Baltimore: A Tour Yields Fun Facts About Charm City

"The Past, Present and Future Original Trolley Tour around Baltimore: great history and interesting facts.

“The Past, Present and Future Original Trolley Tour around Baltimore: great history and interesting facts.

I love taking trolley tours.  Mostly because I want to know the lay of the land in a new city, and also because of what the guides tell me. I love those interesting facts that are shared as we gawk out the trolley windows and click pictures of the sites.  Here are some of the things we learned today during a morning tour of Baltimore.

Baltimore is famous for its row houses. Not townhouses, but row houses, some of

Baltimore is famous for its row houses, and granite steps mean you're richer than your neighbors with brick steps.

Baltimore is famous for its row houses, and granite steps mean you’re richer than your neighbors with brick steps.

which are only 11 feet wide. They all have a set of steps to enter, and if the steps are made of granite, it means the family is richer than steps made of mere bricks. There used to be 300,000 row houses where immigrants from Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and Ireland used to live, and today there are half that many.

Writer Tom Clancy bought two adjacent condos in Fell’s Point, and turned the basements of both of them into a shooting gallery. There are museums dedicated to

George Ruth was born in this small rowhouse near Camden Yards.

George Ruth was born in this small row house near Camden Yards.

Dentistry and to Public Works in the city, and an art gallery devoted to untrained artists called the Visionary Art Museum. You can see a pair of teeth worn by George Washington in the Dental Museum, which is only open by appointment.

The Charm City Connector is a free public bus service that travels in three loops around the city. Since 2010, it’s been paid for partly by fees levied in the city’s parking lots.  However the water taxis aren’t free, and that’s another easy way to get from one side of the harbor to the other.

Dozens of people play beach volleyball nearly all year long in Baltimore.

Dozens of people play beach volleyball nearly all year long in Baltimore.

In 1904, Baltimore suffered from a terrific fire that destroyed 60 blocks, and stopped only at the granite buildings downtown.  Firemen from many other states came to try to put out the blaze and found that their hoses didn’t fit the spigots here. After that, the federal government passed a law that all fire spigots have to be the exact same size.

Francis Scott Key wrote a poem about the bombardment of Baltimore during the war of 1812, it was his brother who later set the poem to music and somehow, this lousy

Fort McHenry is where Francis Scott Key got the inspiration to write his Star Spangled Banner poem which was later turned into our national anthem

Fort McHenry is where Francis Scott Key got the inspiration to write his Star Spangled Banner poem which was later turned into our national anthem.

song became our country’s national anthem.

Babe Ruth’s parents lived in an apartment over a saloon where his dad worked. But his mother didn’t little George Ruth to be born there so they went over to a narrow brick row house where her parents lived that’s still standing near Camden Yards baseball park. Today it is marked with a banner.

Bromo Seltzer was invented in Baltimore, and their 2 1/2 million square foot convention center located near where this happened, is occupied 70 % of the time. Most convention centers would be happy to be occupied 1/3 as many days of the year.

Find out more about Baltimore at their tourism website.

 

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Annapolis is Full of Friendly and Bursting with History

Midshipmen in Annapolis, always smiling and looking sharp.

Midshipmen in Annapolis, always smiling and looking sharp.

I’d heard about Annapolis Maryland for many years, and made my first visit there this week. I now know what everyone has been talking about. What makes this small capital city such a great destination?  Here is what I found.

One thing that makes a place better is to have people who live there cheering all the time. People who have moved to Annapolis or were born in Maryland love it here, and they share what they love about it with visitors. “Where are you visiting from?” we were asked time and again, by strangers who we met in places like cafes and in lines. T

Annapolis is the sailing capital of the US.

Annapolis is the sailing capital of the US.

hey eagerly wanted to know and that empathy and interest says a lot.

