Baltimore: The Antidote to D.C.

It was another slow August, and my girlfriend and I wanted to get out of D.C. She’d taken a week off work to visit her family in the Midwest, but decided at the last minute that she didn’t want to spend her paid vacation hiding in her childhood bedroom from her Republican parents, who wanted to have a serious talk about this business of living with a man she wasn’t married to. I hadn’t taken time off, but I didn’t need to, since I didn’t have a job to take time off from. We decided to visit friends in Baltimore.

We took the train to Baltimore and then a taxi to the house where Lana’s childhood friend Aidra was staying. It was a three-story townhouse in a moneyed neighborhood right on the water. The house was owned by Aidra’s aunt, who was traveling around the world that summer, and Aidra said we were free to crash in any of the bedrooms. Aidra seemed a little twitchy, but I figured it was because she’d spent the summer alone in the big empty house.

I dropped my bags off and went to meet my friend Jon, while my girlfriend stayed behind to catch up with her friend. Jon was a student at MICA, the art school, and he lived in a huge warehouse with several other art students. The place was so big that they each had their own prefab shed or gazebo they’d bought at Home Depot, all of them arranged in a rough circle, so it was like a huge indoor Smurf village, only instead of Smurfs it was populated with dudes wearing paint-splattered boots and girls who didn’t shave their armpits.

Low-Rent Districts

It looked like a utopia to me. “How much is your rent?” I asked Jon.

He shrugged. “Two hundred a month, but a lot of months we don’t pay. The landlord doesn’t keep track.”

“Really?”

“Someone was killed right outside last week,” he said. “Right on the corner there. I guess he figures no one else would rent the place anyway, so why bother?”

No one had been killed anywhere near my house in D.C., not for a long while, even though I lived just a block from what was supposedly the deadliest intersection in the city, 6th and O. This was before gentrification really picked up, but it was clear the neighborhood wasn’t bad anymore, and our rent had started to reflect that.

The only crime I’d seen was when someone robbed the corner store across the street while I waited in line to buy a 40 ounce with my unemployment check money. He’d flashed a gun, but asked for the money politely, with a smile, and left without even squeezing off any warning shots, which at least would’ve held off that year’s rent increase.

We drove in Jon’s truck to a bar that had dollar beers. Halfway there, he paused at an intersection and pointed down a long, deserted street. Rusted out kitchen appliances were piled across the street to form an impassable barricade.

“No one even cares,” Jon said. “It’s been like that for months.”

Home Sweet Home

Baltimore seemed like the opposite of D.C., like heaven on earth. Dilapidated warehouse villages, Mad Max-style anarchy, murders and municipal indifference to keep rents down. D.C. just seemed so D.C., populated by earnest nonprofit employees and interns in their early 20s who dressed like they were in their early 40s. Rents were steadily climbing, and I knew it was going to get a lot worse, though I had no idea how bad it would eventually get. As we drove, I felt the uneasiness of someone realizing they’d made the wrong decision.

At the bar, I felt self-conscious about being the only one without paint splatters on my clothes. I made a decision then and there; I was going to move to Baltimore. If Lana wasn’t on board, we’d have to break up.

Upon returning to Aidra’s house, we found police cars parked along the street, their lights flashing. Lana was sitting on the front steps of the house, one arm bandaged, as a group of cops tried to calm a raging, purple-faced woman who I suddenly realized was Aidra.

“What happened?” I asked Lana.

“I don’t know. Aidra went off her meds last week, and just came at me.” Lana pointed up at the third floor. “She tried to push me out that window while screaming gibberish. She had me halfway out before I was able to fight her off. The glass cut my arm all up.”

“What should we do? Call her aunt?”

“We’re going home,” Lana said.

A Sinking Feeling

She went into the house as Aidra screamed at her from behind her cordon of police about the hidden microphones and cameras Lana had installed in her house. I stood there thinking that if Lana hadn’t gotten hurt, maybe I’d have gone through with my plan and told her I was staying in Baltimore, but now I felt bad, although that was only part of it.

I also remembered now that my name was on the lease for our apartment, and that I couldn’t just walk away from it. It seemed like an extremely D.C. thing to think, and I realized that even though I’d made the wrong choice, it was maybe too late for a do-over.

Baltimore was twice as cool, at half the price, and was trending in the right direction, or at least not trending in the wrong one. D.C. was all about property values, career advancement and young, white-collar couples pushing Cadillac-style strollers, sipping expensive coffee from cardboard cups. When I told people in D.C. I was on unemployment, they moved away from me like they thought poverty might be contagious.

When Lana came out with our bags, Jon drove us to the train station, and we returned to our life in D.C. — orderly, upwardly mobile, and certain, and at the same time, stifling, sanitized, oppressive, a vaguely Stepfordian dystopia. Every time a neighbor bugged us about our grass being an inch too long, I thought wistfully back to the Baltimore of unpredictability and furor and rusty appliance barricades. A few months later, Lana and I broke up. She immediately moved to Baltimore.

