I’ve needed to spend down the last of a bit of grant money before the end of the year, so I took a quick trip to Baltimore this weekend, continuing my research on Christians involved in multiethnic church building. Although this trip makes three consecutive weekends out of town—over which my cats, house, yard, and psyche are beginning to feel the strain—the Aquarius in me looked forward to one of my periodic adventure weekends in a fairly unfamiliar city.
I don’t know if it’s my inner concubine, who lives to be coddled, but I covet the luxury of hotels–a bed always freshly made, little bottles of treats, windows that look out on a new environment. There’s something freeing about it for me. What I also find freeing about professional trips is that, not traveling (usually) with anyone I know, I’m at liberty to converse to my heart’s content with strangers I encounter along the way. Like Dimitri, the white-haired Russian with glacier-blue eyes who taxied me from the airport. The speakers of his tidy mini-van delivered calming jazz from a local public radio program, weaving a thread of beauty into the in-between moments of my passage. I could sense his musician’s taste, so asked him if he himself played. His face brightened, and, opening his glove compartment, he dug up a 19-year-old cassette tape and slipped it in the player. Out meandered the most tender, melancholy tones of the soprano saxophone he played for years in Russia (along with tenor sax and clarinet), before he had a triple-bypass on his heart and had to quit sax. I listened to him relay in his lovely thick accent what music meant to him, neither of us caring about the Friday rush hour traffic. Before I knew it we were landed at the Tremont Plaza Hotel, both of us richer for the exchange.
The multiethnic church conference was on Saturday, but I arrived early enough Friday evening to be able to drop off my stuff and take myself out for a date. I strolled several blocks into the Inner Harbor area, highly touristed but who cared, and found my way to La Tasca, a Spanish tapas restaurant sitting directly across from a ship that appeared to be straight out of the 16th century, bobbing regally in the dark water. There I met Reynaldo, my waiter. He was, of all things, Turkish-Salvadorian (which turns out to be a phenotypically handsome combination). His physician grandfather immigrated to El Salvador from Turkey, after having been contracted to train some local doctors in his specialty. I sipped a velvety red Rioja, and enjoyed three of the tapas I most remember from my year in Spain, spinach croquetas, tortilla Española, and, delicious Spanish olives, before the buttery tilapia arrived. In between I chatted with Reynaldo and the even more gorgeous Salvadorian bus boy, and eavesdropped on the Jewish, Asian, and Caucasian American families eating nearby.
After returning from dinner, I heard the strains of jazz for the second time in a day, now in the hotel itself. I went up to the lounge and stumbled onto what is, apparently, a weekly gathering of local musicians taking turns playing or singing with the band. Have I mentioned that Baltimore is a very black, very jazz-oriented city? Which meant I could drink in this surprise of quality and totally unpretentious music-making for $5, just fifteen floors below my room. I heard a brilliant, big-boned Soprano sing God Bless the Child, a white man blast a sweet harmonica, and a smooth-voiced older man deliver the blues, with a feisty guitar-base-drum trio holding up the foundation. Then I finished off my Kahlua and headed to bed.
In the morning I caught a ride with a driver from the hotel’s “taxi” service to Faith Community Fellowship (FCF). The antique, gray stone church sat in the heart of a neighborhood with some blown-out sections, but just a couple blocks away from million dollar estates in Baltimore City. (I soon heard the narrative of the white, pastoring couple’s harrowing 30-year odyssey to build this church in the ghetto.) En route to the church, the driver, Philip, an ebony-skinned Kenyan, and I compared observations about how quickly the landscape of the city changed from block to block even in the space of a few short miles. He noted that we were definitely in the ‘hood, but not nearly as deep as we could get; that there were neighborhoods in Baltimore where, even as a black man and especially as an African, he felt nothing close to safe with “those crazy men” wandering the streets. “Kenya can be bad,” he told me, “but America is far more violent, far more dangerous.” On the ride home (he offered to pick me up too, a generous gesture), Philip and I had an even more interesting conversation about his perception of the deep differences between African immigrants in the U.S. and their African American counterparts on matters of hard work, industry, and taking care of one’s grandparents. We sat in his SUV for twenty minutes after we’d arrived back at the hotel, absorbed in discussion.
The conference itself is another story I’ll write about in another context. Suffice it to say, I became aware of just how much research I have, in fact, done over the last two years–even if it never feels like quite enough, even if I’m always haunted by the worry that the pile of data should somehow be larger, broader, more perfect. I was reminded how much I do, indeed, know about my topic at this point, and how many interesting people I’ve met, how many tensions and possibilities are now easily recognizable to me in the work they do, and how much I still have to learn. I had moments (which, happily, have been increasing over the last year) of seeing myself writing my book, of sensing that it will make a contribution, to the conversations I’m a part of in academia but also, maybe, to the people I’ve met crossing all these new frontiers in their communities. And the music was flat-out, big sound churchtastic.
