Crabtown Homecoming


July 03, 1991|By ROB KASPER

Until I had that bowl of crab soup at Gerben's Cafe, I wasn't really back in Baltimore. I had been in Spain, where the word for beer is "cerveza." And the word for "two" is "dos." That is pretty much the extent of my mastery of the Spanish language.

Now my body was in Baltimore, but not my brain. And until I spooned down that magnificent soup, I had no rhythm. The soup rescued me from a long and difficult day. The kind of day folks often have, I think, when they return from vacation and attempt to get back into the grind.

My vacation experience has taught me that after several days of letting you feel like you don't have a worry in the world, life hits you with a whopping problem when you return home.

I believe that things happen when you are away, most of them bad.

Like the potatoes in the kitchen closet rotting. Or the onions going soft and serving as a landing base for a squadron of insects. Or an appliance -- pick any appliance -- feeling neglected during your long absence and taking it out on you by quitting when you return.

One year it was the washing machine. My family began washing mounds of vacation laundry when the machine welcomed us back with a loud clunk, and a major repair effort.

With a friend of mine, it has been the hot water heater. Twice his family has returned from vacation to find the hot water heater broken. He can't decide whether to stop going on vacation or stop washing clothes.

I try to prevent domestic disasters.

TC This year, before leaving town, I hunted down the potatoes and onions hiding in the kitchen, and tossed them all out. I policed the fridge, tossing out leftovers. I even remembered to take out the trash, which contained a can of aromatic tuna fish.

So when I returned, the kitchen did not smell like a chicken farm.

And there were no new bugs in residence. Moreover, all the appliances worked, even the ice maker, notorious for its bad behavior.

I thought I had dodged disaster.

I was wrong, of course. Rather that striking me on my first, or even the second day back in town, the disaster waited until the third day to let me have it.

What happened was that my wife's car got a flat tire, halfway to Washington. Then her spare tire wouldn't hold air, so she called me. I drove halfway to Washington and, in 95-degree heat, put on a spare tire that did work, and drove her car back.

It was a stressful trip back to Baltimore. When you have one of those itty-bitty spares on your car, you are not supposed to drive over 50 mph. That was my top speed on I-95 where most people drive 65 mph -- in the merge lane. And the highway is being ripped up. Rather than "I-95" I think this stretch between Burtonsville and Baltimore should be called "right lane closed." I limped into Baltimore, eased my way through the maze of pot holes and traffic hazards caused by construction of the light rail line on Howard street, and pulled into a little place on Cathedral Street called Reliable Tires.

I was prepared to shell out close to $100 for a new tire. And I figured I would have to wait all afternoon to get the car back.

Instead the fellow said I didn't need a new tire, just a new air valve. And he could probably fix it in an hour or so.

That is when I went to Gerben's for lunch. Gerben's is a bar with food. It is tiny and intimate. The price of drinks are written on the labels of the liquor bottles. It is distinguished by the solid, simple cooking of its kitchen.

It sits on the corner of Chase Street and another street called either Maryland Avenue or Cathedral Street. The street with the changing name is one of the quirks of Baltimore. The road, at various places is called, Maryland, Cathedral and, eventually, Liberty Street.

Gerben's gives its address as Maryland Avenue, half a block away; the tire place gives its address as being on Cathedral.

After walking the half-block of whatever street to Gerben's, I sat down and had a ham sandwich. The ham tasted like it came from a pig, not a can. And I had a beer, "a cold one," as they say in United States.

And after hearing the waitress tout the soup: "It is good. It is hot. It is crabby," I had a bowl.

The soup lived up to its billing. I finished it right down to the bottom of the bowl, and fished some crab meat from the claws. It revived me.

Baltimore does not have the caliber of open-air restaurants, or the picturesque seaside cafes that I found in Spain.

But it does have honest folks who, when faced with the choice of selling a guy a new tire for $100 or fixing his old one for $20, will recommend the cheaper fix. And it does have cafes like Gerben's, where you can get a solid sandwich, a cold one and a terrific crab soup.

I paid my bill, about $7 for the sandwich, soup and beer, and walked down Cathedral Street to pick up car. My lips tingled with the peppery crab soup. It felt good to be home.

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