated public schools are so troubled that the state has intervened to help run them, that message resonates at this experimental school.

Midtown Academy in Bolton Hill, which opened two years ago, was one of nine such city schools started or taken over by non-profit groups under the New Schools Institute 1997 and 1998.

Initially, a lot of folks were betting that Midtown would falter. After all, how could parents united on one idea-- a better public school with a diverse population -- start a school from scratch and succeed?

But last year, Midtown matched the statewide average for scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and posted the best overall MSPAP score in the city.

The school belies nearly all the stereotypes about city schools: that the children can't learn, that the parents don't care and that any innovation is doomed to fail.

If Midtown can beat the odds, shouldn't that give hope to other city schools?

Wendy Samet, a former board president at the school, mother of two students there and a white Bolton Hill resident, is a believer -- not just in Midtown's academic success, but also in its ability to bridge the gap between affluent Bolton Hill and struggling Reservoir Hill.

This year, seven students in the kindergarten class -- nearly one-third -- are white, The first year, there were only three.

"Bolton Hill clearly didn't trust us right away," she said. "But now people are saying, 'There's a good school right here in my neighborhood.'"

10 a.m., Edmondson Village

It's orientation day at St. Bernardine's Head Start and Learning Center in Edmondson Village, and the basement auditorium is humming, Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, fathers and -- most important -- the children fill the chairs set up 12 across and 10 rows deep. Toddlers wiggle and whisper, peeking out from behind jackets and notebooks.

Acting director Angela Ligon sets down the challenge: "These are the children of the millennium. They are our babies, but they are your children. You are your child's primary educator."

She is swift and sure in reminding parents of their jobs. Of entreating them to get involved in the learning lives of their bright-faced children. Ms. Ligon is an able leader, reaching into the crowd and trying to open each person's eyes to possibilities for the whole family.

This 18th year at St. Bernardine's is beginning like many others in troubled neighborhoods in Baltimore. The goal is rebuilding from within, one family at a time.

Anees Abdul-Rahim, the male involvement director, speaks about the Creator's intention in forming families and repairing bonds that have been broken. Will they help him? Heads nod and murmurs run across the rows of seats.

It's 11:05. The little ones' heads are now resting in laps. Arms and legs twitch impatiently. How much longer?

The teachers file to the lectern and call their students. The Imani room, the Heshema room -- each classroom in this Afrocentric program is named for someone or something unique to African-American culture. Heads perk up. Backpacks and jackets rustle. Students and caregivers fall into line.

"That's your teacher," a woman chirps to the little boy standing beside her. Wide-eyed, he looks up into the forest of adults, mustering a self-conscious wave, then drops his hand to his baseball cap, working the edge hard.

"You were my friend last year," his teacher says reassuringly. "I remember you"

Many of the members of the Education Team came to St. Bernardine's' first as moms. The adult education program at St. B's offers a 90-hour childhood education certification program, which qualifies graduates to be teacher's assistants. The Head Start program helps pay tuition for those who choose to earn bachelor's degrees and become teachers.

That's how Angela Ligon came into the program 10 years ago. She is busy this day, making sure all will be ready when the 200 registered children arrive. While they are here, they will learn a bit about the social graces and practice prereading skills. They will also learn Swahili, take cultural field trips and begin to weave the African values on their classroom walls into their own lives.

More than that, these children of the millennium, and their families, will learn about hope and opportunity in their West Baltimore neighborhood. And that most any stumbling block can be removed, with the help of caring neighbors.

11a. m., Reisterstown Road

Reisterstown Road Plaza: An oasis of calm awaits the very old and very young-- a city mall that boasts all the activity you'd find in some suburban spots.

Several folks sit in the chairs scattered abundantly, some in twos, most singly, silent and expressionless. Few will see 80 again. More are white than black, while the few shoppers are more black than white. Workers in the stores are black, white and Asian.

As the minutes mount, activity picks up. Back to School sales are everywhere (back-packs, $6.99). Two boys, 10 and 12, examine running shoes. Why aren't they Back to School?

This is like Oriole Park in batting practice. Too few people, but the storekeepers are sweeping, rearranging and preparing for the game.

