Letter from Baltimore

Although I only lived in Baltimore for about nine months at the turn of the century the city has remained lodged in my subconscious.

The entire city of Baltimore seems like it froze sometime in the 1960s when the city began its decline. In the mid-60s the city has a million people living there and now it has something like 650,000. The majority of the town was built at the turn of the last century. Entering the city, you enter a space that has merely been used for living and dying and leaving and not much else for forty years. This would seem to the logical use of a city: living, dying and leaving. The only industry in the town, universities, medical centers, and banking are all concerned with this primary activity. It would seem a wonderful thing for a city to be merely concerned with these activities. Rather than growth, there is decline. Rather than ambition there is making due. Nothing seems better then wander a neighborhood were people have been neglecting their yards and house paint and erecting bird feeders for forty years. I arrived at an internet café and drank coffee and ate a sandwich while I surfed and googled myself in the attempt to reassure myself that this trip east from The Oregon Territory was not a waste, that it was casting off some kind imprint in the various mechanisms that pay attention to reading and books. I should swear off googling myself but on this trip it has become so habitual that I know the scores of the various permutations of my name and various keywords that when the number increases I have to hunt down the new link.

And so frozen in time Baltimore is immediately nostalgic. Unlike a replica of a place, say a copy of a Baltimore-style neighborhood in a modern West Coast city, the buildings and structures and function of the actual Baltimore remain stuck in the world as it was in 1960 which means that many of the things actually date from the turn of the previous century. The pipes often contain lead. Buildings are roofed with slate. The streets are made for walking and not driving along with a car. I think about Herman Melville finding himself in Tahiti. He finds himself outside of the ongoing rush of life, outside of time really, in a pre-industrial Eden. There is plenty of food and company among the natives. The days are long. They can sleep. They can swim and do what people like to do when they have long hours of the day before them and nothing really pressing taking it up: gossip and hanging out.

In the middle of the day on Tuesday, another friend came and saw me read in a park in Baltimore. So there were two people. I kept the reading short as a result. And then I went to have coffee at my friends house, in the middle of the day. Jennifer, his wife, was home, working and tinkering around and we drank coffee and ate cookies and talked until the conversation wore down. It was the conversation that played itself out in the middle of the day. There wasn’t any immediate pressure exerting itself like the end of a lunch break, an upcoming meeting, anything really. Time existed but in a kind of fuzzy way, in the way that the sun sets, dusk comes on and finally it is dark. I left the house and went to the Baltimore Art Museum, which was closed on Tuesday, just as it was closed on Monday and I didn’t mind because I would just visit it the next day.

I highly recommend then living in a city in decline. Housing is cheap. And time is warped and put into its proper place.

But everyone here is like Melville as well. As soon as he had stepped into this perfect place outside of time he couldn’t wait to get himself back into time. Everyone I met talked about what they were gong to be doing even though they were already doing things in Baltimore. Many of the people I went to graduate school had children. Their brood ran around the house while we ate dinner. Two girls dressed in princess dresses, and then fairy wings, and then firefighter outfits, each custom getting thrown on top of the other. Babies chewed on magic markers. People had written and published short stories, had written novels and put them away into drawers. And yet it seemed even though they had lived in this city whose only business was living (Baltimore) they were all making plans for when their lives really began. Like Melville they couldn’t wait to get the hell out. And I suspect as soon as they leave, they are going to find that the city with its humid and dripping tree-lined boulevards, crumbling brick buildings, and vacant lots will have entered their subconscious and they won’t be able to return and they won’t be able to really leave it behind even when they ware living in the bustle of an expanding city like Portland, Oregon, or New York or wherever else time is being compressed into logical fifteen minute chunks.

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