Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wandering Blues Travelogues: Letter to An Old Flame

Dear Baltimore,

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.

Love always,

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Wandering Blues Travelogues: The Grand Floridian Gator Quest

I'm in Baltimore, writing about Gainesville, FL. Tomorrow I'll be in Worcester, writing about Baltimore. The Wandering Blues Magical Mystery Tour will then head to Johnson City TN, Boston, Richmond, DC, Philadelphia, and Springfield, MA. If you have any cheap-or-free things to do in any of these cities, let me know! I'll be without car, but with camera. 


I don't know what I expected from Gainesville. I tell everyone I'm going to Gainesville, and they immediately say "Oh! Home of the Gators!" 
And then they change the subject.
So I expect to see a hell of a lot of gators in Gainesville. 
And that's about it.

Normally I like my road trips long and I like 'em leisurely. Let me pull off the road, take some pictures, meet some people and get on the road again. Let me see the third-oldest American lighthouse or the world's largest frying pan. Unfortunately, the trip to Gainesville was more like Days of Thunder than On the Road. I did find this gem somewhere in the South:

 and I'm now determined to own it.

I loved you, hotel room.
 Our Gainesville hotel was comped and I loved it from the moment I stepped on the elevator with two  retirees clutching glasses of white. I've been in the car for eleven hours and I'm trying not to salivate.

"Honey, you better drop your luggage and head right back down to the bar because they're closing down, but they'll let you take it back to your room if you want!" They raise their glasses. I love these people. I consider raising my luggage back at them in a toast because I've got a bottle of albariño nestled in my pajamas and a bottle opener in my purse, but I decide to just heartily thank them instead.


 I was spending less than 24 hours in Gainesville, so I spent the morning working and then set out to explore the town in the afternoon. 

My first impression was not promising.

Everyone said there wasn't much in Gainesville. Hours from the beaches. Mickey Mouse's too far south. No water. Not even that warm. A college town.

No one mentioned this:

Everything's more languid in Florida. The people talk slower. They walk slower. Leaves fall later. Birds sun. Eyelids flutter. The trees hang slow and soft. 

 Then I strike gold, right there in the Florida marsh.

Holy Crap. Alligators. Alligators. Snapping, ferocious alligators. Gainesville really is the home of the gators. They're here. They're enough of a danger to put up signs and forbid feeding them. You know, because my first instinct when I see a cuddly huge-jawed reptile is to walk up to the alligator and feed it.  I settle under a big tree at a safe distance, camera poised, waiting for an alligator sighting. I'm patient. I'm a huntress. I'm still and silent. And I wait.

And I wait.

And I wait some more.

I snap some pictures of suspicious branches in the water.

I yawn.

I wait some more.

Nothing. Eventually I move to another alligator sign. And I wait. And I wait some more. Eventually, it's time to rush back in time for check-out, and I haven't seen one single gator except for the mascot plastered on every. single. thing. in. Gainesville.

Even the trash cans are Gator-themed.

 Derrick comes back from his UFL residency interview, all calm and loaded with free gator-themed paraphernalia. They even gave him a tote bag. The gator grins at me. I want to punch him.


"Oh," Derrick says. "Yeah, we drove by on the tour bus. They said they had to move all the alligators. There aren't any there anymore. So I guess you waited a while, huh?"

I hate you, Gainesville.

(But at least you made me laugh.)