A Baltimore Tour de Sleaze—Part 1
Take a bar crawl to nowhere in particular
By Ingrid Verde and Andre Novak
Seemingly due to sheer laziness on behalf of the authors, each section of this article has been split into two separate parts: one written by Ingrid Verde and one written by Andre Novak. I tried to convince Andre and Ingrid to combine their distinct sections into a single easy-to-read piece, but they refused, both claiming to be suffering from “severe crickets—no, rickets” before cackling hysterically into the phone and hanging up on me. Accordingly, the shift in voice, from Ingrid to Andre and vice-versa, is labeled with their names—and in bright colors—for your convenience. Thank you for your patience during these economically trying times.
Deep in the heart of the urban labyrinth of Baltimore lies a grimy decadence whose existence is denied by the decent people of the world. It is a darkness one can normally avoid by simply remaining within the Fells-Canton-Fed Trifecta—the carefully mapped-out “safe zones” that the upstanding citizens of Baltimore inhabit and commute to-and-from in the safety of their Uber Black Cars. In search of The Truth, Andre and I decided to delve deep into Charm City’s uncharted territories of degenerate dive-bars and go-go clubs as a sort of sociological study, or perhaps to just release our own suppressed debauchedness under the pretense of academic pursuits.
The night of our assignment, I scoured my wardrobe for a costume that would appear familiar to the locals we were sure to encounter. I donned my sweatiest of sweat pants, slip-on canvas shoes, an Orioles t-shirt, and one of those now popular “Baltimore” caps you can pick up at any 7-Eleven around the city (if you don’t know what I am referring to, you may be an elitist). Was it convincing? I wasn’t sure, but I knew a blunt to the face could only improve my haze-eyed Baltimore sleaze-crawl uniform.
My roommate, Brad Baisley, had agreed to accompany us on our tour of Baltimore’s seamy underworld. “As any good Baltimorean knows, we cannot head out sober,” Brad admonished as he handed me my first of many Fireball shots. I glanced at the clock. 3:30 in the afternoon and I am already inventing dance moves in the kitchen—thank you very much, Mary Jane. Andre had promised to head over by 7:00 PM. Plenty of time for pre-gaming and karaoke. Brad, a skilled bartender, began to mix drinks and shots while belting out the lyrics to various 80s serenades.
My neighbor Jim, an expert on the depravity of our city—a man who has, in fact, banged a girl in a Porta Potty (and at Preakness, no less)—volunteered to act as our guide through the dense underground of the Greatest City in America. He arrived just as I had finished constructing a giant straw (patent pending) consisting of about ten separate multicolored straws jammed into each other so that I could maximize my drinking by never having to pick-up or cease slurping my ever-flowing vodka-sodas.
Jim immediately downed a Fierball shot, intent on descending to our level. He glanced down at his phone before announcing that we would need to stop by his house before heading out to pick up a girl that was purportedly to meet us there. “Who is this girl?” I asked suspiciously.
“Some girl I met on Tinder.”
“You’re bringing a rando Tinder date out with us??”
He laughed unashamedly.
Andre’s knock announces his arrival. “Thank God. Someone with some sense is here.”
I ran to the door to admit a sane presence to our midst. Andre had shaved his beard into the sleaziest of mustaches had a cigarette holder between his lips and was wearing an olive colored jacket over unbuttoned plaid shirt over a t-shirt. He had one of those tiny press notebooks in hand. “Well, Do I look the part?” he asked excitedly.
“I’ve been drinking. “ I blurted out. I have a tendency to out myself. “Come upstairs and have a shot before we head out.” I imagine Andre was frustrated with our revelries, as he wanted us to venture into the abyss sober. Oops. I sought to make up for it with Fireball.
Jim and Brad were mid-karaoke performance when we returned to the kitchen. “Guys, I’m going to need to grab some food before we head out,” the entirely not-intoxicated Andre interjected. “We could just grab some Rodeo Burgers from…”
“Nah, let’s go to Sip & Bite and get real food,” someone countered.
Thirty minutes later we were walking, en route to Burger King, after a visit to Sip & Bite where we had found a table but left 10 minutes later when a server had failed to appear.
“Let’s grab some Natty Daddies.” Jim suggested.
“Well, if we’re going to have a trashy night out, we should probably do it right,” Andre affirmed.
