The ups and downs of riding city's escalators, elevators

AS A CHILD of the city I soon learned the personalities and peculiarities of Baltimore's people movers. I speak of the public escalators and elevators we took so often it seemed as if they were as much a part of the family as Jack Benny's Maxwell - or any of the cantankerous cars then in service that thrifty Baltimoreans declined to put to rest.

I think of the time I stepped off a train at Penn Station here (where there is a small vintage elevator that serves the light rail platform) but didn't have to look outside to see if my father had arrived to pick up my brother and me. Deep inside the station, we could hear the clutch on his 1964 Checker Marathon issuing a mechanical clunk sound.


Speaking of noise, a friend of mine was so fascinated by the rumbling of an escalator at the old Hutzler's Howard Street store he tape-recorded it. The escalator was reportedly one of the oldest in the city and had amazing wooden treads that produced a comforting, mini-earthquake sound. The sound often mixed with another low-note samba, the rhythm generated by passing Baltimore and Ohio Railroad trains that traveled via the Howard Street Tunnel, not many feet below the Cranbrook-brand T-shirt and socks rack in the budget store.

I never quite outgrew my childhood fascination with these machines, which were occasionally the subject of fear. My grandmother, Mary Louise Kelly, talked of getting stuck in a lift, much an urban terror in the 1950s. To this day I associate painful dental fillings and blood-test needles with the metallic chain sound produced by the elevator bank at the Medical Arts Building in Mount Vernon.


One of the deepest, scariest escalator descents is at the Mondawmin Metro station. Another one I'm not too happy about is ground level to club level at Oriole Park, where I'm hauntingly reminded of the elevator accident at the old Memorial Stadium in the spring of 1964, when a child's life was claimed on Safety Patrol Day. I'll never forget the wail of the sirens that afternoon.

Baltimoreans of a certain vintage had to possess a specialized knowledge of urban geography, street location and layout before they could shop with ease and professionalism at the downtown department stores. Many of the stores were built in stages; not every elevator went to every department - in one spot, if you took a wrong turn, you landed in a different store.

Stewart's tasteful art deco elevators carried the name Westinghouse until they were ripped out for escalators. Hochschild's lifts were automated early on. There was a curious Hutzler's shoppers' tunnel under Saratoga Street to link the main store with the toy department, garage and soda fountain. The garage guys had their own moving link belt to shoot them to upper levels. I always wanted to jump on the thing, but would have been barred permanently from the store for bad behavior.

For all the knowledge necessary to master the various levels of the old downtown stores, which I soon memorized, I have never been able to conquer the labyrinth of Towson Town Center. I failed the elevator test and remain baffled.

I'll take the ease and logic of the escalators and elevators at The Gallery at Calvert and Pratt streets. And after a long day's shopping, I know the location of the lift that shoots me upstairs to my favorite harbor-view bar, where I order a scotch and watch the harbor lights.