Down The Ocean

July 3, 2009

Insulting Remarks from a First-Time Visitor

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“Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the three ugliest places on the face of the earth. The other two are that strip mall-strewn stretch of Ritchie Highway between Baltimore and Glen Burnie — and Glen Burnie itself.”

Those words were uttered, I’m ashamed to say, by an old buddy of mine one recent Sunday afternoon as we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way back to Baltimore. We were returning home after spending what I had thought were three delightful days over the Fourth of July weekend at my favorite beach resort. The weather during our stay in Ocean City had been ideal: sunshiny days with a haze-free and cloudless deep blue sky; warm ocean water, alive with gentle breakers, perfect for swimming; and cool, sea-breeze nights which induced deep and restful sleep.

It was the end of Mort’s first visit there and I had innocently asked him to sum up the experience. I figured that with his fresh eyes he could offer some special insight into the appeal of the place — besides the obvious attraction of sand and sea, of course. I’m too close to the subject to be objective because, along with thousands of other Marylanders who have spent their summers there for generations, I feel an irrational and uncritical love for that city by the Atlantic. And I assumed that Mort, too, would respond to it in a positive way. I hoped that his comments would explain, or at least justify, the emotions I felt.

“The buildings in Ocean City are a string of discarded matchboxes,” Mort continued, “tied together with telephone wires and power lines. Have you ever in your life seen so many telephone poles? And all those gross cables running off in every direction? The jumble and smell of the place bring to mind old clothes on a wash line, middle of the night television advertising slogans, rancid tuna fish salad, loud next door neighbors arguing endlessly through humid city nights. Ocean City is so ugly that a sort of negative beauty slithers into it — anything that honky-tonk becomes interesting by the very depth of its bland bad taste.”

I should explain that Mort has led a sheltered life. Until that trip to the ocean he had never traveled outside the Baltimore city limits — so, naturally, his points of reference are rather limited. But those very limits lend an innocence and purity to his remarks. He has an uncanny knack for describing familiar things in new and often surprising ways. His slightly bent perspective allows light to strike areas that would otherwise — perhaps should — remain in darkness. “You’re missing the point,” Mort, I said. “The ocean is the thing. The rest is just icing.”

“The town is ultimately more interesting than the sea,” he replied, “because of what it tells you about human nature. The ocean is just a beautiful sideshow. After a while it’s boring to look at something so endlessly perfect. When that happens it’s fun to turn from God’s handiwork and contemplate what the paws of humans have wrought. And when you look at Ocean City — I mean really see it — it quickly becomes clear that 99 percent of what has been created there is truly tacky.”

“It’s a family resort, Mort — not the Taj Mahal. It was designed as a place to vacation in, not to stand back from and admire.”

“The fact is, Ocean City was ‘designed’ and built by businessmen with one motive only: pure profit. That explains the shoddy matchstick construction, the dime store aesthetics, the unplanned sprawl. The whole town is a great example of what greed can create when it’s given total control of local zoning laws.”

“Well, it may not be perfect in your opinion, Mort, but millions of people love Ocean City just the way it is.”

“In the first place, even calling it a ‘city’ is incorrect. Real cities have storm drains.”

“What?”

“Didn’t notice, huh? Whenever it rains the streets fill up with water and stay that way for hours after the storm has passed. Driving the Coastal Highway then is like fording a stream — lengthwise.”

“You’re right, Mort,” I said. It pains me to confess this, but, by the time I pulled up in front of Mort’s row house in East Baltimore I had been swayed — to some degree at least — by his argument. For the first time in my life I was seeing Ocean City with a less than loving eye. It was depressing.

We said our good-byes and Mort, as usual, had to have the last word. As he left my car he looked back over his shoulder. “There was one thing I did love about O. C., though.” Mort paused, but when I refused to bite he continued. “I thought all those beautiful, nearly naked young girls were fantastic! They alone would have been worth the trip — that is, if they’d had had anything on their little sun-fried minds besides the perfect tan.”

As is turned out, my Mort-induced funk was short-lived. Once he removed his gear from my car and mounted the white marble steps to his front door, my indiscriminate love for Ocean City began to revive and surge within me. By the time I had driven to the end of the block and turned onto Eastern Avenue, I was planning my next trip down to the ocean for the next weekend—without Mort.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The original version of this small fiction, slightly longer and with a few word changes, was published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on August 2, 1979. It was one of a series of pieces I wrote at the time featuring the acerbic character “Mort,” my imaginary East Baltimore friend. In those days I was in an H. L. Mencken phase, strongly influenced by (stealing from) the Master. I discovered that the character served me well when I wanted to be critical and/or acidly humorous about any subject that popped into to my mind. And the best part was that I could shift resulting recrimination to my fictional alter ego. Mort the character was a handy writing tool indeed.