As I found myself walking into Burger King (as a vegan this in itself is an anomaly) with a 24oz bottle of Corona stashed in a brown paper bag and asking for one of their wax cups, I put a new entry on my mental This-is-a-First list.
“I think I’m going to need the biggest one you’ve got.” I said setting my beer on their counter. The cashier suppressed a laugh and presented a King-sized cup. “This oughta do it.”
Now that my fellow explorers were temporarily placated with their burgers and beers disguised as sodas, we headed back to Jim’s house to grab his Tinder date before heading to our first authentic Baltimore shit-hole of the night.
The idea was simple—execute a Saturday-night tour of Baltimore’s sleaziest nightlife establishments and return, unscathed, to document the whole experience for Cream City. I thought it was going to be easy.
However, from the moment I met with Ingrid to embark on the journey, I could see we were heading into a long, blurry tunnel with no light at the end. While I had insisted that we stay as sober as possible to better remember—and eventually, convey—the happenings of the night, Ingrid had insisted on living-out scenes from Sleep’s Dopesmoker album and LMFAO-Lil Jon collaborations for the hours leading up to our departure.
When I arrived at Ingrid’s place, she was a wreck. She answered the door laughing and mumble-rambling incoherently, reeking of high-grade weed. Her wet eyes appeared to be hemorrhaging a bit. “Wonderful,” I said to myself. Ingrid had thrown all professionalism out the window. At first I was disappointed. I even pulled my tiny homemade “PRESS” credential from my hat and placed it inside Ingrid’s trash-bin while she slurped vodka through a ten-foot straw, giggling like a fiend on nitrous oxide. But then it hit me. Ingrid hadn’t failed the project—she was taking it to the next level. Of course. I thought it through. How could we possibly cover Baltimore’s sleaze-beat without becoming complete shitbags ourselves? I mean, it won’t be easy, but it’s certainly the right thing to do—we cant’t just half-ass this project like City Paper would. Upon realization of Ingrid’s grand journalistic vision, I was ready to dive in.
About a half-hour later, I was sitting in a prominent fast-food restaurant on Eastern Avenue, savoring a final bite of my Rodeo Burger and sucking the remnants of a Natty Daddy from a towering wax “King Cup.” Ingrid, Brad, John, and I were loudly discussing the effects of salvia divinorum while a family enjoyed their meal in the booth behind us. I recall that they looked deeply unsettled for some reason. By the time we finished our food and beverages, it was around 8:30 PM and we were ready to tackle the assignment. Sure, we were already really drunk—but not just on beer and skunky malt-liquor; we were also drunk on our undying lust for the truth. As we stepped onto Eastern Avenue, we gazed long into the abyss—the abyss also gazed back. We set out for a bar called RJ’s— but first we had to stop at some place on South Collington to meet up with a lady-friend of John’s who turned out to be a Baltimore Hooters Girl.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ was playing as we walked through the doorway, which I took as a good sign. RJ’s was the first bar on our list and it was the only destination that made me uneasy.
A famous wall on which female patrons can donate their bras for public display made this place a must-visit for our project. However, I had been informed earlier that RJ’s was basically a haunt for Baltimore’s aging combat-veterans. I knew the vibe would be macho, racist, and possibly violent. What did ‘RJ’ even stand for? Ron Jon?
The building was basically an elongated broom closet. Quarters couldn’t have been any closer. Out of all the people in our group, Ingrid and I were the obvious outsiders. Patrons stopped their shouting and whooping as we walked by, giving us both the tense eye.
It was a weight off my chest when the bartender—an orange-haired, middle-aged lady—greeted us with a warm smile. I remember thinking that maybe things would be alright. All of that, however, ended at my drink order.
“Hey—just a Wild Turkey on the rocks, please,” I said, smiling.
“A Wild what?”
“A Wild Turkey—on ice.”
The smiles were fading fast.
“No—no, we don’t have that. We have Miller Light and Coors.”
“Gimme one of those Colorado Kool-Aids,” I said grimacing, thinking I’d just scored some credibility points.
“Colorado Kool-Aid,” I mumbled, mostly to myself.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Um, a Coors. I’ll take a Coors.”
I hadn’t been sipping for very long when a stout man with a distended belly shoved his way through the narrow space between the barstools and the back wall. Just as he was passing me, a tall guy with long, stringy hair and coke-bottle glasses edged close enough to stout man to slap him on the back.
