October sunlight illuminates a large tree at Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Place.
October sunlight illuminates a large tree at Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Place.

Pardon my reverie, but there's this white plastic bag floating through Mount Vernon Place, rising on the breeze, higher and higher, between the Walters Art Museum and the Hackerman House, the handsome mansion at the top of the hill, and I guess I'm having one of those "American Beauty" moments because it's a splendid day in October and my bus is late and I can't take my eye off the plastic bag.

That means, for the moment at least, that I don't reach for my phone to check for tweets about Donald Trump or WikiLeaks or all the rest of it.


It means I'm pleasantly lost in thoughts — and not about anything particularly important or depressing, and certainly not about the coming presidential election.

Sometimes, when the bus runs late, you get impatient and grumpy. Other times, you strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler. Or you drift into daydreams. Or something unexpected floats in front of you. Or you see and hear things you never noticed before.

So I had my "American Beauty" moment, like Ricky in the movie of that title, with his video of the plastic bag swirling in the wind. "Sometimes," Ricky tells Jane, the girl sitting next to him as the video plays, "there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in."

And, of course, Jane kisses Ricky after that.

Way too many words were written to explain the symbolism of the floating bag in "American Beauty." I took it to mean that you can find beauty in anything if you look hard enough. My brother thinks Ricky was just trying to sound cool to a girl. Fine. Whatever. The movie came out in 1999, and I'm not going to argue about it now.

I'm sitting at the bus stop in Mount Vernon Place and the autumn sun is bright but soft, and the air is cool enough for a scarf. In fact, here come two young women, both in fashionable scarves and fashionably distressed jeans.

Young people are a constant presence in the square, many of them Johns Hopkins students with backpacks, many of them carrying instruments from the Peabody Institute, others just passing through.

It's a little past noon, and across the plaza, past the grand statue of Lafayette, I can see the plastic bag, still dancing on the breeze.

Most of the time, I hate the sight. A plastic bag sailing through the air or tumbling down a sidewalk symbolizes Baltimore's chronic trash problem. And so — reality check midst reverie — however interesting it looks at the moment, that bag is going to end up in a tree or in the harbor, maybe in a sea turtle's throat. Someday, perhaps under the next mayor, we're going to ban them.

As I wait for the bus, I look around and notice the tree above me — a sprawling and truly magnificent tree, the first tree from the corner of East Mount Vernon Place and Charles Street. Its leaves have started to turn yellow.

The tree leans into the park just below the bus stop, casting big shade.

I stand back and look up and I have one of those mixed-up Baltimore moments: In a certain place, at a certain moment, the city can look so perfect and beautiful, and in the next moment, a police helicopter chops through the sky, not far above the tops of buildings, or I see a tweet about a fatal shooting somewhere in the city. That happens a lot in Baltimore; your reveries are often broken by the sound of sirens.

Just then, I spot a grandmotherly woman in an amazing sweat suit with a snake-pattern print. Her pants are greenish-brown, in a kind of rattlesnake design, and she has a jacket to match. She's with two other women and three men, all dressed casually and wearing sneakers, and all quietly speaking German. I catch it as they walk by.

The woman in the snakeskin print unfolds a map; she's trying to figure out where the Charm City Circulator will take her and her fellow travelers. One of the men snaps pictures of the great buildings around Mount Vernon Place, including the United Methodist church, and all of it must remind him of a square in a European city.


So now I'm sitting here, waiting for the late-running MTA bus, and there are German tourists in my city, in the Baltimore that Trump mentions when he calls our "inner cities" a "disaster."

The Circulator comes and the tourists step inside. A few minutes later, my bus finally arrives, and I take a seat behind a couple of guys who are in the midst of an animated conversation across the aisle. They're not talking politics. Instead, they're telling stories and laughing about someone they know, sharing a little small-town Baltimore gossip on the ride up Charles Street.