Thursday, January 6, 2011

Streets of Baltimore

I've gone on about how fortunate I was to have a class taught by a Congressman before, but the experience was the absolute stand out academic moment of my exchange thus far. The teacher was candid about his role as a Congressman and had some absolutely fantastic anecdotes, dropping the names of another of Washington's big hitters. However, what impressed me the most was his ability to find time to teach a class at a state university, demonstrating that his relationship with his constituents is not limited to a  bi-annual courtship come election time. As I had heard a lot about congress in the classroom, I decided I should check it out for myself.

On the walk to the United States Capital I noticed security seemed unusually tight-even by American standards. When I was finally navigated to the entrance I was walked through a number of security checks. Finally, I was in and ready to start my tour. When I enquired about visiting the Senate and the House it was explained to me that the new congress was being sworn in today, hence all the security and why I couldn't get in. Oh well, no chance of seeing my teacher at his other job.

We watched a short film before being taken through the old supreme court chambers. On the way I noticed a sign above a door for John Boehner, the future house speaker. We were taken to halls of statues and eventually the rotunda. It looks like it belongs in Italy, not the east coast of America. In the centre of the floor lies a star, broken up it 12 points, where four point to the corresponding marks of a compass. Occasionally the bodies of worthwhile citizens lay above it, the last being Gerald Ford.

Art depicting the history of the United States adorns the dome, the top of the walls and and the lower levels. Aside from the arbitrary Martin Luther King Jr bust and Abe Lincoln statue, none of the other art depicts African-American history. The last painting was completed in 1951 and pre dates the civil rights movement, but I thought the abolition of slavery would play a greater role in a room that is meant to represent the pinnacle of what America represents.

The tour was over very quickly with the majority of the building remaining behind closed doors, understandable given that is arguably one of the most important offices in the country. As I was leaving I walked around to the other side of the building. There was a plethora of personal from a number of different security groups (secret service, fbi, state cops etc) and from the distance I could hear a number of sirens blaring. It continued and came closer and as I asked one of the officers who it was, he replied in the typical abruptness of American security personnel "the Vice-President". My chance encounter with a somewhat demented, yet highly trusted politician had evaded me.
Phonograph: I wonder how the audiophile edition of 'Kid A' sounds on this. One day, I'll own both.

Lou Gehrig signed ball. One of the saddest stories in sports led to one of the greatest speeches.

As seen in a Weezer clip

The sun was out on another beautiful day for winter, so nice I didn't even need a beanie or gloves. Through the National mall, I walked to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. My knowledge of the place was limited to the knowledge it had Fonzie's jacket and some Stephen Colbert bits and pieces. Somehow this had overshadowed the large American flag on display that inspired the Star Spangled Banner. It's huge, it's old, it's full of holes and before any jokes about elderly women are implied, I have to say it's quite something. What was initially strands of red, blue and white threads has been transported into something that has united millions of people for over 200 years. Though displayed under dim lights, the flag itself is a beacon of America's history.

I did eventually see Fonzie's what is the worst exhibit in the entire city. For elements of popular culture they have Michael Jackson's hat, some muppets and some costumes from the Lion King on broadway. There is so much more to American popular culture than this, and how Rafiki's mask means more to these people than Charlie Sheen's cocaine mirror or Spock's beard is beyond me. Still, I was impressed by the neighbouring exhibit that featured four Stradivarius instruments. Even if it is denying the world of some beautiful airwaves, the aesthetics almost make up for it.
Add caption

Abe Lincoln's section displayed the last hat he wore, while another had a pair of Teddy Roosevelt's leather chaps. The museum was a little bit confused, but fantastic for it. On the way out I saw some Star Wars gear and a dvd featuring Bruce Springsteen. If there was a section on each of those two I'd probably still be there.

Alas, I am not. I left D.C. and all of its safety for Baltimore. Having not researched Megabus as well as i should have, I learnt that my stop was 30 minutes in a car from downtown...or 20 minutes walk to another bus stop and one hour on that.

The bus journey was not something I'd describe as comfortable, but it certainly was a cultural experience. As one guy boarded with gold stars stuck to his teeth another with a full set of grills followed him. For the next hour he spoke loudly about the 'pussy' he was getting years ago and how 'gangster' it was. Sat in front of him was his young son.
Pure luxury

As the bus travelled through the famed streets of Baltimore (for anyone who has seen The Wire at least) I constantly heard sirens. They haven't really stopped. My plans to couchsurf fell through and since the only hostel in town is full I opted for a hotel. I haven't had a double bed to myself for months, and even with the flashing lights of a police car outside, this is heaven.
the hotel has a mirror that turns you into Serpico.

Though my detours got me in later than I had planned, I did manage a wee mozy around downtown. I learned very quickly that to survive here you need akin as thick as a suit of armour. There were beggers and security guards at most cash machines. It's unfair to judge the place so early, both Babe Ruth and Frank Zappa were born here and things worked out well for them, it's just the most challenging place I've been to on this trip.

*** Song
Gram Parsons - Streets of Baltimore
Sure the audio on this version is crappy, but footage of Gram and Emmylou together is rare. The song is a gem of country music and to be honest, I love it so much it made me check out this city.

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