City of Firsts

The following essay, City of Firsts, was originally published in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore #12, which you can purchase here:                                       


I walk down Charles Street to get to work in the morning. Charles Street is the main street in Baltimore, MD. My parents live on Charles Street in the house I grew up in. The street has a lot of traffic on it. Sometimes I have to monitor the traffic patterns on Charles Street for my job at work. They are the same patterns that used to kill off all my cats.

The first balloon ascension in the United States occurred in Baltimore, in 1784. The pilot was a thirteen year old boy. No one knows whether he had a cat or not.

There is a fellow who lives at the HESS station up the street from my studio that I like to have jumping contests with. We try to touch the center line of the ‘E’ on the word HESS. His name is Simon and I always beat him, although neither of us can touch the center line of the ‘E’. Simon is missing a number of teeth in the front of his mouth. Since he is always smiling it looks like there is a deep cavity in the middle of his face. A compartment to put something maybe, but nothing useful.

There is a woman that I used to sit with on the 11 bus that went down Charles Street from my parent’s house. She always seemed to have straw in her hair for some reason, like her hair was made of straw. She was really into handing out these double-sided Xeroxed flyers about Satan. She thought Satan worshippers were installing surgical implants  in children and that this was the cause of drugs and murders and gangs and rape in town. It was also the cause of autism. According to her, the problem stemmed from Baltimore being so close to DC. Apparently Washington, DC is the Satan worshippers’ capital too. The flyers also contained very reasonable quotes from Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois, and Mary Church Terrell.

Once last spring, my ex-girlfriend and I tried to go to Washington, DC to look at the Spy Museum and the Cherry Blossom Festival. We kept getting lost and confused. We felt very out of place in that town. Our date was lousy, but I was just happy to spend time with her. We were in love. Eventually we ended up climbing a small tree on Capital Hill and making out on one of the branches. I thought she looked sad on our walk back to the train station. Then I bought her a balloon with the President’s face on it. I thought a balloon would cheer her up.

My  mom’s family is a long line of checkers in Baltimore. Checkers are the guys who check what comes in and goes out at the docks. They unload boats on the waterfront. One of my great great uncles was a checker named Ness. Legend has it that one of his brothers died at the docks when he fell off a Jacob’s Ladder.

I don’t work at the docks. Remember how I already told you a little bit about my job. It has to do with traffic sometimes, but not cargo. My uncle just retired from the checkers union though. Now he doesn’t have anything to do, so he gambles a lot and calls sports radio shows all day. My other uncle just got off suspension from the union. He was suspended because he crashed a forklift into a shipping container and they found heroin in his pee.

The Baltimore Water Company was the first water company in the United States, chartered in 1792. A friend of mine once told me that God was going to discontinue water soon. He said that it was no longer popular or relevant as a product. Not sweet enough.

In Baltimore, we eat a lot of shellfish. Shellfish live in the water, on the bottom, where they eat. We are the enemy of all bottom feeders. We eat them.

The first post office in the United States was inaugurated in Baltimore. The first telegraph message traveled between Washington, DC and a train station in Baltimore. The message was a question. The question was “What hath God wrought?”  Apparently, the answer wasn’t all that impressive because nobody remembers anything about it.

Sometimes Simon will get his hands on a cell phone and he will wait by the outlet at the HESS for the battery to charge up. He will be excited at these times, because he is going to call his daughter. She plucks chickens on the Eastern Shore. Sometimes I will drink with him because he feels nervous about talking to her.

The first bloodshed of the Civil War was in Baltimore. Locals were throwing things out of their windows at passing Union troops who were marching from one train station to another. Four soldiers and twelve civilians were killed.

My job has something to do with trains. Streetcars to be exact. And I live next to a train station on Charles Street. I lie on the mattress in my studio and listen to the hum of diesel engines in the morning and all I think about is rain.

The first electric streetcar route opened in Baltimore in 1885. The streetcar ran from 25th Street to a neighborhood called Hampden. The last streetcar in Baltimore closed down in November 1963. My mother was on the last ride.

Most of the houses in Baltimore are made of brick. Everyone seems to live in a brick rowhouse. A lot of these houses have marble steps. My mother used to scrub the marble steps around the neighborhood for a nickel each week. Nobody scrubs their steps anymore.

Besides working at the docks, my family used to own a quarry in Cockeysville, just north of Baltimore. They quarried marble to make things like steps.

America’s first umbrellas were manufactured in Baltimore in 1828. Umbrellas were made to keep water from landing on people. Water landing on people in Baltimore is called rain.

Baltimore is often called The City of Firsts. It’s because a lot of things happened there first. The first Ouija board was invented in Baltimore, the first stage coach route went from Baltimore to Philadelphia, the first monument to George Washington is in Baltimore, the first monument to Christopher Columbus is in Baltimore, and Baltimore was the first Catholic diocese in America. Baltimore is the first city to illuminate its streets with hydrogen gas. Baltimore is the first place to put oysters in a can. I lost my virginity in Baltimore.

I was fourteen when I lost it. I was on the floor behind the bar in my parents basement. She had braces and my friend Gibby was watching us over the bar. It was awkward and we felt bad about it so we agreed to stop halfway through. I bumped into her and her mom the next day at the mall while I was waiting for an eyeglasses prescription.

My mother taught me to pray to the saints when I was little. I would pray to Saint Anthony especially, because I was always losing things. I still pray to him when I am feeling lost.

The first American saint, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, lived in Baltimore. I know a schizophrenic sculptor that thinks he is having a love affair with her ghost. The same schizophrenic cracked my head open with a chair on North Avenue this summer. The chair incident had nothing to do with sainthood.

I was sitting on the marble steps outside my friend’s place the week after I had my head cracked open. We were eating snowballs. People eat a lot of snowballs in Baltimore. They are made of frozen water and syrup, so they are sweeter than water and in no danger of being discontinued. We were sitting on the stoop when a girl walked past. She had red hair and striped purple tights and cat-eyed sunglasses on. I thought for a second that she might be my soulmate. But I didn’t do anything about it. Instead, I pointed out an overly large rat that was chewing on a tire nearby. I hope that our paths cross again. The redhead, not the rat. It still might happen. Baltimore is not a very big city and fingers are crossed.

There are times when Simon and I are jumping at the HESS station and I wish that he would jump up toward the ‘E’ and never come down again. Just float up over the city like a balloon headed for outer space, smiling. There are times when I wish that the same thing would happen to me. But I figure he deserves it more. Simon’s life is pretty rough.

The first military fort built by the US government is Fort McHenry. It is in south Baltimore. The “Star Spangled Banner” was written on a ship during a battle there. The Battle of Baltimore. The fort is shaped like a star so I used to make wishes on it when we visited during field trips as a kid. The fort is well built, so I always have something to wish on.


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