Our Naked City

April 11, 1993|By John Schulian

I used to see her dancing in the front window of one of those joints on The Block -- a vision with a chest out to here and cheekbones that were a sculptor's dream. Sometimes she called herself Candy, sometimes Crystal. It has always been like that in places where for the price of a champagne split a girl will slip into a rear booth with a visiting fireman or a local on the sneak. The smart ones, the ones who survive, never let the suckers know who they really are, and they never let themselves forget.

But the temptation was there for the vision I saw in the front window. She could feel it pulling at her, trying to turn her into

somebody she wasn't, and more than once all that saved her from caving in was the sight of a city bus lumbering into view. Then she would duck out of the window and hide until the bus had passed, because she was afraid her mother might be aboard -- her mother who had no idea what she did for a living. And in those few heart-stopping seconds, this uncertain beauty who called herself Crystal one day and Candy the next would realize anew that there was one thing about her that would never change. She would always be her mother's daughter.

I think of her now, and of the delicate balance she found between the tawdry and the sweet, and I am reminded of how the world opened up to me back then. Every writer and reporter has a time like that, a time when the world is new and all the stories in it are waiting to be told. You rush to wake up because you don't want anything starting without you. You dread falling asleep because somebody else might still be going strong. For me it all happened in Baltimore.

The uninitiated might have seen my being there as bum luck. It was 1970 and the city looked like nothing so much as Carthage after the Romans pillaged it. The kindest adjectives critics applied to it were somnolent and anonymous. I was tempted to agree only when I saw all those empty seats in Memorial Stadium staring blindly at Brooks and Frank and the Orioles' parade of 20-game winners. The rest of the time, I couldn't believe my good fortune. Here was this treasure-trove of exotics and eccentrics the Chamber of Commerce would rather have kept a secret, and they were just waiting for a guy with a notebook and a ballpoint.

So I wrote about the two pool hustlers who dressed as bus drivers and made a killing on payday down at the city lines. And about Ellis of Broadway, who closed every sale of his cheapo merchandise by telling the buyer, "Don't come back no more." And about Damon Runyon's own Harry the Horse dying at Pimlico as he waited to cash a $50 win ticket. And about a scrawny blond hooker who wanted to trade her services to Tattoo Charlie for a rose tattoo because her name was Rosie.

If the benevolent despots at The Evening Sun thought I should have been concentrating on more meaningful subjects, they never uttered a word other than to assign me an occasional story about Baltimore's seemingly endless procession of corrupt politicians. The paper's education writer, on the other hand, was nowhere near as generous. "You're making everything up," she told me more than once from behind the kind of smile that teachers give you when you say the dog ate your homework. What the dear lady failed to understand was that you didn't have to make up your characters in the Baltimore I remember, you just had to find them.

The smart money says that's got to be a tougher chore now that the city has taken on all its coats of polish. But in my day -- a phrase I've waited a lifetime to use -- there was no Harborplace to beguile you with its upscale charm, no Camden Yards in which to prove that you put no team above the O's. You had, instead, a Baltimore that could well have been dreamed up by Charles Dickens after he had gone to sleep on a stomach full of Chincoteague oysters and National Boh.

The city's raffish image was etched in my brain by a wonderful piece that appeared in Sports Illustrated on the eve of the 1966 World Series. "A Wink at a Homely Girl," it was called. The title came from H. L. Mencken's epitaph, and the wink was intended for Baltimore. Loving it, wrote native son Mark Kram, was like loving a girl with a broken nose: She might not be a beauty, but at least she was real.

There was no denying the gritty poetry of Kram's metaphor, but I'm not sure I grasped its full weight at first reading, for I was still an unreconstructed Westerner then. Born in Los Angeles, reared there and in Salt Lake City, I knew only towns that reveled in their relative youth, uncomplicated places infatuated with the sprawl of progress. When I finally started looking east, late in the summer of '70, my first stop was Miami. Beyond the glass wall behind the editor interviewing me for a reporting job at the Miami Herald, Biscayne Bay glimmered seductively -- a symbol of perfection for a city that, like L.A. and Salt Lake, had no idea of all the broken noses that would come its way in the next two decades.

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