Holy %^$*! Tavern Institutes

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If you’re headed to the Mt. Royal Tavern, a Bolton Hill landmark and beloved home-away-from home for many generations of Baltimoreans, you’d better bring cash if you plan to drink because they don’t take American Express Visa Players Club anything but cash. If you plan to drink and swear, you’d better bring a roll of quarters. Because there’s a new “cuss bucket” in town and it seems like everybody’s talking about it. Recently fed up with the increasingly profane language being bandied about by patrons and the occasional bartender, the owners plunked a “cuss bucket” behind the bar, collecting twenty-five cents per swear word. The nominal tinkling of coins can really add up when the crowd is watching local sports or American Idol. In the first month, the Cuss Bucket netted $110 that was donated to the SPCA. The latest charity to benefit from the crowd-gone-vulgar is the Baltimore Zoo.

Bedbug Nightmares

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I’m having a hard time writing this post. When it comes to bedbugs, my usual stategy is focused and determined repression. I would prefer to fumigate them from my mind, since as soon as they start to crawl in I get itchy. Not actually itchy, since I don’t have any actual bedbugs (here I pause to knock on wood for a solid 90 seconds). But I have a strong tendancy toward bedbug hypochondria — infestation dreams, the need to obsessively my skin for any suspicious bumps, generalized fear and paranoia.

So thanks a lot, Terminix, for issuing your annual ranking of cities with the worst bedbug infestations — and putting Baltimore on the list for the first time, at number 13. Unsurprisingly, New York tops the list, with Cinncinnati, Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia rounding out the top 5. Then a couple days later, Orkin released its own list, which placed Baltimore in (gulp) tenth place. (Orkin’s top 5:  Cinncinnati, Chicago, Columbus, Denver, Detroit.)

While I wish I could dismiss alarming data issued by extermination companies as self-serving and fear mongering, it’s too late. My fear has been mongered. My fear was mongered a few years ago, when the City Paper put that giant picture of a bedbug on its cover and doomed me for life. It was further mongered when my friend’s roommate’s thrift store couch turned out to be infested, and she had to throw out her mattress and boil every piece of fabric in the house. She doesn’t shop at thrift stores any more. My New York friends live in fear of which new place they’ll have to avoid (Lincoln Center? Bloomingdale’s? The city health department?!).

In the face of other disasters, at least you can prepare — stockpiling distilled water for the post peak-oil world, or purifying your soul in preparation for the Rapture.  One of the worst things about bedbugs is that there’s not much you can do to to keep yourself safe, other than obsess or repress, and I’ll pick repression any day.

 

 

Can a Good Slap Shot Pave the Way to a Good College?

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I feel stupidly naïve.  I didn’t understand about the slap shot.  To explain…

We had our meeting last week with Emily’s college counselor at school.  It progressed as we expected… introductions, expectations, process. Emily is our oldest child, so some of this seems new.  Yes, my husband and I both attended college, and even law school after that, but we’ve never been PARENTS to someone applying to college.  Point of view is everything sometimes.  The same experience can feel so different depending on your role in the events.  So, we went to the meeting with an open mind, interested in the advice the college counselor might share.

Emily is a very strong student.  She attends an academically rigorous college preparatory high school, and her peers are very accomplished young women.  When looking at colleges, though, it is hard to know where she will get in, and where she will not be accepted.  One of the tools the college counseling office shares with the students, and their parents, is a software program called Naviance.  This program allows college juniors and seniors to compare their position, and likelihood for acceptance to any given college or university, to the position of graduates of their high school – an “apples to apples” comparison.  These earlier students have taken the same courses from the same teachers with the same standards for grading.  Just as this helps colleges and universities compare the girls, it also helps the girls predict where they will be successful in the application process.

Example:  In 2010, 13 girls from Emily’s school applied to Boston College, and three were admitted.  In 2009, eight girls applied to BC, and two were admitted.  In 2008, six applied and two were admitted.  And so on…  On Naviance, we can see what their SAT scores and GPAs were, and extrapolate what Emily’s chances for admission at that school might be.  

The information about these girls is delivered in a few different formats, and the one I like the best is a graph, called a “scattergram.”  The axes of the graph are GPAs and SAT scores, and the acceptances are charted with a green square, while rejections are marked with a red x.  Our daughter’s point on the graph is marked with a circle, showing where she falls based on her current GPA and first set of SAT scores.  In general, the scores don’t lie.  Kids don’t get into colleges where they can’t succeed.  

