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It's hard to avoid nostalgia if you call Baltimore home

BALTIMOREANS are often accused of living in the past and being hopelessly - even annoyingly - nostalgic. But that's not it. We're thinking future here. If you spend enough time in the gentrified neighborhoods, you see plenty of progress, and a lot of it (the University of Baltimore's plan for the Odorite building notwithstanding) carefully executed - modernization that doesn't blow away the city's heritage altogether. I give us a B-plus for the effort to advance and to preserve.

A little theory about why Baltimoreans have a tendency to keep an eye on the past: The past is all around them. There are plenty of reminders of bygone Baltimore - its industry, politics, neighborhoods, infrastructure - to keep us interested in it. You can stand in the doorway of a full-fledged yuppie bar in Federal Hill and see the front of the old Stonewall Democratic Club on South Charles and wonder what that's all about. There may not be anyone over 30 there to tell you, but it might make you curious enough to ask some old-timer at a neighborhood bar a couple of blocks away.

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And people are always digging up stuff. As the rehab contractors strip away old Baltimore to make way for the new one, great chunks of Mencken's days reveal themselves, some in more subtle ways than others, and people close to the discoveries embrace and appreciate them. (Contractors are some of the most nostalgic people I know.)

A friend pulled up a floor and found copies of The Sun from the 1930s. ("Ladies Tailored Oxford Shoes, $12.50 per pair, Hess.") Ripping out plaster in a house, a friend found a bottle of Pikesville Rye, the once-famous Maryland whiskey made here by Standard Distillers.

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And just a couple of weeks ago, a man named John Duncan pulled Formstone off the side of his three-story rowhouse in South Baltimore to reveal a painted sign for another Standard Distillers product, K&L; Distilled London Dry Gin. (The company bottled a 7-year-old rye, also called K&L;, but the archives reveal little about the gin of that label.)

"Buy with confidence," the sign says. "Good taste will tell."

Barry Levinson would have to pay some artist a pretty sum to re-create such a period piece. Here it was, fairly well preserved by Formstone.

The revelation at Duncan's house has created a buzz. A fellow named Ed Borack told me about it - Thanks, Ed - and others in South Baltimore can tell you exactly where to find the sign (northwest corner of Ostend and Hanover). I was at that intersection the other day, and a 20-something guy waiting in a car for the light to change beamed when he saw it. "Pretty cool," he said. "I wish that was on the side of my house. I work for a liquor distributor."

So it isn't just old guys who appreciate old things. So there.

Safety in spiders

I bumped into a guy in South Baltimore with a little junk shop - actually, a small shed filled with previously owned merchandise, some of it quite good - and on the wooden carriage door that serves as the entrance he keeps a large, black, fuzzy fake spider. It looks like something he might have won for knocking over wooden bottles at the state fair.

"Oh, that. That's my security system," the fellow explained, while showing a customer a bicycle. "I keep it [on the door] because people are scared of spiders, like voodoo or something."

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Right. Why pay for Sloman Shield when a hunk of oversized black pipe cleaners will do?

On the matter of taste

I ate a pretzel nugget with peanut butter in the middle, cringed and wondered why anyone would try to ruin two perfectly fine food products by uniting them. Then I thought of something Groucho Marx said: "Art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does."

And speaking of taste ...

We finally gave into the temptation and sampled Snyder's Coney Island Hot Dog with Mustard Potato Chip. This is a potato chip that is supposed to taste like a hot dog. "It's a taste so authentic," the Hanover, Pa., company brags on the bag, "you'll almost be able to feel the ocean breeze and hear the sounds of the boardwalk."

Actually, in sampling the chip, one sensed something like the filmy, greasy water left in a pot after boiling six hot dogs for Saturday supper. One sees not roller coaster rides but men in lab coats examining this hot dog water in test tubes, then turning it into a granular substance to be applied to otherwise fine potato chips. I am no food chemist, but, with enough filmy water from the bottom of a pot, I could make hot dogs taste like potato salad, but I wouldn't go around bragging about it.


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