Category Archives: Personal Thoughts

Misspent Youth: It’s always la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging
And Previouslier 20160401_142902

Head a bit further up route 2, and you get to a part of history where I get to rely on research rather than my own wildly inaccurate memories. Jumpers and the Severna Park Mall and Marley Station all loom large in my memories, but it’s been very hard to research them (Researching Marley Station is easy enough because it still exists, but it’s hard to get a historical perspective on it). They weren’t important or historical and they both ceased to exist long before the internet was a thing, and defunct shopping malls of the 1980s doesn’t seem to have caught on as a nexus of internet-age nostalgia.

The weirdest thing is how it looks so far and distant here, set way back from the highway — just like in my memories. But when you go there today, the site feels like it's right up next to the road Picture via Pinterest

The weirdest thing is how it looks so far and distant here, set way back from the highway — just like in my memories. But when you go there today, the site feels like it’s right up next to the road
Picture via Pinterest

They're knocking down the mall. The mall? What is it? It's an enclosed shopping center with climate control, but that's not important right now. Picture via cinematreasures.org

They’re knocking down the mall.
The mall? What is it?
It’s an enclosed shopping center with climate control, but that’s not important right now.
Picture via cinematreasures.org

But as our weird and personal little history draws to a close, we get to intersect some actual history for a moment, because the next thing you’re going to come to, provided you are making this trip about twenty-five years in the past, is the Harundale Mall.

And… I don’t really remember much about it. To me, it was mostly just the sign on the roof that looked like a nineteenth century frontier army fort. I’m only consciously aware of having visited it once. This would have been back in 1987 or 1988, when I first started wearing glasses. My dad took me to the eyeglass place there, New Deal Optical, I think. It was where he’d always gotten his glasses ever since he was a kid (The chain, I assume, not the actual shop, since my dad grew up in Hamilton, and it’d be weird to go all the way to Glen Burnie to buy eyeglasses). I took a pair of frames off the shelf to look at them, possibly try them on, and the clerk yelled at me for being a kid and interacting with the merchandise. My dad got angry at the clerk for this treatment and vowed never to shop there again.If you’ve been reading this column from the beginning, you might notice that I seem to have a lot of stories involving my father getting angry in a mall off of Ritchie Highway. In the interest of defending my father’s reputation, I should explain that the reason I remember these stories is because it was so unusual for my normally mild-mannered father to make a public display of anger. My wife has cautioned me to remember this when I become frustrated in the presence of my own children. Also, I don’t know, it seems like driving up Route 2 tended to put him in a bad mood. I ended up getting my glasses at the Pearle across the street from Marley Station.

When the Harundale Mall opened in October, 1958, (for the first four months, it operated under the name “Arundeltown”, a fact that is missing from all but one of my sources) the only other mall in the US to bear the designation was Minnesota’s Southdale Center. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.

Built by James Rouse’s company, which would go on, rather famously, to build the town of Columbia, it offered around 20 retail spaces and a half-dozen kiosk spots. Parts of the mall had a second floor, but only Hochschild-Kohn had retail there. The rest was used for offices and storage, as well as a rentable public meeting room. It was a small mall by today’s standards, around 300,000 square feet, half of which was taken up by its three largest stores, originally Hochschild-Kohn, G.C. Murphy and S.S. Kresge.

hklogoHochschild-Kohn, which I mentioned very briefly before, was one of the famous Baltimore-regional department stores from the old days. They went defunct in 1983 and the store at Harundale was sold to another Baltimore chain, Hutzler’s. Hutzler’s didn’t last out the ’80s. The mall tried to attract J. C. Penney to replace them, but Penney had a new building constructed at Marley Station instead. The space went to Value City instead. In 2007, the Value City closed, replaced by the Burlington Coat Factory from Jumpers.

