USA October 2009 : IV – Baltimore, MD / Washington D.C.

Going all the way to Baltimore,  hope it won’t be raining when I get there.

…was an allusion to a couple of songs, namely Mark Erelli’s wonderful “Baltimore”, and Counting Crows’ “Raining in Baltimore.”  Erelli’s song I have alluded to before and is one of the great driving-all-night-to-see-my-girl songs, with the twist that on this occasion the girl in question is going to need a lot of convincing when he gets there.  Probably best not to look (or smell) like you’ve just driven all night then, really.  The latter is an unsung gem from August and Everything After, a paean to the joys and gut-wrenching impossibility of long-distance love.

Have decided not to do Tennessee after all but to fly on to Washington DC, then possibly Boston by train if I think I have time, on the way back to NYC.  Have decided I will have had enough of the south by the end of this week, and need to return to somewhere you can question both Richard Nixon and God; neither is really permissible here in Texas…

And not only that, but I was positively looking forward to a return to the northeast corridor.

To be precise, I’m off to Baltimore, Maryland, which is about 35 miles from DC.  Ordinary mortals can’t really afford to stay in DC, the hotels are full of congressmen, aides and business types, and the cheaper accommodation looks v dubious.  Baltimore, on the other hand, is on the shores of Chesapeake Bay and rather lovely in its own right, regardless of the fact that it is 45 minutes/$14 on the train from DC and about half the price to stay in.

Once I get to Baltimore, all travel will be by train; New England and the capital area have functional trains, unlike TX.  I can get

to any of Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston via Amtrak, so no more planes for a while.

Somewhere Over Middle America

My joy at the existence of trains in the northeast corridor shows just how tired of airport routine I had become.  I’m better than most at it, and clung to the romance of air travel long after most started moaning.

I will never truly stop loving the actual moment of takeoff, and I do my best to get window seats so I can look out at the modern miracle of flight in action. That said, along comes a moment like my transfer at Charlotte, NC and I wonder why I bother.  Starting from the back row of the Dallas flight didn’t help, pinned into my seat by the stereotypical dangerously obese American air passenger (who spent the entire flight conversing with the hostess about his chiropractor) and the endless stream of wheeled bags in the overhead lockers (the by-product of charging for checked baggage).  That our flight came in at gate 21 (the far end) in one terminal and the Baltimore/Washington plane left from gate 21 in the other meant simply that those of us attempting said transfer were going to travel the entire length of CLT.  While the aforementioned gentleman pondered aloud to his hostess companion whether he could catch a lift on one of the golf-cart-luggage-transporter things, the rest of us set off,  carefully picking to run behind people who looked brave enough to yell at their fellow Americans to stand on the right please.  Skin-of-the-teeth stuff, but I made it, as did my bag.

My room in Wilson House

My B&B in Baltimore was amazing; having been held up at baggage claim, I called ahead to assure them that I would be arriving, but might be late.  The kindly man on the phone told me which stop to get off the light rail and came to pick me up!  The hospitality was good from that moment on really; I was offered a glass of wine while he showed me his art collection, then given a good dinner recommendation and directions.   Nice to be somewhere like that rather than a hotel.

The hallway was flanked by two rooms; on the left, a narrow dining room with the kitchen beyond, and on the right a living room.  A grand piano dominated the near end of this right-hand room, the centre had a number of chairs arranged around a coffee table, all looked antique (I lack the knowledge to tell you how old, but it seemed in keeping with the Victorian house) and the walls were festooned with paintings.  Having handed me a glass of a very passable Cabernet, Guy (owner and proprietor) proceeded to guide me around the artworks.  Each had a story behind it, from the genuine (if anonymous) Italian Renaissance oil painting of the Venetian lagoon to the Japanese engravings and the psychedelic South American jungle painting on the opposite wall.  Once I mentioned where I had come from, the conversation veered from art to history and the Kennedy assassination; Guy recommended a book on the subject that had him convinced (make of it what you will!). We discussed his military career, his recent work for the US Coastguard in Washington, my choice of degree and job prospects, all most welcome.  Eventually, feeling the wine going to my empty stomach, I drew the conversation to close (it might well have continued indefinitely!) and asked where a man might find food at this hour (perhaps half-past nine by that point).  Directions duly received I dashed up to my room, donned my grey linen jacket and made my way into the pleasantly warm Baltimore night.