Today’s Gag

December 5, 2008
ideaCopyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.

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Corner Stores

November 12, 2008

Drink Chilly Willee Now!

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In 1940s South Baltimore there seemed to be a “mom and pop” grocery store on every other street corner—and many more in the middle of blocks—and the densely packed and populated neighborhood of shoulder to shoulder row homes meant their were plenty of people to keep them busy. (One friend of mine, a successful comic strip artist, grew up in a 1,500 square foot home with his parents and six siblings.) Those small commercial establishments were what today we’d call “convenience stores,” the “7-Elevens” of that era. 7up(Among scores of items, they sold my favorite snack food, called “Coddies,” or codfish cakes, made daily and served on salty crackers with mustard; they cost five cents each.) The basic day-to-day supplies people needed were just steps away from their front doors, and everything else could be found at the end of a slightly longer walk to the full-service shopping areas on Light and Charles Streets, and in Cross Street Market; or a short street car ride uptown. Meanwhile, most of the booming wartime labor force walked to their jobs at the dry docks and factories lining the harbor. Few families could afford a car, and none that I knew of had more than one, so there were no parking problems. (That’s unlike today in South Baltimore where there are at least two cars to each home.) The photographs I’ve used to illustrate this post were taken in the late 1970s, but they give you some idea of what I saw as a boy growing up in South Baltimore in the 1940s and ’50s. My only regret is that I could have (should have) photographed more of the remaining corner stores—of which there were still many in the ’70s—and the unintentional beauty of their cluttered window displays.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


The Encampment

July 9, 2008

Family, Friends, and Neighbors

In March, 1973, I spent a week of great weather photographing kids and streetscapes in the southernmost part of South Baltimore, where Light Street ends and a complex of old warehouses and railroad yards begin. Or at least that was the scene then. These days the area has been gentrified somewhat and many of the warehouses are now apartments and condos. (The railroad yards are still there, now owned by CSX.) I saw the group of kids pictured here on several occasions. It was always the same girls and boy; and the boy, to quote from an unpublished story of mine about city kids, seemed to be the “leader in charge.” The girls, meanwhile, usually appeared distracted, or—perhaps a better way to put it—self-absorbed in the classic “tween” girl group manner. They laughed and chatted while paying scant attention to me, if that. The boy stood off to one side, serious (he never smiled at me, just stared), hyper-alert, protective, as if he were on sentry duty. I came to think of the group in dramatic terms, as a family, a tribe, or perhaps an encampment of gorilla fighters hiding out in the mountains. Romantic ideas aside, I composed the image with the boy foregrounded, as dominate in the frame as he appeared to me to be in his relationship with the girls, and I was careful to include enough of the background buildings to give a feeling for the industrial character of the area. To provide more context to this layout I’ve added two other images of the “campsite,” made on the same day. I don’t know what those huge metal cylinders are, but since the neighborhood is only blocks from the harbor, I figure they may be buoys. (Click on any of the images for larger views.)

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Family, Friends, and Neighbors

June 9, 2008

Jacquie&?September 16, 1982

This is a picture of my friend Jacquie Roland, on the right, in a scene from one of her many community theater acting gigs. (In this case the play was a Baltimore Playwright’s production of “The Gathered Rose,” by Kathleen Barber, another friend.) When I composed the image I was interested in the relationship between the two characters at this particular moment in the play when Nora Meyer, on the left, was dominate—if memory serves she was delivering a monologue—so I went for an angle that would visually represent the fact by foregrounding her in the frame. (Sometimes photos do lie—Jacquie was the star of the show and the two women were actually very nearly the same height.)  Nora Roberts was once a co-worker of mine at the Social Security Administration. Baltimore, it turns out, is a very small town . . .

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore

Family, Friends, and Neighbors

May 11, 2008

Sisters Four

From roughly 1970 to 1990 I “doodled” around Baltimore, Maryland making photographs. (These two black and white images were part of an exhibit called “Family, Friends and Neighbors” at Fells Point Corner Theater sometime in 1998 or 99.) For the most part I focused on the streets of South Baltimore, near the harbor, where I had lived for five years, age seven to twelve. When I was twelve my parents “broke up housekeeping,” as my mother put it, and I was farmed-out to my three half-sisters, one in another Baltimore neighborhood, and the other two in Virginia and Kentucky. At age seventeen I enlisted in the U. S. Army, but that’s another story. So, back to my main point. With hindsight, I now see that by making images of “free range” street kids in my old South Baltimore neighborhood, I was revisiting the happier time of my youth before my folks split up. The image above is one of my favorite shots, a group of girls I encountered on November 18, 1972, near Cross Street Market in South Baltimore. I call them sisters, but have no idea if they were related. More about them later

