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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."

And then there's that whole "hon" thing. "It's complicated," she says. "It's very much a relic of white, working-class Baltimore. Nostalgia can be very charming, but there's a lot of stuff it covers over. There's history there and it's complicated and I never want to lose sight of that. You never want it to become too campy."

The working-class neighborhood of Hampden is the epicenter of camp, and that's on Lippman's list, too. But first we hit Fells Point, one of the oldest parts of the city, home to shops, restaurants, bars -- and, for a while, to Tess. Our goal: the Antique Man, a shop on Fleet Street, where the Giant Ball of String now resides. Owner Bob Gerber is in the process of moving his shop to a new location just down the block, but he agrees to let us take a peek at his new digs.

"Oh yeah," he says, "I'm gonna put the ball of string in the window." He says he paid $8,700 for it when Haussner's closed, because he couldn't bear the thought of the precious artifact leaving Baltimore. "It's a neat tribute to hard work." Lippman nods approvingly.

Gerber's shop is crammed with freak-show finds -- Kap-Dwa the giant mummy, shrunken heads, dirt from Edgar Allan Poe's grave, a stuffed raven, a four-legged chicken, a Siamese duck, a glove from a Freddy Krueger movie. An entire display case is devoted to Johnny Eck, the famous Half-Boy -- costumes, photographs, window-screen art.

"This is neat," Gerber says, pointing out a child-size coffin made of cast iron. "These are extremely rare." The intended occupant, he says, wound up living, so the coffin was never used.

As we leave the Antique Man, Lippman is happy. "I'm pretty sure not a lot of guidebooks will tell you about the ball of string and Johnny Eck."

We head up Broadway, into Johns Hopkins territory, stopping briefly at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral, a beautiful space and a particular favorite of Lippman's. We check out the gilded birds on the facade of the Continental Trust Building at Baltimore and Calvert streets, where a young Dashiell Hammett worked as a Pinkerton detective. Some think the place inspired "The Maltese Falcon."

Then there's that other little-known Baltimore resident, Al Capone. Seems the notorious Chicago crime king lived here for a while as a young man, working as an accountant. He was treated for syphilis at Union Memorial Hospital and, in gratitude, donated a row of cherry trees, which still bloom today. True story. She swears.

On the way to Dickeyville, we hit a few more spots -- the Edgar Allan Poe House on Amity Street, H.L. Mencken's house in Pigtown, Loudon Park Cemetery and its touching memorial to a group of newsboys from the Baltimore Evening Sun, who drowned in a steamboat fire while on a newspaper outing in 1924.

And then we emerge from the suburbs into the old-fashioned mill village, which looks as if it were lifted intact out of a New England landscape circa 1800 and plunked down in western Baltimore. The community of 134 houses, about half an hour from downtown, once included three mills, stone and frame houses for mill workers and officials, schools, stone warehouses and churches. Now it's a much-sought-after neighborhood and national historic site. Lippman grew up here on Wetheredsville Road -- five doors down from the Monaghans, "the quintessential Baltimore family" that would be grist for the Tess books.

Driving on to the leafy neighborhood of Roland Park, we gaze admiringly at a sweet two-room bungalow nestled in the woods on a tiny street off Cold Spring Lane. "I wanted this house. I lusted after it." But she couldn't have it, so Tess got to move there when she left Fells Point. "Which means that Tess has a nicer address in Baltimore than I ever did."

The sun is low in the sky now, but there's one more treat in store, one last piece of hidden Baltimore. In the middle of Hampden, we turn onto a side street and suddenly we're in Stone Hill, one of those proverbial places out of time. The tiny enclave of weathered stone houses was built for the workers of the neighborhood's textile mills more than 150 years ago. You'd never find this place if you didn't know it was here. One of the little streets has never been paved.

"It's so rich," Lippman says as we head back downtown. "People expect that of a place like New York. But Baltimore?"

WHERE TO STAY: Laura Lippman likes the Admiral Fell Inn (888 S. Broad- way, Fells Point, 410-522-7377, http://www.admiralfell.com/), with rooms starting at $119 a night double. Another good option, she says, is the Quality Inn at the Carlyle (500 W. University Pkwy., 877- 424-6423, http://www.qualityinn.com/) on the city's north side; rooms start at $89.

The city's high-end hotel, the five-star Harbor Court (550 Light St., 800-824-0076, http://www.harborcourt.com/), sometimes has good specials, especially in winter months; a current deal starts at $159 a night double.

WHERE TO EAT: In addition to Matthew's Pizzaria (3131 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown; lunch for two about $15), Lippman likes the Helmand (806 N. Charles St.), for Afghan cuisine; Pazza Luna in Locust Point (1401 E. Clement St.) for Italian; and in Fells Point, the Black Olive (814 S. Bond St.), a Greek taverna next to the alleged site of Tess's first residence, with "amazing fresh fish."

SECRET PLACES: The national historic site of Dickeyville is on the western edge of the city, bounded on the north by Purnell Road; on the south by Windsor Mill Road; on the east by Forest Park Avenue, Pickwick Road, Sekots Road, Tucker Lane and Wetheredsville Road; and on the west by the Baltimore county line. Stone Hill, the little mill village, is four or five blocks south of downtown Hampden, bordered on the east by the 2900 and 3000 blocks of Keswick Road.

INFORMATION: Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, 800-343-3468, http://www.baltimore.org/.

-- K.C. Summers

© 2004 The Washington Post Company