Inner voice drowns out Florida wise guys

This Just In...

March 23, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

Here we are, in the checkout line at the big Kmart on McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers, on the congested, overdeveloped Gulf Coast of Florida. A near-octogenarian in a red apron mans the register. He's trying to squeeze a large package of bathroom tissue into a plastic bag too small for the purpose. I'm standing there, wondering when the old man will give up and get a bigger bag, when I hear a voice say, "Baltimore," and the vibes are not good.

The voice is coming from behind me. I am familiar with this voice. It's the groany, sneering voice of some 20-something wise guy. That's the voice that shouts put-downs, that picks fights. I know that voice.

Upon hearing "Baltimore" mentioned, I turn slightly but not enough to give myself away as a Baltimorean on vacation.

There are three 20-something fellows in line behind me. One of them, big as a Siragusa, has spotted a Baltimore Ravens T-shirt hanging on a rack in the front of the store.

"Look at that," he says. "Baltimore Ravens. What a joke."

"Yeah," adds the one in the middle, tall, handsome and sneering. "Art Modell had that team in Cleveland. They were nothing in Cleveland, they're nothing in Baltimore."

Ah, well, I say to myself, sports fans. Jocks without portfolio. These guys are always ripping away at something. I don't know which leads to looser lips in America - sports or politics. They both drive talk radio. They both provide most of the material for what passes for passionate conversation. You want to provoke a lot of chatter in this country, you light the fuse with a strong opinion about some aspect of politics or sports.

So, I figure, the fellows in line at Kmart are just killing time with a few cheap shots about Baltimore's franchise in the National Football League.

"Yeah," the third fellow, with more of a sneer than the other two, joins in. "Modell didn't win anything in Cleveland. He never got to the Super Bowl. He'll never get to the Super Bowl from Baltimore, either."

"Cleveland will get a new team and they'll be in the Super Bowl before Baltimore ever does," adds the Tony Siragusa look-alike. "You just watch."

I have time to chime in, but resist. On vacation, I try to relieve stress, not advance it. Besides, I'm curious how far these wise guys will go with the Ravens-Modell bashing. Suddenly, I know.

"Baltimore," the tall one snickers. "What a dead town."

What?!

"That city is so dead," he shakes his head. "Even with the NFL, it's dead."

I hear this just as I get my change. I'm tempted to crack back, but let it go. I don't really feel like getting into a civic defense the way William Donald Schaefer, bless him, used to. He was the ultimate Baltimore booster, who hunted detractors like Joe McCarthy hunted commies. I just don't want to go there.

Still, I wonder how the guy with the sneer on his mouth came to such a conclusion about Baltimore.

The odd thing is, I've heard a lot of negative comments about our town over the years, but almost exclusively from people who live here. It's like an ongoing family argument, and a generally healthy thing.

For the past two decades, I've heard a ton of positive things about Baltimore from people who've read about it or visited. I've actually had friends from Boston, breeding ground of one of the snobbiest cultures in the country, praise our downtown renaissance and Camden Yards.

It has been 23 years since Fred Kline wrote in National Geographic that Baltimore, by reputation, was a bleak, rundown "chuckhole in the eastern megalopolis that fortunately I could drive around, under, and away from via the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel." Upon closer inspection, however, Kline learned that "what I first saw was just a tattered overcoat - only one aspect of a city whose singular character, charm and yes, even beauty, have made those early impressions fade like a mirage."

And that was five years before Harborplace, 16 years before Camden Yards, 20 years before the Hampden Happening!

Dead town?

I don't know where a 20-something wise guy gets these ideas. If he's talking about night life, he might have a point (though obviously no firsthand experience with Fells Point). He could have been talking about life on the Johns Hopkins campus, or he might have been thinking about the crowds at Orioles games (the latter is more likely). But that old notion about Baltimore being a fallen industrial city with nothing to offer culturally or socially? I just don't know how anyone who's been here can say that.

So maybe we don't exactly sizzle. Maybe we've had too many problems for too long - drugs, crime, poverty, teen pregnancy, high cancer rate - and all that has diminished the good rep the city developed in the wake of Harborplace and the Inner Harbor renewal of the 1980s.Maybe "Homicide: Life on the Street" has actually convinced people that Baltimore is the murder capital of America. I don't know. I passed up my opportunity to explore the question with the 20-something wise guys/sports heads at the Kmart in Florida.

It's a good feeling - feeling secure enough about where you live not to have to defend it every time someone somewhere knocks it.

The wise guys? Maybe they'll feel differently about Baltimore once we get a World Series again or a contender in the NFL, or once the ESPN Zone opens. Maybe they'll actually come here and experience the city and freshen up their opinions. Maybe they'll want to go to Hopkins Hospital and have their sneers removed.

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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