I rarely write travelogue pieces, but a September 2014 2-day trip to John Water’s hometown of Baltimore warrants this for the oddities and wonders encountered. My daughter and I took a BoltBus from NYC to Baltimore in mid-September, heading to the Natural Products Expo East. It was with a little trepidation that I booked the bus trip – the reviews on Bolt, Peter Pan, Greyhound, and Megabus leave you wishing you had a fast Porsche instead. In retrospect, glad we didn’t take a Megabus – quite a few accidents in the last months.
Hopping in a cab near my daughter’s West Village apartment, we got snarled up in Chelsea traffic along 10th Avenue. We finally made it to the rather odd location for our journey – 33rd Street between 11 and 12th Avenues. The bus trip there was not half as bad as some of the Yelp reviews, but nevertheless, I found myself wondering how the heck anyone over 5” 3” could possibly fit his or her legs into this cramped space. We mainly listened to our iPods and I found myself fascinated looking straight into the faces of truck drivers who were at my eye level for the first time, trying to snap photos of them at the right moment. The highlight was crossing the pretty Delaware River, as I summoned images of George Washington doing so in 1776, or to be more accurate, the painting by Emauel Leutze depicting this valiant event.
After nearly four hours on the bus, we were glad to be dropped off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere across the highway from the main train station. After getting our bearings, we decided to walk to the Biltmore Suites, which looked to be about a mile from the maps I printed. Needless to say, both of us were close to peeing in our pants, although my daughter actually used the disgusting toilet on the bus once. We found a Starbucks on Charles Street and thought we could sneak in without being noticed. I have never encountered a more aggressive barista in my entire life. I left my daughter with our bags and this 20-something blonde boy nearly attacked me as I tried to walk to the bathroom, which of course, is always located past the counters at Starbucks. He asked me four times what I wanted to order while I was walking, and when I said I needed to use the restroom first, he loudly replied, “I will place your order and it will be ready by the time you come out.” Perhaps I should have peed right on the floor to make my point – this being our first encounter with anyone in Baltimore certainly dispelled any notion I had about Southern hospitality.
The Biltmore Suites
Next, our onward march to the hotel, which felt like an eternity to reach. Having read the very mixed reviews on the Biltmore Suites, we didn’t know whether to expect old-world charm or cocaine dust on the mantle piece. A rather crabby woman checked us in – perhaps the general manager. She did not tell us that the key was for the bottom lock and since it was not obvious, the key nearly got stuck in the wrong lock. Two people walked by who I believe were housekeeping staff and nearly bit our heads off for being so stupid.
The room was charming, although clearly in need of some repair – an outlet cover was pulling out of the wall with the electric cord exposed, the bathroom ceiling had missing pieces, and it looked like a gorilla spackled the bathtub. Good god, a 5-year old could do a better job with cake icing. One non-working decrepit refrigerator and one good one, as well as a useless defunct burner. You needed a degree from Johns Hopkins to figure out the bloody TV remote – no guide and it had more buttons than I have ever seen. And it did not work very well – pushed the buttons and they did not respond.
This hotel was built as an investment in 1880 by Baltimore merchant Samuel G. Wyman. Its really intriguing history began a decade later when Sir Charles Madison, a highly decorated British Navy officer acquired the hotel for the sole purpose of keeping his lovely dance-hall mistress Shirley in style, with a proper place for their love trysts while in America. On one occasion, Lady Madison insisted on accompanying her husband to Baltimore and he finally relented. He was so smitten with lust for Shirley that he checked his wife into the Shirley House. For several nights, the lovers got away with these antics. But when Lady Madison discovered them, she became enraged, grabbed a fireplace poker and struck Shirley, who lay mortally wounded in the courtyard. Apparently, she still haunts the place, waiting for her long dead lover to return to her.
