Last week, for my birthday, I traveled to Baltimore. I know. It sounds like such an odd vacation destination. I have never had, let alone anyone else, expressed the desire to visit the place. It was never on my radar of places to go when there are so many other places to see first. Baltimore was never high on list.
However, I went to Baltimore. At the Baltimore Museum of Art, there was an exhibition on the art of John Waters called “Indecent Exposure.” I wanted to see that, and I was not sure if it was going to tour. I like to travel for my birthday and, out of curiosity, checked on airfare prices. They were less than $100 and even then, I was still hemming and hawing about going to Baltimore. Couldn’t I use that money for some place more exciting? When a friend offered to travel with me, I decided to go. And having done that, I never need to go again.
The exhibition was fantastic. It featured portraits, statues, and chromogenic prints related to Waters’ own work, inspirations, and general fascinations. It was subversive, and quite sincere in its execution. It was everything I wanted and more. I cannot recommend it more highly if comes to a museum near you. Though, I cannot say the same for the rest of Baltimore.
My friend Amelia and I walked around a lot of places, saw different neighborhoods, and had a pretty comprehensive exploration of Baltimore. And, frankly, Baltimore is really awful. This, of course, should not have surprised me. Waters, in his films, has commented on the trashiness of Baltimore with fond recollection. The seedy and trashy aspects of Baltimore inspired his outlook and cemented his unique vision as an auteur. And he is sincere about it. There is no irony in his work. He loves Baltimore and all of its trashiness.
I just could not say the same for myself and neither could Amelia. Walking from place to place, there was just a lot of trash, dilapidated buildings, and an aesthetic that neither of us could pinpoint. We were solicited for drugs on our way to Edgar Allen Poe’s grave and we, mistakenly, walked right through the worst neighborhood in the city. Now, I may hear responses like “But, Bradley, all cities are dirty and filled with trash. But there are nice areas too.” I know that. I live in a city much larger than Baltimore and one with a bigger reputation for crime and violence (although incorrectly attributed). I know what cities are like. And Amelia and I did venture out to the nicer neighborhoods as well, but Baltimore is still awful.
Here are two of my favorite anecdotes from touring the city. After we leave the Baltimore Museum of Art, Amelia and I walk two miles to the Green Mount Cemetery to find the graves of John Wilkes Booth and Elijah Bond, the creator of the Ouija Board. We walk through a neighborhood that was obviously lower class and a bit rundown, but we were fine with it. We live in Chicago and are used to these things. We get to the cemetery and tour the grounds which are beautiful and stunning and filled with foxes.
When we leave, Amelia does not want to walk again so I ordered a Lyft. As soon as we get into the car, the driver says “What the hell are you doing out here? Do you live here?” We explained that were just visiting as tourists and he says “What the hell were you touring? What is there to see here?” We told him about the cemetery and other aspects of our trip. He then tells us we were one street away from being in the most violent neighborhood in the city and was legitimately afraid for us. He said he almost cancelled the order before picking us up.
My other favorite anecdote was at the gate to board the plane to get back to Chicago. A woman in her early 20s was ahead of Amelia and I, and she turned around and said she recognized us from the flight to Baltimore two days earlier. Turns out we had the exact same round-trip flight. We asked what she was in town for and she told us she came to interview for a job. I followed-up asking her what she thought of the city. She grimaced, looked down a quick second, and then said, “If they offer me the job, I am going to decline.” Baltimore is so awful that a young woman trying to jump start her career would not move there.
I’m sure Baltimore can be charming and has a lot to love about it. People willingly live there, so it cannot be all that bad. I’m just saying I have no desire to ever return for any reason whatsoever.
Waters’ most successful film was Hairspray. Released in 1988, it is an ode to the teen dance shows that aired in Baltimore when Waters was a kid. Hairspray is the story of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenage girl, who pursues local stardom as a dancer on one of these shows. The film tackles the issue of racial segregation as Tracy fights to have these dance programs desegregate and becomes a local hero.
In 2002, a musical based on the film debuted and went to win the Tony Award for “Best Musical” in 2003. A film adaptation of the musical was released in 2007 starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and Nikki Blonsky as Tracy. The musical would then air in 2016 for a live on-air adaptation.
Waters’ original film was surprising since it was released with a “PG” rating when most of his earlier works were “X.” Since then, through the musical adaptations, it has become his most famous work, this lasting ode to 1960s Baltimore.
“Good Morning, Baltimore” is the musical’s opening number. Performed by Nikki Blonsky in the 2007 film adaptation, Tracy sings about all the things she experiences in the city on her way to school. It celebrates the dirt, grime, and trash of Baltimore with Tracy even hitching a ride with the garbage man and getting flashed by creep, Waters’ cameo in the film. The song is a recognition of the Baltimore’s flavor, the same one that inspired him but repelled me. I guess I have to appreciate the city’s character if it influenced John. It worked for him, but not for me. I’ll just visit the city through his films from now on.