1. If I were to design a postcard for Baltimore, it would be a picture of my Uncle Ed—a retired Marine in his mid-70s with the energy of a man a third of his age—a cigarette in his mouth, a Michelob in his hand, chasing a runaway crab through his yard, yelling, “Get back here, you son of a bitch!” It’s one of the best places in the world, is what I’m saying.
2. Most summers, we drove down from Philly to my uncle’s house in a Baltimore suburb, and when we arrived, there would be a bushel (or two) of crabs and a cooler (or two) full of Michelob. In retirement, Uncle Ed had taken up wholesaling plants and shrubs, and so his small patch of land was covered by a wide array of plants. Every visit began with a tour of the grounds. If you asked about a plant that looked like it was dead, he would shout, “It’s not dead ‘till I say it’s dead.” Then, later, he would lean in as if telling you a secret and say, “That damn thing’s been dead for two weeks.” But even when he whispers, he’s one of the loudest people in the room. At night, after the crabs had been picked and after lighting fireworks in the street, we sat by his fireplace while the adults drank and talked. His voice was, and still is, the dominant one in the room; every visit, he tells many of the same stories about drinking, fighting, and gambling, but every time he tells them they’re a little different. It doesn’t matter if they’re true or just mostly true, because nobody tells stories better. I rarely spoke when I was young; I was so shy, two different teachers suggested to my parents that I was autistic, and another sent me to a speech therapist to convince me to talk. So every summer, I sat quietly with the adults and absorbed everything they said. For me, Baltimore has always meant crabs, beer, and stories. It was where I began to learn what adults are supposed to talk like. It was where I saw how you could own a room just with your words.
3. In eighth grade, my classmates and I took a field trip to Baltimore’s inner harbor. I wanted to spend most of the afternoon in the aquarium, but my friends rushed through and I followed meekly along. The leaders of the group headed straight to Hooters, where we snickered and tried to act mature around the waitress, and when she was gone we almost certainly talked about masturbation. This was a big topic for all of us then. At Hooters, I stared at the waitresses’ legs and tried to memorize every detail because I’d never had such close exposure to so much skin on any woman. My shyness was still crippling then; if I spoke at all in big groups like this, I just repeated jokes I’d stolen from standup comedians. And speaking to girls was completely out of the question. Just weeks before, I’d gotten a phone call from a popular girl in class. She said she liked me and so, like most boys would, I hung up on her, unplugged the phone, and ran upstairs to my bedroom to hide in case she showed up at my house. I told everyone I was grounded, and skipped several graduation parties so I wouldn’t have to face anyone. I tinkered with the idea of digging a tunnel beneath the house and living underground by myself for the rest of my life. The next time I saw that girl, she was making out with a high school boy behind the movie theater.
4. As we were leaving Hooters, we saw our teacher, sitting by herself in a booth on the other side of the restaurant and gnawing on wings. It was unsettling to see her in such a human moment. She was one of the most hated and feared teachers in the school; two year prior, a student had poured dog shampoo into her Diet Pepsi, and we sat in an assembly trying to suppress laughter while the principal yelled at us that this was actually a very serious issue. I wanted to run away before she saw us in the same restaurant as her, but my friends all bought t-shirts so they could prolong their interaction with this woman who was contractually obligated to flirt with us.
5. I never felt more like a character in a John Updike story than when I had my first beer with my cancer-stricken dad. I was twenty and we were picking crabs at Uncle Ed's house, and dad would be dead in less than a year. Nothing momentous happened; we acted like normal men who happened to be friends and drinking beer. I had a few more beers. Later, my brother said my mom had told him to watch me and make sure I didn’t get too drunk. I joined the nightly conversation more than I ever had. I even told my own stories. Uncle Ed’s wife, Joan, leaned over to my mom and said, “Tommy has gotten really funny.” Is it shallow if I say that may be all I want? For people to listen to me tell a story and say I’m funny? Because most days, it is the only thing I want in the world.
6. In March 2014, I drove down to Baltimore to meet with the other Barrelhouse editors. We’d been invited to do a reading in a gentrifying part of the city. I beat the others to the hotel and asked the woman at the front desk where I could get coffee. “Baltimore isn’t really a coffee town,” she said. But what kind of town is not a coffee town? Do people in Baltimore not wake up in the morning? Do they not need help surviving work? Every town is a coffee town, I thought. I walked west from the hotel assuming I’d find a coffee shop quickly. I’ve spent plenty of time in North Philly and in parts of Camden, have ridden buses through the degraded, neglected neighborhoods of many cities. I know how to carry myself. But on this walk, I was obviously lost and was dressed a little too nicely, and I was a potential target. I passed one corner where a young man said hi to me, and when I looked at him, he flicked a lit cigarette at me. The same thing happened on the next corner. In my whole life, nobody had ever flicked a lit cigarette at me, and it happened twice in five minutes in Baltimore. Later, we would dub this move a Baltimore Handshake. Maybe you just have to take a couple cigarettes to the chest to prove you can hang in that town. I never found coffee. I saw three men get arrested, and I hustled back to the hotel as quickly as I could.
7. The first time I did a public reading of my work, I was so anxious, I nearly vomited, and afterward I left the venue immediately to sit by myself in a different bar where nobody would know me. The only thing I remember is my hands shaking, and thinking: they can see my hands shaking. I remember thinking: how do I make my hands stop shaking. A decade of immersion therapy in the form of teaching has helped me progress to a comfort level with public speaking that would have been unfathomable to me when I was twenty-four. In those ten years, I’ve also learned to like myself, have been taught by my wife how to like myself. Instead of looking out at a room full of strangers and imagining all the reasons they’ll probably hate me, I assume they’re completely indifferent. It’s not exactly a switch to optimism, but it’s like I went from believing the glass was half-full of poison to trusting that it’s just water in there after all. That night in Baltimore, I read from the first chapter of my novel, which was still not under contract. I had a phone call with an interested editor scheduled for the next morning. This was the first time I’d ever read from that book in public, and so the crowd in the weird abandoned theater in Baltimore was my test audience. They laughed at the things they were supposed to laugh at, made sounds of approval when I wanted them to make sounds of approval, and they applauded long enough that it didn't feel perfunctory. Afterward, strangers told me it was good. They told me it was funny. I don’t want to oversell it and make it sound like a coronation; it was an audience of forty people, and the other readers were better than me. And yet: I was in Baltimore and I was telling stories and people enjoyed them, and everything felt right.