In Chick and Ruth’s Delly, a line forms on the sidewalk every day because everyone wants to get in and enjoy their crab cakes and collossal milk shakes.  But they want more than big piled plates of crab Benedict–they want to be a part of it. At 9:30 am, owner Ted Levitt picks up a microphone, and after pointing out three proud WWII veterans, “the greatest g

At Rams Head On Stage, there is live music every night. Here we saw a Journey tribute band called Voyage, and the crowd loved them.

At Rams Head On Stage, there is live music every night. Here we saw a Journey tribute band called Voyage, and the crowd loved them.

eneration” he began to lead us all in the pledge of Allegiance. “Because we can,” that’s why.  They do it every weekday at 8 am.

We popped into some antique shops on Maryland Avenue, and quickly became engrossed in a discussion with an African American woman who was doing a book signing. Like so many of us, she was from out of town, in her case LA. The proprietors of every shop we visited wanted to know all about us, and were warm and welcoming. That makes a place feel great.

The midshipmen who walk up and down Main Street in their snappy dress uniforms happily pose for photos, with big smiles. The town is proud of being the home since 1845 to

The World War II memorial just across the Naval Academy bridge in Annapolis.

The World War II memorial just across the Naval Academy bridge in Annapolis.

the United States Naval Academy. The tour there included stops at the crypt of John Paul Jones, Revolutionary War hero, below the huge chapel,  and to Bancroft Hall, where 4400 midshipmen make their home. While hearing what the first-year plebes have to go through made us pretty glad not to have chosen a career as a navy officer, you couldn’t help but see the pride that comes with the challenge, and the prestige afforded to being the 1 out of 16 who makes the cut.

Carrol's Creek Waterfront Restaurant. With a view of the harbor in Eastport, the seafood can't be better.

Carrol’s Creek Waterfront Restaurant. With a view of the harbor in Eastport, the seafood can’t be better.

The water is everywhere, the Severn river is full of sailboats and across the river a line of stern grey training ships awaits the midshipmen’s first sea trials.  The city is laid out with two spokes, and narrow brick lined lanes fan out amidst colorful houses, some with the classic symmetry of the Georgian architecture.  I can just imagine how wonderful it would be to walk down toward the harbor on a summer day, the sails flapping, and the town coming to life.

Annapolis has a burgeoning restaurant scene–we ate very well at Carrol’s Creek Waterfront Restaurant, where a filo-wrapped scallop appetizer and my twin lobster tails were seafood heaven.  It turns out the owner has roots in New England, just like the owners of Annapolis Ice Cream Co, who came down here 11 years ago.  Many people who live here once lived in our frozen north, but enjoy the milder climate and booming economy down by the harbor in this lovely capital city.

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In Annapolis, Capistrano Barbershop Promises a Closer Shave

Faraj Capistrano shaving a customer.

Faraj Capistrano shaving a customer.

If you want to know where the best crabs can be found, and other fun facts about Annapolis, you have to get a haircut.  We met a popular barber named Faraj Capistrano today, who runs Capistrano Barbershop, a hang-out for men who want a place to relax, have a beer, and enjoy some time just shooting the breeze.  Faraj’s parents were Syrian and Sicilian, and he grew up in Israel.  He came to Annapolis because he’s a boater, and today runs a local institution, where there are no TVs and customers drop in whenever they need a cut. No appointments needed.

But first we had to find Maryland Avenue–which you’d think would be pretty easy in this small city of 38,000, that was designed with two central rotaries and streets that spoke outward.  But the foreign-born taxi driver we hired didn’t know where the street was.  We found out later that most visitors never find this narrow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcommercial street, instead they stick close to the waterfront and to Main Street.  The rents, said Faraj, are four times as high there and for his barbershop business being on Maryland street is perfect. He doesn’t need any tourists to pay his rent.

There's always a lot of conversation in the shop.

Men and boys pop in all day long–one guy had a big husky on a leash and the hound made a bee-line across the street to enter the shop. “It must be the smell of men,” said a man sitting beside me, who said he works for the FBI in Washington.  Faraj makes no apologies that he doesn’t cut women’s hair, and loves the simplicity of men’s coifs–20 minutes and it’s done, and no washing or blowdrying needed.