But, sometimes there are outliers – green squares representing students whose grades and scores are not in the heat of the commonly accepted students, falling below the averages for acceptance at the school in consideration.  Foolishly, I allowed myself to think that some outliers were getting green squares because of exceptional character, extra-curriculars, leadership qualities, and overall wonderfulness.  But I wasn’t thinking about the slap shot!

So, I asked the college counselor about my “outlier” theory.  Were those other girls from our school whose grades didn’t fit the profile also young leaders, like Emily?  Well-rounded, hard-working girls who would be an asset wherever they landed, even if their grades were not top 5%?  Did she have a chance at the schools where her numbers did not match the averages?  His response, delivered with an apologetic expression hanging on his face, was “No.  Those girls mostly have an amazing slap shot.”  I felt so foolish – I just hadn’t seen it coming.   

Soon on Harford Road: Farmers’ Market Quality Five Days a Week

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Face it: When you need to do a serious veggie shop, jockeying for counter position among the dogs and strollers at the weekend farmers’ markets is not as fun as it is festive. And what if you’re jonesing for an heirloom tomato on a Wednesday? Enter Green Onion, the latest addition to the “Clempire” of Winston Blick, owner of Clementine Fine Foods in Hamilton. The new retail store, at 5500 Harford Road, is undergoing renovation, but in about a month, you’ll be able to get your market on every day of the week. Soon, bins and cases will be overflowing with grass-fed beef, exotic lettuces, exquisite cheeses, and those heirloom tomatoes you crave. You will even find some of the restaurant’s most popular condiments and foods offered to go—like jams and relishes, homemade sausage and pickles, and our favorite, Green Goddess salad dressing. In case you haven’t been back east in awhile, the Harford Road corridor has become a haven for highbrow eaters, with the award-winning patés from the Chameleon Café, memorable muffins from the Red Canoe, the Hamilton Tavern’s burgers, Chef Mac’s Louisiana cuisine and live blues, Koco’s crab cakes, and, yes, those tempting Tuesday tacos at Clementine. And the neighborhoods of greater Lauraville just got upper-crustier with the opening of Hamilton Bakery next door.

We’re not saying that shopping in a Waverly parking lot or under the Jones
Falls Expressway on a hot summer morning doesn’t have its charms. (Some of your weekly faves are available nowhere else.) But Green Onion will certainly make it easy to sleep late most weekends.

Food Truck Fever

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Miss Shirley’s, the popular lunch and breakfast spot in Roland Park, the Inner Harbor and Annapolis, is jumping on the food truck bandwagon June 1. This comes as surprising news, given the latest dust-ups between local food trucks and city officials. But the foodies at Miss Shirley’s remain undaunted. “We decided to venture into having a food truck because we believe we have a unique concept and there is a strong following now in Baltimore of food trucks,” says Jen McIllwain, marketing manager for Miss Shirley’s. More power to ‘em. Bring those sweet potato fries to the masses! (BTW, become a fan of Miss Shirley’s on Facebook and get a coupon for free sweet potato fries!)

The food truck craze started in Los Angeles right after the recession hit when two enterprising, young, experienced chefs, newly unemployed, put their heads together to whip up their gourmet treats, pack them on trucks and serve to office workers during the day and club kids and bar patrons late at night, all at budget prices. Truck location was revealed each day on Twitter and Facebook.

The fad was a hit and soon took hold in New York, Portland, Washington, D.C. and others. Baltimore’s Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon is in its second year. Gypsy Queens started late last year and Souper Freak in March, to name a few. 

It would be great if this national trend took hold in Baltimore, but we are entering into the fray in the aftermath of other cities and the progression goes something like this: Act I – Great chefs with little money take their show on the road and gain a following. Act II – Restaurants call foul with the lack of regulation and oversight of these upstarts and urge to have them stopped. Act III – Local legislators get involved and push-back on the truck scene, making it tough for the little guy to hang in there.  

We are already seeing the beginning of Act II with city officials barring trucks from parking within 300 feet of restaurants and more regulation. For its part, Miss Shirley’s is playing it smart by using private lots when traveling with goodies in the city and will also park its truck in the food truck-friendly county.

The city’s Street Vendors Board will try to resolve these issues when it meets on June 1. That’s the day Miss Shirley’s starts its truck engine. Maybe it should try to win the board over with some of those sweet potato fries.

