This is a Baltimore story. Which in a way makes it an America story, because Baltimore is The Greatest City in America. But it’s more a generic America story because it involves so many things that characterize our country — industry and religion and spending time in cars with your family and fantasizing about the lives of people you’ve never met.
But above all, this is a Sunday morning story.
Growing up, we went to church every week. (Well, my family went to church every week. I went every other week because that’s what happens when your parents are divorced. One week here with this routine; one week there with another routine.) Early on, my step-father began taking classes at a bible college out in the country a ways northeast of our home in Baltimore. He was ordained as a minister in the Christian Church when I was maybe in middle school. As often happens, the timeline is fuzzy. I think I was 12 or 13, but I’m an unreliable narrator.
By this time we were no longer going to the gigantic church on Mountain Road in Harford County that we’d briefly attended when I was very young. Nor were we attending the much smaller church on the Baltimore-Harford county line that we attended for most of my elementary school life*. By the time he was ordained we were attending a newer church down by the airport, which is south of Baltimore. The church now has a real building — I think — but for as long as I attended, in middle and high school, it was housed first in a conference room at a Holiday Inn near the airport and, later, in a refurbished warehouse. I’m sure it was actually further, but that latter location felt like it was only 300 yards short of one of the airport’s runways.
That’s also where I spent most of my Sundays in high school, when I wasn’t at my dad’s house and didn’t have a soccer game. Because of my parents’ involvement in the church, and because it was so much farther away from home than our previous churches, we’d stay there all day. Sometimes we’d bring bagels and pimento cheese and make little sandwiches.** Sometimes we’d go to Golden Corral with a big group from church. Sometimes we’d go to another family’s house and have lunch there. But inevitably we’d end up back at the warehouse complex. Sometimes my step-dad and I would throw around a lacrosse ball. Maybe I’d do homework, but usually we’d all hang out, us kids who were stranded there. We were in middle/high school, after all.
But that’s not the point of this story, actually. This story is from when we first started going to that church, when I was a little bit younger and didn’t play lacrosse and wasn’t really interested in girls yet. Usually when we drove down we would listen to WPOC, Baltimore’s country station. On Sunday mornings the station would play gospel. Generally white gospel, usually a cappella stuff, the music of Appalachia and Tennessee and Kentucky (or at least the white parts of Tennessee, considering Memphis and its surroundings are the source of much of the great black gospel).
I’d be in the back seat of the car with my sister, fully immersed in my own head. We spent a lot of time in the car growing up, between church and driving between my mom’s and dad’s houses. I spent a lot of time thinking, and a lot of time playing little games. I’d tap my left foot every time a car passed driving the other direction on the highway, and my right foot every time we passed a car going the same direction. I’d try to keep time with the gospel playing on WPOC and see how many of my foot taps lined up both with passing cars and with the radio.
There’s an area we’d pass most mornings, as I-895 took us from Northeast Baltimore through Southeast Baltimore towards the Harbor and, eventually, Anne Arundel County. This area was particularly industrial. This was before the warehouse-park days at the church, and was far and away the most industrial area we’d pass all day. It struck me as somehow wonderful and foreign and terribly intriguing — the strangest industrial area I’d ever seen. This, even though every other weekend, twice a weekend, we’d drive past Sparrows Point and Bethlehem Steel and all of Baltimore’s harbor-related industry going to and from my dad’s house.
Something about this area struck me as different. We’d pass a big old cemetery on a hill, then the Baltimore Travel Plex, and then these long, straight roads and warehouses so tall they were in line with the elevated highway. One of those long, straight roads had a weird-looking bar, and all the roads looked like they were constructed for the biggest trucks ever built. It all seemed to secret and I wondered how people got down there and what they did. And the gospel played and I’d tap my feet imagining how many different strange roads we’d have to go on to get down there, and what we’d do once we were there. But we never went — why would we? Instead we drove to church, where I’d spend my Sunday, and then we’d drive past it again at night. But by that point I’d be tired and the gospel would be over and my imagination had no interest in exploring down there.
But every now and then, I’ll hear a song like Sierra Hull’s version of The Land of Living***:
And it will take me right back to that car flying down the raised highway, looking out at those massive warehouses, fantasizing about those terrifying and wonderful places. I listen to a lot of bluegrass and gospel, basically all day every day while I’m at work, and I wonder how much that’s influenced by those Sunday mornings.
As some closure to this story, when I was a junior and a senior in high school, I dated a girl from Dundalk, in Southeast Baltimore. To get from her house to my dad’s, I’d drive down those very same industrial streets I’d fantasized about when I was in middle school. Turns out, to get down there all you had to do was date a girl from Dundalk.
*In Northeast Baltimore, one can go from the inner city — scenes straight out of The Wire — to the country in about a 25 minute drive. It goes from decaying post-industrial American city to nice outer reaches of the city to older suburbs to newer suburbs to exurbs to rural, in a very short distance. We lived just about halfway out, where older suburbs meet the newer.
**This is part of why I find it so hilarious that pimento cheese is — or was, at least a couple of years ago — so trendy. It’s cheap food! It’s what you eat when your parents don’t want to go out to lunch between services at church!
***This song has a double-meaning for this story. For one, when I heard it on Spotify earlier this week, it planted the seeds of this essay. But my hometown is also known as The Land of Pleasant Living.