I strolled down, found the corner of Mount Royal and Charles and, as promised, food. Enjoying an ecstatic excitement far out of proportion to the reality, I reclaimed the freedom of the lone traveller and sat down at the bar.  Feeling once more like I was in a sitcom or music video I sat there drinking Yuengling and eating a cheeseburger, watching a football game and soaking a couple of hours of Americana before bedtime.

My first morning in Baltimore is best described in pictures.  Pictures of the churches, beautiful apartments and tenement buildings, statues and monuments that make up the north side of the city.  America began to look older, more European.  Here, for the first time, I saw the material legacy of the men and the wars that shaped the nation.  I also saw Baltimore as a city; unlike everywhere I had been and would go, it felt somehow ordinary in size; it had a concert hall and a university, but they weren’t gargantuan or world-famous.  It was, all the same, rather lovely on a blue-sky morning.

From there I walked down to the Inner Harbour area, which will have a vaguely familiar feel to anyone who’s been to any other waterfront regeneration project; slightly forced, but quite pleasant if you’re prepared to ignore the tacky bits.  I tolerated the shopping centre just long enough to get myself a freshly squeezed lemonade, then sat on a bench and took in the view, back to the garish shops, facing instead the restored USS Constellation.

Soon enough though, it was time to get to the main event; Baltimore was but a dormitory town for me (not to mention countless thousands who no doubt do likewise) useful for its proximity to the capital.  So, from Pennsylvania Station Baltimore to Union Station Washington, a quick and easy task even for someone with no experience of the Amtrak system.  Every system has its peculiarities, of course; as far as I could see it was impossible to buy an open return, so I settle d for a single and the knowledge that I could buy my trip back with next-to-no notice.  45 minutes later and right on time, I arrived in Washington.  Union Station is the headquarters of Amtrak and the gateway to Washington, and it is built on a scale to reflect both of these facts.  Its epic white granite neo-classical arches stretch improbably high and lend lightness to the space.  In the middle of one half of this giant court sits a restaurant, an oval-shaped two-storey wooden cake affair with staircases running up both ends.

Leaving Union Station, the hapless tourist is faced with very little risk of getting lost.  You walk straight out the door and up Delaware Ave and the Capitol rises from behind the trees, glinting in the sunlight.  Or, in my case, looking slightly grey in the ugly, flat light of a day that had suddenly turned overcast  From there, strung out for one’s delectation along the National Mall are the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian Museum, the Lincoln Memorial and, across the Potomac, Arlington National Cemetery.  I wandered, took photos and marvelled at a particular sort of human being that I imagine you don’t find anywhere other than the square mile around the Capitol.  Between 15 and 25 years old, dressed immaculately in preppy east-coast smart-casual and wearing name-tags.  Some of them were corralled into groups and were posing for photos in front of the Senate, others walked down under the trees in front of the building.  Chinos (slacks) and blazers abounded, with tailored trouser (pant) suits for the girls.  In the case of the younger ones, they were often in clothes that belonged to their parents, or at least had been bought three sizes too big in the hope that they might last.  One can only assume they were on various trips, placements and/or internships with their congressman/senator/lobbyist and striving desperately to blend in.