G. C. Murphy was a five-and-dime chain. Their Parole location (Actually their discount department store version, “Murphy’s Mart”: commercial Realtor documents still list it as “Murphy’s Mart Shopping Center”. Now a Shoppers or a Kohls. Or maybe both. I don’t remember which end of the building was theirs) has a bunch of little flashbulb-images stored away in my memory, mostly involving the capsule toy machines near the registers, but that’s a story for another day. Murphy’s had survived the Great Depression, but couldn’t survive the ’80s. They got sold to Ames in 1985, who sold the smaller stores to McCrory’s. The G. C. Murphy at Harundale became a McCrory’s in 1990. I don’t know when exactly it closed, but McCrory’s was bankrupt by ’92 and the last of their stores shuttered in ’01.

harundale_main_concourseS. S. Kresge was another five and dime, which seems mildly extravagant to me. You think you’ve never heard of them, but you’re wrong: Kresge is the “K” in “Kmart”. I’m not sure if the Kresge at Harundale was still there when they stopped using their original name in the late ’70s. Maybe they moved to become the Jumpers K-Mart.

The rest of the mall was mostly local chains and non-chains, most of which don’t exist any more. From the list of original tenants, I recognize Lerner, Thom McAn, and Baltimore Gas & Electric. Annapolis radio station WNAV (Fun fact: currently part-owned by Pat Sajak) had a broadcasting booth on the concourse. There was also a grocery store — first Food Fair, later Pantry Pride — and an Italian restaurant with a sunken seating area at the south end.

Awwwk, awwk, motherfuckers!

Awwwk, awwk, motherfuckers!

The court at the north end featured the mall’s architectural centerpiece, a large fountain in the center of which was displayed the Harundale Rock, a dedication stone engraved with the names of the builders, a list of architectural awards, and a brief history of the site. The stairs to the second floor wrapped around the fountain, so you could pitch coins from landing. Next to the fountain was a large birdcage where they kept talking birds, which turned out to be exactly as good an idea as it sounds, and the mall eventually became famous for its profanity-spouting Mynahs.

20160401_142850Harundale’s star had slowly waned over the years. None of the small malls up and down Ritchie Highway had posed serious competition, but the place was showing its age. It wasn’t positioned to survive when Marley Station opened. The well-known, upscale retailers who’d been among the early tenants fell on hard times: Kresge had become Kmart; Murphy was gone; Hochschild-Kohn was gone; Hutzler’s was gone; Oppenheim-Collins was gone; Read’s Drug Store was gone; Equitable Bank had been eaten by Maryland National, then by NationsBank, then Bank of America. Their replacements had been progressively less prestigious: Erol’s TV and Video Club; Record Town; Value City; Dollar Tree, etc. Horn & Horn briefly reenters our narrative, taking over the Severn Room restaurant and turning it into one of their cafeterias.

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Misspent Youth: Marley’s Ghost

hutzlersPreviously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Trends in shopping were changing, as they basically had been for at least a decade by that point, probably forever. The recurring theme of my disappointing attempts at recovering childhood wonder is that since I was a little boy, more and more things have consolidated, combined, and homogenized. If I were older, I’d be complaining about the demise of Hothschild Kohn’s and Hutzler’s (Fun fact: Hutzler’s is credited with inventing the concept of “everything has its own standard price that every customer pays rather than haggling”). But I’m not, so instead, I’ll complain about the demise of shopping malls.

The overwhelming trend in retail during the tail end of the 20th century and the first seventh of the 21st has been toward larger names and larger stores in smaller numbers. This has two primary aspects: the rise of the big-box — supergiant warehouse-style stores selling middle-to-low-end everyday goods — and the rise of the “Festival Center”, where two or three high-end specialty retailers open large, opulent showrooms.

These developments are both intensely, inherently suburban. That is, they are based around the assumption that you are going to drive to them, spend a lot of money in one place, pack your purchases into the back of your SUV (It’s always an SUV) and go home. And if you intend to buy more than one sort of thing, you mean to drive between them.

Shopping malls aren’t exactly urban, what with the need to place ten acres of building and forty acres of parking somewhere. But I think their existence is a sort of historical accident. Because shopping malls evolved directly out of the downtown shopping districts in cities. In fact, the whole concept of a shopping mall started out as “Hey, let’s put a glass roof over this narrow, shop-lined street to improve business on rainy days”. The modern fully-enclosed shopping mall first appeared right smack in the middle of the 20th century, pretty much immediately after the big postwar White Flight to the Suburbs, and I think you can make a pretty solid argument that the whole point of shopping malls was to give middle-class suburban (predominately white) folks the breadth and variety of shopping experience without having to venture into the Big Scary City. Which probably means I should boycott malls on principle as being Part of the Problem, but thankfully, the point is moot because downtown shopping districts pretty much died out thirty years ago when they converted the old department stores into condos and all the little corner stores got turned into antique shops and comically expensive restaurants. (I dislike suburbs in principle, but having lived in the Big City for a decade, I just don’t have the temperament for it. And if my moral opposition were worth cutting my life short for the good of the planet, there’s more efficient ways to do it than moving to a place where the stress would kill me)

