Thursday, December 8, 2016

Ellicott City

I'm from Baltimore.

No, really. I mean, I don't have much of that ridiculous, sweet Baltimore twang when I speak. You'd have to really listen to me say give-away words like mojito and ocean to pick it up. Shit, I even pronounce the T in Baltimore; even Dominic West blurts out Bawlmer in a more authentic manner than I ever could. Colloquialisms like downy ocean... forget it. And I've never even considered referring to anyone as hon.

But I'm from Baltimore. At least, I was born there.

Until I turned 20, I lived in Ellicott City. It's a tiny suburb of Baltimore, one that drivers recognize primarily by the exit sign on I-95. You probably haven't given it any thought, really. And you probably think it's pronounced Elli-COT City. And you're wrong.

It's Elli-KIT.

Until the historic rain of Saturday, July 30th, Elliott City (more accurately, historic Elliott City, or Old Elliott City as we call it) wore all the adjectives you'd expect: sleepy, quaint, quirky, quiet. A comforting collection of cafes and consignment, all rolling down a curving hill towards the Patapsco river. Coffee and tea, boutiques, paintings and pottery, bottled beer, antique furniture. All of the shoppes you'd expect from a historic town that's older than our country.

But in the span of four hours, under the relentless advance of over 6 1/2" of rain, Elliott City sustained unimaginable damage. Roads, sidewalks, and subterranean structures were flooded and washed away. At the bottom of the hill, where Main Street intersects with Maryland Avenue, a location you may know because of the clock but I know because of the Phoenix, the falling rain accumulated into angry eddies the color of coffee with cream and carried cars into the river. And most tragically, two people lost their lives, overcome by the worst deluge the city had seen in over forty years.

On Sunday morning, we woke up to a new Old Elliott City.


If you've read enough American literature, you're probably already thinking that floods wash away the old to make room for the new. That floods are cleansing in nature, and are natural, and are part of the unforgiving circle of life. Floods are metaphors for the need to, on occasion, purge a place or a mind of its cobwebs and hangups.

But how can anyone argue that here, in the case of the small town that, four months after these rains, is still only partially reopened? There's no need for renewal in a district that prides itself on the historic. Old Ellicott City cannot be made new by external forces; its continued existence is in spite of these efforts. What makes Ellicott City forever young is its embrace of history. It's not irony. It's austere truth.


I say I'm from Baltimore, but I've never lived there. And though I spent countless nights wandering Fells Point in search of oxblood docs after hitting Funk's Democratic Coffee Spot, the Bohemian Cafe, and the Daily Grind (all of which are ghosts of Baltimore now, except the Daily Grind, which grew up and left the chicken paintings behind), I don't hold any valid claim to growing up in the city. I always felt bad about listing Baltimore as my location on Twitter, until I deleted my Twitter account, that is.

I'm from Baltimore, unless you're from Baltimore. Then I'm from a million miles away.

I say I'm from Ellicott City, which is more true in that it's where my grandparents lived, and where my parents still live, in an untouched enclave surrounded by the "new" neighborhood that's been there for 30 years now, and where I lived for so long. But Ellicott City outside of Main Street has changed so rapidly and drastically, that now when I pass through or visit, it's like trying to remember a dream. Bits are familiar, yes there's where Donut World used to be, wasn't that Crab Shanty before? Commercial churn altered the landscape of route 40, and now I navigate by intersections, not storefronts.

And Old Ellicott City, which four months later has done the impossible and reopened many of its deluged shoppes, dried out its cafes, and allows pedestrians to wander all the way to the bottom of the hill to see the clock once again in its place. Old Ellicott City is different now. Washed away and rebuilt, perfectly if you don't know any better.

But stand at the bottom of the hill at night. Put your back to Cacao Lane and face south. You'll see lights on in Bean Hollow, which is still the Riverside to me, and contractors busily repairing the best coffee shop you've never visited. And if you can bear it, look left, where the Phoenix sits on the corner of Main and Maryland. I tried this three weeks ago, but couldn't bring myself to do it. It's like pausing "It's a Wonderful Life" just as George Bailey is on the bridge, ready to jump, before the snow starts to fall again. You can feel the emotion sneaking up, so you run.

I'm learning that home isn't a place, it's a feeling. Home is chatting with your forever ago friend in the basement of the rathskeller where Batman still serves up brews. Home is texting your dad and sister about trips to Walt Disney World from twenty five years ago. Home is telling your kids stories about when you were their age, riding store-brand BMX bikes through Turf Valley just to get to Boone's Lane. Home is buying a painting from your high school art teacher when you're forty years old and just watched your old stomping grounds get washed away, and holding on tight to a perfectly captured moment of Main Street in the light, Early Sunday Morning, at the top of the hill, before the rains, before the churn and turmoil and destruction pulled you twenty years into the past and left you there to find your way back on your own.

Early Sunday Morning