Saturday, January 14

Roll Bus Roll | Baltimore, MD (i)

Baltimore, Maryland: Charm City or dangerous drug hole, you decide. What you already know of Baltimore is made of other people's perceptions. You know it's one of America's most violent cities; but you don't know that Edgar Allan Poe lived there, is buried there. You know it's basically The Wire, but you don't know about how the sunset hovers over the water of the Inner Harbor. You know you can't roam streets the same way you're used to in London, but you don't know about the strings of colourful porch-lined houses that remind you of Portobello Road, the city's free bus service, Hampden with its hipster creameries and rainbow'd doorways, or the stately Peabody Library.

Baltimore, Washington DC's unpopular neighbour. Baltimore, where there's some streets you just don't walk down at night, at day, ever. Baltimore, sweltering summers and freeze-your-ass-off winters. Baltimore, home to great ice cream, the Baltimore Bomb pie, Papermoon diner, the beautiful Johns Hopkins campus, and a thriving local music and arts scene. Baltimore, you aren't so bad.

'Baltimore? Why?' My history professor is a little incredulous when he discovers I'm spending some of winter break in his home city. He later defends his turf. 'I'd move back there any time,' he tells me, amid recommendations for bars and museums. I trust him, but others are less charitable. On the plane from Oakland I talk with a Berkeley PhD student flying home for Christmas, who tells me about Maryland's beautiful undulating farmland, scenery which on a later bus ride reminds me strongly of Devon. 'Baltimore, though.' He pulls a face. 'I'm sorry you have to experience that.' But I decide to remain open minded. Future Islands, one of my favourite bands and proud Baltimoreans, staunchly defend their city. Keyboardist Gerritt Welmers describes it as an 'underdog city'. 'It's a terrifying place sometimes,' he says, 'but because it is that way I think it brings everyone together.'

Terrifying's a good word for my first few hours in Baltimore. The baggage takes its sweet time from plane to arrivals belt, and it's late evening when I eventually step out of the quiet airport to the light rail platform. The cold air is a fist on my chest. Though the cheapest airport-to-city transport I've ever experienced ($1.70 for a single fare, unlike Oakland International's steep $8 connection to the BART), the light rail is also the most nauseating; it twists unsteadily through a darkened landscape before plunging into the city. From the window I see icy sidewalks - it snowed recently - and steam buffeting from grates in the streets. There are boarded-up windows, and not many people about. A shadow here and there, on a street corner, hunched at a bus stop. I pull my bags tighter around me, remembering all the adjectives I've heard bestowed on the city: sketchy, violent, terrifying, cold.

The five minute walk between the rail station and the bus stop is kind of perilous. I'm in a quiet part slightly west of the city and apparently west is bad; it's dark; street lights are few and shadowed nooks plenty; I'm not sure where I'm going; and the ground is slippery white. I can't find the bus stop. I walk up and down the same block multiple times, something I really hoped I wouldn't end up doing. I'm lost on a bridge over the railway tracks in thick ice and there's nobody around except a homeless guy and a few people drifting in and out of bars. All of my valuables are on me. This is an interesting situation. Then suddenly a great lick of warm yellow light and the bus is here, and before I know it I'm up the road and safe inside Lizze's apartment.

California doesn't lend itself well to the kind of festive feeling I'm used to, but in these colder eastern climes Christmas is unavoidable. I cave, hard. Eggnog, pumpkin cookies, mulled wine, lights, decorations, shopping; the season is crammed into these last few days of December. Baltimore is bright and cold the day we catch the 'Charm City Circulator' - the city's free bus route - down to the water. Inner Harbor is a mix of high street stores, small malls, boats and bridges. I've heard there's a Shake Shack nearby. We wander the tented Christmas village and I buy woollen boot socks for Canada. The city's seasonal ice rink is small and sad compared to Somerset House, Union Square, Central Park, but as we skirt the water's edge the old industrial brick buildings glow brightly in the late afternoon sun. It's a long way out across the water to the Domino sugar factory the other side. I saw the giant red neon Domino sign from the light rail that first night.

By the time we've reached Fell's Point, dark is falling swiftly. I can't feel my fingertips. Fell's Point is pretty, lined with lights and bars. We buy the biggest bottle of wine to mull back in the apartment.

North of the city lies Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, a cosier student bubble buffered by Hampden, Wyman Park, Druid Hill Park, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The campus is the opposite of Berkeley: the attractive red brick buildings all match, there are neat tree-lined quads,and it is very quiet. I later learn that this campus architecture is unusual for a historic American college: most were built in the 'Collegiate Gothic' style, unlike Hopkins, which is more attuned to its federal locality.

On long runs around the campus' surrounding neighbourhood I notice the buildings are older, a little more elegant. Neat terraces and larger detached houses with verandas and rolling lawns sit between patches of woodland and fields, and I'm reminded of middle-class villages in Surrey. It's calmer and grander here, and Hampden, home to unique shops, eateries, and local festivals, is well worth wandering. But there are still patches and streets you avoid. Like the Minesweeper game, venture too far north, south, east, west, and it doesn't feel so good.

The parks are pretty, though. I think of how the trees must've looked in autumn. We run in all conditions: black ice, mud, subzero temperatures, sun, snow. Circling Druid Lake one cloudless afternoon, my legs are completely numb, but all of Baltimore stretches away to my right, I've got saxophone playing in my ears, and this is the furthest distance I've ever run. It feels good.

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