Camp Is Camp No Matter Where It Is

ALICE STEINBACH

June 17, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

OUT OF THE CORNER OF MY EYE, I saw her last week: A laughing girl, about 10 years old, walking in a circle of friends toward the neighborhood schoolhouse. She was half-skipping with excitement and carried in her hands, instead of books, a bouquet of garden flowers.

Small details, perhaps, but to me they conveyed a big message: School was about to shut down for the summer.

The last day of school! When you're 10 years old, are there five sweeter words in the English language?

Remember how the air suddenly seemed lighter on the day that school stopped? And how -- now that you could sleep later -- you didn't mind getting up earlier? And how you felt flooded with a sense of freedom now that summer stretched out endlessly in front of you, like an ocean with no visible shores?

It all came back to me in a rush last week -- fueled by the sight of the girl with the bouquet and, later that day, a visit to my old summer camp.

Which, by the way, was located in downtown Baltimore.

Actually, when I was growing up, downtown Baltimore was my summer camp. And there was no better place in the world, I thought then, for a 10-year-old to enjoy summer than in the city.

In those days, it was easy to get downtown -- the streetcar ran almost from the front door of my house into the heart of the city. And there was always the hope that -- if luck was on my side -- I might catch one of the old, red, double-decker buses that still ran up and down Charles Street. Even now when I think about it, I relive the thrill of climbing the little circular stairway that led to the upper tier of one of those buses.

My typical summer day would begin at 9 a.m. when I met my best friend Constance at the downtown YWCA. Our mornings were spent in tumbling classes, tap dancing classes and swimming in the large indoor pool. Before entering the pool area we'd go to a small room where an attendant handed us drab, tank-type bathing suits in sizes that never fit.

The pool at the Y dominated the building. Although it was located in the basement of this seven-story building, the chlorinated smell from the pool hung like a veil over every floor. There was a wonderful sense of never being far from some body of water. It was a feeling complemented by the cool, damp, tile floors throughout the building; every time I walked on them I thought of the pictures I'd seen of tiled Roman atriums with splashing fountains.

At noon we'd leave the Y and walk over to Reads Drugstore for lunch. To get there we had to navigate the two-block area that comprised Baltimore's Chinatown. The trip past the mysterious-looking restaurants with their pagoda-shaped facades always sent a slight shiver through us; I remember we automatically quickened our pace.

About a block away from Reads, you could start to smell the fragrance of roasted peanuts, the free ones being handed out by man dressed in a peanut costume. We'd usually eat the hot, salted nuts sitting at the counter in Reads, waiting for our grilled cheese sandwiches and cherry Cokes.

After lunch we headed over toward one of our favorite places: the children's reading room at the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Public Library. We'd take a shortcut by walking through an alley where a number of flower wholesalers had shops. Clay Street, as the alley was called, always smelled of roses and gardenias and the alert pedestrian could be certain of finding discarded but still beautiful stalks of gladiolas along the curbside.

Over on Mulberry Street, after a quick stop at the Carry-On Thrift Shop to browse among the antique jewelry and beaded evening bags, we'd walk down the flagstone steps to the courtyard entrance of the children's reading room. There, we'd spend a few hours reading on our own or listening to the daily "story hour" presided over by a beautiful, red-haired librarian with a special fondness for the Grimm Brothers' "Twelve Dancing Princesses."

At about 4 in the afternoon, we'd head for the air conditioned comfort of Kresge's five-and-dime store, where we'd listen to a piano player in the sheet music department play the top songs of the day.

Then we'd head back up to Charles Street to wait for the streetcar, often getting caught in a brief summer downpour. I see it now: the cars splashing through the rain, the hot raindrops hitting the asphalt streets and sending up an instant smell of damp heat.

Such are the memories of my summer camp: Camp Baltimore.

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