Now we know where we really are

January 31, 1998|By Rob Kasper

WE FINALLY got around to making our address legible. The identifying numerals on the glass above the front door of our house got a fresh coat of gold paint.

I wasn't totally in favor of the idea. It hadn't particularly bothered me that the old, faded house numbers were difficult to read. I didn't need to look at them to know which house was my home. Moreover, most of my friends and acquaintances already knew where they could find me. I have lived in the house almost 20 years. In my mind, the only function painting the house numbers performed was to give strangers their bearings. I didn't see much need for that.

In retrospect I realized my reluctance to share information about the lay of the land was an attitude I picked up by living in Baltimore. The prevailing attitude among many longtime area residents seems to be, we know exactly where we are, and if you don't, you probably shouldn't be here.

I pretty much subscribe to this admittedly insular point of view. But it took me a while to adopt it. When I moved to Baltimore I was a proponent of the free flow of geographic information and of wide-open freeways. I thought this community needed more expressways and bigger road signs telling people how to get to important destinations such as Memorial Stadium and the crab houses of East Baltimore.

When I mentioned this to the locals, they shook their heads in disbelief. "Don't you know the quick way?" they asked me. "No," I replied. "Show me on a map." It was then that I learned that navigating the byways of the Baltimore area is a skill that is not learned by reading maps. Instead, like many rites of passage in this community, it requires an apprenticeship. You have to be shown the way by the masters.

Over the years I was patient, and by riding with the natives and following delivery trucks I was shown how to maneuver around Lake Montebello and into the myriad delights of Northeast Baltimore. I learned about a road less traveled, the Kirk Avenue route to Memorial Stadium. And I was led down the garden path, the Gwynns Falls Parkway -- the leafy route through West Baltimore.

The longer I live here, the more I am inclined to adopt the native ways: to trust my memory, not maps; to take the "secret" surface road route instead of the obvious expressway.

I still have much to learn about local ways.

I am in awe, for instance, of a Howard County friend who is able to distinguish cul-de-sac from cul-de-sac, parkway from parkway, with never a moment of doubt.

Down in Anne Arundel County, there are, I am told, a few old hands -- the Lewises and Clarks of the region -- who are able to travel from Baltimore to Annapolis on the elusive Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard without getting lost.

I am still defeated by stretches of eastern Baltimore County. I have heard that in East Germany the mapmakers used to purposely put false information on their maps, just in case the maps fell into the hands of an invading Western army. Every time I get lost in eastern Baltimore County I think of those Germans and wonder if a few of them moved here, and drew up the maps purporting to show the byways of Essex.

I try not to journey into any "foreign" regions unless I am accompanied by, or have consulted with, a native of the area. I am beginning to think that the world would be better off, and traffic would be less congested, if we all just stayed on familiar ground. That way, there would be little need for house numbers.

My family does not share this view. My wife not only campaigned heavily for the painting of the house numbers, she also ended up hiring a fellow in our neighborhood to do the job. She treated the expense, about $100, as a birthday gift to herself.

VTC The gold paint gave the old numbers new life. The fellow also painted the name of our street underneath the numbers. As a result, anybody, even an outsider, can stand in front of our house and know precisely where he is.

The kids usually don't notice any home improvement. But this one caught their attention. They liked it. They said the new numbers helped their social life. They said now when their friends swing by to take them to a gathering being held on the other side of the Earth, they will be able to quickly spot our house. This way, less time will be "wasted" hanging out at home, the kids said.

Public-safety types are also big fans of legible house numbers. ,, This week, for instance, the Baltimore County Council considered a measure that would require county residents to put numbers on the back as well as the front of their homes. These numbers, the proponents of the measure said, would make it easier for police, fire and emergency medical crews to quickly find the household that has summoned them.

I suppose they have a point. But the curmudgeon in me thinks that the firemen, policemen and ambulance drivers working a neighborhood should already know the streets and alleys of their turf.

I have to admit that our new house numbers look good. Who knows, maybe now the pizza-delivery guys won't ring our doorbell in the middle of the night with a pizza destined for a home two blocks away.

I like that functional benefit of the change. But I have a philosophical problem with the new, information-friendly house numbers. They look entirely too welcoming.

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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