Baltimore by the Mid-Morning Light

Picture credit: Rex Pickar

I awoke before anyone else, in an unfamiliar house full of art and stuffed toys. The arched back of someone’s cat passed beneath my wobbling cot, shifting the canvas under me; a musician passed out on the couch, rolled over at the noise but didn’t come to. In rapid succession I became cognizant of the laptop my arms coiled around, and then a cocktail-smell of city water and poorly aging dishes. My friends, tucked away in bed, were mostly unaccounted for. A near-empty bottle of Basil Hayden kept company with a ceramic pipe on the coffee table. My head hurt.

Standing, I found a graduation gown, tossed across a chair. Another cat nested inside, watching me. From some dim unconscious space arose the question of whether or not it was house-broken, a question answered when it lost interest in me and sauntered to the litterbox. Suddenly lonely, I hunted cabinets, hoping for coffee.

I found a French press, which I didn’t know how to use and lacked the beans for besides. Damn artists, I muttered. Artists and communists, and communist artists. Tea- and milk-drinkers; painters, sculptors, and ceramicists; my fellow guest, the musician, still couch-bound through the clack and clang of my caffeine withdrawal. The clock struck 7:30, and I realized potaday habits might doom me. Much longer and head pain would eat me alive.

The problem with Americans, a Europhile professor once told me, is that you don’t understand temperance. You should drink coffee like the Italians do – a cup in the morning, to wake up, and a cup in the afternoon, to enjoy. Then sleep at night. None of this energy drink stuff. Sleep.

This professor of Philosophy, his hair cut short, would pontificate to me from his desk chair, leaned back with the door closed. I would sit across from him and try to keep my back straight, like any number of would-be initiates had tried before me. By my second year, an oversized umbrella would lean on the desk, in the same spot every time – I carried it everywhere, in imitation of Kierkegaard’s bizarre posture. I also took on the Dane’s habits of talking to strangers, and writing autobiographical fictions. It was a period of poetic indulgences; of trying on different faces to see what fit. I starved myself, drank heavily, and read everything I could get my hands on. I nipped at the ankles of various role-models, living and dead, who I determined might show me how to live.

That was at a different time, in a different city. I moved home to Maryland, and while I technically live with my parents I’ve adopted a more vagabond lifestyle – no prophet being fully accepted in his own country. After deferring graduate work, I attempted adulthood to mixed results. The relationship faltered, the job made me miserable, and the rent check fed a horrid cycle of over-work and exhaustion. I didn’t write for months. The gap between the great expectations placed on me and my present reality grew stronger every few months. I became a bad worker and worse boyfriend, until one weekend it all snapped and I quit. It felt like summiting.

Bumming it seemed like a better option, and it is superior. Employment, it turns out, is highly overrated. A series of part-time jobs to cover expenses, and an email gig held over from college, are enough to get by. Not meaningful, perhaps, but not intended to be. But coming down from the mountaintop high, there’s a prevailing sense that perhaps nothing comes after – Mark Fisher called it “no future” in Capitalist Realism. My prevailing hope is not for a better world, but a less bad one. You’re probably wondering whether I mean this future-talk in the personal sense, or the political. The answer is both.

Just before everyone slept, I was struck by how tired they seemed. Bodies drooped across chairs and heads fell on hands. Eyes did not meet but went to ceilings, floors, or other distant targets. The body politic of Bolton Hill seemed dejected, lacking energy for despair. Nominally, I was attending a graduation party; the “party” was mostly people running furiously between the house and studio hosting their senior projects, in a desperate rush to upload required assignments prior to the ceremony.

Presently, it occurred to me that any decent-sized city would have at least a few coffee shops, so I threw on clothes and walked into the morning. Maybe it would do me good – the aquatic air of a harbor city like Baltimore beats cat-hair on the skin. I closed the door behind me and went down the avenue. I brought up directions on my phone, and followed them across an unnamed bridge spanning Jones Falls; at 8 am, it was only me and the rush hour traffic, fighting over something I’d abandoned.

Maryland Avenue, when I arrived, wasn’t much of anything. Street people and bag ladies were doing as they do, keeping to themselves; none bothered me. I, in turn, let them alone. A single beat cop idled on his phone. Passing them all by, I went a few blocks and found a cafe in the basement. I paid for a latte, received it, and left. I tasted it, and couldn’t decide whether it was worth the money or not.

Seeing Baltimore by the mid-morning light, I couldn’t think of much besides my professor, telling me he no longer read books. He doesn’t read, and doesn’t think, much. When he does think, he decides nothing has any meaning. There is no truth to discover, or any great secret to learn. He calls it bad Zen – freedom that doesn’t set one free. The realization isn’t liberatory, but nihilistic. Reading Aristotle, he told me, will not teach me how to die a good death. For a while, he tried out mysticism, but it couldn’t keep his interest. Now he doesn’t read at all.

I haven’t been reading either. Here and there, I’ll try; I’ve been about two hundred pages into Catch-22 for a month or so. It’s fun, but it’s not what it used to be.

Outside the supposed party, huddled in a triangle with the pipe, a long afternoon became evening. It occurred to me, briefly, that where we stood the whole universe used to be visible. Up until the proliferation of fixed light sources, the stars would have been fully, brutally visible on a clear night. Baltimore is just old enough to predate light pollution. It is not, however, older than Galileo; when the Charles River was first colonized, its citizens were no longer possessed of their illusions about the cosmos. For the first time in western history, the universe was not centered on Earth. Maybe that’s why they blotted them out; I’d be terrified too, if I were the first to lose that sense of meaning.

I finished the latte during the return journey. I decided I enjoyed it after all, just as I was throwing it in a public-issue trash can. I went back inside and pet a cat; the small hand closed in on nine, but still no one was awake. I decided it would be polite to do the dishes, so I washed a while. It’s the least you can do, for a couch and a meal.

J. D Goodman

J. D Goodman is a writer based out of Maryland's Eastern Shore, and a rising M.A student at Duquesne University. Previous writings have appeared in The Belmont Literary Journal, Lighthouse Weekly, and Wild Roof.

J. D Goodman is a writer based out of Maryland's Eastern Shore, and a rising M.A student at Duquesne University. Previous writings have appeared in The Belmont Literary Journal, Lighthouse Weekly, and Wild Roof.

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