A Letter from Mount Vernon

September 20, 1992|By JEAN MARBELLA | JEAN MARBELLA,Jean Marbella is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

When I leave, as everyone eventually, inevitably seems to, I guess I'll just rent the video. Mount Vernon: The Movie is replacing Mount Vernon: The Neighborhood in my affections.

Just last weekend, we played host to director Nora Ephron and actress Meg Ryan filming "Sleepless in Seattle," a movie about, of all creatures, a Sun reporter. We -- or rather, our neighborhood -- also starred or made cameos in the movies "Avalon," "Men Don't Leave" and "Bedroom Window" and commercials such as a recently shot Mitsubishi number. (Don't look for it on American TV, though; the car swooping around the Washington Monument had the steering wheel on the right side.)

The cameras are no doubt drawn to many of the same things we residents initially were -- the facade. The rowhouses, the cobblestone, the urbanity of it all.

When I moved to Baltimore five years ago, I knew I'd live in Mount Vernon. A colleague, and ex-Mount Vernonite, nodded knowingly, saying I was seduced by the architecture, but I'd leave too.

I was smug in the fact, though, that I wasn't just passing through. It was home, sort of, at least for someone whose concept of home doesn't necessarily involve 30-year mortgages and really neat block parties.

I got a lot of mileage out of my brushes -- or rather, my neighborhood's brushes -- with stardom. I could tell the folks back home about how, when the "Avalon" people, in their attempt to rid the front of my Victorian building of any non-period intrusions, pasted a brown board over the doorbell buttons and set mine abuzz at three in the morning. Or how that chase scene in another movie may have started in Mount Vernon, but when it rounded the corner it somehow landed in some other city.

The movie people are generally an amusing addition to the everyday street scene, slouchily hip and as consciously posed with their baseball caps and walkie-talkies as the classical statues on the square. It's more fun to complain about their intrusions than, say, those of the burglars.

Five years and two apartments into my residency, though, I seem to be running through the natural life cycle of the neighborhood: enchantment, acceptance, accommodation, disillusion. I've outlasted two ballet schools, a market with failed Cross Street pretensions and countless neighbors who have gotten married and moved out, gotten divorced and moved out or just moved out. I've done my laundry with people like the woman who took her blouse off, tossed it in the machine, and waited in her underwear for it wash, rinse and spin dry. The rats in the alley are growing bigger, the vandals more rat-like: Who smashes the sign of a church? They didn't like the topic of next Sunday's sermon?

The current neighborhood outrage is parking. We used to park just about anywhere any time. The two-hour limit signs were unenforced, although a certain driveway owner was a stickler if your car butted even an inch over the yellow line. But recently, without warning, both sides of Madison sprouted holes in the sidewalk, spaced a suspicious car length apart. Then came the poles and, finally, the heads of the monstrous parking meters themselves.

Of course, if you have any choice, your car is already off the street. Mine largely is, except when I get home too late or too tired to walk the two blocks from my parking garage.

It's that or invite a window smashing.

My baby car, then a mere three months old, got it this past winter. I'd parked just south of the Monument and hurried to meet friends at Louie's. Afterward, as I was walking home and wondering whether to make the effort of garaging the car at that late hour, the sparkle of broken glass caught my eye.

A couple of cops parked nearby took my report for insurance purposes. I "confessed:" I was guilty of the crime -- just this once! -- of leaving a gym bag out in full view on the passenger seat.

Of course, you're not supposed to whine about such minor violations to property or spirit in this era of carjackings.

Still, the mocking gleam of shattered glass gets me in the gut every time. I've walked out of my apartment countless mornings to see someone else's car de-flowered, a window smashed, the glove compartment rifled, the stereo a black hole. It's the one violation left to the casual criminal when, nearly to a car, every steering wheel of every vehicle is vised with an ugly red club.

Again, it's minor. It's really a neighborhood for walking rather than driving, you tell yourself. Otherwise you miss things like the lonely morning call of a Peabody student warming up in some hidden practice room. And you bypass the vortex of one-way streets and unsynchronized traffic lights that take you 'round and 'round in mind-numbing driving-interruptus in search of a parking space.

It's not so much the neighborhood has changed. (Well, actually it has -- one of the rowhouses now sports a picture in its window of, apparently, the bad guns wielded by the residents within.) Despite its many permanent residents, Mount Vernon seems sort of a starter neighborhood. Eventually, you need more space, tire of hauling groceries or Christmas trees up the stairs, want a garden rather than window boxes, get sucked into the grown-up imperative to buy rather than rent.

So I'm flirting with another neighborhood, just a mile and change away. I guess I'm in that phase where I'm ready for a divorce but haven't moved out yet.

See you in the movies.

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