Details speak volumes about our fine city

February 03, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Get the details right and you'll have it made.

Baltimore is a city of uncollected, mixed-and-matched details, those little jolts of truth that speak volumes.

Just look, observe and you'll note them. Here are a few:

* Khaki pants. A man can wear khaki pants just about anywhere and be assured he'll never be arrested by the fashion police. This applies to khakis sold by fancy stores with fancy labels and to those sold as industrial work pants. A classy Saturday night party is not complete without someone garbed in Baltimore's trouser of choice, usually tan.

* Soggy submarine sandwich rolls. Biting into a Baltimore sub is like stuffing cellophane between your teeth. A submarine sandwich is made on a roll that's spongy, mashed and almost damp. In general, Baltimore has problems with bread. The thought, however, of moving to a city with good bread doesn't move me.

* Cheapness. Thrift is the more diplomatic term, but cheap gets to the point faster. To make it in Baltimore, you had better be prepared to take a cut in profits and make do on volume. If you want to start a riot among shoppers, cut the price. This rule applies to the fancy shops in Roland Park off Wyndhurst Avenue as it does to low-markup joints on Ritchie Highway. No wonder the national chains send their third-rate versions here.

* Last-run movies. Why does Baltimore get first-run movies 12 weeks after other cities? Sometimes movies arrive here so late the video release date is only days behind.

* Shrimp. Some Chesapeake seafood commission will probably want to arrest me for treason, but, sorry, Baltimoreans love their steamed shrimp and cocktail sauce.

It's the mark of a good party to have a mound of shrimp on the table and not crabs.

* Votive lights. In a city that has nationally ranked hospitals, when a dangerous medical problem arrives, people head for St. Alphonsus Church at Park and Saratoga or the Shrine of St. Jude on Paca Street. The worried drop a few coins (maybe a dollar if the problem is big) in the slot, light a candle in a little colored glass container and drop to their knees to pray.

* Loyalty. People here are loyal to funeral directors, neighborhood bars, bakeries, questionable politicians and city markets. Baltimoreans are also faithful in their talk and feelings toward institutions that have passed.

Witness the moisture that fills eyes at the mention of the Baltimore Colts, the old News-Post and the Pimlico Hotel.

* Three-quarter length coats. Loathed by the fashion-pretentious, these ladies coats are to December, January and February what the duster, or snap-front housecoat, is to the summer months. The three-quarter coat makes its wearer resemble a duckpin bowling ball, but it just doesn't matter.

Baltimore is immune to fashion and not afraid to flaunt it.

* Pork exotica. If it's made from a pig and can be consumed internally, Baltimore sells it. There are pork dishes from various ethnic groups -- African-American to Asian to German.

There aren't many towns where people actually debate the merits of one maker's scrapple over another.

* Bail bonds. Baltimore is a place where your neighborhood is not complete without a bail bond office with a large advertisement.

I expect some enterprising Maryland Institute College of Art senior to do a photographic thesis on these signs.

* Curious directions. How many times have you heard somebody say, "It's right behind the Civic Center" or "Turn right at the Gino's"? Sorry. The Varsity Grill, the Bridge Theatre and Sam Smith Park aren't there anymore. But we know what you mean.

* Stationary beer trucks. Any where there's a parking meter, you can be assured of getting a ticket if that slot has not been stuffed with quarters. But parking enforcement officers never ticket beer trucks that stop dead in what had been a moving lane of traffic and remain immobile for the next quarter-hour.

* Potato chips. New York has its bagels. Philadelphia loves pretzels and cheese-steak sandwiches. Baltimore is a potato-chip city.

I realize that many of the best chips are made in Pennsylvania, but Baltimore would grind to a halt without a daily fix of grease, salt and spuds.

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