So in this view, the shopping mall is essentially a little chunk of the city, carved out, sanitized, and plopped down in suburbia. Its downfall (Insofar as a downfall has actually happened and isn’t just in my head) came because, sixty years on, the suburb has become the default cultural model of middle-America, not the city, so a controlled emulation of the city is no longer as appealing. On top of that, in 2016, if I want to buy, say, boxer shorts, the Bloggess’s latest book, a new battery for my watch, the third season of MacGyver, and a Voyager-class Optimus Prime, I can get it done in one trip by going to the mall… Or I can get it done in zero trips using this neat little gizmo in my pocket. And in a couple of years, I’ll be able to do that and have my purchases brought to me by a robot.

Marley Station

The weirdest thing is the “Free Wifi” sign on the window. It’s like “What are you doing here, it’s 1988?”

What I’m getting at is that the writing was probably on the wall for the tiny little malls of my youth. The nail in the coffin is a subject of some considerable irony. It was called Marley Station. Named for the neighborhood on the outskirts of Glen Burnie and Pasadena where it stands, Marley Station was “the new mall” when it opened in 1987. It was exciting. It was shiny, and new, with marble tile and blue neon accent lighting, and a big glass elevator. And a movie theater! In a mall! I’d never heard of such a thing (the Annapolis Mall wouldn’t get a movie theater until some time after I moved to Baltimore). And a Friendly’s. With a faux georgian facade inside the mall. Oh, how we’d demand to go to Friendly’s. I’m pretty sure my parents hated it (Mom liked the ice cream, but not the food), but me and Kate loved it. My primary memory of the Friendly’s at Marley Station is my dad getting mad at yelling at the manager one time because it took something like an hour to get our food, and his was the only meal that came out hot. He’d ordered a reuben.

Ironically, the most charming thing about Marley Station isn’t even in the mall. Ann’s Dari-Creme, a ’50s-style hot dog stand, predated the mall, and somehow managed to remain in-place, situated between the lanes of the mall’s entryway. I’ve never actually been there. I always think I’d like to, but in the heat of the moment, can’t work out how to get in. But that’s because I’m an idiot: they’re doing perfectly good business. They will almost certainly still be there when Marley Station finally, mercifully closes.Marley Station, when it opened, was anchored by a Hecht’s and a Macy’s. The mall is a sort of abstract letter-M shape (I don’t know if that’s intentional), clearly designed to accommodate four anchors. There were two places near the center of the mall where the major corridor would just end at a blank wall. Later, they added a J. C. Penney, and eventually a Sears.

It was new, it was fancy, it was exciting. It had all the usual things too, the Kay-Bee Toys, the two bookstores (Waldenbooks and B. Dalton), the Boardwalk Fries, the inexplicable shoe repair shop, the Arby’s, where mom would order a roast beef sandwich and throw two thirds of it away for not being well-done enough (Mom has an animal protein allergy and can only eat meat that’s been cooked enough to denature it. I was thirteen before I found out that it was actually okay to eat beef that had even a trace of pink to it). It was cool enough that we didn’t really notice or care that it was choking the life out of the other malls. It was more convenient than driving to four different places anyway.

But like I said, retail was changing. The traditional mall’s days were numbered, at least as the dominant retail force. The small malls had two anchors. The big malls had three. Marley Station had four department stores. When Arundel Mills opened in Hanover in the fall of 2000, its design included space for seventeen large anchor stores. Only one of them was a traditional department store (A T.J. Maxx that kinda looks like it may have been there already and the mall just grew around it). The money wasn’t in a mall with a hundred tiny shops; it was in a Power Center with a dozen high-end luxury retailers, flanked by a couple of warehouse stores. And a casino.

I don’t know when exactly Marley Station entered into its decline. Probably right after Arundel Mills opened. Macy’s sold their original location to Boscov’s in 2006 when they merged with Hecht’s. Boscov’s went bankrupt two years later and closed most of their stores. The location is now a data center owned by AiNET, who’ve indicated that they’d like to buy the rest of the mall. I realize that this would entail gutting the place, but I really like to imagine them just leaving the mall exactly like it is but filling all the individual little store bays with racks of servers.

