On February 1, it will be three years since I moved to Baltimore. Driving north on 83 from downtown the other night, I got a little verklempt when I saw the exit sign for Cold Spring Lane. I was almost home.
It’s a joke among New Jersey natives to identify themselves by their exit on the Garden State Parkway or the Jersey Turnpike — I, for example, hail from 105 — but the idea of home as the place where you get off the highway is one any suburban American kid can understand. In fact, I first experienced serious homesickness as the absence of a particular rectangular green sign with white sans-serif type and an illuminated arrow.
This was back in my early 20s, after my college boyfriend and I moved to Berlin with the plan of becoming expatriate filmmakers. Once there, we squatted with some other hippies in an abandoned warehouse where we built a fire on the floor to heat water for coffee and worked our way slowly through the application materials for the Deutsche Film und Fernsehen Akademie. We were gone less than four months when I lost heart; my old boyfriend went to that academy and lives there still.
I didn’t have what it takes to be an expat. There were too many people and things I missed unbearably: my parents, sister, and best friend; my depressed, possibly gay black dog; books and newspapers in English; every kind of food that wasn’t sausage. These were predictable. But there was also a strange, embarrassing category of things I missed that I’d never even known I liked. For example, even if they had had McDonald’s in Europe back then, it would not have assuaged the craving I had for U.S. grease. And though you may think a highway is a highway is a highway, my ache for an American interstate was only sharpened by travels on the fast, faceless autobahn.
I missed my exit.
Sometime in the 1970s while driving from Florida to New Jersey, I got dumped off I-95 in Baltimore. Perhaps I was trying to avoid a toll; perhaps that’s just how the highway was then. I spent the next several hours lost in a post-industrial wasteland fringed with bad neighborhoods, trying desperately to get back on the highway. This experience was the basis of my impression of Baltimore for almost 30 years.
The next time I came to town, it was 1998. I was living in Austin then, and out on tour for my cheery book about being a widowed single mother. I met a philosophy professor in the Bibelot bookstore in Bel Air that night and a year later left Austin with my two boys to marry him. I would have moved to Bangalore or Brazil; my heart was already on the moon.
But my professor lived neither exotically nor extra-terrestrially — he rented a farmhouse halfway between Harrisburg, PA, where he was employed, and Towson, MD, where his ex-wife lived with their kids. This midpoint fell in a town called Glen Rock, PA, and though I resided there for 10 years, it never became home. Any tears I shed when I pass Exit 4 off I-83 in Pennsylvania are tears of rue for the bad things that happened there and tears of joy for my escape.
The ru-burbs, as I thought of the place, with its rural farms and suburban developments, its single Wal-Mart, many fast food outlets and conservative Christian mentality were never right for me. For about the first three months, I enjoyed the bucolic Andrew Wyeth beauty surrounding our big house on the hill. The remainder of the time, I was varying degrees of lonely, miserable and bored. In a decade, I made four friends there. When one of them died at 44 of kidney cancer, I knew she would not be replaced.
A year into the Glen Rock exile, the professor and I both got teaching jobs at MICA. We would drive down 83, get off at Mount Royal, park, lecture, and leave. Once or twice we ventured further: the Charles, the Visionary, the Helmand. But we had five kids at home and urban fun was rarely on the agenda. Baltimore remained a blank. In 2008, when our marriage fell apart and I had the chance get the hell out of the ru-burbs, it didn’t even occur to me that Baltimore was where I should go.
Instead, I developed a deep irrational conviction that I had to live someplace with a view of the ocean. The closest thing I could find in driving distance of my job — now at the University of Baltimore — was Havre de Grace. I had seen its lighthouse in the distance as I crossed the bridge into Delaware; I imagined a quaint Breton village in France. Without heaping unwarranted insults on Havre de Grace, a couple of visits proved this incorrect.
I began gingerly to consider Baltimore, and decided to talk to my one friend in town, Laura Lippman, who had come to Austin to write an article about me for The Sun book section years earlier, before she became a literary goddess. Having lived here all her life, having immortalized virtually every crack in the sidewalk in her oeuvre, Laura was convincing. You will love it, she said, and gave me the card of her real estate agent, Ken Maher. You will love him, she said.
We loved each other, and he sold me the house around the block from his in the little corner of Roland Park called Evergreen.
Within weeks of moving, I was completely won over by my new home, which was everything the ru-burbs weren’t — diverse, quirky, progressive, friendly. There were Obama signs and anti-war signs and Save the Bay bumper stickers. There were Jews, and though I was no big Jew, it had been weird living in a place where there were about three of us, a place where the Yearbook Club selected a cover picturing a cross coming out of a waterfall and only at the last second did anyone realize this might be a problem. A place where kids drove around flying Confederate flags from their jeeps in the high school parking lot. I preferred to take my chances with the hometown of “The Wire.”
In Baltimore, I could walk to my post office, two coffee shops, a grocery store, a drugstore, the public library, the public elementary school, a swimming pool, and restaurants ranging from Petit Louis to Dunkin’ Donuts. In Glen Rock my driveway was so long, I could barely walk to my mailbox. In Baltimore, there were writers galore, and many reading series, and little of the velvet-rope system that blocked access to the in crowd in, say, New York. Charm City Yoga. The Avenue. The walking path around the Inner Harbor. Broken glass and dryer lint and two-story-high pink poodles, the beloved materials of visionary art.
One year after we moved here, the Snowpocalypse of 2010 shut down the city for a week. What with the aforementioned driveway, a big snow in Glen Rock had meant total and sometimes indefinite isolation. I had gotten to the point where I panicked at the sight of a single flake. Here, the people of Evergreen went from house to house having potlucks all week, drinking up each other’s liquor cabinets like the French who rode out World War II in their wine cellars.
Some things weren’t so magical. It took me about 10 tickets to get my mind around urban parking rules, and longer than that to accept that there really was no decent way to drive out of the city to the south. My search for a boyfriend was a complete failure. But most things that people typically don’t like about the city — the public schools, the crime, the rather vast stretches of ugliness — so far haven’t affected me, knock wood. Perhaps it’s because I moved here from Glen Rock, but Baltimore still looks to me like the City of Lights.
Not long before I moved to Baltimore, when I was still mired in doom, death and divorce, I had a dream that there was some kind of freaky, fourth-dimension portal in my living room. You turned a corner, there was a whoosh of sunlight and you were in a different place — the place you had been looking for all along. I had been in Baltimore several days a week for almost 10 years without ever seeing it. Now my exit would become my entrance, and my life would change.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.