Bleeve It, Hon

The tentative city the sportswriter grew up in has regained a bit of swagger

"Baltimore had once been a cosmopolitan jewel," writes Frank Deford. (iStockphoto)
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If you will forgive me, a word about myself first. I came from Baltimore, and I came from money. The Defords owned a big leather company. My father was born in a house so large that when the family sold it, no private owner would buy such a monstrosity of a home; it became a nunnery. The last of all this splendor is visible today over the fireplace in our house in Connecticut; it is a painting of the great iron steamer, the Benjamin Deford, which carried the family leather, creating the family largesse, to Norfolk and Boston and exotic ports beyond.

Alas, the Deford Leather Company came a cropper during World War I. It happens to the best of family companies. So, by the time I was born, our Deford abode was three small bedrooms, two baths. My father had been bred to be a gentleman farmer. Well, he took streetcars to work and raised chickens out in the backyard as a hobby, a remembrance of glorious things past. All the money was gone. So, really, I just came from Baltimore.

But, you see, the bittersweet family history tied me even more to my hometown, because it made me better identify with Baltimore. Its splendor had disappeared, too, its image tattered. Into the middle of the 19th century, Baltimore had been a cosmopolitan jewel, gateway to Dixie, harbor to the world. It was hardly just Deford leather that shipped out. Only New York City had a greater population. Pipsqueak Washington, down the road, was less than a quarter the size of Baltimore, but, of course, it was Baltimore that had saved the hide of Washington and the whole damn country when Fort McHenry bravely held off the marauding British after James Madison and Dolley and the rest of the government had turned tail and fled the li'l burning capital...the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air / Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Yes! There over Baltimore!

But the Baltimore I grew up in was a tentative, defensive place, only a stream or two short of a backwater. It had become the quintessential branch town; the largest employer was Bethlehem Steel—headquartered somewhere in some little hamlet up in Pennsylvania (where the big money stayed). The brand-new airport was bereft of one thing: airplanes—every respectable airline flew on to the Potomac. The harbor was a Stygian tributary leading to a humdrum skyline that was dominated by a bizarre faux-Florentine building that was topped by a rendering of an antacid fizz bottle. (And wouldn't you just know: it was Bromo-Seltzer, the runner-up heartburn remedy, after Alka-Seltzer.) It is both ironic and instructive that in the first half of the 20th century, the two most illustrious Americans to come from Baltimore were Thurgood Marshall and Billie Holiday—African-Americans who rose up out of a segregated society; so representative of Baltimore's decline was it that no distinctive white citizens emerged upon the national scene.

Also, Baltimoreans talked funny, a horribly grating nasal accent, sort of lispy, somehow produced because it was here where the harsh Bronx tones from the North crashed head-on into the softer hillbilly lilt moving up from the hollows of the Alleghenies. All sorts of dictionaries have been written, trying to capture the accent and its spelling. Here is a sampling: Bawlmer, air hametown, is in the state of Merlin, which is bounded onna ees by the Lanick Ayshun and onna souf by air Merkin capital, Warshnin, Deecee. You better bleeve it, hon.

Funny as it all sounds, though, the Bawlmer accent was a serious and debilitating measure of class, for as I caught on very early, a person's standing in the community could be measured by how thick his accent. It was said in England that an egalitarian society could never be achieved so long as people spoke Cockney; so too in Baltimore. The Bawlmer accent was neither good for mobility nor sweet to the ear.

When Mark Kram, a wonderful (if tortured) Baltimore writer, profiled our home sweet hometown in Sports Illustrated in 1966, he offered up H. L. Mencken's sweet petition as a way to pay homage to the place. To remember him, the Sage of Baltimore had suggested: "Wink your eye at some homely girl." Well, said Kram, Baltimore had itself become just such an unlovely lady. Do the poor thing a favor.

Indeed, as I quickly discovered, when I grew older and moved abroad in the land, my Baltimore was renowned for only three distinctions: crabs, the white marble steps of the city's endless cavalcade of row houses, and The Block—which was actually several blocks of Baltimore Street, a tawdry entrepôt of sin: sailors' bars, girlie shows, tattoo parlors and associated nether establishments. The most famous denizen of The Block, indeed, of all Baltimore (at least until Spiro Agnew came along), was Blaze Starr, proprietress of The Two O'clock Club, a woman whose business acumen equaled the size of her magnificent bosoms.

I myself got a swordfish on my forearm at Tattoo Charlie's down on The Block when I turned 18; I started drinking there with the demimonde when I reached 21. But then, there wasn't any part of Baltimore I didn't get to know, and when I winked at her, it was with affection, not sympathy. Withal, I dearly loved my hometown, for instinctively I seemed to understand that it was not so homely as idiosyncratic, and, surely, I thought, like my family and its lost riches, poised for comeback. (Redemption?) Somehow, too, I knew that the city had formed me in a different way than had I been born in some smug, superior burg like Washington or New York City or Boston. (I never have been able to make up my mind about Philadelphia—whether it's a big Baltimore or a small Chicago.)

The three best-known Baltimore writers contemporaneous with me are the novelist Anne Tyler and the film director-screenwriters Barry Levinson and John Waters. Tyler and Waters concentrate their work virtually exclusively on Baltimore; Levinson, mostly so. (The best Bawlmer accent ever realized by an outsider was by Danny DeVito in Levinson's Tin Men.) The devotion to things Baltimore by these storytellers best illustrates, I think, what a singular and vivid place it is. Baltimore has character and nuance, and although I may not have written about it all that much myself, I know that even though I left there many years ago, Baltimore put its stamp on me in ways I'm not so sure other more standard-issue cities could impress on their expatriates.

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