 

Johns Hopkins: For Rich Kids Only?

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According to Johns Hopkins, the Class of 2015 will be “one of the most diverse in the university’s history.” Next year’s freshmen hail from all 50 states and a host of other countries; 23 percent of admits are underrepresented minorities. All encouraging facts. But as a recent New York Times article by David Leonhardt points out, economic diversity is still glaringly absent from top schools, and Hopkins is no exception.

One rough measure of economic diversity is the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants from the federal government — an approximate way to figure out how many students come from the bottom half of the income distribution. At Amherst, it’s 22 percent; nearly a third of UCLA and UC Berkeley students fall into this category. Hopkins’ figure? 11 percent.

Which is not to say that the university should be singled out for censure. Actually, it’s alarmingly in keeping with national trends. Leonhardt cites a study that examined the class of 2010 at the nation’s top 193 schools.  The economic distribution was way out of whack:  only 15 percent of students were from the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution, while 67 percent were from the top quarter. In 2003, there were more students from families that earned at least $200,000 than those in the entire bottom half of the income distribution. As Leonhardt points out, this doesn’t just mean that students from poor families aren’t attending top colleges — it means that the wealthy are increasingly pushing out the middle class.

As Anthony Marx, president of Amherst, told the Times, “We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent, yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

At Amherst, administrators are increasing grants for foreign students (who don’t qualify for Pell Grants) and seeking out transfer students from community colleges. At Hopkins, there’s the Baltimore Scholars program (a full-tuition scholarship for Baltimore City public high school students accepted to the university) and other need-based grant programs. But as Amherst demonstrates, it takes a lot more effort to correct the existing imbalance. 

Is this enough? Is increasing economic diversity something the university should prioritize?

Acclaimed Author Beverly Lowry Falls for Baltimore

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Beverly Lowry was born in Memphis and grew up in Greenville, Mississippi. She has lived all over the country but now–except when teaching in the mid-Atlantic states–lives happily in Austin. The author of six novels–including The Track of Real Desires and Daddy’s Girl–she has also written three books of nonfiction: Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, about her friendship with Karla Faye Tucker who was executed for murder by the state of Texas in 1998; Her Dream of Dreams: The Life and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker, and Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life, a biographical portrait of the great American hero. She has also published work in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Granta, The New York Times, and Redbook, and is the recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence.  She teaches at George Mason University in the MFA program, and is the current Julia Kratz Writer in Residence at Goucher College.

Tell us about the nonfiction book you are currently writing, as you serve as visiting professor at Goucher. And why does the material move you?

I am working on –and under contract to write–a book about a currently unsolved case of multiple murder in Austin, in which four young girls were herded to the rear storage room of an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop, where they were forced to strip naked, then were shot dead one by one, their bodies burned, for the most part, beyond recognition.  This occurred in 1991, and is one of those crimes that shocks an entire community and changes it forever. (I use present tense on purpose, since the murders still haunt the town.) Almost 20 years ago, Austin was about half the size it is now, much more laid back and easygoing, to be sure, but not the hippie paradise many imagined it to be. The most consistent comment I hear about murders from residents is, “We lost our Innocence then.” I question the truth of this but they don’t budge from that certainty.

Do you already know which book you’ll write next?

A novel, I hope. I have written a train wreck of one already. Who knows if I’ll go back to it. Train wrecks are hard to revisit. Lotta twisted metal to unbend and separate.

What is your writing schedule like, when you are balancing teaching and book building?

Not easy. If I was writing fiction, I’d just get up and do a few hours’ work. Writing a book requiring research, interviews, study, is way different. When writing a nonfiction book, I start out with an exhaustive timeline, into which I feed quotes, statistics, information and–maybe most importantly–my own comments. Which, in the end, provide the narrative line. Eventually. The timeline of the new book now takes up about 140 pages. Will probably end up 200 or so. Exhaustive. I said.

Do you find that it’s more difficult (or somehow easier) to write about events in Texas when you’re spending time out of your home state?

Not especially. Once I start reading my notes or the trial transcripts, I’m there. No matter in which city or state I sit reading. 

What do you like most about Baltimore?