 

A Local Cabin in the Woods

When the dog days of summer hit and D.C. gets downright swampy, a lot of people start thinking about getting out of town. But the grass isn’t always greener, and in the end, you may be better off hunkering down in your air-conditioned apartment.

The weekend trip is a rite of passage for every new relationship. You get to see how things work in a new context, and you’re guaranteed to get some insights about the other person. Traveling reveals character; driving, especially. I’m a big believer that bad drivers are bad at everything in life.

I was once sitting at a red light with a woman, four cars back from the front, and she did that thing where she tapped her horn the instant the light turned green. I knew then and there that things wouldn’t work out.

Southern Hospitality

We were headed to a rented cabin in West Virginia for a few days in the country. It was summer in D.C., and we thought it would be cooler out there. We stopped in a little town a half-hour from our cabin to get groceries, and on the way back to the car, a pair of local guys called me over. They were clearly drunk and had a breathalyzer attached to their steering wheel.

“Blow on that for us, would you?” One of them asked me. “We have to get home. It’s an emergency.”

“Well, if it’s an emergency,” I said. They seemed pretty down and out, so I thought I’d do them a favor. I blew into the tube, but the breathalyzer made an angry sound.

“You didn’t do it right,” said the guy who’d asked me. He looked at me with bloodshot eyes. “If you do it wrong twice in a row, it locks the steering wheel for eight hours. So do it right this time.”

This was said in a tone that was clearly threatening. “I’m going to go wait in the car,” said the woman I was with — let’s call her Mandy — and left.

I bent and blew into the tube as hard as I could. A green light blinked, and the two men smiled, patted me on the shoulder and got in. They peeled out of the parking lot and went shooting down the road. The driver was weaving a little, but he straightened out as they passed a school bus going the other way.

“Got to make nice with the locals when you come up here,” I said as I got into the car. Mandy looked at me but said nothing.

Long & Winding Road

The cabin was off a dirt road, down a winding driveway, nestled in the woods. As I was unloading everything from the car, Mandy said, “I think there’s someone in the house.”

The house looked deserted to me, but it was in the middle of nowhere, and I could imagine someone breaking in and squatting there, this nice tourist cabin that was probably empty three-quarters of the year. Maybe the two drunks whose car I’d started were squatting here, and we’d all have a laugh before I blew their car to life again and sent them on their way.

“Want me to check it out?” I asked. We hadn’t been dating long, and I knew this was a great opportunity to fool her into thinking I was a tough, alpha male type.

Goldilocks? Snow White?

“Yes. It looked like a woman. Maybe a girl. She was in the upper window.”

I unlocked the front door and went inside. It was a small but appealing cabin, recently renovated. Everything was clean and in its place; it didn’t look like anyone had been living there. Upstairs, the bed was made and everything looked untouched. I looked out the window and saw Mandy sitting in the car. She didn’t look like she was enjoying her weekend trip very much.

“It seems fine in there,” I said to her back at the car. “Maybe it was just the sun reflecting on the glass or something?”

“I don’t know,” she said, unconvinced. “But I’m not sleeping here until we really search the place, top to bottom.”

Inside, we went through every closet, looked under the bed, threw back the shower curtain, opened all the cupboards. There was no sign of anyone. We’d just started to relax, make a few jokes about being nervous city dwellers, when I noticed the outline on the kitchen floor.

Don’t Go in There

“Is that a trapdoor?” I said.

“I believe so,” Mandy said. She stood there looking down at the trapdoor, hands on hips, trying to look nonchalant.

“Should I open it?”

“Absolutely not.”

But I couldn’t resist, and besides, what if there was someone down there, waiting for us to fall asleep so they could creep out?

I grabbed the pull rope and swung the door up. A narrow set of stairs went down into a pitch black stone-walled cellar that looked like it extended quite a ways back.

We stood there looking down into the dark. It didn’t need to be said that neither of us was going down there. I could tell that Mandy was thinking that this entire trip had been a mistake, and I didn’t disagree.

“Do you want to sleep here tonight?” I asked.

“No.”

“Me neither. Let’s just head back.”

We put the bags back in the car, did a nine-point turn, and headed back up the driveway. As we turned onto the dirt road, I looked back at the house, thinking I’d see someone stealthily moving a curtain aside to watch us go, but the house was dark and still.

The Final Nail

Going back through town, we hit a red light and sat behind a line of pickups. I could see Mandy’s hand hovering above her horn, just waiting for the light to turn.

“They’ll shoot you for that out here,” I said. “That guy in front of us literally has a gun rack on his truck.”

Mandy looked at me. “Don’t tell me how to drive,” she said.

It was a long drive back on that winding-two lane, knowing there were drunks weaving around out there, their cars blown to life by over-credulous tourists. That was the last time I took a weekend trip out of D.C., with Mandy or anyone else.