Testing the Circulator bar crawl

New bus service is good for getting there, not getting back

  • Parham Farahat, an ER resident for two months at the University of Maryland, takes the Circulator to Federal Hill for the first time.
Parham Farahat, an ER resident for two months at the University… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
December 09, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Most people use the Charm City Circulator to commute. But some people, a fraction of total riders, use it after 6 p.m., according to the Baltimore Department of Transportation.

What for? The department doesn't know. It could be more commuting. I wondered, would it be possible to use it to barhop? Recently, I put it to the test. The challenge: five bars, one night, using only the Circulator as transportation. My only rule was to have only one drink at each bar.

Within five minutes at my first stop, I'd had four.

That was at Nevin's Cross Street Station (31 E. Cross St., 410-468-4078), where Linda Diehly, a bar back/bouncer straight out of South Baltimore Central Casting, promptly ridiculed my plan: "Boy, you're going to be messed up."

The night started at the Washington Monument, where the Circulator picked me up at 9 p.m. and dropped me off at Federal Hill a half-hour later. Along the way, we passed by or got close to the Brewer's Art, Club Phoenix, Turp's, among others.

When we got off, I overheard two exiting young women:

Girl 1: "All right, that was awesome."

Girl 2: "Maybe we take it back?"

Girl 1: "Yeah, maybe. If we can get wasted before 12 a.m."

What do you want to bet they didn't make that bus? Right in that exchange you'll find the Circulator's main problem. As Nate Payer, vice president of the activist group Transit Riders Action Council, has said, few of the people who go drinking in South Baltimore on a weekend will be finished by midnight. And by keeping the route's hours short, transportation officials are missing an opportunity to help a neighborhood that has scarce parking.

When I walked into Nevin's, a couple were lip-syncing to "Help Me, Rhonda." That karaoke machine is one of only about two things that work there besides the bartenders. The bar is dimly lit and painted in pea-soup green. In the back, there's a broken pool table and a pair of upholstered armchairs that have been worn down to the spongy stuffing.

But it's the perfect dive, the kind where you automatically feel comfortable because it's so much more beat-up than you feel.

I ordered a Blue Moon ($4), before Diehly challenged me to a couple of Irish Car Bombs, which sound delightful, and consist of a shot of Irish whiskey and Irish Cream dropped into a cup of Guinness and chugged. (Three for $10.)

Because that didn't slow me down enough, Diehly suggested a shot of Viticus, a Lithuanian liqueur only they, Mum's and Lithuanian Hall sell in Baltimore, she said. She tells me it tastes like Christmas. I think it tastes like the International House of Pancakes.

As I left, Diehly warned me, "Remember, hon, don't drink too much tonight." Too late.

I walked over to The Hill (1015 S. Charles St., 443-708-5653), farther north on Charles. The bar is smartly lit and decorated in an industrial-chic fashion, with exposed airducts and brick walls. It's spacious enough to include a seated area. They have a wine rack, $5 martinis, and a Blue Moon is $5.50.

In other words, it's the opposite of Nevin's. No one was singing "Help Me, Rhonda" there. Boise State and Fresno State slugged it out on TV while well-dressed groups of friends, and couples in matching outfits, talked to each other. For all its rugged brick walls, the place still looks about as authentic as a vintage armoire from Restoration Hardware.

After 10 minutes of waiting outside Metropolitan for the bus, I got to Peter's Pour House (111 Mercer St., 410-539-5818), where a suburban dad cover band played alternative rock songs from the '80s.

The crowd is strictly middle-age, and so is the decor, which echoes your dad's basement hangout. Still, it's a comfortable space.

After two hours on my bar crawl, and $28 just on drinks, it was time to call it quits. The Circulator would stop working in an hour. The bus moved through the city sluggishly, which worked for me. Much like that bus in the movie "Speed," I couldn't go past a certain speed or the combustible ingredients inside me might explode.

At this pace, the Circulator might be too slow to get to enough bars before it shuts down for the night. And that really is the main frustration with it. Right now, its short hours — it operates until only 8 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays — make it a creature of the day.

If I wasn't buzzed by 11 p.m., chances are the much heavier drinkers who frequent South Baltimore wouldn't have been either. Diehly is one of them. She doesn't finish working at Nevin's until 3 a.m.

"Before the Circulator, I used to just walk," she told me. "It's cut down on my walking, but only before my shift. After 3 a.m., I'm on my own."



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