The Amtrak from Philadelphia is fast and clean.
I actually feel a bit under-dressed, on the train, in my faded t-shirt and cargo shorts.
Soon I’m in Baltimore, checking into my hotel before looking around for lunch.
I pick a direction to walk and instantly, right around the corner, the neighborhood becomes much less affluent.
One side of the street are some row houses in the Baltimore style, the other seems to be a series of abandoned housing projects, overgrown with grass and protected by a chain-link fence.
Some of the row houses have people sitting on the steps, in various stages of intoxication. They’re all very friendly. One old bearded drunk flashes me a peace sign while his buddy nods off on a folding chair, almost dropping his beer.
A couple of blocks down, a guy smiles and says “Howdy”. A mom and dad watch their two-year-old daughter play on the next set of steps. They’re the only people on this street who look sober.
It’s a diverse crowd. You know. As crowds in the US tend to be.
Several blocks later I find Broadway, where I’ve heard there are some good taquerías.
In front of me, a bunch of rowdy guys are hanging around talking about football. They’re outside another large row house.
What are they waiting for? They’re not there for no reason. They look like a group with a purpose.
Suddenly the door of the house opens, and they all rush in. I look at the sign next to the door. It’s a methadone clinic. One of several in that area, apparently.
Two blocks down is Papi’s Tacos, where a large bearded gentleman serves me a giant bowl of free chips and salsa, a massive beef tongue burrito and a half-liter margarita. It’s better than any Mexican meal I’ve had in Spain, ever.
I could get used to this. Half-liter margaritas and top-notch Mexican food?
God bless America!
Okay, not so fast…
Some fun facts from Wikipedia before we continue:
- As of 2018, the murder rate in Baltimore was higher than that of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.
- The DEA has reported that 10% of Baltimore’s population – about 64,000 people – are addicted to heroin.
- Colt 45 Malt Liquor (made famous, to this author, by Afroman) comes from Baltimore, and is actually named after Baltimore Colts running-back Jerry Hill, who wore the number 45.
I suppose that comparing Baltimore’s homicide rate with that of entire countries is not quite scientific. But that’s what’s on the wiki. Also, that statistic about heroin is particularly disturbing. Ten percent of everyone hooked on smack!
Seems like a problem that size should be very visible, even at the street level.
And it is, as I soon find out.
Exploring Baltimore, AKA “Charm City”
The strange mix of neighborhoods is something I find all over Baltimore.
One minute it’s tidy middle-class areas with immaculate front gardens. A few minutes’ walk later, it’s like a zombie apocalypse: hungry-looking people dressed in rags, high off their gourds, stumble between abandoned buildings, mumbling. Then, a farmers’ market. Some nice oyster house. Zombie apocalypse. Monument to George Washington. Zombie apocalypse. And so on.
The funny thing is that even in the rough neighborhoods, people are really nice to me. Walking back from seeing the collection of Matisses at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I’m in one such neighborhood when I look over to see a bunch of guys sitting in the shade of a tree, next to a sign that says “No Shoot Zone”. A local initiative, apparently, that tries to create spaces where innocent people can be out of the line of fire. This one is the barbecue area at a little park.
The No Shoot Zone doesn’t extend to the street where I’m walking, though. I guess that means I’m in the Shoot Zone. Which means it’s time for a beer. I stop at a package liquor place and ask for a giant can of Miller in a paper bag.
Two guys come in behind me. The tall one sees me (probably looking sort of out of place in that area) and says “Hey man, I appreciate you.”
“Well, thank you sir!”
The shorter one, who’s much older, wants to fist bump. I fist bump, and add a side-five for good measure. He smiles and says “Sir, please have my blessing.”
I have no idea what I’ve done to deserve such friendliness from the clientele of this package liquor place – perhaps they’re already tipsy – but it gives me a good feeling as I walk down the street drinking Miller out of the brown lunchbag.
I’m not sure if public drinking is legal, but there don’t seem to be any police in these rough neighborhoods to stop me. Maybe we’ve defunded them. Or maybe they just stay in the touristy areas and leave the locals alone, to manage their No Shoot Zones on their own.
Tour of Baltimore’s Famous Graves
A few blocks later I’m on the edge of a cemetery. Consulting my trusty Google Maps, I find that it contains the grave of John Wilkes Booth.
A landscaper lets me in and tells me to sign the guest book. The cemetery is huge, but I’m only the 6th person to visit it all day. A map points out notable graves, including that of “John Wilkes Booth. Actor, assassin.” The headstone is back in the Booth family plot. Apparently many of the Booth clan were famous actors. John Wilkes has a small, unmarked stone with a pile of Lincoln pennies on top.
I dig through my pockets and find a shiny new Lincoln to add to the pile. Sic semper tyrannis, indeed.
Another famous grave is that of Edgar Allan Poe, in a little churchyard downtown. I can’t say I remember much about Poe: a heavy drinker who eventually lost his mind, I believe. The Simpsons did a good reading of his poem The Raven, back in the day, and I’m surprised to see there’s a raven carved into the gravestone, and the words Quoth the Raven “Nevermore”.
