Sunday, January 10, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 21- Baltimore

My earliest memories of Baltimore are from when I was 10 years old. We were passing through on our way to Washington ,D.C. in January 1964. It was a dirty, smoky, blue collar town. Bethlehem Steel was the big employer and Japan had not yet entered the market. It was a decidedly Southern town, the waitresses all called you “hon” and “sweetie.” I had no idea that I would one day live there.

Arriving, as stated, on January 11, 1982 I went to check in with Captain Ellison, who had founded and ran the Baltimore School of Navigation. Hugh T. Ellison was born in Missouri and after serving in World War Two he became a Merchant Marine Officer and eventually Master (Captain) of his own ship. After that he married and started a school for sailors who wanted to become Officers. Not gentlemen, just Officers.

In his time in Baltimore Captain Ellison turned out thousands of Merchant Marine Officers. I vowed I would be one. He was the archetypical, pipe smoking Captain of days gone by. Wise and sensitive, at the age of 67 he still commanded respect and would “brook no nonsense.” His words, not mine.

I was directed to several hotels and rooming houses where I could set up new housekeeping. I chose a furnished room in a rooming house about 12 blocks from the Harborplace and the school. This was in the Mt. Vernon area of Baltimore and around the corner from the original Washington Monument pictured above.

I had always wondered what it would be like to live in a furnished room. I was going to find out. My place was in an old brownstone that had once belonged to a single family. It was built in 1840. It was subdivided into rooms with a toilet and bath at the end of each floor. I was one of 4 tenants. There was a single bed, a hanging light bulb, a chair and a desk with a lamp. Food was not allowed and so I kept milk and stuff out on the window ledge.

The rooming house was on Cathedral Street one block North of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. This meant that there was a lot of foot traffic. During the cold winter evenings, and sometimes even late at night, students and just plain passers by would throw snowballs and ice up at my window trying to knock the milk off the sill. Sometimes I would throw snow back and once even tossed the milk at a particularly rude group. I am proud to state that I never shot at any of them. To me this was all new and I was loving it.

About this time I received a note from MSC asking me what the "Special" designation was on my Coast Guard ID card. I answered that it simply meant that I was special, I knew it because my Mom had told me so. I also pointed out that they had paid me a goodly sum in 1981 for being "special." That was the first and last I heard of the matter.

I had about $20,000 in the bank and expected to take the entire year off in order to obtain my Third Mates License. The exam is 5 days long and 8 hours per day. Then there is the week that it takes to Certify on Radar and Flashing Light/Morse Code. The fact that I already had these skills would not necessarily help me on the test, which is the Bar Exam of the Ocean. So I figured brushing up prior to the test was wise. I hadn’t counted on so many distractions!

First let me tell you that Baltimore at that time was undergoing a fantastic transformation from a blue collar town to a cosmopolitan city. They had just completed the new Harborplace, which was a big draw for the tourist crowd in Washington, D.C. They were also installing a subway and an Aquarium. The City was run by Mayor Donald Schaefer, who was so loved that he went on to become Governor. In short, I had arrived in a boom town. It was also a period of my life that was the most self assured I had ever experienced.

First order of business was to set up housekeeping in my furnished room. I don’t know about others, but at that time I loved nothing more than getting "settled in." I went shopping at the local five and dime for all the stuff you need like a broom, dustpan, mop and bath things. Since the bath down the hall only had a tub I bought a plastic hose and shower head that could be attached to the faucet. With a wire hangar attached to the ceiling I had a shower. I also bought a small black and white TV. This was before VCR and cable etc. So when you were at sea TV was something you missed. With my short wave radio and small stereo I was all set.

Food was not much of a problem. I merely set out looking for affordable places to eat my meals. Places that I could go to on a regular basis and be “known.” I found two good ones right away. The Lighthouse at the bottom end of Cathedral Street served great steaks and salads. For a cheaper and more plain meal there was the Maryland Diner located on Monument Street. They had great liver and onions.

The Sportsmen Club on Park Ave had a great evening crowd that watched TV together. They also had a resident hooker named Marlene. I never sampled her wares- I had a rule- if I was in the States there was no reason for me to pay. I spoke the language and there were plenty of women to meet. But I found Marlene to be a funny and interesting companion so we ended up hanging out together at the Sportsmen Club and sometimes in her room at the Congress Hotel.

This was, as I have said, a time of great self confidence for me and I exuded it. I could feel it in the way I walked and dealt with people. And they could sense it, too.

One of the main differences I found in Baltimore as compared to New York was in flirting. In New York flirting was just that, and meant nothing. In Baltimore flirting was the prelude to something more. If someone caught your eye, or vice versa, it meant there was genuine interest. This was wonderful, but it did interfere with my studies!

I had never been the type to juggle girlfriends and “play the field.” But in Baltimore I found myself surrounded by women, of all ages and backgrounds, who were more than willing to spend time with me. This was actually a great surprise and I loved it!

About 6 weeks after arriving I went into Club Charles on Charles Street across from the Charles Theater. The theater showed all old and art films, which I loved. I went with a friend from school to see “The Four Feathers”, the original 1939 version with C. Aubrey Smith.

After the movie we went across to the bar. As soon as we walked in I saw two vacant stools at the bar. There were two ladies in the stools next to them. Reid went to the bathroom while I sat down. I looked over at the woman next to me and said hello. She said hello back and we were off to the races. Her name was Leslie and we talked non stop for the rest of the night. She was a dead ringer for Jessica Lange and I was falling fast. As bar time came she made it apparent that she would like to see me again. I got her number and walked home in a light snow, singing.

