Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Last Week in Baltimore, Charm City

I spent last week in Baltimore, Charm City. I returned home late Friday before the first outbreak of violence on Saturday, for which I would have had a front row seat around Camden Yards. Now more rioting on Monday, National Guard on call, law enforcement moving in from around the region. What does the rioting solve, Baltimore’s mayor asks? What happens to the charm, I ask?

I’ve come to like Baltimore, the parts I see as a visitor downtown and around the inner harbor.

I’ve spent a lot of time at the National Aquarium and see what some folks in Seattle meant when they said they wanted a first-class waterfront like Baltimore’s. The guy at the visitor’s center wanted to know how Big Bertha was doing; I just shrugged.

There are restaurants I like: The Thames Street Oyster House and The Point, both within walking distance at Fells Point; the B&O American Brassiere in downtown’s restored Monaco Hotel; and great kabobs, eat-in or take out, at Maiwand Kabob behind the Marriot Renaissance.

I also figured out how to get to Washington DC and the Smithsonian on the MARC out of downtown paying the geezer fare of $7 round trip. Cheap out-of-town entertainment.

My favorite ride is the Charm City Circulator, Baltimore’s free bus service (Orange, Purple, Green and Blue) running round trips in four directions through the downtown core.

Last week, I took the #11 bus from downtown on Charles to get to the Baltimore Art Museum (free admission!) near Johns Hopkins. I got on and asked the driver whether he went to the Art Museum and he said he did; he also refused to take my reduced fare of $.55 because the fare box was broken.

As we rode away from downtown, the bus filled up with black people, old and young. I was looking to get off at 31st Street but bus turned right on 29th. I got up to the front to the driver as he turned left on Calvert.

“Are we near the Art Museum?” I asked.

“I thought you knew where it was,” he said quite matter-of-factly.

“Uh, 31st,” I said.

“Get off next stop on 32nd,” he said. “Walk that way (he pointed left) and go back to 31st and go right.”

You have to get off the bus at the rear so I need to make my way through all the black men standing to get to the back door and wait for the door to open.

Nothing happened.

“You have to push the handles,” the man standing next to the door said to me, softly.

Alright! I pushed the handles, the door opened and I said, “Thank you!” and exited the bus.

I had read all week long about Freddie Gray’s death and the circumstances of his questionable pursuit, arrest and “nickel ride” transport in the police van. I’d followed the mounting protest.

Maybe it is simple naïveté that allows me to feel safe among a group of people. I’ve never felt unsafe in Baltimore or in any city as long as I’m around other people. I have no idea what they must have thought about this guy wandering around on the #11 bus or even if they noticed. But I thought about my fellow bus riders when I heard about rioting breaking out. I think about my fellow bus riders and want justice to be done for them and Freddie Gray.

I think about my fellow bus riders and want the charm put back into Charm City.

(The larger issue of what’s at stake for Baltimore and this country is addressed in Sunday’s Baltimore Sun editorial, Why Freddie Gray ran )

--Mike Sato

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Eating Together… Can We Talk?

I’m anticipating the day when the waitperson serving my chicken pad thai sits down and wants to talk about eating. I guess I’d have to start off with the one thing I don’t like:

It’s papaya, the fresh luscious tropical delicacy my granddaughter can eat halves and halves and halves of until stopped by her mother, the jewel of the farmer’s market offered to me by my late mother with the query, “You still don’t eat papaya?”, the papaw, "fruit of the angels" according to Christopher Columbus and “deliciously sweet with musky undertones and a soft, butter-like consistency,” according to Whole Foods.

No, thanks.

Some people don’t eat some things for health reasons, some for religious reasons, some for philosophical reasons. The list of what one doesn’t like to eat is hopefully shorter than the list of those things one will eat, because it will be hard to find that McDonalds Happy Meal or KFC chicken while in India, Peru or Mongolia, not to mention in Hana or Lopez Village.

I’ll eat just about anything. Well, not the fermented soybeans called natto prized by many. I’ve seen it eaten with relish in mochi cakes, on hot rice and even served on pasta.

No, thanks.

The island comedian Frank DeLima had a stand-up routine where he said that every group that came to Hawaii brought some kind of “stink food.” The Japanese brought natto, the Portuguese brought bacalhau, the Koreans brought kim chee, the Filipinos brought bagoong. And, Frank said, every one thought that their stink food was the best kind of food.

That’s probably true around the world. In Sweden there’s surströmming (source of a near-international incident when British Air demanded that a Swede not bring a can of the delicacy on board). Go to Iceland and natives will tell you about the sublime pleasures of eating their fermented shark, hákarl. Like cheese? Like Limburger for its smell?

There’s a popular reality television show hosted by Andrew Zimmern called Bizarre Foods.  “Bizarre” seems a bit overblown since foods in their cultural context don’t seem that unusual.

My mother would soften the dried, strongly fragrant bakalhau just enough to get pieces of it into jars of pickling sauce with pieces of green and red peppers and chunks of onion. We’d vacation spear fishing and shore fishing on Kauai and my aunt would immediately clean and pickle the young goatfish, oama, after getting home from the beach—and we couldn’t wait to eat them whole, head, tail and all. When Mr. Dan from Maui visited, he’d bring the Hawaiian waters version of the puffer fish and clean the fish free of its venom sack and prepare the rich, oily fugu soup. Not stink and certainly not “bizarre” by my tastes.

“That will put hair on your chest,” my father with hairless chest used to say to me, who to this day is without a hairy chest despite eating most everything.

Now, let’s eat—together.

You can have my papaya.

--Mike Sato