What the literary life has come to in Charm City

City Diary

July 19, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez

HAS THERE EVER been a true writers' cafe in Baltimore?

The kind you dream about in visions of 20th-century Paris, 19th-century Vienna and 18th-century London?

The late Peabody Bookshop and Beer Stube on Charles Street served Gerald Johnson and F. Scott Fitzgerald and probably Dos Passos and James M. Cain.

If city planners can route their strategic stupidities around Martick's Restaurant Francais -- which made a good Bohemian run at art and literature in the 1950s and '60s -- the old speakeasy will endure at the corner of Mulberry and Tyson for as long as its namesake proprietor can light the stove.

And the Port Street poetry readings at Miss Bonnie's Elvis Bar in the 1980s were as short-lived as the King himself.

Into this breach, I nominate a joint where anyone with a ballpoint and bald ambition can linger for hours over a 94-cent cup of coffee, where a plot that emerges in a 4 a.m. nightmare can be hammered like a tin ceiling as you savor the pleasures of ice cream on a stick.

A clean, well-lighted place dead center in the heart of the city's past and future: the Royal Farm Store at Key Highway and Lawrence Street in South Baltimore.

In the glow of neon that spells Domino Sugars across the Patapsco, you can choose your desk from eight plastic tables, each with a bright overhead lamp. If you run out of paper or your pen goes dry, there are more in a middle aisle. If you forget to bring cash, there's a bank machine.

The booths hug a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass through which to ponder the passing world; the skyline of East Baltimore on the far side of the harbor and GENERAL SHIP REPAIR painted on a corrugated steel building across the street to remind you that the Port of Crabtown wasn't always home to boats that never get dirty.

Nearly two dozen pots of coffee are warming at all times; hot dogs roll on those hot-dog roller grills; there are bathrooms to flush the coffee after your body has flushed the coffee; and Southern District cops are constantly popping in with dispatch radios broadcasting the best in local drama.

And for 50 cents you can choke down a handful of aspirin if the stimuli of the Hair-Do Capital of the World starts microwaving your brain like a breakfast biscuit.

"In a restaurant one is both observed and unobserved," says David Mamet in "Writing in Restaurants," a 1986 book of essays.

"Couples play out scenes in restaurants," he writes. "The ritual dissolution of the affaire in a restaurant is strong and compelling now [that] the marriage ceremony has become an empty form."

I'm not so certain about affairs of the heart -- somehow its seems more appropriate to be served your walking papers as the appetizer to a $25 plate of pasta -- but the Farm Store is an amazing place to observe affairs of the stomach.

While scribbling an early draft of this essay on Key Highway, I watched a middle-aged woman with pink toenails and white sandals demolish a chili cheese dog in two bites.

It brought to mind one of John Waters' favorite bits of eavesdropped conversation, the one in which a true daughter of Bawlmer waves off a dessert tray by announcing: "I'm bloated!"

Escorting such women, invariably, are men in tank tops with too much tank and not enough top.

And while any spot with a table, a chair and something to drink can become the private cafe of any writer, the convenience store of the 21st century attracts real people living real lives.

Here you will not find booze (what good did alcohol ever do for an American writer?) or timid coffeehouse poets scribbling in cloth-bound journals bought at Barnes & Noble.

To cast your shadow across the fluorescent-lit tiles of the Key Highway Farm Store is to enter the court of the kings and queens of Locust Point who run in for lottery tickets and cigarettes while the roof-deck yuppies of Federal Hill pull up in jet-black Jettas to buy cat food.

Between the cash register and the curb, people from across the country pump gas beneath a long awning equipped with enough high-powered lights to illuminate the landing strip in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

In these quick observations alone -- we haven't even touched the Farm Store's wide selection of pornography geared to every fetish of anatomy, ethnicity and age -- are enough details to fuel a first novel.

But most importantly, the Royal Farm Store is a place, like the vanished New York cafeterias of Isaac Bashevis Singer's beloved Upper West Side, where you can sit without fear of being hustled away by a manager making room for the next Joe with a dollar.

John McIntyre, an editor at The Sun and the rare modern newspaperman interested in conversations such as this, believes that the privilege of lingering is paramount to a legitimate artists' cafe.

"Most restaurants," says Mr. McIntyre, "are not designed for lingering."

And yet one of the contradictions of our era seems to be that the garish places hustling fast food are the same establishments willing to suffer people who live at a slower pace.

There's no better place in Baltimore to sketch the people of our time and place than the Royal Farm Store on Key Highway. And if you want to show up one night to watch the parade while arguing whether Tim O'Brien is the greatest writer of his generation, I'll be in the booth next to the motor oil and the M&Ms.

Today's writer

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun and a writer of fiction. Beginning Sunday, he will file weekly dispatches for this paper's Arts & Society page during a 10,000 mile trip across the United States. He can be reached at rafaelalvarez@sevarez.com

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