There are mannequins coming out of the ceiling. That is the first thing you notice when you walk into the Paper Moon diner. There are mannequins tangled in ceiling fans with garlands of ivy. There are Barbie dolls and action figure heads glued to the walls. There are old alabaster sculptures of cherubs stuck in unimaginable crevices. Every wall is a different color, shocking, and loud. The menus are old hardcover children’s books with the pages torn out, replaced with a kitschy menu and nonsensical magazine clippings.
When you go to the bathroom, you will most likely jump in terror. Because you think you’ve walked in on a woman who, upon closer inspection, is actually a mannequin leaning menacingly in the corner of the one-room toilette, which, upon an even closer look, has a cow-skin pattern painted on her. She is wearing a delicate floral print dress and her beige skin is peeking out from the white paint rather creepily seeping from around her eyes and mouth. Outside, a yellow female mannequin with unbelievably long lashes and an erotic gap in her teeth, is staring lasciviously at a legless, larger than normal Spiderman action figure. In a glass case, a plastic Jesus is pleading with an exhibitionist. During dinner, I jump when I notice that a decapitated baby doll is staring me straight in the eyes. We’re eating on an elegantly carved but dying wooden bedside and living room tables.
Nothing in this place is normal. Not even the people. Which doesn’t say much for my friends and me, who often frequent the diner. It used to be a place where aged men in the community came to grab a bite to eat and scope out the young nubile, teenaged (and younger) set. They would make deals over hamburgers and shakes. And then, after lunch or dinner, they would follow the boy of their choice out of the diner, where they would make good on their illicit plans. This was all with consent, of course. But the police were impervious to the logic of such contracts, and the joint was raided and shut down. It reopened and what seediness it lost in substance, it retained in style.
Of course, one takes this with a grain of salt in Charm City, that name some still apply to Baltimore, despite its less-than-enchanting STD and murder rate. I am one among those who insists on the moniker. Baltimore is an absolutely strange creature: it is a city with a personality disorder. There is the city of The Wire, ruled by gangs, violence, and deep despair. Then there is the city of Charles Street, where quaint, old-money mansions line the sidewalks. There is a city of prep school children, a city that loves horses and crab feasts and lacrosse. And there is a city that wants to end crime it thrives upon, a city that breeds heroes and derelicts, and strangest of all, there is a place with no clear delineation: there are no agreed-upon city lines. The city of The Wire is not the underbelly of Baltimore. It is Baltimore. Just as much as Orioles Stadium and the Walters Art Gallery are Baltimore. And this boundary-less character lends to Charm City a dark romanticism, a confused legacy and a profound tension.
This strange exchange is nowhere better epitomized than in The Wire itself, a show that depicts the gang violence in one of America’s most dangerous cities. In one episode, the character loosely based on Mayor (now Governor) O’Malley is leaving the State House, angry he can’t seal a deal. The police officer who guides the mayor out of the State House is played by none other than the former Governor of Maryland: Robert Ehrlich. A republican, Ehrlich represented the elite interests of Maryland to many. And yet there he was, in a show which portrayed his enemy, Martin O’Malley, as a champion, acting in a minor role for apparently no reason at all.
The varying “sides” of Baltimore are in constant dialogue with one another. The area known as Fell’s Point is a place where we are always cautioned not to go to at night. But by day it is where my family buys new, handmade furniture. The man selling furniture has pulled-back dreds, always wears leather flip flops, and is decidedly blasé. Still, he offers preppy pink and green prints for girls heading off to college. In high school, a number of my friends hung out with jocks who were borderline racist and definitely mysoginist. Some others ran with boys who carried switchblades and threatened to stab a mutual friend because she was “annoying.” But they were nicer than the boys on the sports teams.
When they say that in Maryland, “all Democrats act like Republicans, and all Republicans act like Democrats,” they aren’t kidding. Our Governor plays in an Irish rock band; he crooned Bob Dylan at his Inaugural Ball. And this personality disorder is further reaching than politics. There is a vague religiosity in the city which is sometimes fully articulated, but often ignored. In Charm City, nothing is what it seems. In Charm City, when you go out for lunch at the Inner Harbor, you might be pulled aside by a homeless woman to buy her a sandwich. And not only will you oblige, you will follow this woman for five minutes as she decides on the restaurant of her choice (which turns out to be McDonald’s). In Charm City, some people speak in Southern accents, some speak like valley girls, some speak like rappers, and some speak in a “Bawlmer” accent that is all Maryland’s own, and still others speak like they do on television: no accent, just bland. And this wouldn’t be strange except that all these people live on the same cul-de-sac.
In Charm City, we invent our own background. We cling onto arbitrary notes of pride– beer manufacturers, street names, whatever catches our imagination. We’re given a wide variety of adjectives and then we choose among the batch which ones we hold dear, which ones we identify with, and sometimes our choices make sense and sometimes they don’t. Here in Baltimore, in one neighborhood, there can be ten different conceptions of Baltimore. That is its charm. And we who did not grow up in Baltimore, use its name as shorthand for the style we love: the slick Baudelairean modernity in which we invent ourselves as works of art. Like the grid map city through which no one can navigate, through which we are often lost. Like the Paper Moon diner, our heritage and personality is a continual surprise. And just when one believes he fully understands the identity the Baltimorean has created, he suddenly realizes the cowpaint, the lascivious smile, the erotic gap—the absurd discontinuities which complicate our identities and our home. These peccadilloes like mannequins crawling out of plastered ceilings, are the heart of a city that never stops being born. It wasn’t for nothing that an old country blues song about Baltimore spoke about a woman who wanted to change herself and the man who ultimately lost her to the city. And the words of that song capture our feelings as we cross into Charm City:
“Well her heart was filled with gladness when she saw the city lights/ She said the prettiest place on earth was Baltimore at night.”