The mall looks prosperous, with only a few vacancies. Where Caldor's closed, wall-boards block the entrance, displaying art by third-graders at Cross Country Elementary School.

A vigorous man in his 60s, arms pumping, face frozen in a half-smile, strides purposefully by on the west side heading south, sporting blue polo shirt, khaki shorts and walking shoes. He sails to Burlington Coat Factory's door and swerves northbound on the east side. First mall-walker of the morning.

The pace picks up as noon approaches. Young parents with preschool children cruise the shops. Important-looking gents in white shirts and ties descend from the offices. Fast-food patrons join brown-baggers at the tables.

One table has three schmoozers, old men gabbing about old times. ("His father was a Litvak, remember?") A 4-year-old sits happily in a train that will shake you for 50 cents. He does his own shaking, free. An athletic 6-year-old confuses another ride for a trampoline. No one objects.

A few men and women in their 20s or 30s sit singly at tables, busy reading or writing. This could be a Paris cafe.

The empty mall has become the Street of Life. The tables fill with lunchers. The shops, if not busy, are at least engaged. A second mall walker appears, full-bearded, lumbering conscientiously. The first one sails by and is gone.

The place starts to hum. It is noon. The game has begun.

2 p.m., Howard Street

When it comes to discount pantyhose, Milt Rosenbaum is the king and his wife, Ellen, the queen.

"Pantyhose is our shtick,' enthuses Mr. Rosenbaum, 57, who has been in the hosiery business at various Howard Street-area locations since 1964. "We are a destination spot in downtown Baltimore."

The Rosenbaums' speciality is custom imprints. Anything that strikes your fancy. Like -- and here the king reaches into his sample case -- hose that proclaim "Welcome Pope John Paul II," "Kenya and Brandon," "James and Susan."

If words are not enough, symbols can he embossed: hearts, butterflies, musical notes, a green hat for St. Patrick's Day, a turkey for Thanksgiving, a cross for Good Friday, a bunny for Easter.

The brisk lunchtime trade has ebbed, and Mr. Rosenbaum sits in the backroom office of Hosiery World on Saratoga Street. Peri, a yellow Labrador retriever, keeps him company; his wife takes care of customers

"I've seen a lot of changes," the Danville, Va., native muses. "When I first came, the four department stores were still here. Howard Street was truly a retail mecca."

What makes Mr. Rosenbaurn different from many veteran merchants ts that he is not preoccupied with the past. Instead, as longtime president of the 400-member Market Center Merchants Association, he is immersed in plans to revive the Howard Street corridor.

Over the past decades, several attempt s have been made to reverse thc fortunes of what once was Baltimore's Fifth Avenue. Hopes have been raised repeatedly -- only to be dashed.

This time, Mr. Rosenbaum assures things are different. So many things are in motion; improvement will occur.

To underscore his optimism, he takes a visitor on a walking tour of the area.

"Look at that!" he exclaims pointing to a trash chute coming out of the old Hecht Co. department store building at Howard and Lexington streets. Demolition is going on inside so that the building can be turned into luxury apartments

Just a few blocks away, apartments are being constructed on top of a parking garage. Another few blocks in the opposite direction, the Chesapeake Commons apartment complex is talking about adding units.

"And I haven't even mentioned what the Weinberg Foundation is doing," Mr. Rosenbaum says.

He is referring to the nonprofit group that controls many Howard Street landmarks once owned by the late Harry Weinberg, a ruthless speculator who became a major landowner not only in his native Baltimore but in Hawaii as well. After years of trying to figure out what to do with "Honolulu Harry's" bequest, the foundation is now proposing to build a huge entertainment and retail complex at Howard and Lexington streets.

Those who have met Mr. Rosenbaum know that he has a firm opinion about everything. Howard Street, he announces, is poised for a takeoff as a received retail and entertainment area for those primarily dependent on mass transit. About 750,000 people can reach it by buses, light rail or Metro.

"You will see a transformation of this area like you will not believe," Mr. Rosenbaum declares. For a few bucks, he can even emboss that optimistic message on pantyhose. There are 120 styles to choose from.

4 p.m., Charles Village

On the Barclay Elementary School's macadam playground, they've got more than game.

