A beautifully imperfect city

October 03, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin

I LEFT Seattle three years ago to live in Baltimore. It was a shock to those who knew me.

For a long time the two cities, like the Orioles and the Mariners this week, were duking it out for my affections. Baltimore? my Seattle friends asked, perplexed. What did I see in her? They knew I loved Seattle's theaters, her bookstores, her water, her mountains. That I thought she was heaven.

Seattle is a trophy wife of a city -- young and vital, on top of the latest fashion, low maintenance to boot (no state income tax). And utterly excessive in her beauty. You don't know where to stare: Cascades or Olympics? Lake Washington or Lake Union? Mount Rainier or Mount Baker?

So easy to be smitten with her. So obvious. Take a number.

Baltimore is a childhood sweetheart. Utterly herself, not afraid to fond, not above being corny. Sometimes she is a bit embarrassing; she reminds you of phases you thought you'd outgrown. Other times, she can be surprisingly sophisticated.

She is more southern than you expected. Calls you "Miss Kate" JTC and, of course, Hon. You call her "Charm City," a name that first seems ironic and later seems true.

You can call her "Bawlmer," but only if you are from here. She is expert at spotting a fake.

She is the smallest big town you have ever met.

She's a grandma sitting on a lawn chair on the city sidewalk on an August day, with only the steamy asphalt for a view. She's a man with a face full of wrinkles pulling aside a basement window to sell an egg custard snowball (no, not a snowcone) to a couple who read his hand-lettered sign.

She's an "a-rabber" -- a seller of fruits and vegetables who still uses horse and wagon -- whose mournful call pierces the evening quiet.

She's touristy red sauce and too much Parmesan cheese in Little Italy. She's the seat of American Catholicism. She's Martick's, the hidden restaurant on a somewhat deserted corner west of downtown, where fine French food is served up by a chef who lives upstairs and waits tables in slippers.

Sand castles

While Seattle's heading out on the bay, Bawlmer's going downy ocean -- that's down to the ocean, Ocean City, to you. No matter that she can't find the sand for the condos. Her pale skin is burning, red as Old Bay. She's smoking and growing soft on blue crabs, fried dough and, oddly enough, sushi.

She's a pretty bad driver, and a worse pedestrian.

She loves the new, old-timey Camden Yards, but finds the crowd a bit too staid, too infected by fans from that capital city to the south.

Is that George Will sitting along the first-base line? She'd be more impressed if he'd take off that bow tie and act the fool dancing to "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." Maybe get named Yardbird of the Game.

Make no mistake, she can be a sucker: When the Hard Rock

Cafe finally deigned to settle here, long after other cities had their own, Bawlmer queued up at the door and claimed the arrival as a civic victory.

She is a city that loves too much and forgets very little. She nurses slights. She still cries about the Colts leaving, even though the Ravens came. She's good at denial: Calls herself "the City that Reads" with the schools in shambles. You might think she's stupid. Or you might decide she's hopeful.

A lot of people are leaving her, moving out to the suburbs, fleeing her sadness, her poverty, her crime. They don't see how pretty she can be, how alive when the kids dance around her rowhouse steps in the twilight, how stately with the porches that wrap around her old houses in Roland Park.

You want to comfort her. Then you understand that this would make her mad. She's stronger than you thought, and proud as hell.

You can't do a thing with her.

One day, you realize you love her.

Seattle sure was heaven. But I'm too young to die. Right now, I want to live. I want to live in Baltimore, a beautifully imperfect city.

It's funny, the things that force you finally to claim your allegiance to a place. Baseball is one of them.

Knowing how I have missed Seattle, folks here in Baltimore were wondering whether I'd feel conflicted this week.

Not a bit.

Go Os.

Kate Shatzkin, a Sun reporter, once worked for the Seattle Times, for which this piece was written.

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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