Brothers Four

On November 21, 1976, almost four years to the day after I photographed the girls, I caught this group of boys in Hamilton, a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood. You can see what I didn’t notice at the time, which is there are huge similarities between the two images. In this case, though, I knew the kids very well. The two boys on the right are my sons, Shawn and Vince, ages fifteen and thirteen. The taller of the two boys on the left is their stepbrother, Johnny, and the little guy in between, with the scrunched up smile, is their half brother Tony. The house in the background is the one they shared for many years with their mother, stepfather and siblings, including another stepbrother named Joey. I take full credit (or blame) for the composition in this image. I allowed the boys to group themselves, then moved a few steps to the left in order to frame them against the station wagon and the house. I could have stayed where I was, or moved to the right, or in closer, but when I have the time I like to arrange two background shapes in the frame, one large and one small (in this case the car and the wall) to provide a strong design foundation for the image. The idea is that a large shape next to a smaller shape creates a more attractive overall abstract design than would two big or two small shapes side by side. “Visual contrast” is the fancy term artists use for this device to structure images, but during the fifteen years I taught cartooning to kids in schools and libraries I called it, simply, my “rule of big and small.”

The kids in both photographs had arranged themselves without prompting by me. When that happens and it turns out well—as it often does—it’s pure serendipity. Over the years serendipity became a favorite photography “technique” of mine. I found that if I gave my young subjects little or no direction they usually came up with a pose better than any I could have conjured.

When I first spotted the “sisters” they were moving away from me, but as serendipity would have it they noticed my camera and turned. Free range street kids, I knew, love to be photographed. Sisters Four was a grab shot, but I had good luck with their pose and the rushed composition turned out pretty well. (Well enough, actually, to be published in the old Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine as part of a contest. Which, by the way, I didn’t win.) I like the overall pyramid shape the grouping forms with the apex, the head of the tallest girl, framed between the two windows. (Also note the little girl between the larger girls, similar to the small boy in the Brothers Four image.)

I’m also a fan of dynamic blur in photographs, another result of serendipity. Blur often happens when you have to snap kids on the fly, which is most of the time, and you’ve set a too slow shutter speed. Street kids seem always to be in motion, totally uninhibited, expressing either positive or negative emotion, and these elements combine to make them wonderfully spontaneous collaborators. The little boy in the foreground of Sisters Four with the sucker in his mouth (the brother?) is an example of my serendipitous doodle-like blur technique. (The method is copyright-free, so if you like the result feel free to use it in your own photography.)

My favorite example of a happy-accident-masquerading-as-technique is this totally blurred image of boys playing in shadowed Churchill Street, near Federal Hill Park in South Baltimore. The blur happened because I didn’t have time to set the proper shutter speed; I was lucky just to grab the action. This is a picture I love because of its dynamic flaws, even the composition is the result of pure serendipity. (Churchill Street, by the way, is a grand name for what is really an alley lined with tiny row homes, all of them long since rehabbed and gentrified. But at the time I made the image, in the 1970s, it was still very much the mostly transit neighborhood of my 1950s youth.)

Flashback to December, 1967
I’m living in a rented room in a tiny blue house in a nondescript suburb on the western edge of Baltimore. I’ve left my marriage of seven years and my two sons, ages four and six. I’ve signed the deed of our modest brick semi-detached house over to my wife. Our separation settlement provides for child care, of course, and a she gets all our community property, including the furniture and car. The only things I take are my clothes, my drawing table (a Christmas or birthday gift form my generous in-laws), a few art supplies and the outstanding bills: Montgomery Ward, the car loan, a few other small debts, all of which I agree to pay off.

These days when I look at my old photographs I see stories. The big story, the overarching tale that accounts for my life from about 1967 to 1982—five years of intense emotional struggle after my divorce, then ten more of transitional economic struggle just to return to financial stability—is this: Learning to compose, develop and print photos played a large part in my rehabilitation. It gave me the motivation to take the first step back into the real world. That hobby—if that’s all it was—along with the help of friends and various forms of therapy, were the devices I used to get myself out of the apartment door and out of my self-imposed solitude. Photography reintroduced me—by its nature forced me—back into the wider world of people and relationships. You can’t make photographs while sitting alone in dim light, reading and watching television. The purposeful social actions required for street photography—mixing with people, asking strangers if I might take their picture, etc.—was just what I needed to get back into the rhythm of a normal life. These days I like to think of those days as my time of therapeutic serendipity. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.