Oh, the openness of the people and the ease I’ve found getting around. The biggest problem I’ve had coming to know the city is the weather. The first two months I was here were all about snow and ice. Not great for long walks around Fells Point or Mount Vernon. Or anywhere else. I like the food, the casualness. It’s a city that, as far as I can tell (and this is presumptuous of me even to make a comment since I’ve been here only three and a half months) that seems needlessly apologetic. I keep running across people who make comments that seem to say, “Well, we’re not DC, or Philadelphia, or New York…”  Do people really feel that way? I’m not sure. I belong to the Waverly Y, where I’ve met a lot of warm and lively women in the locker room. That’s been nice. The lifeguards remain cheerful despite raucous kids and the boringness of sitting staring at the water for hours at a time. And I love the Waverly farmers’ market. I was in New York last weekend and Saturday morning remembered I was missing it and felt sad. I listen to WTMD which reminds me of the Austin public radio station, KUT. Also love the Charles Theater even though I haven’t had time to go very often.  And the Belvedere Market, where the cappuccinos are particularly good, and the people exceptionally pleasant and helpful. They also sell a mean vegan brownie, tasty even for us omnivores. I have bought four Beaumont Pottery mugs there so far, and had planned to go up to the place where they throw the pots but may not make it. Also like the Dell in Wyman Park, where my little dog Walter and I have made many friends, he many more than I. I’m crazy about the apartment I sublet from Merrill Feitell also, which has three great windows overlooking Calvert. Fells Point may seem touristy to others but I love walking around there, purely love it.  Wish I had time to go back a hundred more times. Marion Winik introduced me to the hot yoga classes at Charm City Yoga.  I have railed endlessly against hot yoga.  But hey, I’m in a new town.  Might as well experience what’s going down. I also like the way the people dress in Baltimore. Much more fancifully and colorfully than its sister city, DC, where fashion is a steady stream of black. I can sit at an outside table at my neighborhood coffee hangout, Donna’s, and watch people swing by endlessly, and find young mothers particularly daring and softly happy in their dress. I know that racial problems exist in Baltimore but find attitudes much more congenial here than in DC, where I have lived for a number of years in my peripatetic life.

Biggest Baltimore turnoff? Or least favorite aspect of life in Baltimore.

The weather, which Baltimore can’t help. For reasons cited above. Oh, and I forgot another good thing. The Eddie’s near me has great crab cakes.

Which classes are you teaching at Goucher, and how has your experience been at the school?

I am the Julia Kratz Writer-in-Residence and am teaching a fiction workshop. I have had a fine time with the students, and their work has been a steady source of admiration and respect. They are a great group. We read most of the stories in last year’s Best American Short Stories, chosen by Richard Russo, the discussions of which the students did as much to lead as I did. I love teaching fiction and mostly get hired in nonfiction posts, so this has been a treat. I’ve been invited to come back next spring and have accepted.

Internships: Experience or Exploitation?

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When Johns Hopkins launched a new program offering paid internships with Baltimore-area non-profits, they found the response — more than 200 applications for 25 spots — “overwhelming.”

Which, if you think about it, is a little naive.  An internship is basically a necessity for today’s undergraduates, a way to make connections and build a resume. The feeling was present when I was an undergrad in the early 2000s — the sense that you’d never get a job unless you had a host of enviable institutions on your reference list; the idea that a summer spent lifeguarding or just lounging at your parents’ house, reading meant that you’d be left behind.

Which isn’t to say that all internships are worthy of these students’ time and enthusiasm. Many are unpaid, putting students in the unenviable position of having to beg to be allowed to work for free, sometimes at their fifteenth-choice organization. And of course there’s no guarantee that the work itself will be rewarding:  I got college credit for my “editorial internship” at a prestigious-sounding publication where my tasks included changing the boss’ license plate, filling out her daughter’s summer camp application (complete with forged signatures), bringing lunch to her daughter’s school when she forgot it, etc.

It’s partly in order to combat exploitative situations like this that the U.S. Labor Department recently revised its guidelines for unpaid internships with for-profit companies. Basically, if a student is getting credit for an internship, the work has to be structured like an educational experience. “The internship is for the benefit of the intern,” the Labor Department feels the need to proclaim — well, duh. But the fact that such an obvious guideline needs to be codified into law indicates how exploitative some situations have become.

So kudos to JHU for creating a program that seeks to place students in positions where they can contribute meaningfully to their community, where they’re overseen and protected by a university that takes their work seriously — and one that pays them well ($5000!). No wonder hundreds of students were interested — there’s not enough of this in the world.