But he said one thing that most younger men have never experienced is a barber shave. “Men never knew such a thing existed!  They see women getting pampered, and having nails done and facials, but they didn’t know how great it feels to have a barber give you a straight razor shave.”   With that, I looked over at my friend Jack who was in need of a cut, and he sat down for the full treatment.

After the hair cut, Faraj leaned the chair back and lathered Jack’s face with lotion, and then wrapped his whole face up in hot towels, and let it sit for a while.  Then he took out the straight razor, (with a new blade for every customer) and began to carefully shave him, taking care to get every whisker and liberally applying more hot shaving cream.  It took quite a while to get every one and when he was done, Jack said his face had never felt better.

While Annapolis is a popular tourist town, with thousands of visitors arriving by boat and by land, it’s nice to visit a place that’s frequented only by locals.

 

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Amtrak for Eight Hours is a Breeze Compared with Flying

watch the train video

We showed up at the Greenfield MA train depot for a 1:07 departure for our long train voyage down to Baltimore. Not surprisingly, we were told that the train was running 20 minutes late, so we got a coffee at the little cafe there and waited. When the five-car Vermonter showed up, and we left Greenfield, we crawled along at a very slow speed. I did not realize that much of the route we’d travel would be at these slow speeds, but that’s what you get when you repurpose tracks used by freight haulers into what America accepts as the best rail service we deserve.

On the tracks was a guy wearing an Amtrak train hat taking photos, and carrying a radio. I asked him about why the newly rebuilt railroad tracks were using wooden ties and not the cement ties I have seen in Europe. He said that these tracks are class 2 and 3, which use the familiar creosoted wooden ties, but the class 4 tracks use cement ties. Those are found only on higher speed trains.

We crawled out of Greenfield toward my village of Deerfield, picking up speed and passing by backyards of houses I’ve driven by a million times but never have seen the back of. Surely this is one of the distinct pleasures of rail travel, that unexposed side of things you get to see.  The back doors of shops where employees slouch catching a smoke, the rear entrances of businesses with old rail sidings that once connected them to the main tracks, the tons of debris left over from re-building the tracks—piles of old ties, stacks of metal track fasteners, and the rusted over steel rails, which someday will be melted down into new seamless rails like the ones we are riding on now.

We rolled into Northampton and took on more passengers, surprisingly a family that had boarded with us in Greenfield departed there—just 20 minutes after they’d boarded. The Connecticut river had rapids unlike any I’ve seen there– big whitecaps and a swollen banks. We didn’t stop in Holyoke, as their station stop is not yet built. One business we passed that had many of its own railroad cars is Sullivan Scrap Metal.  Giant cranes were plucking metal with a scoop and with magnets to sort them in bins.

We were warned after Springfield that as we approached Hartford, we’d be bringing on 100 additional passengers, so those of us who had spread out across our own sets of seats were warned we’d have to remove our luggage from the seats or risk having to buy the luggage its own ticket!

At New York’s Penn Station, we were told that every seat would be taken.  Many students piled aboard, and I moved my seat so as to avoid the pillar and give me a full window view. In the cafe car at about 8 pm, we bought some beers and sandwiches, and I asked a conductor why so many people were just camping out at the tables with their laptops. “We used to ask them to move, but Amtrak said we can’t do anything, so now they just take up the space and people who want to sit down with their food.”

Overall even with these hiccups and unreliable Wi-Fi service as we traveled, we felt so relaxed after we got to our destination right on time, Baltimore’s lovely old Penn Station. I can’t recall feeling that way after an eight hour flight, ever.