Former Friendly's at Marley StationThe mall has sort of drawn itself inward, if you can imagine it. The core of the place, the center court, still looks perfectly healthy, with the usual array of clothing stores and jewelry stores and stores for every major cellular carrier. But as you move away from that center court, the mall shows signs of evolutionary divergence, like an animal that got stranded on an island somewhere and is slowly evolving flippers to suit its new niche. On the AiNET side, the mall is largely vestigial. Its lower level features only two stores on that wing, an anemic video arcade and a really rather nice dollar store. The upper floor has a fitness place. Most of the rest of the space in that wing was leased by the casino over at Arundel Mills for training spaces. The Friendly’s facade still remains, but what’s inside now is, near as I can tell, a private collector’s model railroad layout.

The Macy’s end of the mall is less empty, but the character of the place is very odd. A large section of what were once small shops have been consolidated into a two-story gym. Marley StationThere’s an As Seen On TV store, and a place that buys gold. A bounce-house place for children’s parties. An inordinate number of hair places — salons, braiding, beading, and plucking. The shoe repair place is gone, but there’s a tailor. There’s a tag and title place. I’m pretty sure a tag and title place was one of the last businesses to leave the Severna Park Mall before its demise. Probably the weirdest thing (aside from the model railroad) is a large shop catering to racing enthusiasts. A big chunk of the place is NASCAR licensed gear, but the bulk of the store is taken up by an enormous slot car track, and it looks like a lot of their trade is in high-end slot car stuff.

 

When you look at it, it's like one of those optical illusions, only instead of a rabbit and a duck, it flips back and forth between 1987 and 2016.

When you look at it, it’s like one of those optical illusions, only instead of a rabbit and a duck, it flips back and forth between 1987 and 2016.

Once it opened, back in 1987, it promptly drove the other malls out of business. I think maybe even Annapolis felt the strain as they became the boring pedestrian “old mall” compared to the new, exciting modern two-story mall fifteen minutes up Ritchie Highway. But time passed and wasn’t kind. The mall has expanded a bit, but never had a major renovation: the only change to the design and decor in almost thirty years is that they don’t have built-in ashtrays. In 2013, Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings against the Simon Property Group, owners of the mall. The Woodmont Company was appointed receivers of the mall, to take care of it until the bank and the owners settle. They’re largely responsible for the mall hanging on as well as it has — under their management, the mall’s vacancy rate dropped from 66% to 15%, and they’ve done a lot of work to keep the place clean, well-maintained and decorated, which has probably spared it from turning into a creepy dystopian horror movie set like most declining malls.

They still hold community events at the mall, most recently, a Halloween party for children with Trick-or-Treating. The management company has affirmed that they’re focused on retaining their current tenants and attracting new ones, denying any interest in closing down and selling the retail space to AiNET. I don’t really know what the future is for Marley Station. Since, unlike the other malls we’ve stopped at so far, Marley Station still exists, it’s a bit easier to get information about it, though historical information is obviously harder to come by. Maryland independent filmmaker Dan Bell has been doing a series of videos on the dead malls of the mid-atlantic, and Marley Station is one of the malls he visits. Check it out. The southern terminus of MD-10 is less than a mile south. Route 10 is essentially a bypass for Ritchie Highway from Pasadena to Baltimore, meaning that Marley Station isn’t really “on the way” anywhere any more. It’s sort of out-of-the-way, set well back from the road on a section of Route 2 that’s much more residential and less built-up than Severna Park or Glen Burnie. And, though Macy’s, Penney’s and Sears are basically burned in my mind as the archetypical mall anchors, none of them are doing especially well (Sears, in particular, somehow managed to completely fuck up the internet age, somehow deciding, after more-or-less inventing mail-ordering basically anything, that the future of retail was 1980s-style department stores, and completely gutted their catalog business), and frankly, it’s a matter of time before one of them pulls out. Without anything in particular to serve as a big draw, the only retail future that really makes sense for it is to serve as a direct replacement for the extinct local malls it helped to kill off: a place to gather small, lower-end or specialty shops that can’t afford the overhead of stand-alone site.

