We can stand in for D.C., but there's no place like home

September 30, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

Baltimore's downtown buildings and streets stood in this week as substitutes for Washington for a new Die Hard film. Movie companies take liberties all the time, and when the films are completed, it's fun to see how the sleight-of-hand works.

But could the two cities, Baltimore and Washington, be more different? The things that separate Baltimore and Washington are far larger than 38 miles.

I spent four undergraduate years at the Catholic University of America in Northeast Washington (the part of the capital no tourist visits), and I know the city pretty well -- as well as any Baltimorean can, navigating its streets and the baffling diagonal thoroughfares. No matter how many times I use it, Florida Avenue still tortures me.

Part of my Washington perspective is established almost daily. The bus I take to work passes Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, and I observe the glum commuters who I presume are making their way to K Street or Constitution Avenue offices.

They look as if they've been sentenced to hard labor, or at least hours solving Sudoku puzzles on government time. Come the evening commute home, they look a bit happier, perhaps glad to be back in Baltimore and enjoying its cheaper real estate.

I'll say flat-out that I've always had trouble getting a fix on the soul of Washington. Maybe it's all those buildings rendered in a lifeless shade of fawn. Washington's broad streets and the huge vistas are all about grandeur and style, in the way a serene capital is supposed to be. Baltimore, a working town, is about in-your-face personality. We still have smokestacks and warehouses. We misbehave, quite a bit.

Most Washington residents are often enthusiastic about Baltimore's food, and I`ll say that I've always enjoyed a good meal in the District, especially at the kind of restaurant we don't have in Baltimore: a well-turned-out place with plenty of attentive help. Baltimore lacks the Washington lobbyists and therefore lacks the expense accounts that fund a slick food shop.

Recently, for example, I was at the venerable Owl Bar in the historic Belvedere Hotel. Washington would employ publicists and regard this place as a national monument. In Baltimore, we assume it's just, well, the comfortable old Belvedere.

That day at lunch, our waiter -- a friendly, respectful Baltimore-style waiter -- began by reading off a list of which beers the bar had run out of. The don't-have list sounded like the inventory of a small liquor store. No matter. There's no shame in Baltimore. I took a lesson in the differences between the two cities one Sunday this past summer. I was on Capitol Hill, walking a shopping street off Pennsylvania Avenue. There were more stores offering clothing for pet dogs than stores selling summer sport shirts for humans.

It all goes back to the a day about 15 years ago when I wound up in Tyson's Corner in Northern Virginia. It was fine -- stores, stores and bigger stores, plus highways. On the way home to Baltimore, we made a detour at the Rheb's candy shop on Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore.

Relief. I saw ladies with washed-and-set beehive hairdos, I saw winter coats cut in an unbecoming and unfashionable length. I saw people getting enthusiastic about chocolate candy. I heard unmistakable regional accents. I knew I was home.


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