I called her the next day and the next. I went to see her that Tuesday evening and we talked for hours while I worked up the courage to kiss her. When I finally did I said, “Man, I’m glad that’s over!” We both laughed because she was as nervous as I was! She was 32 and I was 27. She was divorced and had a son who lived with her mom. As the weekend approached I had misgivings about going to New York for a planned visit with Mark and Lois but she had plans for a “retreat” so we went our separate ways.

When I got back I found that we had missed one another in equal proportions and a whirlwind relationship sprang up. We saw one another each evening, with me frequently staying over. I even got to meet her son, Noah, who was 11 at the time.

Needing a nicer place to entertain her when we were downtown I decided to get an apartment. I chose one on Park Avenue at Madison Street, just around the corner from the rooming house. It was still winter so I had no idea what the neighborhood was really like. But the apartment was a furnished 2 room deal with an eat-in kitchen and a living room which doubled as a bedroom. It also had a shower with a skylight! I hung plants in the shower making it like a tropical waterfall. A very romantic place.

But the beauty of our relationship was marred by the demons of Leslies’ past. She was undergoing psycho therapy at the time and her Doctor was dead set against her entering a serious relationship. We had planned to move in together- the long absences necessitated by my 6 month contracts were a huge obstacle- so I went down to the Union Hall looking for a 30 day coastal run instead. Things seemed to be falling in place.

On the day I was scheduled to move in she couldn’t do it. It was too much of a risk for her. And so without explanation she told me that she could never see me again. And she didn’t. If she answered the phone she would hang it up or just leave it off the hook. Cards and letters went unanswered. So I left her alone, all the while wondering, should I pursue her with more vigor? I had no answers.

This is last thing I ever wrote to her-

End piece.

How can you just abandon
Such strong feelings?
Am I that weak?
Or are you too strong?

I look at what we had and wonder-
Will I ever feel that much again?
Are there really other eyes out there-
That sparkle like yours-
Or shine like mine?
I really don’t think so.

Turn it over and look
at the other side.
It was worth the changes,
the joy or pain.

I can never forget the way my heart
pounded at our first kiss,
And how time stopped
when I first entered you.
But now we are closed to one another,
And time goes on?

I saw her face in every crowd and the ringing of the phone would send me lunging across the room in the hope that it was her. It never happened. A few years after I married in 1986 I learned that she had killed herself. Too fragile for this world I hope she found peace in the next….

The neighborhood I was living in began to come to life in the spring. As the cold ended the streets began to fill with people in the evenings. It was a colorful crowd. It was also decidedly gay! I had moved in during the dead of winter and so could not really judge the area. But it was a fun and exciting place to be. The gays were creative and had parties all the time. And the amount of available women was a big plus.

Across the street from my apartment on Park Avenue was a halfway house for teenage girls who had run away from home or were just not wanted by their parents. There was one young girl there- Debbie Hoerl- who used to stop me and talk. We were like brother and kid sister. So we hung out together and I learned her story- a mother who remarried and found the daughter “inconvenient”, a step dad who was less than wholesome and all the rest of the story. They only lived 8 miles from the halfway house but never came to see her.

The halfway house had a curfew of 11PM and then they would lock the girls out. Brillant move. The area was filled with gays and lesbians and single guys, who unlike me, would be only too glad to take advantage of this situation. To complicate matters even more, Debbie had started deliberately missing curfew in order to get locked out. I would see her at like 1 in the morning when I came home, sitting on my stoop. I would let her stay over at my place, which was probably not adviseable, but leaving her in the street was out of the question. I had been there and done that, so I couldn’t let it go.

One night when she was staying over things were starting to get out of hand in a delicate way. The next morning I was over at the halfway house raising hell with the managers. They were a group of women who had never spent a night in the street and believed in “tough love.” I told them that I was in jeopardy every time they locked someone out and I took them in. I even threatened to go to the news and have their funding cut. Surely there was a better way to punish someone for missing curfew than leaving them out in the street all night! The policy was changed. Debbie and I remained friends for several years and she eventually moved to Florida. Last I heard she was married with 2 kids and a farm full of animals. She was a sweet kid and I kind of wish she had been my sister. We really had fun together and I will always remember her fondly.

One floor below me was a violin player from the Boston Symphony who was studying at the Peabody Conservatory, which was also around the corner from me. He loathed the term fiddle as it pertained to country music. He also disliked me. The reason was simple. He was in love with Heidi Kohlberg, who lived next door to him. She was an intern at Johns Hopkins doing her surgical residency. We had not met until the weather got warm and I saw her sitting and reading on the front stoop.

I was on my way to the movies one Sunday evening to see “North by Northwest” at the Charles. I asked her if she would like to go. She said no, but when the movie was over I should ring her bell and we could continue our talk.

When the movie ended I fixed a plate of vegetables and grabbed a bottle of wine. Thus prepared I rang her bell. It was about 10 PM. She was in a robe and I asked if I had come too late. She replied that my timing was perfect- she had just stepped out of the shower.

We munched on the vegetables and drank some wine- with me wondering all the while whether I was expected to make a move or not. This went on until 1 AM when she announced that it was time to call it a night. We got to the door and we just couldn’t seem to end it. That’s when I got up the courage to kiss her. I was delighted when she didn’t pull away...

Later in the year she moved to Richmond where she worked at the Eastern Virginia Medical Center. I would arrive at the Greyhound station and find her sleeping in the waiting room, dressed in her surgical scrubs. We saw each other for about a year and then fell out over spiritual differences. She believed that we were all random chemical events and that there was no God. So I just took my chemical self and oozed on down the road...

So in September 1982 I was once again heart broke, almost out of money and ready to head back out to sea. I had taken some of my exams but due to my busy social life I was not ready to complete my qualifications. But that year in Baltimore, for all it’s hurt, will live on in my mind as the most vibrant and joyful year of my life thus far.

I had also found my new home and in short order I would return.

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