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The City and the Writer: In Baltimore with Mary Jo Salter

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Baltimore as you feel/see it?

My experience of Baltimore comes in two discrete parts. Both are imbued with moodiness itself.  Part One is an upper-middle-class childhood in a sleepy, leafy suburb. A few miles south of us, downtown Baltimore was seedy and dangerous, my parents said—and widespread though the evidence was, I rarely saw it in person. My father’s job in advertising moved my family here in 1963, as I was turning nine years old. I went to a school where suddenly, embarrassingly, I was required to call my teacher Ma’am, a phrase I associated with Gone with the Wind.  Baltimore was a fascinatingly Southern place, to the eyes of a child born in Michigan. Apparently, Southern meant racist. Some people in my wholly white neighborhood actually put little statuettes of Negroes, “lawn jockeys” holding up lanterns, in their front yards. Living black people were seen now and again—a few, very few, students in the school I walked to. And there were the old black men in rags, selling fruit from a horse-drawn cart that wandered the neighborhood. My mother bought the strawberries, and respectful language was used on both sides. But even as a child, I knew something was very wrong.

I played in the snow with my two brothers. In my memory, though, it is always August, and a steamy 98 degrees outside, and I am lying under a weak fan, looking out the window from my girly, white-ruffled bedroom. (My parents had indulged me in my favorite thing, a canopy bed—in which I woke, for years and years, from dreams of Paul McCartney.)  There was a YIELD sign across the street which I invested with desperate meanings. I was a good kid, a good student, and sociable too, but sad much of the time. The mourning doves outside my window provided the soundtrack. I stayed long hours in my room and read, wrote a lot of poetry, and alternately tried to hear and not to hear disputes between my parents.

I moved away at eighteen, to go to college, and apart from visits to my parents, I never anticipated any reason to live in my hometown again. My brothers both became New Yorkers. I lived in Massachusetts for decades. I’d become a New Englander for life—I thought.

When I was 52 years old, I was invited unexpectedly to apply for a teaching position at Johns Hopkins University. With some trepidation about re-entering a force field that included my parents’ divorce and my mother’s early death, I took the job when offered. Baltimore, Part Two was launched.

Nobody could understand the next decision—but I then elected to move into the midcentury, pug-ugly apartment building across from the Hopkins campus where my mother had spent the last period of her life with nursing aides.  (When she could no longer walk up and down the stairs of the big suburban house she won in the divorce, single-floor living became essential.) On taking an apartment in her building I said I wanted (did I?) to wrestle with my demons: those last winding conversations, dinners on a tray, with a woman whose multiple treatments for multiple cancers had left her too weak to get out of bed for three years—until her final trip, to a hospice, at the age of 59.

The furnished apartment I rented that first semester, as a visiting professor with a commuter marriage, was decorated in comically bad taste. There was only one framed painting, of a bouquet of big pastel flowers in a vase, and it had been reproduced in hues of purple, pink, yellow, blue.  Let me clarify: this was the only image decorating the apartment, but there were four of them—presented as if each were a real painting, not a photograph or poster, and each was framed in rococo fake gold.  There was the purply version, the pinkish one, the yellowish one, the bluish one.  My mother had been a painter.  She would have been appalled.

I kept the mad bouquets on the walls, looking for meanings as in the mysterious YIELD sign.   And I opened up a plastic tub of old family photographs, to spread them out on the dining table.  That autumn, I scrutinized stiff black-and-white pictures of my mother and her Italian parents and grandparents. All loved, all gone. I’d gather up and hide the photos when people came over, then bring them out again.

