When you saw the lights -- 410 white bulbs spelling out "CITY PIER BROADWAY" -- you knew you were home.
For years, almost nightly since the juice first surged to the sockets in 1914, the Broadway Recreation Pier lights were a beacon over a brown patch of Baltimore harbor separating Fells Point from Locust Point.
"When I was a little kid, my mother took us on the ferry down to Tolchester on the Shore and we'd take a picnic lunch and ride the billy goats and stay all day," said Virginia Baker, the spirit behind the city's Adventures in Fun office, headquartered on the pier. "On the way home I'd be completely exhausted, but I'd have one little eye peeping open, and when I saw that sign on the Broadway pier I was in heaven because we were almost home."
These days, sailors who cruise by the pier at night see nothing but bricks. Only seven bulbs work.
Residents, old-timers, a few bar owners and folks who love the fabled neighborhood in Baltimore want the sign to glow again. They are working to make it smile through the harbor night to its neon sister across the water, the Domino Sugar sign.
How many phone calls does it take to screw in a couple hundred light bulbs?
"My son drives one of the water taxis, and the tourists were always asking what the sign said. You couldn't tell because so many of them [the bulbs] are out," said Canton resident Barbara Baynes, a member of the informal Rec Pier Council. "He says to me, 'It really can't be that much trouble just to get light bulbs.' I told him: 'There's always much more to these things than you think.' "
That was about a year ago, and in that time calls have been made to the city, to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and to a few electric shops.
"It's kind of been in limbo," Ms. Baynes said.
And it's been dark in limbo.
The problem is not the bulbs, for which residents have promised to raise money. Screwing them in -- about 50 feet above the pier's roof -- is something else.
Miss Baker said her bosses told her the city can't afford to put up scaffolding necessary to do the job; the gas and electric company is offering to send engineers down for technical advice but nothing else; and the private contractor who last changed the bulbs five years ago did so with a 60-foot ladder and is not eager to repeat the precarious feat.
"Buying the bulbs is the least of our problems," said Stevens Bunker, who runs a maritime curio shop on Fell Street.
"It's getting up there that's difficult," he said. "If we can't do it any other way, maybe I'll rustle up a few of the old sailors around the neighborhood and throw a bosun's chair over the roof and we'll screw them in ourselves."
A bosun's chair is a strip of wood suspended by ropes from the rigging of ships. It is doubtful that Mr. Bunker's idea would find favor with the people who worry about liability lawsuits in the city solicitor's office.
Measuring 315 feet long and 132 feet wide, the playground area below the lights is the fenced-in roof of the back end of the pier. Inside the pier are pool tables, a basketball court and a reading room, as well as the city police marine unit.
The tarred concrete roof, home to generations of tennis and kickball games, and one of the best places in Baltimore to watch tugboats, is sturdy enough to support scaffolding. But the city apparently is too poor to support the estimated $10,000 cost of putting it up.
"We know that the [sign's] timer works and almost all of the sockets are good," said Sue McCardell, an assistant to Miss Baker. "We're fortunate that the people around here care about stuff like this."
Most of them care because they played on the pier as kids, or danced inside as teen-agers, or as adults took their own kids to the reading room there in the years since July 14, 1914, when the sign was turned on for the first time.
"I thought all we'd have to do is come up with the lights," Miss Baker said. "I thought it would be apple pie."