The Big Turnout

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

November 26, 1995|By Jacques Kelly

The other morning at 3 o'clock the sound of three or four fire trucks wrested me from the Land of Nod. When another couple of sirens called out, I decided to climb out of bed. There was no sign of flashing lights outside the window, but a big cloud of white smoke above the rooftops of the rowhouses across the street gave me the idea to put on all my clothes and investigate.

Even a busy city street like mine is pretty silent at 3 a.m. Not on that occasion. My neighbors, too, were up, curious and perky. We spotted some telltale flashing blue lights around the corner. It turned out to be a four-alarmer, with no injuries.

Within minutes I was talking to a host of neighbors I hadn't seen since the last big neighborhood funeral. There were Lance and Sukey and somebody I know but whose name escapes me.

There's nothing like a car crash, multi-alarm fire or electrical blackout to bring a sleepy neighborhood to life; to make people shake hands and say hello. It may sound ghoulish, but it works.

It's what I call urban disaster spectator theater at its best.

On every corner you will observe pavement rubbernecking during a fire. People watch the progress of the flames and smoke, then they greet long-lost friends. I've seen a young woman and young man exchange glances, strike up a conversation and soon write down each other's telephone numbers.

Let the fire trucks arrive and the ambulances wail. The whole world will emerge out of locked doors. You'll see people you thought had died. Crowds will assemble on the street. If it's an election year, savvy politicians will put in appearances.

A major blackout at night will also cause a general outpouring on the streets -- especially if there are several Baltimore Gas and Electric trucks with flashing lights nearby. Blinking lights are very effective beckoning beacons. They draw more of a crowd than any carnival barker.

Nocturnal power failures accompanied by pulsating emergency lights also bring a certain relaxation of the normal city dress code.

For some reason, it is permitted to -- out to the pavement in Baltimore in the most abbreviated wearing apparel should the lights go out.

Baltimore is normally a fairly conservative city regarding the rules of dress. But just let the kilowatts plummet.

Even in the most proper circles a blackout will produce a chorus line of bathrobes on the street. Hot or freezing, it's the right time of the year for a terry-cloth robe. And why is it that everyone says, "Oh, I was in the bathtub when the lights went out"?

Pity the poor suburban householder or rural resident. For them, these moments of great drama are rare.

When the big fire back in September at the Clipper Mill Industrial Park in Woodberry caused BGE to shut off all the power in that community, one enterprising Union Avenue tavern set out the candles and let the good times roll.

Should Great Aunt Jane suffer a little heart trouble at home and need the help of the 911 crew, the whole neighborhood will know of her failing condition. Everyone is out on the sidewalk. Her medical problems are shared with the entire census tract. It is not even considered impolite to stick a head into the ambulance doors to inquire about the dear woman's health.

A neighborhood emergency has the power to break up a wedding reception or drinking party faster than a nasty argument among relatives. I've seen bibulous guests drop their glasses and chase a fire engine if the scent of burning wood and tar paper hangs heavily in the air.

Even people who profess to have polished manners will abandon a formal dinner table. With damask dinner napkins tucked in their belts, the guests will take to the streets should the word go out the police are dragging away one of the neighbors on some charge. It's all fair game for public observation if the police or fire department are on the scene.

This brings up a point. What would social-grace arbiters such as Emily Post or Miss Manners decree when flames, smoke, flying bullets or mangled steel intrude on a wedding rehearsal dinner or funeral wake? What happens when urban curiosity and the theater of the streets are just too strong to resist?

I'm not sure what they would say but my answer is this: When in Baltimore, do as they all do. Go out immediately and gape at the spectacle. If you don't, people will wonder where you are and really start talking.

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