Culture

Maryland Drivers: Bad At the Wheel in Our Own Special Way

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In the seventh annual GMAC Insurance National Drivers Test, a written test that poses twenty multiple-choice questions (pulled from state DMV exams) to drivers from fifty states and the District of Columbia, Maryland finished a dismal 49th in driver knowledge. Scanning the standings from this year’s test, I spotted the other two states I’ve lived in, New York and Rhode Island, getting cozy with Maryland near the bottom of the list. And I thought I might be able to give some context to the ranking. Absent from the simplistic, one-dimensional ordering is a realistic sense of the widely differing styles of poor driving between and within states, which is what I hope to rectify here to some small degree.

In neither New York nor Rhode Island will you find a driving experience quite like Maryland’s. Here the most conspicuous violation is failure to signal. I assume that the drivers, at least the ones in Baltimore, who opt not to turn on the blinker when turning or changing lanes believe that, whatever the rules say, it is always safest to draw as little attention to yourself as possible when traveling in the city. And you never know, someone might be tailing you. A common problem with nationwide tests is their failure to take into account local custom, and this poll is no exception. In Maryland, tradition teaches us that it’s legal to run a red light if it’s fewer than three seconds old and that broken traffic lights are considered green for all directions. Of course, that’s not how the laws read on the books, but a diligent driver must stay conscious of the custom.

New York, my home state, ranked 45th this year, which was an improvement from finishing dead last in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Honestly, I was surprised at the poor showing. I grew up in Central New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario, where every 4-way stop is handled with fairness and poise. As a child I might stand at one corner and stare in wonder at the legalistically flawless execution of right-of-way, an automotive water-ballet. I can only assume Downstate drivers are upsetting the state’s average. That said, though New York City drivers may cut each other off with complete disregard for the safety of those around them, they are almost completely predictable in this, and if you go in expecting it you should do fine. Hey, at least we don’t allow them to turn right at a red light.

In stark contrast, Rhode Island drivers, who ranked 44th in the poll, seem determined to kill you with kindness, yielding the right-of-way whenever possible, no matter how dangerous. Having lived there for two years, I can assure you it’s absolutely standard for a motorist heading straight to wave on all left-turning vehicles in the opposing lanes of traffic when the light turns green. Just as often, a driver without a stop sign will burn his brakes out to wave on another driver who’s waiting at one. These gratuitous wave-ons are so rampant that, in Rhode Island, “wave of death” is a common phrase among auto-insurance and auto-mechanic types to denote an instance in which a motorist, ecstatic with mercy and a feeling of omnipotence, waves on a car (or pedestrian) across multiple lanes of traffic.

One final thought: we really ought to cut D.C. (who finished last this year) some slack In a city whose roads are a gonzo superimposition of concentric circles, radial spokes, and a rectangular grid, I’m sure that the fundamental lesson imparted to students in Driver’s Education is “Look everywhere; try to survive.” And whether it’s legal to drive onto the shoulder to pass a left-turning car on the right side could seem perfectly trivial to someone who has to navigate scores of acute-angle intersections, avoid rear-ending bewildered tourists, and dodge lemming-like Segway tours every day just to live to do it again tomorrow.

MVA Has M-O-V-E-D

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Next time you need to get your driver’s license renewed, make sure that you and your vehicle aren’t set on autopilot straight to the same place you’ve always gone. If you do, you’ll just end up taking a stroll down memory lane, and maybe down a few aisles at Shopper’s. After 40 years in the Mondawmin location, the Motor Vehicle Administration has packed its bags and eased on down the road to a new Park Heights location at the Hilltop Shopping Center on Reisterstown Road. The new location is intended to keep the MVA in the city proper and also as part of the revitalization of the Park Heights community. Sad to see them move, but the new location has plenty of service windows, a bigger parking lot, and access to public transportation. Plus, the Park Height’s location is the MVA’s first with a 24-hour self-service kiosk where you can renew or return your license plates, get a copy of your driving record, and almost everything MVA-related that doesn’t require a test.

For the Easily Amused: Is Your Telephone Number a Prime Number?

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Bored? At least moderately nerdy? If trolling YouTube for videos of solo-guitar renditions of classic video game theme music has lost its luster, you could waste a couple minutes determining if your 10-digit telephone number is prime. 

(For those of us who had social lives in high school and may have missed this unit, a positive whole number is said to be prime if it can be divided evenly only by itself and 1. In order of appearance, the primes are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, and so on.)

