Invisible? Not In This Town

JACQUES KELLY'S BALTIMORE

October 01, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

There's another way of saying that Baltimore is a big small town and a place of a zillion little neighborhoods.

It's difficult to be anonymous in Baltimore. That's how you say it.

No matter what, you will be identified and found out. I've often said you can't take the garbage out without someone coming up, saying hello and noting how many beer cans are in your recycling bag.

Personal recognition is practiced as an art form here. It carries a weight all its own.

I think of my friend who joined a weight-reduction class in a Northwood church basement, the kind of class where a paid leader gives all sorts of pep talks and lessons in good nutrition and exercise.

My friend works downtown in a high-rise office building. The other morning she was thinking of all the advice from the weight-class instructor, but nevertheless gave into temptation and bought a coffee and gooey doughnut to take to her desk.

Then the elevator door opened. In stepped her weight teacher, whose daytime job has nothing to do with fat intake and calorie watching. Quick thinking saved the day. My friend stuffed the doughnut in the elevator's light fixture. She figured the coffee wouldn't get her in trouble.

The weight instructor wasn't any the wiser at first. No lecture on the spot. The hidden pastry stayed hidden. But because we're in chatty Baltimore, one of my friend's friends carried the whole tale back to the instructor.

Beware the medical profession. Not the doctors. It's the nurses, technicians and medical secretaries. You think your case is confidential. Think again.

This is Baltimore. The news of your troubled glands will be on the wires faster than a cable news alert. When it comes to the transmission of private medical news, Baltimore is a closed-circuit city.

Even the physician's waiting room can be an occasion for this version of social interchange. You are there for a visit. So is someone else who is seen by the doctor before you are. This someone just happens to know you. Faster than you can say HMO, the word that you were in the waiting room and your reason for being there will be out and about. The doctor's secretary, who's friendly with the other patient, has passed on the information, and the patient has told people you both know.

The lessons of a Baltimore childhood taught me how quickly news travels.

In my school days the good nuns gave daily and weekly tests. The grades on those tests were more or less common knowledge among class members. I soon learned that average or high marks did not attract much attention. Doing well on an arithmetic quiz was not a matter of much conversational gravity. But just snag a failing 42 on a long-division quiz and that fact would reach home sooner than you did -- courtesy of a schoolmate who told his mother, who then quickly told your mother.

If tattling on the arithmetically challenged is hard on a 8-year-old, imagine the annoyance it brings a parent. It's one thing to have a kid flunk a math test, it's another to have the busybody members of the parents' club talk about it. After all, this is a school test, not the price of a share of stock falling. But I sometimes think Baltimoreans recall the 42s on math tests more than the fortunes lost on the stock market.

If you are an optimist and general good sport, Baltimore's penchant for telling all indicates to you that our city is a convivial, livable and lived-in place.

I love those conversations across the checkout counter at the local food store, the ones wherein, over the hum of the bar-code zappers, you learn all the neighborhood gossip and unprintable business while you're stacking the packages of Berger's cookies on the rubber conveyor belt.

Recognition in Baltimore can have its good side. The thought of the moral weight that wholesale identification carries will keep your behavior in line. Are the eyes of five counties and the city fixed upon you? Well, sort of.

Think of it this way: Being known could get you a ride to work should you be waiting for a bus. Many times drivers have seen me waiting for public transit and offered me a lift.

Not long ago a Volvo wagon pulled up to my corner and stopped. The driver rolled down the window and said he'd be happy to take me downtown. I had a gabby conversation with a man who knew me but whose identity was totally beyond recognition to me.

We talked and talked but I couldn't place him. He deposited me at the front door of The Sun and said goodbye. I thanked him, went in to work and forgot about the kidnapping that could have been.

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