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Monadnock Int’l Film Fest: High Culture in a Resurgent Town

Kyle Gilman with Kyle Turgeon, Jeff Stern

Kyle Gilman with Kyle Turgeon, Jeff Stern

We were honored to drive one of the artists to a local film festival held in Keene New Hampshire today.  Kyle Gilman is Mary’s son, and a well regarded film and video editor who lives with his wife Maggie in Brooklyn.

Maggie Lehrman wrote the film that we would be watching today, a 12-minute drama called Strange Past.

It’s a simple story of four friends in a bar who watch as things pull them apart.  Kyle said on a panel that he doesn’t like directing, and most of all, if it means directing himself.  The film was dark yet had a glimmer of humor in how the characters interacted with each other.

Shorts are always a little less predictable and explainable than features. That’s definitely the appeal, and why MONIFF decided to have two long sessions devoted to the short film. Other films we enjoyed today were one about a man who tells a very long narrative rhyming poem/story as we watch his subject, his 3-year-old-son, live the filmmaker’s own life following a guy dressed up like an owl, a life-size version of his child’s ‘lovey.’

Then a cartoon and animation mashup about an incident in a Montreal high school where motorcycle gang hoods showed up at a school dance and the principal was tasked with defending his charges. This one was hilarious, fast paced and sophisticated.

Then a tale from France about Iranian lifeguards who are vying to represent the country in a competition in Switzerland, animated and poignant.

Another film was set in Cuba where a young American couple visit the island and during dinner,  try to get over the awkwardness of the crazy economy of the island nation…where a woman they’re taking to dinner earns just $20 a month and there are two separate currencies. She explains that everyone in the country makes the same terrible low wage, and we see how complex it is when parallel systems make one envious of the other, yet still very proud. It’s hard to believe this was just a 17-minute film, as with all of the rest I quickly became engrossed and the time slows way down.

Amazing what you can do with a few minutes of good acting.

The final short was called Rabbit and told a brief tale of an inmate who is entrusted with the care and feeding of a pet rabbit to keep her company in her cell. A tough woman who finally softens, this was a sad tale.

After the fest we walked around the town in an area of Keene that was once a brownfield, an industrial section right near the town center.  “A railroad ran right through here,” said Ben Robertson, 46, an actor who lives in town. He said he’s sold his car, which to a New Englander is a bold step indeed. He rents a car when he needs to get down to Boston or New York for an audition.  He loves it up here and he’s on the festival’s board of directors.

Ben said that Keene has become a very popular retirement location, and there are many senior apartments right downtown, and everything is walkable.  Sounds like the city of tomorrow!

 

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It’s Great to Hear from an Old Boss, Who Is Now a Friend

I got a bolt out of the blue today, an email from a guy I worked for from 1996-2002.  Frank was a good boss, he knew what the important things were and what really mattered. He had to balance a family dynamic with a powerful older brother but he always stood his ground and I felt that I got everything I needed when I was a salesperson for their company.  He used to say that there are two things you impress people with when you’re a salesperson asking for business–your shoes and your watch. Since that day I’ve shunned wearing sneakers and always wear a good watch. Just in case.

I left their company in 2002 and went to work for the competition, selling the same things to many of the same customers. I’m sure that didn’t go over well, but then again, Frank never took anything personally, so maybe we just needed a passage of time.  I haven’t spoken with him since I stormed out of their offices back in ’02. But I always try to remain friendly and on good terms with people who I worked for, so I was open and ready.

He sent me a clip about a guy who we both knew out on Martha’s Vineyard. A sort of sad tale about bankruptcy and the passage of time.  Frank knew that I would be interested and shared it. I later replied and found out in our emails that his tiny tots were now aged 16 and 13. And he was happy to recently celebrate his 20th year of marriage to his sweetheart. Wow!

Then I told him about my ten and six-year old grand kids, and how fortunate I am to live nearby.  It was great to hear from him again and I know that my old adage about keeping up friendships and never burning bridges is more sensible than ever as I get older. No room for that, and plenty of room for lunch and breakfast meetings and face to face conversation. I hope to meet up with Frank for lunch soon.

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