To Be Continued...

Misspent Youth: Mall-Hopping on Ritchie Highway

This week’s column is brought to you by the fact that having a small baby is tiring and I haven’t had time to watch the next episode of War of the Worlds, so I needed something I could write entirely from memory.

mallRecently — though he’s been getting better about it since his birthday — when it’s late, and we tell Dylan that he’ll have to wait until tomorrow to do something or watch something or eat something, he’ll have a minor little freak-out to the tune of, “But what if I don’t want to tomorrow?” All a-panic that he might not get to do something because he’ll have stopped wanting to.

This sounds, on the face of it, very silly. But I get it. I totally get it. I remember. I remember begging my mom to remind me tomorrow when I woke up about the thing I had really wanted to do the previous night. I remember being very young when I became conscious of morning amnesia, the strange phenomenon wherein your brain has a go at blanking itself out while you sleep, so that you wake up wondering who you are and what you’re doing here, rather than waking up horrified at knowing who you are and what you’re doing here. I remember being very young when I realized that, quite often, just as I was getting ready for bed, I’d suddenly remember that the previous night, I’d desperately wanted to do something, only to forget overnight, and only remember just now when it was too late to do anything about it.

Time works differently when you’re a child, that’s what I’m getting at here. The past is another place and you were another person when you lived there. I remember it taking me a long time to hold onto the idea that summer had more than one saturday in it — I had enough of a sense of it being wrong to ask about it, but I could never quite internalize the answer. My son coined a wonderful little neologism when he talks about the non-immediate past: he refers to things having happened, “A few whiles ago.” Time was mostly an endless, indistinct blob of “the same” punctuated by irregular intervals of “different”. Not that being an adult is all that much different, except that the “the same” happens a lot faster and more often, and you’re more tired.

So you can perhaps take it with a grain of salt when my childhood memories tell me that it takes a shopping mall freaking forever to die. There were no shopping malls on Kent Island when I was growing up, and there still aren’t, unless they’re hiding. There’s four or five strip malls, depending on how you count, and, of course, the ghost mall. But an actual proper shopping mall required going Across The Bridge, which made it the most attainable experience in my childhood that still fell into the realm of “exotic”, and I imagine that’s why shopping malls have always held a certain special kind of nostalgia for me, despite the fact that I don’t especially like shopping.

Actually, I guess that a shopping mall is itself only the most attainable and least exotic example of a whole class of thing I like. I don’t know if it even has a blanket name. “Arcology” is the closest thing I can think of, but those are largely hypothetical constructs that bring a lot more specific things to mind than what I’m really going for. I’ve always been fascinated in enclosed spaces that have more than one thing inside them — this is itself probably a special case of my odd obsession with variety and diversity, and maybe also that I’m kind of claustrophilic. Shopping malls, sure, but also train stations, cruise ships, casino hotels, and underground cities. But not big box stores, supermarkets or department stores, once they ripped out the acoustic ceiling tiles and tore down the walls between departments at least (Odd fact about me: going inside a Bed Bath and Beyond causes me physical distress. Not so bad that I can’t work past it, but something about the design, with the high ceilings and shelves stocked to the roof does something to my depth perception. I feel like Malcolm MacDowell in that movie where he’s H. G. Wells time traveling to the ’70s to catch Jack the Ripper and he comes over all dizzy when he realizes that the future is full of crime and gangs and war rather than being a crystal-spire-and-toga Sci-Fi future. And it’s gotten significantly worse since I stopped wearing aviator glasses).

