"OK, class, what great-and-famous person grew up there?" I ask, pointing to an 1840s brick house behind a scrap of privet-hedged yard in Charles Village.
"You did, Ma'am," comes the rote reply. "And you have to admit your old homestead is looking pretty good. Love the antique etched glass they've installed in the front door. And those mulberry-colored shutters."
A colleague who also happens to be a longtime best friend sits next to me, at the wheel of his little blue Dodge. Together we're headed from Towson State University to an academic conference taking place at a downtown Baltimore hotel. Being stuck halfway there in unexpected late-morning traffic offers us a golden chance to play one of our favorite games: Who can remember the best piece of history, trivia or lowdown gossip about Baltimore's outbuildings (or ex-buildings)? Who can rack up a big score by genuinely startling the other with a particularly obscure tidbit?
"What's that?" My friend nods toward a futuristic-looking brick edifice on our left.
"An elementary school. One of Baltimore's oldest . . . Torn down and rebuilt," I add hastily, seeing his disbelief. "Margaret Brent School, P.S. 53. I can sing you its alma mater, if you insist."
"You mean Margaret Brent, Gentleman?" My friend uses his knowledge of Maryland history to forestall the awful prospect of hearing me sing.
"I always thought of her more as Margaret Brent, lady-in-the-mural-over-the-auditorium-door." He takes an early lead by explaining that Margaret Brent was a 17th century woman who held so much land, money and power she was officially decreed a "gentleman," since women were not allowed to vote. Margaret Brent, Gentleman, voted. Chalk up a whole heap of points for my friend!
Ah, but I can soon even the score. I'll tell him about another lady who grazed her cows on the site of P.S. 53. But before I can sic these midtown cattle on him, traffic finally nudges us almost down to 25th Street. Fine! This new vista presents me with an equally startling fact.
"I used to swim over there." I wave offhandedly to a thicket of squat office buildings.
"Lakewood Swimming Pool. Used to be just beyond that piece of Pennsylvania Railroad track. Admission was a quarter. Lakewood is where I learned to cannonball off a high dive. Not to mention to jitterbug to a jukebox and French-inhale a cigarette. I must have been less than 10 years old. Ten and over, you had to pay 50 cents."
My friend gapes, and even I can hardly believe there used to be a huge outdoor swimming pool covering half the 2500 block of N. Charles St. with clean, chlorine-green water.
"And here," I continue, pressing a momentary advantage, "is where the numbers racket guys used to hang out." I point to a recently sandblasted brick building, now a classy liquor store, at the corner of St. Paul and 25th streets. I mention that some of the illegal lottery's youthful runners doubled as respectable clerks at the high-toned Green & Fairbanks Grocery, whose outdoor bins of vegetables, fruits and coffees have been cleared away to reveal the sleek bowed windows of the elegantly restored architects' office we passed a few minutes ago.
The car grinds south in second gear. We pass St. Michael and All Angels Church, just up from North Avenue. Here I was married twice: once in the "big church" that seated a thousand, and once in the cozy, 20-person chapel. I recall the dozen gold perfect attendance bars I earned at St. Michael's before I reached teen-age agnosticism. For a moment something seems to go wrong with my eyesight. Is it sentimental tears? No, my vision problem is simple disorientation. Back when I won all those medals, I looked at St. Michael's out of my right eye when I rode past it -- going north. This business of seeing it from my left eye while riding south on St. Paul still doesn't quite work for me.
A sense of loss floods me. I don't mean about marriage. I mean I just lost a chance to make my biggest score when we hurried past the blackened Romanesque building, part of Goucher College's former campus, that stands near 23rd Street. I'll bet my friend never saw it when it was briefly taken over by some sort of medical facility that used the spacious front lawn to graze its herd of sheep -- experimental animals dyed brilliant red, green, blue and purple. From the No. 11 bus, I used to watch those surreal sheep nibble on the old campus' stunted, traffic-grayed flowering-almond trees.
We feel terribly fin de siecle as we continue wending our way downtown, and this feeling escalates as we pass Christ Church, vacant but still beautiful; a Gothic-looking relic at the corner of Chase and St. Paul streets. We devote a moment of silent gratitude to politico George Mahoney, who saved it from demolition by buying it because he liked to hear its bells. We continue south, savoring the bittersweet taste of an era's end.