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Letter from Laura
March 2003

I'm a Believer

It has been almost a year since Baltimore began the "Believe" campaign. Somber white-on-black signs and banners can be seen all over the city, advising citizens to, well, believe. You can find out what we're supposed to believe by clicking here. In short: Drugs are bad. I'll buy that, although I saw Willie Nelson on television the other night and he said smoking marijuana saved his life. (I offer that just because it's an interesting contrarian viewpoint, one you don't hear very often in an age where public service announcements suggest that marijuana use frequently leads to manslaughter and vehicular homicide. But drugs are undeniably bad for Baltimore, and even worse for the people who addicted to them.)

At any rate, the "Believe" signs are ubiquitous by now, but -- here's a shocker -- I don't think they've actually done much to change the quality of life in Baltimore. I'm not saying there haven't been some improvements; city officials are quick to brag about reduced emergency room admissions and more beds for drug-alcohol treatment. But the homicide rate is up sharply this year -- more than 40 homicides before the end of February, according to the Sun, a huge increase over the same time period last year. I think it's interesting that the new city police chief has decided not to set a number goal -- below 200, for example. If you don't have a concrete goal, you can't fall short of it.

Baltimore also is trying out a new slogan. The old one, the City that Reads, was a bit of a stretch and lent itself to parodies. (The City that Bleeds, the City that Breeds, etc.) But it had a winsome modesty, at least compared to the new one: The Greatest City in America. Again, it's easy to make fun of such over-reaching. The Sun had a long thumbsucker on the subject and concluded -- here's a shocker -- that no single motto or vision can really sum up a city of 600,000-plus souls. For my money, the better response was in the City Paper, which ran a series of photographs of public benches, emblazoned with the new motto, then included the vital statistics from each bench's neighborhood. (Not available on line, alas, but congratulations to the writer, Van Smith, and my apologies for not remembering the photographer.)

Baltimore has many nicknames -- Charm City, Tiny Town, Mobtown -- and a long history of slogans. In his memoir, Shock Value, John Waters suggested: Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked. In the 1990s, a local man attracted attention by adding a hand-painted "Hon" to the Welcome to Baltimore sign. Baltimore Magazine frequently asks profile subjects to suggest a new motto. (The most recent candidate was "Baltimore: If You Can't Live Here, You Ain't Right." Which is a variation on the late, great Virginia Baker's admonition on how to live a good life: "If it ain't decent, and it ain't right, stay the hell away from it.") I even tried out "Baltimore - Where Trends Come to Die," but that was unfair. Trends don't end their lives here, for the city has no interest in trends. It embraces what it loves, and disregards the rest. Want to know how to turn heads in Baltimore? Borrow my Baltimore Colts Corral jacket sometimes.

The bottom line: I didn't need an ad campaign or a new slogan to decide I believe in Baltimore. I've been doing that every year since I became a homeowner here, which entitles me to this luxury. But if a white-on-black banner can help the city, I'm all for it.

Temptation Island

Slow reading month in the City that Reads, at least for this little bookworm. I read Small Town and Girl From the South, while skimming selections from Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals. I also read a forthcoming book from Southern Illinois University Press, Finding Susan, a memoir by Molly Hurley Moran, whose sister disappeared in 1994. Susan Hurley Harrison's body was found two years later, and no charges have ever been filed in her homicide.

But I walked a gantlet today in the Ivy. Oh, how I longed to buy Great Neck or another J. Trollope, one that had somehow eluded my grasp. (A Passionate Man.) Instead, I contented myself by helping a charming woman who had just finished Girl From the South and wanted a new Trollope, but one not quite as sad as Marrying the Mistress. My favorite Trollope is probably the first I happened to read, A Spanish Lover, but that wasn't in stock, so I steered her to The Rector's Wife. This marks my second consecutive hand-sale in the Ivy, where I helped a man find Elmore Leonard's latest on my last visit.

Ah, but I made good use of my "friends" exemption, which allowed me to buy Sujata Massey's The Samurai's Daughter and George P. Pelecanos's Soul Circus. I'm going to see Sujata read with Ian Rankin on March 10th at the incomparable Borders in Bailey's Crossroads, but I'll buy another there, as a gift for a mutual friend. And speaking of gifts, my other exemption -- why, I'm quite sure that someone I know needs to read The Devil in White City. But I'm going to read it first, just to make sure it's suitable.

Laura's signature

P.S. (March 13th) Van Smith of the City Paper helped me out with the photographer mentioned above: It was Jefferson Jackson Steele. And, after posting my letter, I saw that that an edition of the Baltimore Guide, a weekly that serves my neighborhood, also had a reference to "the late, great Virginia Baker" -- although the Baltimore Guide, more stringent in its journalistic standards, remembered to use her middle initial.

I am an unabashed fan of the City Paper and the Guide. The week's Guide has a wonderful piece on the statue of Orpheus at Fort McHenry headlined "Who's the naked guy with the harp?" It is, apparently, the second-most asked question at the fort. (The first is: Where's the bathroom?) The Guide also has a great police blotter, although it sometimes editorializes. Do we really know that the unknown thief who stole four bottles of non-alcoholic beer was "disappointed." Probably no more so than the person who broke into my car and found out all the CDs in the glove compartment were Broadway musicals.


"What He Needed," my contribution to the Tart Noir anthology, has been nominated for an Agatha. I've always said the Malice Domestic attendees are a broad-minded bunch, and I'm pleased they recognized a story from this wonderfully edgy collection. (Okay, I'm especially pleased because it was mine, but I would have been happy to see any of these fine stories nominated.) The Agathas are given out at the annual Malice Domestic convention, held May 2-4 this year in Crystal City, VA. It's a good time. Y'all come.

Read Three Little Words
Read Reading in Public
Read How to Punt.
Read Catching Up.
Read Let's Do the Time Warp (Again).
Read The Naked Dance.
Read Self Help.
Read Mistakes Were Made.
     Read Play With Yourself.
Read Musings and Advice.
Read We Were Haranders.
Read Spying on Harriet.
Read Gone Baby Gone.
Read The Last Good Saturday Night.
Read In a Strange Kitchen.
Read The "D" Word.

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