It's late afternoon when the usual pickup teams arrive. Somebody has a ball, buffed to a dusty orange by the gritty outdoor court. The players move it between scissoring legs, arms cradling and sweeping it beneath billowing t-shirts and baggy jeans, past start-of-school-year running shoes or yellow boots before whirling toward the basket.

But there is no basket. No hoop or net. No painted lines. At least none that you can see. This is a game of imagination and invention.

It's as fulfilling and exciting as anything you'd find in the fanciest recreation center.

"It's basketball," says Kevin Wheelton, 15. "Just not with a net."

The jumpers and three-pointers, dunks and finger rolls are toward slots in a set of monkey bars. Any one of the six or so openings will do Since they are square and smaller than your average basketball hoop. A player gets used to rejection here.

It wasn't built for basketball, of course. Backboards were excluded on purpose, as if they were attractive nuisances feared by neighbors. But there is no barrier to these creative minds.

The hoopless games are for all seasons. They've been played here for years, the rudimentary rules passed on generationally as playground lore.

Take the ball "back" when it changes hands, back to the small chain link fence on the north side of the court. Past the first big crack in the macadam on the south

Beyond the second big crack -- the Ice-line: shots from here are worth three points, enough sometimes to ice a game.

First to score 50 wins.

Assign a nickname to everyone.

Olive Oyl, for example. Kevin "Big Head" Wheelton throws it out with a Baltimore twist: "Olive Oyull." He's taunting a bit, but Whitney Garrison, a seventh-grader at Winston Middle School, doesn't care. She's lean and tough and smooth, as graceful at 12 as Cynthia Cooper, the Houston Comets star, or Sheryl Swoopes, her teammate.

Whitney drives to the hole, or pulls up and launches a soft fall-away one-hander --or finds herself blocked by her 10-year-old brother, Jermaine, or by Brandon Knox, an eighth-grader at Barclay, who likes to think of himself as "Kobe" -- Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

"You look a little like Kobe," someone says.

"Mister, you better clean your glasses," says Kevin, 15, who is studying to be a baker at Merganthaler. "He don't look like no Kobe Bryant."

Jermaine's nickname is "J.J?' -- drawn from TV's "Good Times."

Like the program's character, Jermaine says, "I got a sensitive style." Not that he'll let Olive Oyl have an uncontested jumper.

"Nice block," she says.

Actually, everyone in this game has a sensitive style, but they're all in search of an identity. It's a very open, optimistic and discriminating search.

"I'm like Albert Belle," says Whitney. "People say bad things about him, and he does better."

But what about the other Whitney, Whitney Houston, the singer? Isn't she a role model? The confident girl known as Olive Oyl, who thinks of her self as Sheryl and ad-mires Albert starts to sing a Houston lament.

"It's not right

"But it's OK

'I'm gonna make it anyway..."

6 p.m., Leakin Park

Hiking along the new Gwynns Falls Trail, you can't see why Leakin Park has such a morbid reputation.

All signs point to life here.

There's the Gwynns Falls River that pushes its way purposefully through its rocky path. There are joggers, bicyclists, dog-walkers, power-walkers.

And you hear the lively sounds of the river, the cicadas, crickets and birds. Then you smell the sweet aroma of the vegetation that confirms this park is a living thing.

The new trail opened in June, bringing optimism to residents of neighboring communities such as Dickeyville, Hunting Ridge, Windsor Hills and Rognel Heights. It is not the busiest place -- you can walk a mile without seeing anyone-- but those who use it believe it is an urban treasure.

Pamela Wilson of Franklintown says the trail has smoothed the terrain through the park and the area's image.

The park has always had good things going for it. This is the home of Outward Bound and the Carrie Murray Center, two nature-oriented groups. The tennis courts remain a big attraction. And the herb festival in May is a major city event.

Neighbors are proud, if a bit possessive, of their park.

They fought hard and successfully against a plan to run Interstate 70 through the park. Now they have to fight the park's reputation as a dumping ground -- for dead bodies and old refrigerators.