Having observed this little swarm for long enough, I ventured into Washington proper for lunch and a few practical items, not least fountain pen ink, something I was fast running out of.  The complete absence of this substance, coupled with the rarity of internet cafes and a protracted stay in what was perhaps the largest Borders I had ever seen meant that all of a sudden it was 4pm.  I hit the subway (thereby having to comprehend my second mass transit system in about 6 hours) and headed for the place I had in mind as my final destination for the day, Arlington.  The leading edge of the rush hour combined with “technical difficulties” meant that by the time I got there it was nearly 5pm.  Plenty of time, I thought, but apparently not.  Winter opening hours meant the Cemetery was closing, but with hindsight I’m not in the least bit frustrated because of what followed.  Able to take my time crossing back across the Potomac on foot, I shot about 150 frames in an hour and half as the sky delivered a spectacular light show backdrop. My stay in the state of Virginia had been brief, but photographically rewarding, and I knew I could come back the following morning.

Washington Monument

I watched the sun set over the Lincoln Memorial and walked up to see the man himself and, more importantly, read his words.  Having never studied the period, I had made it this far without ever reading the Gettysburg address, and so I stood in the shadow of the great figure and considered the words on the wall.   The power of those words, that idealism, hit home, not least in terms of my admiration for Lincoln as wordsmith; the way the speech pivots around the idea of “dedication”, referring first to the nation’s commitment to its ideals, then to the specific act of dedicating, of giving over the land at Gettysburg as a burial ground, then hinging on that same word, bringing it back to where he began:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”

Sunset over the Lincoln Memorial

I was ripe for it, what with my fascination with the place coupled with a spectacular lightshow across the Potomac bathing the monument in golden glow, but I was moved by his words.

I returned to Union Station and made my way to the ticket machines.  Facing either an expensive ticket or an hour’s wait, I opted for the latter and went to investigate where I might find dinner.  As it turned out, the big oval restaurant-island had two things going for it; it wasn’t as expensive as it looked like it ought to be and it had Pilsner Urquell on tap; real Czech pilsner in the land of Miller Lite, a blessing not to be sniffed at.  I drank my pint and ate my chicken, basking in the magnificence of being a few metres closer to the arches and their sculptures.

Day 2

Having got used to internet on tap whilst in Texas, I suddenly found myself without, and this was a problem.  I relied on the internet to plan the next phase of the trip, to book rooms, research destinations.  Absurd as it may seem, finding some internet without the internet is surprisingly difficult!  A couple of transatlantic text messages later, I had a couple of addresses to try, and at the second one I eventually found what I had been searching for.  I wrote to my father, thanking him for the directions!

Greetings from 1719 Connecticut Ave!  The place on 17th no longer exists, but I’m glad I came out here, it’s a lovely neighbourhood full of cafes and interesting record/bookshops that I’d never have found otherwise.

The internet café on Connecticut was just off Dupont Circle, and I walked back there to have lunch in a pizzeria before continuing.  As always when I sat alone, I wrote, both journal entries and, this time, working on the letters I was crafting to my friends in Texas.

From Dupont Circle I caught a subway out of the district and into Virginia, this time within the hours of Arlington National Cemetery and did what I’d come to do.

23rd October
Arlington National Cemetery

The completion of a pilgrimage.  From the Kennedy gravesite you can see Lincoln and Washington, the Capitol in the distance.  The sickening reality hits home, that his place was not here but there, treading an eight-year path towards a monument of his own on that Mall.  America, land of everlasting hope, lost its greatest hope for a generation.

I did manage to do the Smithsonian Air and Space, which was great fun.  I think men never truly lose their boyhood fantasies of flying jet planes and spaceships, and the place is made for indulging such fantasies.