Annapolis MallThe primary mall you’d go to back in the days of my youth, and still today I assume, is the Annapolis Mall, now called Westfield Annapolis. The mall was built in 1980 on the site of the former Best Gate station of the old Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Electric Railway. As far back as I can recall, it was anchored by three stores: Montomery Ward, Hecht’s, and JCPenney. Only Penney’s remains: after Ward’s closed up shop around the turn of the century, Sears moved in from its former location in the nearby Parole shopping center (Which was subsequently demolished and turned into a supergiant high-rise apartment block)Shop Parole sign, and Hecht’s became Macy’s when the May Company’s new owners consolidated the two divisions. The mall was extended in the ’90s with a new wing, adding Nordstrom as a fourth anchor and adding a movie theater above the food court. Another renovation in the 21st century added a second hall in parallel to the main corridor which runs from the back of Macy’s through the fifth anchor, Lord & Taylor (Another refugee from Parole) to the Nordstrom end of the mall. At one point, I think it ended up with two Starbuckses and four Gamestops. I liked looking up at the darkening sky through the large skylights as we walked from one end to the other and back, pizza at Sbarro, looking for games in the Commodore section at Babbage’s, begging for Transformers at Kay Bee Toys, free samples at Chik-Fil-A, pretzels from Hot Sam, and watching the currency exchange rates on the LED screen at the American Express place across the hall from where mom got her hair cut. Sbarro is still there. It was and remains a popular weekend hangout for cadets at the nearby US Naval Academy. I can, of course, track my own age by whether my instinctive reaction to seeing little cliques of midshipmen walking the mall in their whites was impressed reverence, apathy, or “My God what are those little children doing dressed up like sailors?”

These days, I reckon that if you were coming from Kent Island, the Annapolis Mall would be the only realistic choice if you wanted to go to a shopping mall. Located just off of US Route 50 about two miles past the Severn River, in amenable traffic, it’s about a twenty minute drive, give or take, markedly closer than the Salisbury Mall, even if it still existed, which it doesn’t. The much larger, much newer Arundel Mills mall is almost half an hour farther away, which, I mean, it’s doable, but that seems like kind of a trek just to go to Bed Bath and Beyond (It does have both a Medieval Times and a casino, though, so that’s a mitigation).

Back in the days of my youth, though, you had some other options. In that same window of 40-50 minutes it takes today to drive up to Arundel Mills, there were five shopping malls along the Ritchie Highway corridor you could go to instead. A few months ago, I decided one afternoon that I’d like to do something interesting, so I tried to drive down to the Laurel Mall. After twenty minutes of searching, I pulled into a parking lot and got out my phone and checked. Turns out I was there; the mall wasn’t. It’d been demolished back in 2012 to make way for a Towne Centre, which is the new hotness in commercial real estate, I guess. And by “new hotness”, I mean, “It was where the growth was back in 2003 when I was an IT temp for a commercial Realtor (Realtor is a proper noun. Really), which is where I learned the tiny amount of commercial real estate jargon I know.”

That’s what got me thinking about the malls of my youth. My particular interests run toward specifically old-fashioned shopping malls. Dark places with a lot of neon, and fountains lined with bathroom tiles, and built-in ashtrays every fifty yards (You used to be able to smoke in shopping malls. This all sounds like some kind of weird fairy tale now), and an inexplicable shoe repair shop twenty years after having your shoes repaired was a thing that was done by the sort of person who would visit a shopping mall.

Prior to the completion of US Interstate 97 in the early ’90s, pretty much the standard way to get from Annapolis to Baltimore was via Governor Ritchie Highway, the stretch of MD-2 from US-50 to the Baltimore line. When I was very young, my father had to commute to Baltimore daily and developed a strong aversion to that stretch of surface highway he maintains to this day. I did the same commute myself for three months in 2001 when I started grad school and found that I personally preferred the Ritchie Highway route, largely because I didn’t have a tremendous amount of faith in my 1990 Subaru Legacy with the broken power locks on the right side of the car and the broken manual locks on the left side of the car and the tail lights bypassed through the cigarette lighter and the spot you had to kick if the blower fan stopped blowing because it was on the same circuit as the brake lights. In favorable traffic, the two routes take the same amount of time to drive, but MD-2 is ten miles shorter.

About five miles after US-50 and MD-2 part company, after you pass an unusually large Safeway, and Anne Arundel Community College and a driving range where I think I played mini-golf for the only time in my life, you’ll come to what’s now “Severna Park Marketplace”, a strip-mall anchored by a Kohls and a Giant. Back in my misty water-colored memories, this was the Severna Park Mall.

Contemporary picture of the Severna Park Mall

I spent a few hours googling. There aren’t any pictures of the Severna Park Mall from back when it existed.

