Notes From The Underground
Dive into Baltimore’s thriving counterculture world.
The wonderfully wacky local moviemaker John Waters once said it’s as though “every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”
This outsider streak is so ingrained in the city that local attractions — like the American Visionary Art Museum, home to works by self-taught artists, and the Fluid Movement aquatic performance art troupe — garner as much attention as more established institutions (think: the Walters Art Museum, the Centerstage professional theater company). But the best way to get the full experience of the city's eccentricities is to dive underground into Baltimore’s counterculture scene.
Since no respectable member of the counterculture world gets up before lunch, start your day at noon, grab a granola bar and head to Hampden’s True Vine, where proprietor Jason Willett — an experimental musician who sometimes plays an amplified rubber band with local groups — will gladly play any record you want to hear before buying. Listening to local sitarist and vocalist Ami Dang’s Indian-tinted avant-pop album Hukam or any of the local label MT6's CDs is an ear-opening way to spend an hour.
Musically sated, hop in a cab for a 20-minute ride to a seemingly rough stretch of West Baltimore. This is where Carly Ptak and Twig Harper, the husband-wife noise duo known as Nautical Almanac, run the Esoteric Library out of the first floor of their warehouse home. Their book collection focuses almost exclusively on consciousness expanding, from scholarly explorations of transcendental thought to the ethnography of mind-altering practices of indigenous cultures, all of which are available to check out free of charge.
As enlightening as it is flipping through The Zohar, your grumbling stomach can no longer be ignored. A 15-minute cab ride deposits you in the Mount Vernon area, where you grab a bite at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeeshop, a collectively run, politically minded basement café and bookstore that’s a local hub for community activism and leftist politics. At the counter, peruse the calendar of upcoming union meetings and radical guest speakers before savoring a cup of fair-trade coffee and a bánh mì chay sandwich made with lemongrass tofu (Red Emma’s offers — what else? — a vegan/ vegetarian menu) while sitting between a young crunchy punk and an older gentleman reading the local social justice paper, the Indypendent Reader.
By now it’s getting dark and, this being Friday, the weekend art openings are getting underway. Luckily, you’re just a 10-minute walk from the H&H Building, home to five galleries/performance spaces and the heart of the city’s DIY arts scene. Ride the graffiti-ridden elevator to the opening reception at Nudashank — run by writer/ curator Alex Ebstein and artist/ curator Seth Adelsberger — for the four-artist painting show Color Me Bad. People bring their own six-packs, and museum curators chat with young artists donning asymmetrical haircuts and day-glo-colored homemade fashions. After a few convivial hours, you’re ready for some late-night eats.
Nam Kang stays open until 4am, and its sinus-clearing Korean barbecue is the perfect hangover prevention. Wave hello to that guy you saw earlier using the communal computer at Red Emma’s before heading back to your hotel. You'll need some shut-eye so you can do it all over again tomorrow.
The True Vine
3544 Hickory Ave; 410-235-4500; www.thetruevinerecordshop.com
2118 W Pratt St; 410-945-7825
Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse
800 Saint Paul St; 410-230-0450; www.redemmas.org
405 W Franklin St, 3rd Fl; 443-415-2139; www.nudashank.com
2126 Maryland Ave 410-685-6237