Richard Gross of Dickeyville may be the only one not fighting that battle. His T-shirt is soaked with perspiration on this sticky evening as he nears the end of his three-mile hike with his German shepherd. It doesn't bother him that a park near his home is perceived as dangerous, although he agrees that the perception is unfair.

"I love the idea that the park has a reputation for bodies," he says. "It keeps people away."

8 p.m., Pennsylvania Avenue

The Rev. Levester Woddy, 80, sits outside his Christ Temple Church. He is waiting for a Bible study class to start. A sign overhead proclaims: "With God, all things are possible."

Four decades ago, when Mr. Woddy, a carpenter, founded the church, Pennsylvania Avenue was the center of Baltimore's African-American retail activity and night-life. Many of its stores were torched during the 1968 riots. The area never recovered.

"I didn't think it would be like this," he says as a young woman sashays by, tripping on dope and high heels. Two elderly deacons next to him nod in agreement.

Over the past six years, the Schmoke ad-ministration has begun remaking Pennsylvania Avenue. The blighted Murphy Homes public housing complex along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was demolished this summer. Clusters of townhouses, many to be sold at market rate, will replace it.

Further along Pennsylvania Avenue, the city has torn down derelict houses that had become havens for drug addicts and vandals. But as the Schmoke administration prepares to leave office after 12 years, there are no overall plans for redevelopment.

The Avenue Market, rebuilt just three years ago through $4 million in city, state and private funding, was intended to be a symbol of turnaround. Today, it is teetering on bankruptcy.

This has been a tough summer for Mr. Woddy's congregation of 150. The city had a vacant building demolished next door. But because a retaining wall was not promptly built, burglars, working from the roofline, were able to hit the church twice within three months.

Which is why a man in a gray suit approaches Mr. Woddy on this night.

"Hi, I'm Dan Henson, the housing commissioner," the suit says, "Did my people get in touch with you? Did you get the mayor's letter?"

"It won't do nothing," Mr. Woddy responds cantankerously.

In fact, the church did receive Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's letter as well as a shipment of computers and other office equipment to replace those stolen. But Mr. Woddy is clearly unhappy about all the trouble he has been through.

The commissioner tries levity by recalling how he, as a young man, used to frequent the pool room of the Sphinx Club next door. The social club of some distinction is long gone, its buildings boarded up.

This gives Mr. Woddy an opening. He begins to talk about how the church would like to buy the fire-damaged club for a school. Mr. Henson says he will look into the matter but cautions that the owners may insist on top dollar. "I'll pay them $20,000," Mr. Woddy counters.

As the pastor and the commissioner vanish into the church office, a visitor is captivated by a photographic time capsule on the walls of church's lobby. There are pictures of revivals and social events, a copy of the Sermon on the Mount, a poster of famous black Americans in the U.S. armed forces. Only one political picture is on the wall -- an autographed portrait of William Donald Schaefer when he was mayor.

There is also a big poster with a biblical quotation, "How can a man love God, whom he hasn't seen and hate his brother whom he has seen?"

10 p.m., Mount Vernon

Michael, a regular, has the Wall Street Journal spread out before him at the bar. The Orioles game is on the television to his left, but he is engrossed in the paper. Michael pokes at the remaining morsels of his dinner and takes a long swallow from his glass of white wine.

Roger, the bartender, is mixing a Black Orchid, which he describes as a Cosmopolitan with a layer of black vodka floating on its surface. Before the hour is over, he will have made three more.

It is a slow night at City Cafe, located at thc comer of Eager and Cathedral streets, one of many such places in the once-underserved areas of the city where people gather to eat, drink and be seen. About three-quarters of the tables at the 5-year-old Mt. Ver-non gathering place are empty. Several waitresses are chatting. Another is wiping tables and blowing out candles.

"Usually this place is hopping on Thursday night," says Roger as he washes a half-dozen martini glasses. "It's the end of the summer, and a lot of people, have gone to t he beach."

A group of four men sitting in the near-empty dining room laugh loudly at a joke, and Roger turns his attention to a waitress who says a customer isn't happy with the taste of a drink he has ordered

"I'll make it a little stronger." says Roger. "She' isn't used to the weak taste"

'We attract a lot of regulars," says Roger. "The owners wanted this restaurant to be a neighborhood gathering place. Although we have a 2 o'clock license, the owners never wanted this to be a club-like establishment."