All I knew about Baltimore before arriving was from the HBO series The Wire. And even most of that didn’t take place downtown.
But it seems like a city with a lot of history.
Wandering out to an old fort on another day, I find that it’s not only an important battlefield from the War of 1812, but also the spot where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words to what eventually became The Star-Spangled Banner. The original title of Key’s poem was, in fact, The Defense of Fort M’Henry.
The B&O Railroad – of Monopoly fame – has a museum here. Turns out it’s been the Baltimore & Ohio all along. These are things people don’t point out to you when you live in Phoenix, and any mention of “local history” is most likely a reference to Charles Barkley and the Suns’ 1992-93 season.
Other attractions include the National Aquarium, the US’ oldest continuously operating saloon – called The Horse You Came In On – and Babe Ruth’s birthplace and museum.
I go to see a few of the sights, but mostly, I’m just here to walk around and consume cholesterol.
Food and shopping for omnivores and others
Luckily, there’s Italian food to be had in Little Italy, Pastrami Reubens on Corned Beef Row, and some local (or perhaps regional) cuisine such as fried catfish and “hog maws and chitterlings” – apparently a sort of tripe dish. And then there are the taquerías and other latin restaurants in the Broadway area.
I give the crab and oyster bars around Fell’s Point a miss, mostly because the prices at the non-touristy places are already shocking enough.
Finally, one afternoon, I decide to do something I’ve been looking forward to for years. I decide to go to Target. It’s a couple miles’ walk from my hotel, and it’s raining as I walk away from downtown.
Inside the big box, I’m face to face with all the abundance that Americans take for granted. A whole aisle just for different styles of doormat. Laundry detergents for every possible situation. A million cubic meters of toilet paper. I buy a t-shirt with the American flag on it, because why not. And another with a Metallica logo. Then I head back downtown to the hotel.
The Whole Foods at the edge of the Patapsco River is also abundantly stocked and bustling with shoppers. There are three giant fridges full of gallon bottles of milk, and another with 240 types of designer eggs. A shocking array of nut butters, and of drinks.
I stand for several minutes, slack-jawed in front of a display of carbonated yerba mate in cans, unsure which brand or flavor would adequately suit my unique human / consumer identity. In the end I get something in lemon-lime, and drink half of it before realizing the sad truth: I’m just never gonna like yerba mate.
But shopping is boring. Let’s talk about death.
Lives of desperation, deaths of despair
Back to the neighborhoods where everything seems to be going wrong…
According to Maryland Matters, “In 2020, there were 964 deaths from opioids in the city of Baltimore, nearly triple the number of people who were victims of homicide.”
That’s just opioids. And that number is apparently only going up.
Baltimore is among the cities with the most overdoses in the US. But it’s far from being a “just Baltimore” problem. The same article says that there were over 100,000 fatal overdoses in the US in 2021, “76,975 of these deaths being attributed to opioids”.
These are deaths of despair, and I can’t help but wonder why the numbers keep increasing.
It looks like, for a lot of people, life in the US is going great. But some people seem to feel that life is going nowhere at all, and they end up in some sort of downward spiral.
Is the reason economic? Well, that probably has something to do with it. But money can’t be the whole story. There are plenty of places poorer than Baltimore where drugs just aren’t a problem.
Is it a general moral decline? Maybe, whatever that means. But I’d rather not blame a decay of Judeo-Christian ethics unless I have some good evidence.
A lack of family structure? Once again, maybe. I’d have to do some research. Although if you’ve got addicts in your family, I guess that only makes it easier to grow up to be one yourself.
I guess there could be a lot of reasons for the rise in overdoses. But one aspect of it has to be the potency of the new drugs.
Apparently, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids make old-school heroin seem like some weak shit – they can be up to 50 times stronger.
Friends of mine who are into such things have said (and I’m not exaggerating) “Yeah, you can’t just pop pills you get from random strangers at the club anymore. If it turns out to be fentanyl, you’re dead!”
In a sort of conclusion, I guess…
I enjoyed Baltimore a lot. But the contrast between neighborhoods was pretty stark.
If the high end of American society is the refrigerated aisle at Whole Foods and the neatly-ordered row houses of government workers, then the low end has to be the No Shoot Zones and methadone clinics, the thousands who die of violence or suicide or overdose.
And those deaths are mostly silent. For every death in a mass shooting that gets hours of breathless reporting on CNN, there are dozens of people who die their quiet deaths of despair, or are shot down in unglamorous neighborhoods your average gun control advocate wouldn’t dare walk through, even in broad daylight.
I don’t have any solution here. The problem seems to have many facets, some of them cultural.
But the good thing about culture is that we create it, and we can re-create it. Culture isn’t just something that happens to you, it’s also something you do. It’s something we all create, and (largely) agree upon.
It is, as my dogg Yuval might say, just another series of man-made fictions.
So don’t just be a victim of culture. Show some damn agency, and do something better.
There’s enough despair in the world as it is.
And with that, I’m out.
Have a good one, y’all.
Daniel AKA Mr Hot-Dog.
P.S. Coming soon, my reports from New Orleans and Phoenix. Subscribe to email updates if you don’t want to miss those. Thanks!