It was late at night when I reached Baltimore. I pulled into a Travel Center America truck stop and went inside for dinner at Iron Skillet. I’ve been to Baltimore once, when I was twelve. My family was traveling back home from Florida when my mother got tired and we stopped at an Econolodge. I remember getting a decent night view of the city from the highway before getting off the exit. There was an outline of dark, sinister looking towers spewing stacks of smoke. It reminded me of the city of OZ… if the Wicked Witch had won. It felt depressing. When I walked into Iron Skillet, the old feelings somehow all came back.
The restaurant was a frozen snapshot of the late 1980’s with light maple wood booths and drab brown carpeting. Maybe it wasn’t so much the decor that was 1980s , but how the place made me feel. That decade was the most hopelessly melancholy time in my life and standing there, at the entrance waiting to be seated, transported me back. “Take any seat you want, Honey.” A worn out looking black waitress motioned to me before heading to a table. My impulse was to turn around and walk out, but my curiosity about this restaurant chain (spotted too many of their billboards) made me choose a two-person booth by the kitchen.
I scanned the room and noticed that almost all the patrons were truckers. Most of them looked the part: late side of middle-age, bearded, tattooed and rough-necked. A few were young, but still rough looking around the edges. You have to start somewhere. The only other female dining was a young woman seated by the counter near me. She was “made-up” yet not put together. She was noticeably a little too skinny. I think she was a prostitute. She was pleasantly boisterous and chatting with the truckers at the counter, perhaps to draw attention for business.
My waitress came by after making her rounds and I ordered a fried chicken dinner. A fight between two unseen waitresses burst out in the kitchen. At first, it seemed like it would be only be a brief disturbance like the startling screech of a car in the distance. Instead, the quarrel continued to roll forward uncomfortably like two alley cats trying to kill each other. “Yo, this is the most JACKED up TA Center I ever been to!” blurted out one of the truckers in a long Midwestern drawl. The other men around him chuckled in agreement. A few of the other waitresses walking around stopped intermittently to gossip about what brought these two women to the boiling point. “When the manager finds out about this, she’s fired!” one the waitresses blurted. “She’s young.” The other said in defense. “She’s unprofessional!” the first waitress replied. Usually, when witnessing this type of drama, I try to piece together a whole scenario in my head. Tonight, I was just hoping they weren’t in the back spitting and yelling all over my food! Either way, it was all well because my chicken was dry, stringy and overcooked. I barely touched it… and almost didn’t touch my $15 check, either!
I left and thought about my game plan for the night, forcing the pleasant dining experience out of my mind. It was SHOWER TIME! It’s been a week and I haven’t taken a shower since I left Connecticut. I don’t use my camper’s shower because it’s cramped and you’d have to awkwardly sit down to use it. Instead, I’d take what I like to call a “deep clean” sponge bath, a technique I developed to get me between showers in hot weather without feeling and smelling gross. I may cover more about this technique in another “good grooming” post.
I went to the front desk of the travel center and rented a public shower. I never rented one before, so when the cashier just gave me a receipt and walked away, I was confused. An older black trucker wearing a red football jersey came to my side and asked if I needed help. “This is what you do…” He said with a deep smoky voice. “This here, on your receipt is your shower number and you look on that monitor up there to see if your shower’s ready. When you get to your shower, punch in this other number; that’s your key code for the door. See there, your shower’s ready!” I thanked him and went on my way. When I got to my shower down the hall, I braced myself for whatever would be on the other end of the door. I was pleasantly surprised that my shower was like a nice motel room… without the bedroom area! It had a Corian counter sink, large American Standard toilet, a walk-in shower with top to bottom ceramic tiles and new chrome fixtures. The only offense was the stack of old bright orange towels folded on a bench. It had a paper wrapped bar of hotel soap resting on top of it. I was thankful that I brought my own towel in with me. My shower was long, hot and satisfying. I was grateful.
The next day, I decided to take a business day at McDonalds. Wherever you are, there’s always a McDonalds near by. I chose to center my stay around paying homage to one of my favorite underground film directors, John Waters. Baltimore was not only his hometown, but it also served as the backdrop to most of his films! Desperate Living, Polyester, Cry Baby, and Hairspray are top on my list of cinematic guilty pleasures. There had to be attractions in town with connections to him. With the help of Google, I managed to flesh out a decent three-day itinerary.
