They call it Charm City? You don't say.

(WILMINGTON, N.C.) — My friend, Erik, and I have a thing for quirky towns and cities that others might overlook. The places we like are the ones that, if they were kids in middle school, would get beat up by bigger, glitzier locales like New York, Toronto and London. I’m talking about El Paso, Texas and Leadville, Colo. and Astoria, Ore. I’m talking about my two favorite tiny towns in the West: Silver City, N.M. and Moab, Utah. Erik and I are different in so many ways, but when it comes to a sense of place, I feel we are on each other’s wavelengths. We like our towns to be remote and weird and our cities to be sweet and personal. Above all, these places must have a feeling of magic to them, one that not everyone agrees is there. When I find some spot that matters, Erik is someone I can call up and gush to — and he usually gets just what I’m talking about.

This is why I know he would have loved the Hampden section of Baltimore.

I was there a month ago, and I think it has taken me so long to post these pictures because I was afraid of screwing this up. My experience of Baltimore was so delicately strange and homey, so unlike any other city I have been to, that I didn’t want to short change it. As you might guess, that’s a good way to never get something written. But I suppose that’s normal. I mean, aren’t all the things that really matter the scariest do to?

OK, deep breath. Here it goes.

I liked Baltimore. I liked it a lot. It wasn’t my hometown, but I could feel its colorful funk tugging at my heart, asking me to take it in like an sweet, scraggly, stray puppy. I didn’t see much of downtown, and that was just fine by me, as the part that really spoke to me was Hampden, a neighborhood that was a pretty good mix of hipsters, artists, and rough, poor folks who have lived there forever. The homes were narrow, tall and interconnected — row houses, a term I had never used before I landed there. While I walked the traffic-free streets, there was no consistency around me, which I believe I mentioned in an earlier post. One house might have been decked out with cutesy lawn ornaments and a mailbox that looked like a duck, and the next house over might have been this side of abandoned, with a stroller in its front yard and a broken down car alongside that. Something about this lack of uniformity touched off a little spark in me, and I was continually elated whenever I explored this section of town. It reminded me of Moab and Silver City, actually, by how its creativity could border on junky. I couldn’t imagine any homeowner’s associations around there. It was as though people had their personalities on display without much editing. That made me smile.

For a week, my car and trailer were parked on a quiet stretch of street near an auto repair place in the same neighborhood. No one bothered them. No one seemed to care. Live and let live, just the way I like it.

It was in this personal kind of environment that I reconnected with Meredith and Avelino, old friends from New Mexico. I doubt I even would have stopped in Baltimore if it hadn’t been for them. I had this feeling as I was driving up to their home, another insanely tall and thin structure, that our hanging out for days on end would be just fine, even though we hadn’t seen each other in more than two years. And it was. They have this cute, coupley way of interacting that is so disarming and good-hearted that even when my mood took a lonely turn every once and a while, I didn’t begrudge them their adorableness. They are both artistic, smart and well-read, and they’re also the kind of people who love Christmas and get googly eyed over their cats. Being with them I felt taken care of in a very genuine, comforting way. What a nice respite before I moved on to the hectic world of D.C. and northern Virginia. God, I must think of a way to give back to them.

It seems weird that was just a month ago. Now, I’m by the North Carolina ocean, and I’m staying with a woman who owns a vintage clothing store downtown and who reminds me so much of Cary Bradshaw. I like it here, in all its damp, green glory, but I will admit to having little daydreams of Hampden. I like that about traveling, how you carry the places you really care about with you all the time. As much I love to discover all these new towns, it’s also such a comfort to be able to close my eyes and think back to the places I hold in my heart. To Baltimore and Silver City and Moab and so many other towns, I miss you. And think of you often. Same goes for you, Erik, Meredith and Avelino.

Here are a few shots from Baltimore and around.

Squishy and Nutmeg, in their domain.

Avelino and Meredith's kitties, Squishy and Nutmeg, in their domain.

Meredith and Avelino : )

My New Mexico friends, Meredith and Avelino, experiencing a very non-New Mexican annoyance/joy: leaves.



Photo by Avelino Maestas.

I don't know what these are, only that I probably shouldn't eat them.

I don't know what these are, only that I probably shouldn't eat them.


Hampden. This is Baltimore to me.


If it looks like there's a story here, that's because there is. This fellow, the owner of a Hampden music store, was my conversation buddy for about an hour-and-a-half. He talked mostly, and I listened, and it was strange, but it was also kind of perfect. By the time I walked out of there, I had no idea what had just happened. I still don't. But at least I have photographic evidence. I wish him the best.


A Baltimore-centric joke. This city is the home of the Hons — fabled stereotypical women with beehive hairdos and cat eye glasses. This is the kind of woman who might be your waitress at a pie diner and call you "Hon." Or she might appear in a Gary Larson cartoon.






3 comments to They call it Charm City? You don’t say.

  • Thanks for the warm words Stina. Your visit was too short and bittersweet: a reminder of a wonderful time in my life when you and I and Meri all worked with one another in the tragic environs of a small-town newspaper. And I have to admit, I’ve always been a little jealous of you, but never more so than during this trip. You have a way of grasping life by the horns and taking it for a ride, and your trip is the logical (and exciting) extension of that philosophy.

    It’s something I think I’ve wanted to do my entire life.

    I’ll keep reading of your adventures, hoping to live vicariously through you just a little bit. And if you have a chance, come back: we miss you.

  • Franklin

    Astoria rocks! It’s just too bad that it rains there all the time.

  • Mitch Hellman

    Nice to see some pics of Hampden. I lived in the Charles Village neighborhood of Baltimore, a few blocks southwest of Hampden, for twenty-six years. It’s still hard for me to believe that I moved away ten years ago; part of me feels proprietary about the town, even though some of my old haunts have changed since I left (Hampden, especially has changed– no hipsters back then).

    I guess you were there too early to see this, what is known as the Miracle on 34th Street. This is quintessentially Baltimore, and absolutely Hampden.


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