A life spent in L.A., without ever really leaving Baltimore

February 22, 2010|By Betsy R. Rosenthal

LOS ANGELES--Something in my gut reacted badly years ago when I read the front-page story in the Los Angeles Times about the desirability of various cities for the raising of children. Los Angeles was pretty far down the list with a "C" rating, but I was hardly bothered by my own city's poor grade. I was affronted, however, when in scanning the list I found Baltimore at rock bottom, with an abysmal "F."

"How could that be?" I wondered. The city of my birth, the city that bore and raised my parents, and my aunts and uncles and cousins, too numerous to count. The city where they danced in the cellar, bowled with duckpins, and polished the marble steps of their rowhouses. An "F"? It had to be a mistake.

This lingering attachment to a city that I left before I could even speak a full sentence befuddles me. I even made history in my retreat from a Baltimore childhood by flying on TWA's second ever cross-country, nonstop jet flight out of Baltimore. (I have a certificate tucked away in a drawer somewhere to prove it.) The Golden State became our new home, but the Baltimore connection was never far away.

To this day, when people ask me where I'm from, I proudly reply, "I was born in Ballmer," hoping to sound like a native. My parents, who found their Camelot in California, never did return to their roots, although they'll use any pretext to make a visit to their homeland.

We have strong food associations with Baltimore. It used to be that whenever friends or family from Baltimore would announce an upcoming visit, my parents would put in their requisition for European Kosher hot dogs. They'd throw a hot dog party and to every guest would exclaim, "Wait'll you try these hut dogs. They came all the way from Ballmer! You can't get hut dogs like these here." Personally, I think it was an excuse for some major hot dog consuming and a respite from cholesterol counting, but for some unfathomable reason they truly believe that hot dogs from Baltimore taste better.

Before it closed many years ago, my family, along with our other transplanted relatives, loved to go to the Maryland Crab House in Los Angeles, just to be surrounded by fellow Baltimoreans and watch true crab-cracking experts at work. Even though my parents keep kosher, for my mom at least, there seems to be some sort of special exemption from the laws of kasruth when it comes to Maryland crab cakes.

As kids growing up in L.A., my cousins and I used to wait in ravenous anticipation for one of our uncles to come visit because they always had Tastykakes in tow, something that hadn't been discovered by our local grocers yet.

It's as if I've moved through the stages of my life with a thread trailing behind me that's firmly tied to Baltimore. I can't quite pull free of it.

In my early 20s, I lived in Israel for a spell. While there I became friendly with an American would-be journalist. Sometime later, an article he wrote about me teaching English in an Israeli border town appeared in The Baltimore Sun. The city had claimed me as one of its own despite my 20-year absence. My uncle discovered the piece and proudly sent me a copy.

Later, in law school, I chose to do an internship in Washington, D.C., with a federal district judge. It gave me an opportunity to spend holidays in Baltimore. Up until then, all I had known of my birthplace was countless relatives and mile-high corned beef sandwiches on rye from Lombard Street. But as a young adult working in Washington, I played tourist in Baltimore. A cousin took me to the Peabody Conservatory, Edgar Allan Poe's grave and Babe Ruth's house. I learned there was more to Baltimore than cousins.

Back home, when the Barry Levinson movie "Avalon" was in the theaters, I bragged to my friends that my mom used to date one of the cousins portrayed in the movie. Not only did she know the family the movie was based on, but her own family also used to hold family circle meetings just like in the movie.

The ultimate Baltimore connection however, was still to come. Years ago, I met a native Baltimorean at a murder mystery party in Los Angeles. At our first encounter he told me he liked my last name. I thought it was an odd come-on until he introduced himself. He had the same last name.

I had to marry him, so I wouldn't have to struggle with the modern-day female name change dilemma. And no, I didn't hyphenate my name. As it turns out, not only were we born with the same last name, but also in the same year, in Baltimore hospitals across the street from one another.

Some years later, we were celebrating our anniversary at a bed and breakfast in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., when we met a young woman who also lived in Los Angeles but was originally from Baltimore. We had the usual conversation, a game of Baltimore Concentration in which we tried to match up names and places we knew in common.

Upon learning of the uncanny coincidences between my husband and me, she asked -- as everyone who thinks they're somewhat clever does -- "Are you sure you two weren't related before you got married?" We just as cleverly responded with our usual retort, "No we're not related. We did an ancestral check before we got married."

The next time I'm asked, however, I've got a better response in my pocket: "I guess you could say we are related. After all, we are both sons and daughters of Baltimore."

Betsy R. Rosenthal is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her e-mail is BetsyRR@aol.com and her Web site is www.BetsyRosenthal.com. Her new children's book "Which Shoes Would You Choose?" comes out in April.

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