Stemmer House: Secret Garden and Storied Past

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Can a house make you strive to be your “best self” (thanks for that parting gift Oprah)? Well, if ever there was a possibility, “Stemmer House,” an estate selling in Owings Mills, might just be that place. It is in equal parts aspiration and inspiration. It will take an uncommon breed to continue its captivating history.

 

Okay, first aspiration: The estate includes 27 acres, private guest house, too many gardens to count, two barns, stables, fenced pasture, pool, pond with gazebo, pair of swans and their new cygnets, five peacocks, and a partridge in a pear tree. Check out the listing here, not exactly, “You can do it, Home Depot can help!” The beautiful main house was built on Philadelphia Road in 1781 by Ulrich Stemmer and moved (always a wonder) to its current location in 1930. Local legend holds that Ulrich was a pirate and his wife haunts the house, embittered by the discovery of a second family in the West Indies. At least she has a lovely backdrop for her eternal melodrama. 

The inspiration comes from the extraordinary woman, Barbara Holdridge, who has owned Stemmer House since 1973. Barbara has that certain “NPR story” aura that I always associate with an accomplished, intellectual, arts-based life. She is someone whom you admire and for good reason. At the ripe old age of 22, Barbara and a college friend, Marianne Roney, pioneered the audio book industry. They started Caedmon Records founded on their new idea of recording authors reading their own work. The gals had some luck when they convinced the often drunk poet Dylan Thomas to do the first recording. The fifties weren’t a great time for a pair of young girls to start a business (this was pre-Mad Men for Lord sake!) — there were rejections at the hands of bankers and landlords alike. Barbara and Co. persevered, driven by “recreating the moment of inspiration,” as they called it. In the end, success was granted and Caedmon was sold in 1972 with recordings by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Ogden Nash, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner, to name a few giants. (Hemingway declined to record for fear that his voice was too high.) During these years, Holdridge became a wife to Lawrence, an equally accomplished, self-taught engineer (how do you do that exactly?) and a mother to twin girls. Barbara’s Chapter 2 used the newly purchased Stemmer House as a canvas for her great passions. Her signature drive was alive and well. The house has been beautifully restored in pain-staking period detail (at a cost of about a $1,000,000, Holdridge estimates). The large front hall is particularly striking, as is the library, which should surprise no one. In pursuing a love of American folk art, she amassed a collection that has traveled to several leading museums and is credited for discovering the noted artist, Ammi Phillips. Barbara’s award-winning gardens at Stemmer House are extensive and magnificent (check out below in our video landing). They have been featured in garden tours and several books. A well-lived life indeed.

In all the many articles about Stemmer House there is no “Lady of the Manor” slant, praising Holdridge’s beautiful clothes or fabulous parties (although I am sure she could have had both). Perhaps it is because there is just so much more to talk about. Barbara Holdridge is a woman of substance and that is perfectly reflected in her much-loved home. Now 80, Mrs. Holdridge has decided to sell, “too many steps,” she says. I hope whoever buys “Stemmer House” accepts that it may be haunted by two ghosts; one an angry wife and one an accomplished woman who inspires them to be more.

The Reluctant Scooper

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Do you always scoop up after your dog? I don’t. Not always.

To most people, admitting that you don’t clean up after your dog every single time is like confessing that you enjoy kicking young children. So let me be clear. I’m not saying it happens often, but it does happen. Obviously, I always clean up if he takes a dump in the middle of the sidewalk, or in a public place, on campus or on someone’s property. No question. If I didn’t, I know what would happen. With my own eyes, I’ve seen people letting their dogs take a dump in the middle of the sidewalk, and I’ve heard people yelling at them from passing cars. I don’t want to be shouted at in the street. Even when I do clean up, it’s not always good enough. Once someone even tapped my on the shoulder to point out to me that I’d “missed a bit.”

So one more time: I always clean up after my dog in the city. But in the countryside? In the park? Really? Is it such a crime? I know they say dog poop is full of microbes and viruses and bacteria that could end up in the water, but I’m sure it’s nothing compared to the pollution caused by human waste. I know they say children are at risk from contamination and I suppose people might slip on it, but it’s difficult to see how something so natural could be so dangerous, especially since we’re surrounded by toxic waste, air pollutants, oils spills and chemical leaks, not to mention ozone, lead, traffic fumes and everything else that’s supposed to be contaminating the earth. Surely human beings are far worse polluters than the most incontinent dog.