THEIR TOWN | People We Like and the Places They Love

Baltimore, Wrapped In Mystery

By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2004

There's classic Baltimore: crab cakes, white marble stoops, the Orioles. There's quirky Baltimore: bouffant waitresses, John Waters, window-screen art. And then there's Laura Lippman's Baltimore, which contains all of the above, plus a few things you may not have heard about. A giant ball of string. An immaculately preserved 19th-century mill village. A naked guy with a harp.

More about the string and the village later. Let's start with the naked guy. That would be Orpheus, a 24-foot statue on the grounds of Fort McHenry, overlooking the real Baltimore Harbor. Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan series of crime novels, thinks it's the best view in the city.

"It's just a gorgeous place to walk around," she says as we head down toward the water. "The fact that there's a fort here is almost incidental." She's wearing jeans and a black leather jacket and looks at least a decade younger than her 44 years.

Lippman set her seven best-selling Tess Monaghan books in Baltimore (the eighth is due out this summer), and she clearly adores the place. On this brisk November morning, she's agreed to show me some of her favorite spots in the city. We've already stopped at the old-timey Cross Street Market to stock up on hot, fresh Utz potato chips, made on the premises. They are startlingly good, ruining you forever for vending machine chips.

Now we're walking around the sea wall, past huge container ships and marine terminals. It is gorgeous here, with the sun glinting off the water, and the tableau of tugboats and warehouses reminding the visitor that this is a city that works for its living.

Baltimore has always had a special appeal for Washingtonians, possessing as it does everything that D.C. lacks: colorful neighborhoods, working-class roots, ethnic food, corner bars, character. Lippman, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun who turned to crime fiction in 1997, writes about the city with a clear-eyed, unsentimental affection. Tess, her delightfully cranky heroine, is the very model of a postmodern private investigator. With their ripped-from-the-headlines plots, delicious relationship subtexts and riffs on everything from the ideal turkey sub to indie rock bands to long hair on women over 30, it's easy to see why the books have won the hearts of both readers and critics.

Lippman, who's nothing if not organized, has typed up a two-page list of her favorite haunts. Lunch will be at Matthew's Pizzaria, a much-loved neighborhood joint in Highlandtown. On the way, we pass the old Haussner's restaurant, of Giant Ball of String fame. For more than 70 years the place had a special place in the hearts of Baltimoreans, who came not only for the unpretentious food and kitschy decor but to ogle the four-foot, 850-pound monument to thrift that the owners had collected over the years. The eatery closed in 1999.

"No tour of Baltimore is complete," Lippman observes, "without driving past something that used to be there. It's a very Baltimore way to talk: 'Go by where Haussner's used to be on Clinton Street.' "

But first, a detour: the Hebrew Friendship Cemetery, next to Lord Baltimore Uniforms on East Baltimore Street. Lippman wants to point out the final resting spot of Baltimore benefactors Harry and Jeanette Weinberg, whose names adorn buildings all over the city. Harry was a grammar school dropout and self-made man who bought land. Lots of land. "He had almost $1 billion when he died," Lippman says, "and this is where he chose to be buried. He's got this huge piece of land for just him and his wife."

"I do like Baltimore cemeteries," Lippman muses. "And here, the caretaker has added such a personal touch." She means the cinderblock wishing well in the front yard, the little lamb statues, the metal glider. If a cemetery can be homey, this one is.

Matthew's is cozy, too -- a dozen oilcloth-covered tables, speckled linoleum floor, a jukebox and a few gold-painted cherubs for class. It's been serving up pizzas for half a century -- "one of those local places that actually deserves all the accolades," in Lippman's opinion.

Over fries and a crab pie, she talks about growing up in Baltimore's mill village of Dickeyville, her post-college reporting stints in Waco, Tex., and San Antonio, and her joy at returning to Baltimore at age 30. The city, she says, is a little insular. "When people say 'Where did you go to school,' they mean high school, and your answer reveals a world of information about yourself."

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