Remembering Poe

January 19, 2014
West Fayette Street

As barren trees cast shadows over Westminster Hall on a late Sunday afternoon, those arriving to salute Edgar Allan Poe’s 205th birthday gently place roses and pennies, per tradition, around the macabre poet’s burial memorial. (In 1865, Baltimore schoolchildren began collecting pennies to move Poe’s body from an unmarked grave to its current resting spot.)

A festive Irish folk song kicks off the occasion, followed by remarks from Poe House curator emeritus Jeff Jerome. Beneath a spotlight, actors in period costumes, including Emily Cory in a black evening gown and cape, perform readings of the despairing poet’s best-known works, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and “Alone,” for the 60 or so visitors crowding the small burial area.

“From childhood’s hour I have not been

As others were; I have not seen

As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.”

After the presentation, those gathered—some have come for decades to the annual event—stay for a raffle of original concrete pieces from Poe’s old Amity Street home and a couple of Poe-themed birthday cakes before beginning a tour of the catacombs under the historic hall.

“I’ve been coming since the 1970s,” says Jo Ann Irick Jones, holding one of the sought-after black frosted cakes, decorated with red roses and the iconic image of the sunken-cheeked, sad-eyed poet. “This was where my husband, he’s now passed, and I came on our first date. We both loved Poe. We spent the rest of the day driving around Baltimore, talking and getting to know one another. To me, this is a romantic place.”

American Dream

January 30, 2014
Pratt Street

In a “holding room” inside the Baltimore Convention Center, hip-hop dance troupes, teen twirlers, would-be pop stars, comedians, crooners, belly dancers, an exotic pink-flamingo-riding unicyclist, and an Elvis impersonator wait for their numbers to be called.

A stage mother helps with makeup, and a 62-year-old real-estate agent in a tuxedo trumpets his rendition of “What a Wonderful World.” At one point, whether to relieve stress or boredom—or just for fun—an impromptu dance-off, drag cowgirl included, breaks out.

With hopefuls lining up at 5 a.m. on Pratt Street, executive producer Jason Raff expects a day-long turnout of maybe 3,000 for the traveling America’s Got Talent auditions—each aspirant allotted 90 seconds to impress the producers.

In a registration line as long as the wait for a Disney ride, Feng Zhu, from Philadelphia by way of Beijing, passes time peforming everything from Adele’s “Someone Like You” to Mozart’s “Turkish March” on his Chinese-made melodica, played by blowing air through a small hose attached to a one-handed keyboard, creating an accordion-like sound. Listening behind Zhu, who goes by “Zach,” Pigtown gospel beatboxer Corey Braxton suggests they improv something, which they do, earning applause from nearby contestants as Zhu adds a foot cymbal to his act.

Asked about his background, Zhu, in suit and tie, bows and introduces himself, explaining, in accented but perfect English, that he studied piano for 20 years. He also recently earned a master’s degree in finance at Temple University.

“I want to live the American dream,” he says. “I’ve applied to become a translator and buyer with a New Jersey aluminum company.” So, why is he here now? “The real dream. To play music and be a star.”

Pet Friendly

February 1, 2014
York Road, Timonium

“DO NOT handle the dragons without permission,” warns a sign.

“How much is the iguana?”, “Will the hedgehog show its face?” asks Melanie Osborne, taking smartphone photos of the scaled, shelled, hairy, and quilled creatures at Repticon—the two-day reptile and exotic-animal show, returning for the fourth time to the Maryland State Fairgrounds. “My sons want a lizard, a snake, and a chameleon—we’ve had two lizards,” the Severna Park native explains. “Basically, we’re allergic to cats and dogs.”

Nearby, a teenager touches a big frog, then pokes it a second time: “Does it bite?”

“Yes, it eats mice,” says the exhibitor.

Others check out the neon geckos and pet the pythons curled around vendors’ necks. Bearded dragons, a vendor assures, actually make quite nice pets. “They’ll stay on your shoulder or sit on the windowsill in the sun.” A Halethorpe-based AR Reptile House rep, explains he and his partners keep 25 snakes in their row-house basement—and breed rats (for feeding). “The neighbors are pretty cool about it.” Meanwhile, Paige Zinderman, a Carver Center for the Arts & Technology senior, happily allows a four-inch tarantula to creep back and forth across her hands.

“Aren’t they poisonous?,” a man asks. “No, venomous,” its owner clarifies. “Blowfish are poisonous, in that if you eat one, you get poisoned. Things that are venomous bite you. They have fangs.”

“Oh,” the man replies.

“I like cats, too, but have you ever been to a cat show?” asks Zinderman. “Cats are [all] pretty much the same. I like the way the snakes move. I like that there are a hundred different reptiles here.

“And look around, I fit in,” she adds. “The people are weird.”