Four 20-somethings with backpacks saunter through the dining room and up a flight of stairs to the coffee counter. They get their drinks, drop their packs at an empty table and unwind after an evening's class.

Two tables away, two women -- one dressed in a sari, the other in slacks-- confer over a table covered with computer print-outs. Two hand-held calculators and two empty coffee cups sit off to the side. They periodically jot notes as they leaf through the papers.

Tony sits down at the end of the bar and orders a cup of corn chowder to eat at the bar and a crab sandwich to go. Without being asked, Roger gives Tony a glass of tonic water with a lime wedge.

At 10:30, the kitchen closes.

Five minutes later, a waiter tells Roger, who also serves as the dining room manager, that a customer who just arrived wants some nachos with his beer. Is there anyone in the kitchen to fill the order?

Roger shrugs. "Yeah, tell them to whip up the nachos, but that's it for this evening."

The two women who bad been poring over their paperwork pack up and leave.

Michael folds up the paper, drinks the last drops of his wine and pays his check.

Two men and a woman sit down at one of the outdoor tables on the restaurant's Eager Street side. A waiter, who had been cleaning an adjacent table, takes their orders and delivers them to Roger.

"Warn them we are closing early tonight," Roger says, as he finishes pouring the deep, dark-colored vodka into the last Black Orchid of the evening.

Midnight, Charles Street

As midnight approaches on North Charles Street, Pennsylvania Station sits nearly empty in the shadow of a billboard that screams: "Heroin Detoxification: 4 hour procedure. Confidential."

Inside, tinny Muzak echoes weirdly off the empty benches and aisles and ornate ceilings. The unmanned information booth discloses that one train is due in a half-hour or so -- on time, from the north -- but only a couple riders await it,

Three or four custodians dutifully ply the empty halls with push brooms. The shops and food-service counters have long closed. Even the cabbies have moved on.

But one block north and across the street, the music has a heavier beat and the Club Charles teems with people. The bar's most famous reputed habitue, John Waters, is not in evidence this evening, but the animated crowd of 20-and 30-year-olds don't seem to much care,

Under the watchful gaze of the Romanesque figures painted on the wall, many shout to be heard -- which is a challenge -- or to win the attention of the overtaxed bartenders.

Many in the crowd sport the semi-official uniform of the angst-ridden urban intellectual (or wannabe): black clothes, little oval glasses and plume of cigarette smoke half-obscuring their faces.

Others wear self-consciously retro horn-rimmed glasses or button-down short-sleeved shirts. Many women wear little spaghetti-strapped tops, with the trendy visible bra straps.

Men gesticulate and shout toward women, who frown and toss their hair. Most of the sparse light comes from muted neon over the bar. A man yells "Budweiser!" to no one in particular. Amid the hubbub, a few couples snuggle quietly at the bar and in the alcoves.

A couple of doors up the street at The Depot, the music is louder and the air still-smokier. As in the Club Charles, the crowd is almost all white, but this group is younger, sparser and more eclectic.

Some older men in biker regalia and women in Gothic attire make the scene at the bar more diverse -- and somewhat reminiscent of the cast of the "Road Warrior." Psychedelic images from screens overhead add an extra touch of the bizarre.

One kindly patron wipes down the spot on the bar where another has vomited, just a little.

In the back, a few dozen dancers, mainly women, thrash about under flashing lights on the uncrowded floor to a tinny, simplistic techno-pop that changes little as it whines on into the night.

Perhaps 50 yards north and across the street -- but separated by a cultural gap much wider than Charles Street -- uni-formed police scan the black patrons waiting to cross the neon threshold of Club Choices.

"Raise up so I can pat you down," the bouncer instructs, and repeats. After being frisked, patrons file through a metal detector.

Inside, the place is crammed with peo-ple -- most swaying to a beat so forceful it makes the floor quake more than a little. No smoke clouds the air here. Alcohol is on offer, but few drink. This crowd is young (most appear to be under 25), casually dressed and all black.