I’ve always been glad I did this. I don’t understand it, but I do know that I made some peace with the reality of the past, as grand as that may sound. I saw I had erased Baltimore for decades, as if I hadn’t lived here. I gathered momentum for some happiness in a city that had vanished. And I didn’t stay long in the awful apartment. I live in a charming, airy one now, a few blocks from the awful one—with my own choices (including a few paintings by my mother) on the walls.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My first answer has turned out to be about heartbreak. May I offer, for this answer, my happiest memory of this city? It was the day after Obama’s first election. Baltimore is about 60% black today, I believe, and my neighborhood is diverse. As a white person, I’m in the minority—especially in the Hopkins area, where the number of Asian and Asian-American students is large. Baltimore feels more like a microcosm of the world than ever before.

A porter in my building is a black man my age—a tall, elegant guy with more than a passing resemblance to Obama—who reads a lot of books on his folding chair at the door. He used to be a chauffeur for rock groups, and he favors biographies of musicians and politicians. We talk about politics sometimes. 

When we spotted each other the morning after Obama’s election, we simply started laughing, and threw ourselves into a big, awkward hug. “I never thought it would happen,” we kept saying.  “Did you?  In our lifetime?  Did you?”

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city? 

The TV series The Wire is—in addition to being stunningly well-written—an accurate portrayal of the underside of Baltimore: its drug trade, its drive-by shootings, its corruption. Or so I’m told by people who should know.  But too few people know that Baltimore is also a place of beauty. Not just the grand mansions and gardens of Roland Park, but—for instance—the cobblestone streets of Fells Point, a prosperous dockside neighborhood from centuries ago which was derelict in my childhood, but now thriving with business. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

All of the writers we associate with Baltimore are worth reading—Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, Anne Tyler. And David Simon, author or co-author of most of the episodes of The Wire, is a true artist.  

One writer less well known, but entirely brilliant, is my Hopkins colleague Jean McGarry, who has lived in Baltimore for decades and has published some eight books of fiction. She is an inimitable stylist.  She grew up in a Catholic working-class neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, and she has a quality I often find in the greatest writers: she makes the postage-stamp-sized world she grew up feel entirely as confining as it really was; and she makes those confinements universally important. She is also wickedly funny, a writer who sees how often cruelty is the default position of human beings and who refuses, nonetheless, to be cruel to her characters. I suggest readers start with her most recent volume of stories, Ocean State.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Baltimore Museum of Art. Just the right size, with a sculpture garden where I sometimes sit in the sunshine and read.

Where does passion live here?

Alas, at Ravens games. I couldn’t care less. After we won the Super Bowl last year, my dentist, a lovely woman of about forty, actually told me that she was sad there was nothing more to look forward to.

What is the title of one of your poems about Baltimore and what inspired it exactly?

I seem to write about everything but Baltimore. Thank you for making me write about it! Or perhaps I should say that many of the things I have noted and written about life have been noted and written in Baltimore; but I don’t make this particular city a named contributor to the perceptions. For instance, in my just-published poetry volume, Nothing by Design, there is a poem called “Fractal” which derived entirely from a visit with friends to the National Aquarium, here in town. But you wouldn’t think Baltimore, from reading the poem.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Baltimore does an outside exist?”

I don’t know how to answer this question other than to refer you to my poem “Cities in the Sky,” also from the new book. It attempts to recreate in words the imaginary cities drawn and painted by the artist James Rossant, my late friend who in his workaday life was the architect of many real buildings around the world, including in Baltimore; he was also a co-designer of the planned city of Reston, Virginia.

Here’s an excerpt from my elegy for Jim:

No words for what you’re thinking, though,
just blueprints, infeasibility studies, for cities
no one has time to build—
pulleys and sluices, ladders and cranes and pipelines
to nowhere.  Bridges to caves.  Nowhere
somewhere changing to something.

Knife-edged but bulging vehicles, cut
as if from a tray of strudel.
A city sliced across the cranium,
its brains exposed like a motherboard…


Mary Jo Salter was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was educated at Harvard and Cambridge and taught at Mount Holyoke College for many years. In addition to her six previous poetry collections, she is the author of a children's book, The Moon Comes Home, and a coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Published Oct 22, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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