For a Baltimorean in exile, 'Homicide' was to die for

Show: The weekly detective series, seasoned with a dash of Old Bay, kept a homesick young man in touch with his favorite town.

May 30, 1999|By Victor Paul Alvarez

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- I was a stranger in this town. A 22-year-old punk from Baltimore with some newspaper experience and an English literature background, I managed to land a reporting gig with the city's big paper four years ago. I knew not a soul here, save for the people who hired me at the Providence Journal.

At the time, Providence reminded me of Baltimore, but maybe because I wanted it that way.

I missed home.

So every Friday night, I tuned in at 10 p.m. to get that shot in the arm that would take me through the next week. "Homicide: Life on the Street" was the television incarnation of the David Simon book about Baltimore homicide detectives. To me, the book represented the power of journalism and the reason I got into the business.

When I lived in Baltimore, the show seemed an honest portrayal of Simon's work. In Providence, it was a time machine. It took me home.

Most nights I would steam up a batch of shrimp with Vidalia onions, garlic and Old Bay seasoning and invite my new friends over to see and taste my hometown. The show had a small following here, despite being exiled to a horrible time slot. But the promise of food, drink and an hour of good entertainment was enough to coax folks to my apartment almost every Friday night.

"What did you put on these shrimp?"

"Old Bay."

"It's good. Can you put it on anything?"

"Yes. Even ice cream."

We'd peel the shrimp and watch the make-believe characters wander into murder and mystery in my hometown. I had seen a few Baltimore homicide detectives in my time. None of them dressed as well as Bayliss or Pembleton, but so what? The stories were great, and the city looked perfect. Not like that sanitized city they roll out on that other NBC show, "Providence."

The Baltimore of "Homicide" looked just as I remembered it: brawling, hard and filled with characters.

"See that?" I'd say. "That's the Cat's Eye. My father took me there for ginger ale and peanuts when I was a kid ... and that's the Fells Point waterfront where my old man made a living on the tugboats ... and that's what every street in East Baltimore looks like."

I didn't watch "Homicide" much when I lived in Baltimore. Friday nights were not television nights for me back then. Those were the days when I'd work until 1 a.m. and try to squeeze as much action out of the city as I could before it shut down. But here, miles from everything and everyone I knew, Friday nights at 10 p.m. became an event.

So it was with much sadness that I watched the final episode of "Homicide" two Fridays ago. I gathered a few friends and made the shrimp, longing for some National Boh in the little brown grenade bottles and a few Polock Johnny hot dogs.

I set the VCR to tape the last waltz through my hometown and settled down for the end of the greatness.

The end came. But the greatness was hard to find.

Aside from a minute of jumpy flashbacks as Bayliss looked at the squad room one last time, the final episode was forgettable. But the memories are not.

I'm sure much has been written in The Sun about "Homicide" recently. I haven't seen any of it. But I'll say that "Homicide" was a great show by any standard, and much of that lies in the ragged beauty of the city that gave it life.

Although I still baptize new friends with Old Bay and shellfish and long for a cold Natty Boh, I will miss "Homicide," the 60-minute window into the brick rowhouses I left behind.

But I will miss Baltimore more, right up until the day I make it home.

Victor Paul Alvarez is the editor of the Bristol Phoenix, a weekly paper outside Providence.

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