Cities and celebrities: Bigger isn't always better

City Diary

December 03, 2003|By Doug Donovan

MOVING FROM Manhattan to Baltimore is tough. Transitioning from the world's greatest city to the self-proclaimed "Greatest City in America" takes ingenuity, determination and hope - all attributes that addicts of urbanity need to adjust to the suburban sobriety of a smaller city.

In New York, city life finds you. In Baltimore, city life must be sought, driven to, explored for the few weekend hours when the narrow streets of Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill are crammed with pedestrians and enough cars to warrant looking both ways.

Of all things, celebrity sightings were not what I expected to help ease the transition. But recent stargazing has helped me believe Mayor Martin O'Malley when he says things such as: "We have such a pathological modesty for our own city that often we don't give ourselves credit."

In Manhattan, celebrity sightings are common. It's a celebri-city. I dined beside comedians Steve Martin and Chris Rock, ogled Uma Thurman, chatted with Conan O'Brien and snapped a photo of Cindy Crawford - for her, with her camera. Ironically, the celebrity I spotted most in New York was none other than Baltimore's own John Waters.

What could rival all that? Baltimore. In Manhattan, celebrities are brief glimpses into clubs, restaurants and apartments that were off limits to me.

My Baltimore brushes with celebrity have been more blue-collar. I spoke with John Travolta in the Downtown Athletic Club locker room. I inhaled the secondhand smoke exhaled by Joaquin Phoenix outside War Memorial. I ate two booths away from Cal Ripken Jr. at Alonzo's on Cold Spring Lane.

Then in October I got a double dose of celebrity that juxtaposed high-learned Hopkins with rough-hewn Hampden. The encounters illuminated a Baltimore dichotomy that cast New York into a more one-dimensional and less-appealing light. In Manhattan, you're either rich or struggling in near-squalor on salaries that, in Baltimore, would afford middle-class comfort. Money and the struggle for it take up an inordinate amount of money and struggle.

In walking distance of my Hampden rowhouse, Michael Moore was speaking at Hopkins. Mr. Moore is the iconoclastic political raconteur whose films and books can prove as amateurish and self-aggrandizing as they are intellectually stimulating. Meanwhile, on Keswick, near the Avenue, Mr. Waters was shooting his latest film, A Dirty Shame, starring Johnny Knoxville.

Mr. Knoxville's celebrity hails from an iconoclastic infamy similar to Mr. Moore's, but generated by gratuitously mindless, yet hilarious, pratfalls on the MTV show Jackass.

In essence, Mr. Moore, Mr. Knoxville - and Mr. Waters - all defy the conventional dictates, respectively, of political commentary, acting and filmmaking. By doing so, they personify distinctly Baltimore attitudes.

Outside Hopkins' Shriver Hall, where Mr. Moore spoke Oct. 10, hundreds could not enter the packed auditorium. The author and filmmaker acquiesced to his stranded fans with a 20-minute impromptu appearance, but most left with heads hung low.

In Hampden, at the same time, a handful of local teens gathered for a glimpse of Mr. Knoxville. Suddenly, the actor/stuntman stepped out, and the kids all screamed, "Johnny!"

Mr. Knoxville waved and walked on. "We waited 30 minutes for that?" said a 15-year-old.

The disappointment of both sets of fans was emblematic of anyone who banks too much self-worth on a celebrity's fleeting recognition.

Celebrities can't always be what we want them to be. Nor can cities. But cities, like Mr. Moore, confront us with social problems so often they force us into serious debates - the type that go on daily in Hopkins' halls. Or, like Mr. Knoxville, they greet us with so many comical vignettes that they demand laughter, an attitude welcome in quirky Hampden.

Funnily enough, it was a Baltimore guy who seems destined for Big Apple-sized celebrity who truly pinpointed how Mr. Moore and Mr. Knoxville reflected something uniquely Baltimore.

"They don't care what people think about them," said James Ransone, who brilliantly portrays Ziggy, the wayward youth on HBO's Baltimore-based drama, The Wire.

Mr. Ransone, also starring in A Dirty Shame, provided part of the cure for my Hudson River hangover. I do care too much that people seem noticeably less interested when I say, "I live in Baltimore," than when I say, "I live in New York."

Who cares what anyone thinks. I live in Baltimore.

Today's writer

Doug Donovan is a reporter for The Sun.

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

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