Our room looked out onto this same charming courtyard – very atmospheric. Since we were directly below the room where the beautiful, but ill-fated mistress of the house had stayed, we hoped to see her ghost. But alas, Shirley never appeared to us, although I awoke in the middle of the night sensing something weird. There are people who believe in ghosts, including the much more personable night-shift guy who apparently has seen some odd things, although he was clearly hesitant to discuss this.
Decay and Gentrification
The Mount Vernon area is very interesting, with the looming First & Franklin Presbyterian Church, erected in 1859, just across the street. Haunting and magnificent, its soaring Gothic edifice was designed by the American architect Norris G. Starkweather. I was disappointed that we never got to see the inside, which is supposed to be spectacular. We also happened upon some colonial-era houses that reminded me of Providence.
Baltimore can be shady, so you do have to be very careful, especially in the walk between Mount Vernon and the Baltimore Convention Center. Some of those streets made the Engelwood neighborhood of Chicago look like paradise. Although I have not been to Detroit in more than 30 years, I imagine that the burned out, depressed downtown we encountered in Baltimore resembles areas of the Motor City. The jarring part is that the area around the convention center is quite nice, including the really cool Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I had totally forgotten that as a teenager, I had a crush on the hunky Jim Palmer – he pitched all 19 years for the Orioles and in the late 1970s, started showing off his cute tush in Jockey brand men’s briefs.
After attending an after-reception for the Natural Products Expo East and admiring Oriole Park, we thought about eating at Faidley’s Seafood, but did not realize that Lexington Market, where it is housed, closes at 5:30 pm. The area around there was scary and the walk back to Mount Vernon was at a rather brisk pace. I would never set foot in this area past dusk. We had quite a surreal experience on our way back towards Mount Vernon. Loitering black men were everywhere and made lewd comments at my daughter as we hurried by.
We stumbled upon this really cool looking place and weren’t even sure they served food. Red Maple looked more like an exclusive night club or secret society from the outside. It turned out to be one of the hippest tapas bars we have ever patronized. The decor was so awesome – low tables and benches with ambient lighting. The prices were quite reasonable and the food was wonderful – pumpkin tempura-style fries with pepita yogurt sauce, a crab cake with Asian vegetable coleslaw, and lemongrass chicken skewers. Too bad we didn’t stay a bit longer – looked like they were going to have intriguing live music with no cover.
We checked out of the Biltmore on Saturday morning and stowed our bags at the hotel. We went back to the Expo one last time, picking up a few more samples and goodies. We decided to take a taxi back to the Biltmore and have the cab driver wait there. My daughter went in and got our two bags and then he drove us to the bus stop. We had nearly an hour to wait before the bus came, so both of us took turns wandering around the block. My daughter came back and announced that she had found a really cool diner, at which she used the lady’s room, no questions asked. I decided to do the same thing and when I came back, I took photos of a really odd wrecked taxi at an auto body shop and struck up a conversation with a young man on a bike while photographing graffiti.
The bus back to NYC was horrific. Every single seat was cracked and the padding on the arm rests was stripped off to the bare foam. My daughter came back from the bathroom and announced that the light was broken and there was an IV bag hanging from the wall. She is really silly – upon having to go a second time, she realized it was an empty hand sanitizer sack.
The trip back got really gnarly as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel, crawling through this god awful stretch at a break neck pace of like 10 MPH. A block before we arrived at the bus stop, the rather enormous driver decided he needed to use the John and seemed to be back there for 10 minutes, further delaying our arrival. He didn’t even help anyone retrieve their suitcases from the compartment on the side of the bus. Our suitcase had slid practically to the back so I literally had to climb inside. By now my bladder was nearly bursting and there was horrible traffic, so the taxi ride home seemed endless.
When we finally dragged all of our incredibly heavy bags up two flights of stairs, a frigging enormous cockroach greeted us when my daughter unlocked the door. Apparently the building had been fumigated when we were gone – this was not a Chicago-size cockroach – it was the Palmetto variety and measured an inch wide by at least 1 ¾ inches in length. It took us more than 45 minutes to catch this sucker. I guess it was a fitting way to end a rather surreal trip. John Waters would be proud.