I was typing away at my computer when an elderly couple approached my table and started a conversation. They were curious about Eunice. “That’s a small RV… is it fully self-contained?” the husband asked. His better half asked me about safety issues, but I assured her that I didn’t travel in fear. “My wife and I had a big travel trailer years ago and traveled a lot. But we had to get rid of it. It became too much of a bother now that we’re old” he said in an easy, playful tone. “Something like your camper seems easy to care for. We could still travel in that. How much does it cost?” he continued. After I told him, I went on to tell him how he could find campers like mine on Craig’s list and other resources. I noticed as I was speaking that his gaze shifted and he looked a little uncomfortable. I realized that he wasn’t really interested in buying a camper, but just wanted conversation for the sake of it. I looked around and other strangers were casually talking and joking around with each other… Baltimore people sure are friendly!
When my business day came to a close, I did a little exploring. The city has a vibe I could only describe as depressing. I went to the grocery store to pick up some snacks and then picked up some overpriced Chinese take-out. I noticed that most of the people I observed around me (both black and white) looked rough. Sullen expressions, worn clothes, and bad tattoos; the average person seemed to only be a half step above a drug addict in appearance. Not that I’m all that snazzy myself! Paradoxically, these people were amazingly open and friendly when casually interacting with each other. Their bright and sunny inside didn’t match what was presented to the world outside… It was perplexing to make sense of it.
The next day, less than 48 hours of being in Baltimore, I started feeling… depressed. The dour vibe in the air, the aesthetically challenged streets, and seemingly defeated people all around me weighed down on my spirit like a heavy blanket. My only consolation was speaking with Beau on the phone. For my safety, we agreed to speak twice a day, once in the morning and once when I turn in for the night. Now, I was looking forward to his calls more than ever. Hearing his voice raised my mood, but the darkness still lingered. There was no way I could stay in Baltimore for most of the week. I felt conflicted about leaving earlier than planned. I felt like I was quitting something. Nevertheless, I decided I would leave the next day right after visiting some of the choice sights I had on my schedule.
I got up early and looked over my list of attractions, which were all ordered by proximity to each other to save gas. First would be Killer Trash, a trendy thrift store that has provided the wardrobe to many of John Waters’ films. Following that, the American Visionary Art Museum, which exhibits outsider art created mainly by self-taught artist who are bipolar, schizophrenic or disabled. Its centerpiece is a 10-foot statue of Divine, the late drag queen icon who starred in several of Waters’ earlier films. Afterwards, a quick breeze-through the Baltimore Tattoo Museum. Finally, I’d visit Edgar Allen Poe’s grave… just for the heck of it! Most of my stops were located downtown and I figured my travel time wouldn’t take long.
I punched in the first location into my navigation system and placed it snuggly in the beverage holder. When I entered downtown, I was pleasantly surprised at its urban quaintness. With mid-sized buildings mixed with historical sites, and traveling packs of business people who take themselves too seriously, it could easily pass for Hartford’s twin! I reached Killer Trash and found a great parking spot a half block away. When I approached the store I could see brightly colored trinkets and other curious finds displayed in the window. I was eager to see what was inside, but when I got to the door, I discovered the shop was closed! They open at noon and it was only 9AM. It was a wrench in my tight schedule, I figured. I’d remedy the situation by going to my next stop, the museum and simply swing back to the store later. I hopped back into my van, punched in a new address and headed to my next destination. “Turn left onto Lafayette”, the navigation instructed. I turn onto Lafayette and all the other streets she told me to… until I realized she sent me in a circle! I went off route, to have her recalculate, but that only made her more confused. She’d tell me to turn on streets that weren’t there and the streets that were there, she’d change the route on me when I got there. At one point, during an erratic route change, a work truck passing my van almost swiped me! It’s not fun to be lost while driving your home through congested traffic.
My navigation system is new and up until this point, had always been reliable. I couldn’t understand what was going on since the buildings weren’t that tall to interfere with the GPS system. My chest felt tight, my face became hot and my temper finally spun out. “F*ck this! I’ll go to Poe’s grave.” I grunted under my breath. I punched in the address during a red light, figuring it would take me straight there since this site was outside of the downtown area… But the same thing happened again! By this time, I was fed up and gave up! I put in my next destination, Williamsburg, Virginia. As if by divine intervention, my navigation took me straight out of there without a problem. Baltimore! Oh, Baltimore… How I wanted to love you.
SIDE NOTE: I’m in still in Oklahoma. The above events happened during the Summer. I’m catching up… More to come!