SI Vault
Mark Kram
October 10, 1966
No one looks at a town with more anger—and fierce affection—than a man born and raised there. The author, a native, submits a penetrating appraisal of Baltimore, host this weekend to the 1966 World Series, remembering what another Baltimorean, H. L. Mencken, said: 'To please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl'
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October 10, 1966

A Wink At A Homely Girl

No one looks at a town with more anger—and fierce affection—than a man born and raised there. The author, a native, submits a penetrating appraisal of Baltimore, host this weekend to the 1966 World Series, remembering what another Baltimorean, H. L. Mencken, said: 'To please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl'

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Once, in 1683, there was a Baltimore on the Bush River, but that settlement died when silt filled up the river; some Series visitors might leave thinking the original location was appropriate. Later, tobacco planters petitioned for a Baltimore on the Patapsco River (many citizens think the city is on Chesapeake Bay) and were given one, though first they had to quell a strenuous objection from one John Moale, whose land embraced the site of the settlement. Baltimoreans have dueled with change ever since. Finally the city did become a port of entry for tobacco, but even that failed. Wheat export saved it and pumped life into it.

A town of rolling land and dipping hills, a town of merchants, a town of rippling clipper-ship sails and rum-scented sailors, the settlement evolved into a city, the third largest in the country by 1858. All who came enjoyed it. "To my taste the women of Baltimore have more charm than the rest of the fair sex in America," said a French visitor. Barnum's Hotel, said Charles Dickens, "is the most comfortable of all hotels in the United States." Oliver Wendell Holmes called it "the gastronomical capital of the world"; visitors, looking for restaurants today, will wonder why.

Gracious living for Dickens and others, but for many Baltimore was a back-slum loudmouth, Mobtown, they called it, a town of riots and brutes who were mainly volunteer firemen and political yahoos. The volunteer firemen, who feuded often, used to start fires deliberately and see which company could get to the scene first. Often, when they did arrive, they forgot about the fire and started brawling and flinging cobblestones at each other. The elections were not as comic. In 1856, eight persons were killed and 250 wounded. The years brought many other riots before Baltimore completed its ungraceful slide into the 20th century. After that only the acidity of H. L. Mencken's column, "The Free Lance," could incite the rabble.

Born in Baltimore in 1880, Mencken, a libertine, in a sense, with a Katzenjammer mischievousness, became—and still is, along with Babe Ruth—the city's most famous figure and, in his time, its most abominated. Over a typewriter, with an Uncle Willie cigar hanging from his lips and with glasses resting on the tip of his nose, he went after "American piety, stupidity, tin-pot morality and cheap chauvinism in all their forms." Outrageously irreverent, he flayed officialdom, labeled civic leaders as Honorary Pallbearers and Baltimore's prominent citizens as being first among the city's seven deadly curses. He only supported female suffrage, because, he said, it would quickly "reduce democracy to an absurdity." He campaigned for bachelors to be taxed a dollar a day simply because it was worth that to be free, and when the Maryland General Assembly adjourned one year he wrote, "Let this be said for the legislature just hauled to the dump: It might have been worse. And that, perhaps, is the highest praise that can ever be given a dead cat."

Baltimore had only antipathy for Mencken, but he thought warmly of the city. When he edited the American Mercury and had to go to New York—which he despised—he was always impatient to return. He could relax in Baltimore, where he played Beethoven with a group of amateur musicians called the Saturday Night Club and "ate divinely" out of Chesapeake Bay. Years later he joined the Maryland Club, a repository for many of the types that he used to flog in his column. Women were not permitted in the club, and Mencken reasoned to his astonished friends: "Why not! It does not even employ charwomen. If an older member falls ill and a trained nurse is necessary he is thrown into the street." Mencken died in Baltimore in 1956 in his house on Hollins Street, which even then was surrounded by blight. He had spent his entire life there, and now only a minority of citizens and the Enoch Pratt Free Library—one of the finest in the country—recall that a frolicsome giant of letters once towered over its somber skyline of spires and church steeples.

Town where Edgar Allan Poe is buried, where Thomas Wolfe died and where F. Scott Fitzgerald brooded on Park Avenue, town where Francis X. Bushman was born, town that Father Divine had to leave to work his con, town where you can still buy a vote with a draft beer, town where a Bromo-Seltzer advertisement defaces the medieval tower of a building—Baltimore has not changed much since Mencken's time. Physically, it has been altered slightly, and more surgery is being done downtown. But Pratt Street, which faces the waterfront and is an encampment for drifters and grifters, remains unpromoted; even the Salvation Army has given up on Pratt Street.

Generally, the people resist rather than assist. Henry Barnes, now traffic commissioner for New York City, ran into their attitude when he was trying to solve traffic problems in Baltimore. A four-lane, two-way street, U.S. 40 was a national highway that was being choked by double-parking and triple-parking in front of a popular fish house. Baltimoreans, who deify the crab cake, were furious that Barnes would even think of ending the congestion around the restaurant; it was sinful. "Man, we're here to buy some crab cakes," Barnes' men were told. "We just got to have some crab cakes. You're crazy if you think we're going anyplace else. This is the best in town. Why don't you go and chase crooks and leave us crab-cake lovers alone." Barnes never did solve the problem, but the owner gave him carte blanche for free crab cakes for the entire Barnes family.

Beyond the crab cake, the monuments and the people's reluctance really to participate in the 20th century, the language is the most unique aspect of the Baltimorean and his city. It is an aggravation composed of Southern Cracker, Brooklynese and Pennsylvania Dutch Singsong that makes a New Yorker, by comparison, sound like Laurence Olivier. For instance, Baltimore is Balamer or Balmer, the Irish are Ahrsh, one does not dial a number—one dolls. A place of business is a bidness, and an accelerator is an exhillerator, and you don't go to a drugstore, you go to a drukstore. Dusk is dust, Druid Hill Park is Druidl Park, a man's paramour waits for him on the lawn every evening. Our is air, barbed wire is bobwar, home is hame, a bureau is a beero, the government is the gummint, a car is a koor, a cruller is a crawler, asphalt is asfelt, orange juice is arnjoos, and any citizen who thinks this article is garbage will call it gobbidge. Some people claim that this language is only heard in East Baltimore, but you can hear it in the velvet sections of town, too—that is, if you don't live there.

"Sonny, the only ones who don't mind hearin' that they talk that way," Uncle used to say, "are the ones in the 10th ward and in East Baltimore and South Baltimore, because they think all the other ones, the ones that live in the big houses outside of town, have to put on airs because they live in big houses. But we know they're Balamerans as soon as they open their mouths."

The 10th ward, which controlled politics in the city for years, is gone now, gone to inept second-story men and Negroes—they compose 40% of the population—who don't care to riot and aren't sure what CORE means. Besides, like most Baltimoreans, the Negroes have a group to look down on—the mountaineers, or hillbillies, or poor whites. Thousands of them, looking for work or just looking, move into the city and settle in pockets. They all have pallid faces with the same lost, lonesome look, and on a hot summer afternoon you can see them sitting on the steps in front of squalid row houses as if they were sitting under a tree in some faraway backland. They pick at their guitars and just watch the passing cars, and, sometime, when you see a window shade lifted by a sudden wind and a kid's empty face behind it, you can understand their lonesome-ness and lostness. A song tells about them, but it is only partially accurate. It tells of a man from Tennessee who lost his wife when she fell in love with the lights and streets of Baltimore. Never!

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