On a raised stage, a few couples dance frenetically, and men perform raunchy sexual pantomimes as cries of approval rise from the crowd.

The groove goes on long after the last call for alcohol.

As the bars close, young people scramble onto the street, heading for cars and hailing cabs.

Horns blare and traffic snarls -- and for a few minutes, it's as if rush hour has returned to a few blocks of Chartes Street, at almost 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

2 a.m., Sinai Hospital

The busy roads surrounding Sinai Hospital -- Northern Parkway, Belvedere Avenue, Greenspring Avenue -- are deserted in the early morning hours. Yet inside the city's newest emergency center, a $16-million complex dubbed ER-7, those on the early morning shift don't seem to mind that while they tend to the sick, their fellow Baltimore ans sleep.

ER-7 is on "yellow alert," which means other city hospital emergency rooms are fill-ing up. Patients could be rerouted to Sinai. There's no sense of panic or tension. In fact, the place appears unusually quiet, though 80 to 100 patients will visit ER-7 in a typical early morning shift.

"We never use the 'Q' word around here. It's like a jinx," says Robin Bucknet, a nurse in the care center wing that handles ambulance arrivals. "They come in waves.

You should have been here an hour ago. We had five ambulances backed up with patients."

In a city such as Baltimore, emergency rooms are usually busy places. The previous night, two people with gunshot wounds walked into ER-7's front entrance within 15 minutes of each another.

Such "Delta code" situations don't faze those on the ER post-midnight shift. They are trained to handle the unexpected. And they know the sickest people will show tip during the early morning hours. That's especially true in the cardiac-care center, where Baltimoreans with heart problems typically turn up between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Thirty-seven people work in the hours after midnight in Sinai's emergency center (another 170 caregivers work next door in the main hospital They aren't bothered by the darkness.

"I love it," says Vickie Brooks, a nurse manning the triage desk that handles walk-in patients -- 80 percent of the volume. "I have a night-shift personality.

"People look at us like 'the zombie crew,'". Ms. Brooks says with a laugh. "It doesn't bother me. This works good for my family."

Joyce Payne, who gets quick registration information from patients after they've been assigned a priority by the triage nurse, concurs. "Working nights doesn't inconvenience me. I have my whole day to myself." .

Theodore G. Ocheda, a nurse in the chest-pain center, made the adjustment long ago. After six years, he says, "my system has adjusted to it. It's a matter of setting your biological clock. I tried day shifts, but I love the nights. You learn to adjust"

Nurses here put in 12-hour shifts. Those who like night work generally don't rotate their schedules. But physicians do.

Dr. Eric Nager says he loves emergency-room medicine. And the late-shift hours have their advantages

"There are fewer people around,"' he says. "The type of patient coming in is more interesting."

4 a.m., Northeast Baltimore

Shift workers. Partygoers. Denizens of the night.

More employees than customers.

Welcome to the world of 24-hour shop-ping.

Like so many trends, it seems to have be, gun in southern California. Think Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles.

It has spread far beyond that. "The progressive idea" of all-night shopping is headed for Northumberland, the northernmost county in England, according to a recent issue of the Newcastle Chronicle & Journal.

In Baltimore, it's not just convenience stores but the Giant Food store and Rite-Aid drugstore in the Rotunda that are open all night. So is the Super Fresh market near-by.

Stores aren't crowded, but that's beside the point, says Barry F. Scher, vice president of public affairs at Giant Food Inc. Stores have to be restocked at night, and the heat or air conditioning are on anyway, so why not remain open for the convenience of busy people who want to shop in the middle of the night?

In a city where crime is so often cited as a major worry, these shoppers don't seem concerned. The parking lot is well-lighted, notes one.

Still, at first it seems odd to thump cantaloupes at 4 a.m., select a magazine and shampoo or think ahead to that night's dinner. And more than a little confusing.

"Have a nice night," one clerk says. Another wishes you a good day. Which is it?

Both. Or either-- depending on who you talk to as you squeeze the tomatoes or check the price of breakfast cereal.

The short checkout lines of the wee hours; are a plus, whether at the end ora long day or before the dawn of another.

And the night's shopping total, not bad at $22.27, includes a cup of coffee.

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