“Kramer, I didn’t realize this was a gay bar!” he shouted while cackling.
This man, Kramer, didn’t even look back to see who it was when he responded, “Yeeeeaaaah, fuck you, you faggot.”
RJ’s was quickly becoming the place that I imagined it would be: a hangout for gay-bashers and proto-nazis. Ingrid suddenly remembered why we had come. She unhooked her extra bra and handed it to the barmaid. All kinds of cheering and whooping ensued.
It was time for a smoke break. I dragged Ingrid outside with me. After a half-hour in that bar, hearing someone speak in way that was free of casual bigotry seemed strange, but we quickly re-assimilated as we talked about plans for this article.
We enjoyed about 2 minutes of peace before the door swung open and Kramer stepped between us. I could tell we were both thinking the same thing—we needed to make this guy think we were like him, lest I be beaten to a pulp for no real reason whatsoever. We had to hide any of the cultural trappings of our public-ivy backgrounds. Well, we failed. Kramer hassled us viciously for some minutes. We decided to leave after he played a cruel prank on Ingrid.
Swaying into RJ’s Place, I found myself surrounded by locals. I knew they would be here, but it was glaringly obvious that Andre and I were not indigenous to the scene. Brad, Jim, and Tinder Date were passable. I suddenly felt like an explorer who had unwittingly donned the war paint of a neighboring tribe in a feeble attempt to assimilate. Do they know I am here under false pretenses? All eyes found us as we shuffled sideways down the length of the bar to the empty seats. I became conscious of the disparity of age and background between us. The patrons were largely comprised of retired veterans talking loudly, guffawing, throwing-back beers, and in desperate need of baths. There was only one thing that would remedy this pickle I found myself in— vodka. Andre was already haggling with the plump middle-aged bartender with frizzy orange hair over some whiskey.
“Could I get a Vodka soda, please?”
She slid the mystery vodka across the bar and I was pleased to find that the soda was an afterthought. I noticed the famed wall of bras behind the bar and remembered our purpose for visiting this establishment. “Is is true that if you give up your bra you can drink for free?” I asked the bartender.
“No, Hon, we just collect them.”
“So, you want girls to just hand over their bras without compensation?” What is this, St. Vincent de Paul’s?
The bartender leaned over the bar. Her tits flattened over the surface and I had to rescue my drink from certain doom.
“Normally we would let you drink for free, but the owner is here now,” she whispered conspiratorially, her eyes jetting to the older man behind the bar.
Luckily, I had come prepared. I reached under my shirt and ripped off one of the two bras I was wearing and handed it over.
“Add that to your collection.”
“Ron, we got another one!” she shouted, holding my bra above her head like a prize. Ron came over inspected the spoils, turning it over in his wrinkled hands.
“Oh, this one is going right here in the front. Yeah, this is a nice one—I can tell. This is one of those $50 ones, right here!” he proclaimed proudly as he hung it on the collage of lace, cotton, satin, and underwire.
Turning over my glass, I took a moment to more closely examine the clientele. There was a definite impenetrable camaraderie that suggested this was the daily watering hole for these guys. They addressed each other by name, made bets, and exchanged misogynist jokes. The compadres laughed riotously as Andre and I exchanged uncomfortable looks.
“Do you want a cigarette?” Andre asked me. I took the offered Lucky Strike. My cigarette consumption is contingent on my alcohol intake. Sober, I will not touch a cigarette. This night, I was a chain-smoker.
Andre lit his cig, inhaled deeply, and lamented, “This place is everything I had hoped and feared it would be.” Kramer burst out the door, the remnants of laugher still on his face…until he saw us. “What are you fresh-faced university kids doing out here?” Oh god… he’s on to us ! We’ve been discovered. My alcohol-and-weed-addled mind raced for an escape. He watched us suspiciously as he reduced his cigarette to ashes in an instant. “Let’s head over to that Go Go place I was telling you about.” Andre suggested, after we’d withstood about five minutes of Kramer’s abuse.
“I’ll get the others.” I dashed inside to grab the others relieved to abandon the stares and bigoted crudeness that was RJ’s.
“You kids have never worked a day in your life. You don’t know the meaning of work…” Kramer informed us as we left the bar.
His voice was trailing off as we piled into the waiting taxi.
TO BE CONTINUED…