I seem to have a disproportionate number of memories connected to the Severna Park Mall for its size. It could be that we went there a lot, though I’m not really sure why. It’s a tiny bit closer than the Annapolis Mall, but an order of magnitude smaller. Never really intended as anything other than a local mall, its enclosed area was at most about 250,000 square feet, making it like a sixth the present size of the Annapolis mall. When I was young, the anchor at the south end was Caldor, who’d taken it from Grant City on account of Grant City ceasing to exist in the ’70s. It would later be a Zayre, Ames, Caldor again, and a Value City. I remember there were places where you could still see bits of evidence of the place’s past, like the shadow of the Zayre asterisk in the facade or a burnt-in “WELCOME TO AMES” on the cash register display. Some winter day between 1987 and 1990, my sister lost a pink and white knit tam hat there. Dad was very upset: he liked that hat. This was probably one of the inciting incidents in my lifelong disproportionate fear of losing things.

The anchor at the north end of the shopping center was Giant. Not the same one that’s there now — they tore everything down except possibly the shell of the Value City (I’m not even sure about that) in 2000. The new Giant occupies the space that used to be the mall proper.

A grocery store is not something I had ever seen attached to a shopping mall before (Insofar as there is a “before”, this stretching back to my earliest memories), and only rarely since, although research tells me that supermarkets were one of the most common mall anchors until the ’70s. In my head, there’s a largely imaginary but very strong distinction between “the sort of place that is in a mall” and “the sort of place that is not in a mall”, and only a very few places are allowed to cross-over (This is one reason why freestanding Chik-fil-as weird me out. Every mall had a Chik-fil-a on the food court, but I never saw a freestanding one until I was an adult). It was a strange novelty for there to be a grocery store which opened directly into a mall — stranger still because this meant that it had two completely separate exits, with separate pools of check-out lanes on different sides of the building. Not that we did a lot of grocery shopping in Severna Park. I think maybe we went there for seafood back before they built the Safeway on Kent Island, because the Acme didn’t have lobster or shrimp.

Slush Puppie

I resemble but am legally distinct from Droopy Dog

The mall itself was, as I said, small. I think it had a fountain. I don’t remember it having a toy store. The only thing I ever remember us buying there was shoes. And Slush Puppies. That bit I do remember. I remember the promise of Slush Puppies being frequently used to keep me and my sister in line during shopping expeditions. If you don’t know, a Slush Puppie is basically the same thing as a Slurpee or an Icee, though I think maybe a little bit coarser, closer to a snow-cone in texture. Or possibly I have it backwards as I have not had any of those things since the ’90s. I always got Blue Raspberry, because blue was my favorite color (Which is basically straight-up Dylan-logic and why I totally get it when he does that). Only many, many years later did I realize this was stupid because Watermelon is self-evidently a better flavor than Blue Raspberry, as hinted at by the fact that there is no such thing as a blue raspberry.

The other two major fixtures in my mind about the Severna Park Mall were its two sit-down restaurants. They were outward facing with their own separate marquees and facades, though if I’m remembering right, the actual entrances were still inside the mall. This, again, was not something I had seen on any other mall at the time (I have since; they’re utterly commonplace now). There was a Horn & Horn Smorgasbord and a Kona Tiki.

Kona Tiki was allegedly a Polynesian restaurant, but the distinction between “Polynesian” and “Chinese” was lost on child-me. I mean, probably they had this whole neat menu of amazing cuisine from the Pacific, but because I was a small child and my parents weren’t adventurous eaters, they just ordered Chow Mein or something. I remember us eating there, though I’m not sure if it happened more than once. I only remember eating at three Chinese restaurants as a child: a distinctive A-frame building in Annapolis which still exists, one in the strip mall attached to the Safeway on Kent Island (As previously mentioned, this did not yet exist during the bit of my early childhood I’m rambling about), and Kona Tiki. If you click on the icon for the Severna Park Marketplace on Google Maps, it shows Kona Tiki’s marquee, though as far as I can tell, the restaurant hasn’t existed in close to twenty years.

I don’t know much about Horn & Horn. It always fascinated me, what with that big fancy name, “Smorgasbord”. Buffet-style restaurants weren’t especially common in my youth. Horn & Horn is the only one I’m actually aware of (And the term “buffet” itself doesn’t seem to have ever been applied to them until the ’90s; anything earlier refers to them as “cafeteria-style”). There was a Golden Corral on Kent Island for a few years, but they were still a sit-down restaurant back then. So I was interested.

