God, I love you.
I've always loved you. I loved you since the day my parents took me on a day trip to see your aquarium. You probably wouldn't recognize me now. Back then, I had glasses the size of my face. My parents wore knee socks with shorts. And we all wore fanny packs.
It was the first time I'd ever seen dolphins up close. I walked through the bird rainforest and I swore I'd never leave. I ogled the sting rays. I spent an entire escalator ride staring up at the huge whale skeleton on the aquarium ceiling. I thought there was no way, no way God would every make something that big. You could fit three of me inside of one rib.
We came back over the years and I never stopped loving your boats, your submarines, your flags, your seafood. I was nearly a college-bound teenager when we stayed at Fells Point and I walked along your cobblestone streets and dreamed that I would walk them every day, that I would be the one on the corner handing out local band fliers or ringing up my espresso at the skylit coffee shop. I'd be the one coloring the sidewalks with chalk. I'd trade in my K-Mart clothes for feather earrings and cloche caps. I'd have long scarfs and I'd live on the corner of Broadway and Shakespeare.
Maybe I'd even get my nose pierced.
You wanton temptress, you.
We stayed for days. It was one of the few vacations we ever took, and it was because my stepfather had a pretty serious appointment with Johns Hopkins. Yep. We wouldn't take vacations without something to force us there in the first place. Money was tight. When you were forced to go somewhere, you might as well turn it into a damn party. And so we did.
We bought pretzels and fresh-squeezed lemonade in the park. We found blank chessboards for tables; my mom and brother played chess with invisible pieces. I wandered through record stores. I bought a suede pencil skirt with a slit that ran up just past my knee. I stared in wonder at the local bar advertisements, mouthing the names of the drink specials and local bands, trying to pronounce them.
We walked the inner harbor at night on a pier awash in pink and purple lights. A jazz trumpeter played Louis with his red velvet case splayed open. My parents raced my brother up and down the pier, always slowing just enough at the end of the dock to see him dissolve into giggles, throwing his scrawny arms to the sky in victory. I stood on the edge of the pier in the pink light, taking pictures with the boats and the jazz and the vendors and the homeless woman tugging my sleeve and begging for a dollar for a hot dog, just a dollar for a hot dog, just one dollar for one little hot dog and my camera snap-snap-snapped through it all.
And my mother bought her a hot dog.
I have never told my mother just how hard my heart swelled when she did that.
I always said if I wanted to become a poetess I'd move to you, Baltimore. Hell, my first published poem was because of you. "In a Hotel Room Three Blocks From Johns Hopkins." Remember those days? I sat on my ninth floor hotel window and I scratched out what would eventually become that poem.
I never left you without a draft of something tucked in my purse. It'd be on hotel stationary, on a napkin, on a receipt, whatever I could find. I always loved you. Even when people said you were dirty, or dangerous, or the skeevy little brother of NYC, Philly, DC, or Boston. You get a bad rap, darlin'. I love how everything within you has a story. I love how I see Grecian statues right next to a Burger King. You don't keep your historic buildings because it's the cool thing to do. You keep them because it's too damn expensive to rebuild. I love how everything within you has got a chip, a crack, a tarnish.
You're the 1920's trunk with a few dents on the corners. You're the beaded vintage dress with a torn hem. You're the pretty girl with the gap toothed smile, the tattooed beauty queen. You're one of the few cities that can drink me under the table.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.