The counter is massive. Its scarred face gleams in the soft yellow light of the chandelier above. A fireplace, set in the same marble as the counter, dominates the back of the room and the hundreds of bottles clustered on it and around it glitter in the semi-darkness. Above, stretching to the high ceiling, two pilasters of repeated heraldry wind upward in tight organic patterns before they fade into the gloom.
The roof is lost to me. The room hums. It is a Friday, almost Christmas, and there is a storm coming. I sit at the last seat on the counter and read. What little light put out by the antique globes reflects off the windows at the front, making it difficult to see the darkening world beyond the glass. You can just make out the brusque, crisp movements of those outside, in weather it is better not to be outside in. You can see the grey and brittle snow clumped under parked cars. You can see the skeleton fingers of bared street trees, leafless for winter. People move around me in the flat and tidal surges of a Friday evening.
This is Baltimore. Before the end of 2014, when half of America felt like it was holding its breath. Waiting for the next last straw, the next never again, the next horror that the media breathlessly reported for a week, before losing interest and repurposing the talking heads to be deployed at fresh Human Interest. A Baltimore of unpainted canvas, unfurled flag, over easy and underdone. A different Baltimore to the one held in my head.
I suspect this problem is not unique to me. Like many of my peers, that Baltimore, the Baltimore in my head, was that of The Wire; towers and re-ups, claustrophobic ceiling-tiled offices lit by a thousand fluorescent tubes, patchy suits, the savagery of addiction and the grinding everywhereness of politics. The straight legged, straight jawed Daniels plowing his way through every painful meeting word by painstaking word. Rollers. Product. Row houses and strip joints. A whole other vocabulary.
Instead, this is a Baltimore of marble bars, alabaster fixtures and chandeliers casting light everywhere but up. A Baltimore of Washington on a pillar of marble, a hundred feet up, cock-arm pointing South, toward the harbour, locust point, and the cobbled together stars of M’Henry. Not D’Angelo lit by blue neon under a flickering red sign that reads, “Chicken.” Not West or East or any side that matters. A place dislocated from recent history, but tied to it all the same.
Two gentlemen sit at the counter next to me. They are bulky and squat, with ruddy complexions that seem out of place amongst the suits, ties and shoes with that briefest flash of red. John, who has swept his cap from his head and made a complex and specific beer order, launches straight into it. He notes that, “New Jersey has the lowest productivity of these States of the Union. Didn’t always be like that. Used to be different.” Their beers come, and they are exactly as specific as anticipated.
“I got me one of these new mp3 player things. Fucking amazing, man. You have to load the songs onto it. You know, from your computer first and then put it on the player. I put in this CD, my favourite CD, the first Pearl Jam album I bought back in ‘92, ‘93, and I expected, you know, you’d have to type in the names of the songs so they’d show on your screen in your car but the internet, man, it just connected when I put it in and bam, each song had a name and a picture. It’s amazing to think that back in ‘93 they were preparing for these things, putting the information in there.”
The second man, the one who is not John, has a specific whiskey next to his specific beer. It is very clearly not his first for the evening. “Yeah man, that’s, fucking, that’s what people like me were doing, fucking ten years ago. Y’know. Typing in the data. Fucking meticulous. Pearl Jam, Metallica. I can’t even count how many songs I put in,” he pauses for a second, as if exhausted by this revelation. “My arm hurts man. I mean it’s okay. It’s okay. But it hurts. Tomorrow, I need to be drunk. With my disability, it’s hard. People expect things.” He downs the specific whiskey and raises a single finger from the rim of the glass to the young man behind the bar. His glass is filled.
I’m reading a series of essays called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon, a professor at Vassar College in upstate New York. He writes well, and his proud, brittle words leap off the page and burn and ferment and demand the kind of reading where each page becomes three. Top, bottom, and top again. I gradually lose the conversation next to me. Lose the whole glittering facade to a house in rural Louisiana, Kiese’s lying not quite grandfather and his drunken not quite opinions on one Kanye West.
When I click back in, John’s ranting about legislation and liberals and not John is painstakingly laying out the detail of his welfare fraud, his lack of success with “fat goth chicks,” and the golden era of grunge in America. The suit directly behind me has started bagging out the per diems allocated to A-100s and from that I surmise that he’s young and he’s at State and also that it’s time to leave. I pay for my non-specific beers and leave a tip on the scarred and giant marble. John and not John ignore me.
It is bitterly cold outside. I pull up my hood and walk round the corner, where a man who has been sitting launches himself to his feet and careens toward me. He is looking around me, through me, and rubs his hands on his chest.
“Hey man, my name is Michael and I’ve been in prison since I was fourteen. Got out, don’t want nothing to do with drugs man, I just want some food, some coffee, some cigarettes. Bless the lord man, can you help me?”
“Well, is there a Dunkin around here? Let’s get a coffee.”
“Please man, I just want some cigarettes.”
“You want some food? Coffee? Let’s go.”
“Spare some change man. Bless the lord,” and the wind whips around. Michael sits back down. Rubs his hands on the front of his stained hoodie. Doesn’t look at me. When I look back, he’s not there.
I walk back through the historical district, Washington above, looking down. There is a church on every corner and the hostel I am heading for has soaring ceilings, gilded chandeliers and twelve rusty IKEA bunk beds in every room. As I buzz into the building, there is a sharp blast of siren and a police cruiser stops two blocks up. Two white cops jump out and push a man to the ground. It’s too far away to be sure, but it looks like Michael.
The wind whips around. The door buzzes, clicks, and I am inside.