In Mount Vernon Place, we were once kept as slaves and not meant to meander in admiration of the grandeur around us. Being here conjures a blood memory, perhaps because so much of its historic loveliness has been preserved. I can almost hear the clomping of horse hooves, the transport of jangling chains. This weekend, I pushed the umbrella stroller you’re quickly outgrowing across an uneven cobblestone circle at the top of a concrete hill. We did this many times, while white tents surrounded us. Under each sat a writer or bibliophile, wearing the pained, but hopeful expression universal to sellers of wares.
I am bad about rejection, whether I am gently administering it or bearing its brunt, so it’s best for me not to make eye contact with anyone whose books I don’t intend to buy. I take too long to recover, spending months remembering the crestfallen, the maskers of disappointment, the overly cheery, “Thanks anyway”s. There is an art to letting people down easy, but I am more adept at pretending they’re invisible or prostrating myself to break their fall.
When the time comes, I expect that you’ll be more direct.
Look at them all, smile with empathy, let your gaze express how well you understand what it means to slice thin pounds of flesh and press them, fresh and bleeding, onto pages for public consumption. When you speak, do it in a voice that conveys how acutely you know that peddling their novels and research and sacrificed years at three-day festivals wasn’t part of their recurring writerly dream. And then, if you so choose, purchase or politely decline.
But, please — if you remember nothing else — swiftly move on.
* * *
Down the children’s lane, near a fountain encircled in green metal benches, a balloon sculptor attracts a small crowd. With his handheld air pump and a half-smock filled with limp, multicolored oblongs, he looks down toward the stones as he narrates each of his creations. He tells us, this ragtag half-circle of parents and small children, that he’s good at what he does, that his balloons are high-quality, that he can make over 150 animals and objects.
I can tell that no one else will retain this. No one else will wonder what he does when festival season is over, whether he makes his winter living booking birthday parties or takes special orders for wacky couples who want 150 different balloon centerpieces for their wedding receptions. I wonder how his craggy personality would translate at a Chuck E. Cheese or in the sprawling backyard of a pampered and petulant Roland Park child.
The balloon man, with his nondescript grey t-shirt and oversized pants, cannot seem to hold real conversations. He talks nonstop as his hands twist each balloon into something briefly magical, but his words aren’t meant for us; they’re marking time. He has not set a price. He is taking donations.
On Saturday, he bends you an elephant. On Sunday, he folds you a flower. You are still holding tight to the elephant on Sunday. He doesn’t let me finish explaining how fond you’ve grown of it overnight before he stammers that he’s flattered.
I want you to be thoughtful, like your father and I are thoughtful, to seek the eyes of the people who can’t seem to meet yours. But do not expect to find anything there. Sometimes, an artist’s gaze is empty. Her eyes are not the windows to her soul. Soul is in the words or on the canvas or inside the balloons. You are taking it, bit by bit, whenever you read a poem or you purchase a talisman, whenever you listen to someone carefully consider a thing before he speaks.
Often, eyes are inscrutable, and souls are not windowed structures. They are not structures at all.
* * *
I have again grown weary of this city; Baltimore is as wrong for me as the first man I deeply loved, just as beautiful and as damaged. When I was younger, I would’ve stayed because I thought I had infinite time and because, once I have deeply loved, I do not know when to let go. But I am older and we’ve only returned because we’ve had to. There are things I have needed to reclaim. Baltimore has become a box of post-breakup belongings.
We are not supposed to be here. I cannot explain why except to say that this is another way that cities are like men: you know when you have nestled into the wrong one’s arms.
* * *
In Baltimore, when you fall in love, every cathedral comes alive; every rowhome raises its brow in wonder. No county or township forgets. And long after the love itself has waned, riding through the roads where it first rose and shone regenerates its memory. You may say this is true of any city. But it is only in the desperate and dirty ones, in the ones that are eroding, either under the wear of bloodshed or the veneer of gentrification, that this accessibility matters.
You understand with surety the power of love’s pull when it can still be felt in an undercurrent of carnage or unwelcome reinvention.
* * *
I looked too long at two women standing in a pink-plastered tent and purchased two books I did not want. Later, I bought two books for eight bucks each; the next day, they were reduced to five. This is all a gamble, isn’t it? Perhaps the old men on heroin, pop-locking in front of the soundstage, understand this best. Within 72 hours of this festival, our federal government will shut down. Our president’s authority will yet again be undermined. Thousands of employees right here in town will be in flux. But in Baltimore, someone is always dancing — even if only on graves.
Baltimore, with its impenetrable neighborhoods and nonchalant homicides and its leaning addicts, is also full of flowering trees and trickling fountains and mansions, of men who have soaked themselves in what they believe is bliss while the rest of us bemoan the price of books and the obstinance of governing bodies. This has always been a city of unsettling lessons.
You seem happy enough in your stroller, wielding your balloons. This is not a weekend you’ll likely remember. I expect we will have left before you’re old enough to come here on your own. But before long, you will begin to sense what this city does to your mother, how it buoys and buffets and baffles her, why she always wants to beg it off. Maybe my life life here before you will become your own blood memory, beckoning from beyond future festival tents, when you can’t figure out why you feel so deeply compelled to dance.