Time, once more, to give in to the inner tourist.  I queued to look into the sliced-open cockpit of a 747, I leaned over barriers to get a few millimetres closer to the Spirit of St Louis and, the Bell X-1.  I was awed by bits of the Apollo missions and real pieces of moon rock.  A few moments later I was astounded to find a Spitfire, a Messerschmitt 109 and a P-51 Mustang in one room.  This is the stuff that my 9-year-old self’s dreams were made of!  Brought up within earshot of an airport, planes were something that I had grown up with.  Some of my earliest clear memories are being taken to watch Concorde take off.   Just before I left my parents’ house, the resident Spitfire had been up (there is a restored Spitfire based out of EMA, and it seems the pilot likes to use the airspace over the villages to warm up a little before disappearing off to wherever it is to perform that day); it looped and dived over our house, terrifying my mother and keeping my father and I enraptured as we stood on the backyard watching in awe.  I hadn’t seen a P-51 since I was taken to the Imperial War Museum in London, aged all of about twelve.  There is something about it that screams muscle car! It’s an eloquent statement of the difference between the two nations; given the Merlin engine, Britain builds the Spitfire and America the Mustang.


At that moment, there weren’t a great many things that could have made me desire to be anywhere else in the world.  One of them, however, was a message from a good friend of mine describing exactly what she was choosing from the menu at the trattoria she was sat outside in Venice. It still makes me smile.

On the train back to Baltimore I fell to talking with a woman.   Well, to be precise we started talking in the queue.  She approached the back of said queue and asked me if it was the right train.  Having explained that this was only the second time I had caught a train from Union Station,  that I was a good 4000 miles from home and that, therefore, I probably wasn’t one to trust on such matters, we started talking about trains.  Laughing at herself, and a little at the hapless Englishman no doubt, we chatted as the queue snaked towards the gate to the platform.  She began to tell me, in that delightfully confident, forthright manner that New Yorkers (for that’s what she was) have, that she had commuted to Washington from New York every day for three years since her job moved there.   By the time we eventually made it to the train we were practically old friends (deduce what you will about the length of the queue!) and I sat down opposite her in a just-enough-space-to-ignore-one-another-if-we-felt-like-it kind of arrangement, and I watched as subtly as I dare as she went about her life, eating from the buffet car because she didn’t have time to do it at either end of her journey, still working at 9pm and not home until after 11.

From my cosy bedroom in Wilson House, and on trains, I write letters to all three sisters back in north Texas.  To Kellie, my old friend, I write of the music I listened to on the flight out of Dallas, climbing through turbulence and lashing rain listening to the songs we’d played in the car.  In my journal I had written

…got my headphones up high
Can’t numb you, can’t drum you out of my mind

“This Flight Tonight” – Joni Mitchell

But of course I was trying nothing of the sort.  I sought out the music and reinforced the associations, staring out of the window at Texas disappearing behind me and hurting from the bonds I had made, reinforced and now torn away.

You can’t get enough
I’m gonna be somebody…
I’m gonna make you love me…

“Be Somebody” – Kings of Leon

Only By The Night has a new resonance now, a deep red Texan sunset, driving fast down narrow roads towards the bonfire, singing along, harmonizing instinctively.  Sinister, flame-licked night drive.  A screaming statement of intent, of desire to stand out from the crowd, escape one’s background and transcend the mediocrity of one’s surroundings.  I should not be in the least bit surprised that it is now so tightly bound up with my idea of Kellie.

To the others, a balancing act between light banter and a careful attempt at expressing how much it had meant to be accepted into a family.  Claire had left me a note outside my door, decrying my having bade Chrissie farewell and then disappeared.  Being in the bath was no excuse, it seemed, to have missed her out.

Before I left I explored Wilson House a little more. The house sprawled upwards.  Landings led to bedrooms but also to assorted shared living areas, each furnished and scattered with televisions, magazines, books and art.

My last morning in Baltimore came around all too soon, and I found myself checking out of Wilson House and wandering down into the city.  I faced the daunting prospect that I had known might come given my haphazard planning; nowhere to go.  Having arrived at the addresses of two internet cafes that no longer existed, I asked at a newsagent.  Stepping out of the rain and buying orange juice, the guy took pity on my fruitless search and let me borrow his computer for a few minutes.  I got the phone number for The Pod and took the first room they offered me, at heinous expense and for one night only.  By this point I was beyond clear thought and needed familiarity, and in this world I’d created for myself, E51st stood for all of those things.


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