Exiled to America
Travel Stories: Adam Karlin tries to reconcile his love for the road and his love for home
Driving down Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore, the kids were jumping in their oversize white tees to hip-hop that thudded between the alleyways. I slowed down at a corner where some dealers glanced at me; when they knew I wasn’t buying, they crossed the street. An old man staggered, leaned and sighed on a stoop under the effect of a brown-bagged 40-ounce. The kids were dancing in good sync, even with the mica-sprinkle from a knocked-out fire hydrant pushing them towards the curb.
I swung around the old Paramount Theater, past the spot where the Sunday farmers’ market takes place, past the Lexington Market where watermen and hunters from the Eastern Shore used to sell dressed muskrat and hand-carved duck decoys, now a place for locavores and slow-food types who consummate an odd marriage of agriculture and bougie yuppie that is occurring at the best margins of American cities.
Driving up Greenmount, past corner shops bedecked with Obama T-shirts and bumper stickers, I stopped into Waverly’s and smelled the good, Maryland smell of Old Bay mingling with beer and watched the good, Baltimore sight of an ethnic ensemble picking and cleaning crabs, joking with each other in a patois of Spanish, Tagalog, Bawlmerese and urban black.
I bought a handle of vodka from the liquor store clerk on Memorial Day weekend, and he smiled at me.
“Heading to the beach?”
“Enjoy that,” he said with a friendly wink. I smiled back. Small-town Americana may be romanticized, but when it reveals the real core of its friendliness, you can’t help smiling back.
I was reviewing Delaware’s beaches that weekend. I’ve walked on some of the world’s best sand: in the Thai islands, on the Kenyan coast, South Africa’s Cape Peninsula and under the southern Australian sky. All of the above are, no doubt, prettier than Rehoboth Beach. But between the bachelorette party with the inflatable penis, and the drunk guy from Pennsylvania with a tattoo of an angel-winged alien fetus who pattered on about his unfinished novel, and a tacky apartment decked out in flip-flop themed everything, from Christmas lights to sink handles, and an alt-country band that ripped through a set in the Dogfish Head Brewery, I remembered the distinctive charm the mid-Atlantic possesses in summer, and how much I miss it, even in ostensible tropical paradise.
The muskrat swam slowly up the little neck of an Eastern Shore watercourse, pausing occasionally, the jerky rhythms of its doggie paddle leaving a trail of concave ripples in its wake.
A few minutes down the road, I visited one of the best crab houses in Maryland. It was all-you-can-eat taken to a postmodern level, tables groaning under crabs, fried chicken doused in Tabasco, clam strips, hush puppies and ears of sweet white corn.
A waitress came by with a few more crabs. I looked her in the eye with the pain of a man defeated.
“I’ll pass, hon.”
Her silent stare was the perfect reply; a mix of admonishment, pity and the faintest twinge of disgust at my inability to continue participating in that great celebration of American prosperity: sheer culinary excess.
A little part of me died inside, but a little part of me elated in rediscovering the joys of eating with utter and careless abandon, a carelessness towards food that, as troubling as it may be, is a part of my character, a part of me I sublimate in more reserved, graceful parts of the globe.
As night fell I drove out to the Baltimore docks. That evening, I drank Barbancourt rum in a pizza parlor on North Avenue, ate crab dip in a Latvian bar that radiated Baltimore’s casual menace and affability and knocked on the door of a speakeasy-turned-French-rustic restaurant, where I would later return and joke with a bartender who had gone to my hometown reform school.
I sat on the hood of my car and watched the Domino Sugar sign flash over the inky Patapsco, the ships docked in their ponderous berths with the glow of condensation and 3 a.m. dew just illuminating the outlines of their hulls. The smooth, shared kiss of the river and the night sky, dark as a dream. The booze, salt and shit scent after-breeze of the city ruffled the mirror skin of the harbor and I thought, I am in love.
Home is a difficult concept for any professional who moves for a living. I am that, and more so, I am obsessed with place.
Lately my mind has retreated into its darkest corners, partly because it has tried to reconcile my love of the world and the road—the Adam who never wanted to stop moving—and my love of this place, my home, which gave me the eyes and curiosity that first got me out the door.
I took a swim the other day in the St. Mary’s River, where I have gone since I was a child whenever I needed renewal. I stripped down to my underwear and slipped into the water, the last jellyfish of the summer waving their poisonous goodbyes to the season, the green cool of the place washing my skin and soul. I thanked the world for being so beautiful, for constantly renewing my appreciation of it, even as that appreciation has sent me down roads that are sometimes lonely and difficult.
One day, I’ll strike a balance between the road and home. Until then, I skip stones on the river and thank it again for being so beautiful. Beautiful enough for me to spend a life seeking something to complement it. Beautiful enough to always need its steadying embrace.
When I do stop moving, I won’t, because the river always flows under my skin.