Baltimore's surprises from a garage rooftop

City Diary: Scott Shane

March 21, 2001

WE HAD PARKED on an upper floor of the garage south of the Baltimore Arena for the last performance of the circus Sunday night. So when we came out, my 10-year-old son, Nathan, and I, heads still buzzing with the spectacular blare of the "Greatest Show on Earth," we found the traffic stalled in bumper-to-bumper circles from our car all the way down four floors to the snail-paced cash window.

We could have sat in line with the engine idling, breathing exhaust fumes and fretting over the moral dilemmas of gridlock. But we weren't in a hurry, so I suggested we climb to the roof of the garage and take a look at the city lights.

Parking garage roofs are among the most underrated of urban spaces. Almost always accessible to passers-by, they are natural box seats for watching city life. We spent the moment when 1999 became 2000 on top of an eight-story garage, hearing distant singing and sirens and watching fireworks bloom silently on the horizon.

This arena garage did not disappoint. We were alone on the roof, with a terrific, straight-on view of the Bromo Seltzer Tower, with its Palazzo Vecchio top, its blue UFO glow and its working Bromo clock.

An old Bromo bottle once revolved on top. It stood 51 feet tall and weighed 17 tons. In 1911, when the tower was the tallest building in the city, the night skyline must have been a surreal sight -- the towering blue bottle, lit from within by 500 light bulbs, slowly spinning above Baltimore. P.T. Barnum had nothing on Captain Isaac Emerson, Bromo Seltzer's creator and promoter.

We looked down and saw traffic backing up as police blocked cars from both Baltimore and Howard streets. Drivers -- no doubt the folks who had rushed out before the circus ended to make a fast getaway -- honked and gestured, craning from their windows to see what the trouble was. Motorcycle cops, blue and red lights blazing, swooped west on vacant Baltimore Street like giant fireflies and took up positions on both sides of the street.

What was up?

I feared it might mean trouble -- a bomb threat, a hostage-taking, another bump in the city's body count.

Then, suddenly, a big arena door opened. Ten elephants marched single-file down Howard Street with pachydermic dignity, but also what seemed to be anxiety out on the empty asphalt; like first-graders on a field trip, each hugged the animal in front, scurrying to close any gaps.

Then came two cantankerous camels, giving a hard time to their keepers, who had changed out of their skimpy sequined outfits into street clothes. Watching them wrench their necks from side to side, yanking at their leashes, we imagined them saying, "Hel-lo, humans, who claim to be so intelligent? We're desert animals, see! It's freezing out here!"

Finally, there came the black and white horses that a few minutes earlier we had watched galloping in elegant daredevil circles in center ring.

Together they turned west on Baltimore Street, trooping down the center of the night street -- a parade with almost nobody to watch. They marched on and on, presumably headed for the railroad cars that would carry them to their next gig. Finally we could see the animals no more.

It still took 20 minutes after we got in the car to reach the garage exit. We used the time to read the rather unconvincing flier Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey hands out to combat animal-rights protests. ("The Greatest Show on Earth has been committed to animal care for more than 125 years ...")

We discussed whether circus acts are abusive, or whether elephants might actually enjoy the hokey tricks, the trunk-to-tail parading, the women clinging to their necks, whispering in their ears and feeding them treats. That is, after all, the kind of thing our dog likes.

Nathan decided a good compromise might be to let the elephants run free 10 months a year then round them up for a two-month circus tour. Best of both worlds, he figured.

Climb a garage roof and peer over the edge and there's no telling what you might see. A city is always a circus, even when Ringling Bros. is not in town.

Today's writer

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun since 1983, is on leave from the newspaper working on a novel.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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