Saturday evening: a ridiculous, eventually abandoned attempt at navigating Bikram poses in a not hot hotel gym, followed by even funnier jumping jack and sit up sets in my room. Whatever; at least I tried. Then another stroll toward the Inner Harbor, this time to poke around Baltimore’s Little Italy, which I’d heard about the night before. It turns out there are dozens of restaurants lining the narrow cobblestone streets of this charming triangle of the city. I was looking for house-made gnocchi (my favorite) in a place that wouldn’t feel too awkward for solo dining. Passed lots of spots that looked warm and inviting, but somehow found myself pulled into an older looking joint called Da Mimmo, which induced passers by with photos of celebrities—Sly Stallone, Liza Minelli, David Bowie (seriously?!)—posted near the entry, captured enjoying their apparently world-famous fare.
Oh. My. God: A divinely inspired choice, no doubt. The restaurant was spit in half, the bar on one side, the humming dining room on the other. Both were too dimly lit to make out the carpet, which was probably a good thing, but, man, when I saw the cushioned, red velvet bar stools, gold star ornaments dangling from threads in the ceiling, and thousands of other celebrity glossies lining one wall, I knew I’d entered the land of serious, old school cheese. I ordered a vodka soda (which turned out to cost $11.50, for Absolute!) from the petite blonde bartender and tried to take it all in—the framed marital portraits of the long-time owners in matching white suits, the plaster statuettes and silk roses, the glass cordials altar (!) behind the bar.
Amazingly, I just found this shot of the place on their website:
It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dark, at which point I noticed that the torch songs playing in the background were, in fact, not piped in but rather being performed live by a male and female duo in their sixties, so subdued that at first I didn’t see them standing just a few feet over my left shoulder. The woman, now singing (I’m not lying) “Girl from Ipanema,” was about as tired, un-Brazilian and, frankly, blanched as a person could get after performing such gigs for over 40 years, and her partner (husband?) looked like anybody’s paunchy old uncle in gooney black plastic glasses and a tight poly-blend shirt. He was standing at a baby grand, but had placed his electronic keyboard somehow atop the piano keyboard, and would switch off between quite deft piano playing and hilarious keyboard numbers overlaid with canned background beats (Mambo! Samba! Eighties Lite!). The whole combo of her aging slinky with his dorky hustle was somehow most badass.
According to the bartender, crowd size at Da Mimmo is unpredictable, and though it was a Saturday night and the “band” has been anchored there for more than 11 years, I ended up the lone audience member, tucked (trapped?) at the bar. But I gave them as much love as I could, in between texting descriptions of the scene to Tim, a young black pastor I’d befriended at the conference who, like me, was hoteling in Baltimore before heading home. I probably should’ve invited him to join me but how could I have known it’d end up being so choice? Besides, trying to paint a text and video clip picture to my increasingly alarmed friend (he about died when I sent him 30 seconds of their “Georgia on my Mind”) was maybe more fun. Before I left they sang a slew of Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson treats just for the gal visiting from Denver. I will not soon forget Uncle Gooney’s kitsch rendition of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”—well worth the otherwise outrageous price of dinner. (Thank goodness for underused per diems.)
Sunday morning did, in fact, come down. Tim picked me up and took me to visit Bridgeway Community Church, in Columbia, Maryland, a phenomenally multiracial church I’d heard and read about but didn’t think I’d get a chance to witness. We had a great time, and I again fell in love with the singing voice of their worship leader, a tall, spirit-filled dynamo named Nikki Lerner. Nevermind the evangelicals; get down with the spirit that throbs in their midst, I’ve learned.
I had another taxi pick me up at Bridgeway and take me back to Baltimore Washington International. The driver’s name was—wait for it—Prince (first name) Darko (last), no joke, and he hailed from Ghana. “Are you a teacher?” Prince Darko asked me right off the bat. “I am. Why would you ask?” I wondered. And in his soft accent, “Oh, you have the featchahs of a teachah.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounded like a compliment, so I took it. We talked about what I do. He told me about a report he just wrote in college (he’s been in the U.S. 20 years with most of his family, but hopes to become a Certified Public Accountant and return to help Ghana) comparing Kwame Nkrumah, a mid-twentieth century liberationist leader and first African Prime Minister of Ghana, with Nelson Mandela. Apparently it knocked his English professor over—which I can easily imagine, given Prince Darko’s obviously deep intelligence. (I asked him if he was an A student. “Of course,” he replied. “I love to leahn. I love to think!”) In five minutes I learned more about Ghana, from an elegant, educated taxi driver, than I’d heard in however many years of education I’ve had in this country. I gave him my card and told him to email me his paper, thanked him for the ride. “It was a pleasyah to speak with you,” he said.
Why did I just spend two hours writing this up instead of culling through my email and prepping the next thing? Because this is the reason to get out of my routine, my rut, and travel, even to just another city in my own country, where, being nudged out of my tasky, short-focused daily existence, I get to connect with people from two, three, five different parts of the world in the space of one short weekend. I live in a country full of difference, thank God, full of talent and awkwardness and striving for a good life. A country full of immigrants! People cooking and serving me food, taking me places, supporting me in ways I might never notice—all of whom have their own stories, their own complex life experiences from which I, in my moments of openness, stand to learn. Are they not angels? Is there not the sign of the divine in all of it? Are not the veils continually lifted from my own eyes, the veils that let me sometimes fall into the illusion that I am separate, or different, or somehow better? I am so appreciative of such reminders, lucky to live in this global crossroads.