Primes hold a special place in the hearts of the mathematically obsessed. On the one hand, there are an infinite number of primes, which means there are always some yet waiting to be discovered. On the other hand, they become increasingly rare as you travel along the number line, which makes large prime numbers especially precious. A 10-digit telephone number, for example, has a little less than a 1-in-20 chance of being prime. Let’s cut the chit-chat and see if you’ve won the prime telephone number lottery:

First, examine the last digit. If it’s an even digit (0, 2, 4, 6, or 8), you’ve already been eliminated because your telephone number is divisible by 2 at the very least. If it’s a 5, same sad story—it’s definitely divisible by 5. (My telephone number ends in a 7, so I was fairly hopeful at this point.)

If you’ve made it this far, your chances have increased to better than 1-in-10. If you’ve already been cut, take heart—you’re in good company.

Next, add the digits of your telephone number together. If what you get is divisible by 3, then so is your telephone number, and you’re out. (The sum of the digits of my phone number is 41. So far, so good.)

If your number is still a contender, visit this simple prime number test devised by the good folks at the University of Southern Indiana. Input your telephone number and click on the “Check My Number” button. (At this step I was grieved to discover that my telephone number is not prime, but is in fact the product of two rather large prime numbers, 14,629 and 280,583. Call me.)

If you won the prime telephone number lottery, congratulations… I guess. If your number didn’t make the cut, you can always test your Social Security number, your birth year, your BGE account number, the list goes on and on.

And remember, if you cheat and skip to the last step, then the whole exercise doesn’t really waste enough time, which is, of course, its primary purpose.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Out of Africa

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Tonight at 7, at Atomic Books in Hampden, two authors share readings from their celebrated new books set in Africa. Susi Wyss’s ultra-readable The Civilized World, a Novel in Stories (Holt Paperbacks), follows five women, black and white, as they confront obstacles great and small, in a quest to find balance, even happiness. Wyss, who works in public health, was inspired by her aid work in Africa; the interwoven stories are set in five African countries and in the U.S. Booklist notes, “Whether in Africa or America, the characters in Wyss’ linked stories navigate a world ‘that could knock you off your feet when you least suspected it.’ Wyss grants her appealing characters a mesmerizing mixture of fresh starts, second chances, forgiveness and redemption.” Glen Reteif’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood (St. Martin’s Press) tells the story of a difficult boyhood spent in a strict all-male boarding school world, and of Reteif’s coming of age at the close of apartheid in the late 70s, while also coming to the realization that he was gay. Robert Olen Butler calls The Jack Bank, “[A] memoir with the deeply resonant power of the finest fiction.” Baltimore-based fiction writer Kathy Flann hosts the event.

7 p.m.
3620 Falls Road

Swinging Mondays

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Like it or not, there will be dancing at the next wedding you attend. Wouldn’t it be nice to be prepared and feel good about it? Charm City Swing offers group swing dancing lessons on Monday nights at Club Baltimore, 8014 Pulaski Hwy (Hwy 40 for $10 or $5 for students). No registration or partner required! Just show up and they’ll teach you the basics, plus some of the fancier steps. There’s also an 8-week series on Wednesdays at the Vietnam Veterans Hall off Holabird, 6401 Beckley St. To check out what you’re missing, Charm City Swing has posted some free dance lesson videos. With a little practice you’ll be ready to jump (and jive) in with both feet, maybe even taking the bride or groom out for a swing.

Reel Work in Baltimore

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Yet another Baltimore boy is wearing his heart on his sleeves, then rolling them up to make a film set in his hometown. The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work (trailer now showing on our home page) a new documentary by  26 year-old Parkville-native-turned-LA-filmster Richard Yeagley explores the modern role of working professionals –hard working professionals: plumbers, painters,  stone masons, carpenters, auto mechanics, and numerous other craftsmen. Filmed entirely on location in Baltimore, The Tradesmen opens a powerful discussion about the meaning and definition of work.

The doc features another Baltimorean, star and creator of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe, who had to miss the Baltimore premier on May 12, at the Charles Theater, because he was testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about many of the exact issues that are raised in Yeagley’s film. From Rowe’s testimony:

“Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them…

In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumberif you can find one—is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.”

Johns Hopkins Office of Cultural Affairs
will present one more public—and FREE!—screening on June 2 at 7:15p.m. in the Mountcastle Auditorium (725 N. Wolfe Street). Yeagley and several of the film subjects will be in attendance for a discussion after the film.

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