The Magic in Baltimore


The magic of Baltimore is a mixture of old roads and new buildings, of ships quiet on the harbor and cars honking on the streets, of the glittering of a thousand lights in the night and the brilliant warmth of one light in the day, and of people, people, people everywhere and of every sort. It’s the sort of magic which gets into my blood and makes me see potential for story on all sides.

It’s here, in the young man with the blue eyes and red beard, wearing tattoos for sleeves and Converse for shoes; and it’s there, in the old man with the black skin and white smile, playing on a shining gold saxophone while a little girl dances and the uncountable braids on her head and the black fringes on her boots dance too.

It’s in breakfasting five stories up with a grand view of sky and sea and ships and structures; it’s in a lobster dinner served in a restaurant down a narrow street and up a narrow stair, a restaurant heavy with the rich darkness of Old World elegance; and it’s in the taste of Greek fries covered in feta cheese, bought from a blue food truck and eaten while sitting on the warm edge of a lifeless concrete water fountain, under towering buildings and a dazzling sun.

It’s in feeling beneath my feet the deck of a ship that witnessed the Civil War and both of the World Wars; and it’s in seeing across dark chilly waters the lights of the US Navy’s new stealth destroyer, sailing up the harbor with an escort of blue-lighted police boats to be commissioned as the USS Zumwalt.

It’s in drivers with strange accents and smooth city-driving skills; it’s in walking for miles on sidewalks and piers; and it’s in cruising over night waters on harbor taxi boats.

It’s in a hotel lobby all gray and yellow and black and white, filled with chairs and sofas and book-laden tables; a lobby with a Starbucks at one side and a wall filled with vinyl records at the other. It’s in the dark green Irish pub with the unpronounceable name across the street, and it’s in the shiny white mall inside the hotel itself.

It’s in narrow steps set in the sidewalks and laced with iron railings, leading down to basement doors; and it’s in balconies of apartments almost in the sky.


There is one place here that holds less potential for story and yet deserves its place in my affections because it is filled with stories complete. Several blocks from our hotel is a building that used to be a power plant and is now a Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Between the coffee shop inside, the escalators leading up to the second floor of book-heavy shelves, and the smokestacks converted into tiny round rooms with infinite ceilings, it is quite the most charming large bookstore I have yet had the privilege of entering.

When the days we have been so generously given are over, there must be a little sadness mixed with my gratitude. There will be other cities, and I have not yet found a city that does not hold some kind of magic for me. But I have fallen a little bit in love with this Baltimore, with its pervasive harbor and its underlying history and the music which seems endlessly to fill all of its air. No other city can be quite like it, and even if I do come back I will not see it through quite the same eyes. So I smile and I sigh, and I leave a tiny corner of my heart here as I do in every place where I find a touch a magic.

Baltimore, it’s been a delight. Thank you, and goodbye.



Ten Minutes of a Stranger

Her name is Gwen and she is about my size, but with a soft old lady face and white hair. She tells me when she was young her hair was so long that she could sit on a single braid of it, and so heavy that it gave her headaches. If she held it in her hands the headache would go away; she thinks maybe she should have worn it piled on top of her head like her great grandmother did. Now her hair only reaches her shoulders and it looks softly white. She has it pulled back on both sides by large hairclips; somehow, it makes me think of a little girl.

Today is her father’s birthday, she tells me when she goes to write the date on her check. He would be one hundred and two years old if he was still alive. She’s going to call her brother when she goes home. He has her father’s name. They still celebrate her father’s birthday, even if it is after the fact.

She used to work at a bank, a job which seems quietly cool, shiny, and heel-clicking to me. She didn’t like it very much; she says with so many women working together like that, someone was always stirring the pot. The woman in charge was very good at the work, she says, but when it came to people she was nonconfrontational and passive-aggressive. Once her boss called her, wanting to know what was going on, but she didn’t know because the gossip never got passed on to her. She tells me how she never gossiped, never liked gossip, and I wonder why I always vaguely distrust people who proclaim their hatred of gossip. Maybe because it seems much the same as people proclaiming their hatred of drama, and then in my experience they’re often the ones who create it.

She tells me about a man who used to come into the bank, a young black man who had a stuttering problem. She learned that if she pretended to be organizing things on her desk and didn’t look at him, he found it easier to talk to her. He was always very nervous when he came in, she says, and he always forgot to deduct things like checking fees, but she helped him with his banking and he did better when she didn’t make much eye contact with him. He always came to her desk and after she left she often wondered who took care of him when she wasn’t there. She hopes he found someone nice.

There is something sweet and maybe a little lonely about her; she seems reluctant to leave. After she’s gone I’m struck by how little I know about the strangers who walk into this office. Most of them are nearly as friendly as you’d expect Southerners to be, but most of them are also men and I’m still new here. So they give me a slightly confused look before they smile and then, if neither of my bosses are in the office at the moment, they tell me why they are here. These to-the-point exchanges work well for me; people interest me, lots of small talk doesn’t. And most people don’t walk around like Gwen, their stories slipping from their hands. I wish they would.