WHEN residents of the Liberty Road corridor complain about how their area is becoming a haven for tacky businesses, I laugh. Come on, people. If you want upscale, move to Manhattan. Baltimore is a tacky town, and we like it that way.
I live near the corner of Belair and Erdman, in Baltimore city, where liquor stores try to outdo each other with garish window signs. You may not like it, but the signs sure do an effective job of telling which vodka is on sale. Many neighborhood residents -- including me -- consider this vital information.
A block or two up Belair Road, you have Savon Foods, an old supermarket with a neon-blue sign and a creaky linoleum floor. Savon may not be a "gourmet" Giant like the one in Pikesville, and certainly it isn't as large, but it delivers your groceries if you ask, and Savon meats are a lot cheaper than the big supermarkets'. Upscale? Not Savon; just a nice place to shop, if you're willing to put up with the tack.
Walt's barber shop, another fine business, wouldn't fit in at Owings Mills Mall, either. Last week, I went in there with all three of my kids. The bill, including tip, was $15. That was for all of us, not just one. So what if the chairs -- and Walt -- have been there as long as anyone can remember?
The bars on Belair Road -- and we have a good supply of them -- range from dingy rooms with cement floors to the newly renovated Peppers, which is upscale enough to be in Hunt Valley, except for one thing: Dom, the owner, still sells a drink at a working man's price. Other bars sell draft beer for as low as 50 cents, and you can nurse two or three while you watch the O's on cable. And if you come in to any of the neighborhood bars, sweaty after a day of work, no one looks down on you. These are bars as they should be, not swank cafes where the patrons eye each other to see who read this month's fashion magazines and where the beer of choice is Samuel Adams.
When we talk about tack, how can we forget The Block? The xTC convention center people moan about how they're losing business because they don't have enough floor space. Folks, I hate to bust your bubble, but what you need to double is the number of bars with naked dancing girls, not the amount of exhibit space. After a hard day of convening, a hardware salesman from Omaha wants to buy a Pigtown girl a $6 colored-water drink, not watch sharks swim around at the National Aquarium.
The Block is smaller every year, and the tourists I meet complain about it. One convention attendee, appalled at The Block's shrinkage, said, "Boy, before you know it, all these joints will be gone and we'll have to go someplace else for our conventions." God knows, it would be cheaper to open 10 sleazy bars and recruit 50 more nude dancers than to build a new convention center. Maybe we could put the new bars in the Fishmarket, thus solving two problems at once.
This is the kind of low-rent problem-solving you can do once you get over your aversion to tackiness and get down to business. This is the kind of thinking that says, "Live in Columbia? How could I move there? There ain't no junkyards where you can buy car parts cheap. There ain't even a Western Auto."
There are lots of other things missing in Columbia, too. Where do you think all the kids who infest Fells Point on Saturday night come from? They come from every bland suburb you can name, in search of tack. And that's what they find.
Baltimore is tack. John Waters has spread the legend of our sleaze all over the world, just as Garrison Keillor has glorified the boredom of life in small-town Minnesota. Barry Levinson, another Baltimore tackmeister, makes movies about ordinary Baltimoreans, not the horsey set out in the boonies. His most famous movie is called "Diner," not "Exquisite Continental Restaurant."
Our primary local art forms are painted window screens and political bombast, not abstract sculpture and non-rhyming poetry. Our indigenous music is funky blues, not opera. Our culinary claims to fame are steamed crabs and open pit beef, not exotic vegetarian dishes and artfully arranged nouvelle cuisine.
Moving to the county doesn't take you away from the tack. There is a man who owns a $300,000 house in Owings Mills -- we won't use his name here -- who recently moved a free-standing fireplace into the basement of his suburban manse, where it fits in nicely with the cheap paneling and flea-market art, all put together by a crew of half-drunk remodelers he rounded up in a bar on West Pratt Street. In effect, he's built a row house basement for himself. "It's the only room in the house where I really feel comfortable," says he.
Why fight it? Baltimore isn't Georgetown. Liberty Road, like Ritchie Highway and Baltimore National Pike, will always be a confused mix of car dealers, gas stations, discount stores and take-out places, with a nudie joint or two thrown in to add a little character.
Tack is Baltimore's heritage and Baltimore's destiny. We should make peace with ourselves, accept what we are and glory in it.
Through all that tack, Robin Miller drives a cab.