Horn and Horn SmorgasbordAccording to my dad, Horn & Horn was related to the Philadelphia-based automat chain Horn & Hardart. I was about to say that this isn’t borne out by the evidence, but then I turned up a 1989 newspaper article which revealed it to be true, but only in a technical sense. The original Horn & Horn restaurant in downtown Baltimore — a favorite of shoppers, corrupt politicians and tired strippers, due to its location convenient to the old downtown shopping district, the local government buildings, and The Block — had been opened by two of the three Horn brothers: the third went to Philadelphia and partnered with Frank Hardart, allegedly because of a dispute over the amount of seafood on the menu. But I think — and I’ll accept correction on this if anyone has more information — that the Baltimore restaurant was sold to another local restaurateur back in the ’50s, and the Smorgasbord chain only opened decades later.

I always wanted to try out the Horn & Horn. We never did. My parents weren’t adamantly opposed or anything. Or if they were, they hid it, because it seems like the answer was always, “Yes, we’ll go some day, but it’s not a good time for it right now.” And then they tore the place down so I never got to go.

Or so I thought. In a weird little addendum to this already weird story, while I was researching this article, I found out that back in ’98, Horn & Horn renovated and rebranded itself as Cactus Willies, a local buffet chain which I’ve visited a few times. It was okay.

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Evie for Justice

Dear Mr. President,

Hi. I am writing to respectfully request that you consider my daughter Evelyn to fill the seat recently vacated by Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court of the United States.

I realize that this is a somewhat unusual request, given that you have never met her, and that she is currently one week old. However, my study of article three of the United States Constitution informs me that there are no legal requirements levied upon Associate Justices of the Supreme Court as to age, the ability to speak, or whether or not the stump of the umbilical cord has fallen off. I hope you will agree that, with due respect to Justices Roberts and Ginsberg, she would undoubtedly give the court a much-needed boost in its level of cuteness.

20160228_125232As to her qualifications, I would point out that Evelyn currently sleeps between 16 and 20 hours a day, which places her well inside the median for current SCOTUS justices. She is a generally quiet baby, crying only when hungry. In this respect, she is slightly more talkative than Justice Thomas. Furthermore, as she currently lacks object permanence, you can rest assured that she would consider each case purely on its particulars (such as whether it contains bright lights and motion) rather than on preexisting biases. Indeed, according to the American Optometric Association, she is literally incapable of seeing color, except possibly red.

On a pragmatic level, given the outright hostility of Congress toward you performing your constitutionally-mandated duties by nominating a replacement, I believe my daughter would have certain advantages in the confirmation process. I can personally assure you that she lacks any legal or personal scandals in her past, and she has no past body of judicial work that could be held against her. Furthermore, I have personally never met anyone who has found Evelyn anything other than entirely charming. Even should Congress ultimately refuse to confirm my daughter, I think you will agree that there may be some political advantage in placing Senate Majority Leader McConnell in the position of explaining to the American people why he’s being so mean to a cute little baby.

Obviously, I realize that you have many excellent candidates under consideration for this august position, and it is obviously unlikely that you will ultimately nominate my daughter. But as the father of daughters, I hope you can understand why I would feel compelled to reach out in the hope of landing my child a respectable gig she can’t get fired from.

Besides, she doesn’t understand how logic works and throws a fit when she doesn’t get her way. If you put her on the court, probably no one would notice Scalia was even gone.

Thanks,
Ross.

PS. If you don’t feel Evelyn is right for the job, I also have a four-year-old son who has a strong sense of justice and fairness, but I should warn you that his position on gun control is probably not what the country really needs at this time.

For my daughter

Dear Evelyn,

Four years ago, I wrote a long list of advice to your brother. That’s all still good advice, so take it.

You’d think after four years, I’d have learned something as a father, and would have all sorts of new things to say or whatever. But mostly, I’m just very tired. So very, very tired.

I could be all trite and tell you how I love you just as much as I love your brother. But the truth is, I don’t know you yet. You don’t know you yet. It’s reasonable to say that I love you the same as I love him, because I don’t love him the same today as I did when he was born. He’s not the same person he was four years ago, I’m not the same person I was four years ago. And you won’t be the same person four years from now. So I’ll say instead that, just like I love him the best way I can, I love you the best way I can. That’s how love works. It’s not like you use it all up or anything.

Your life is going to be different from mine in ways I’ll never completely understand. We won’t understand each other a lot. I guess that’s something I learned over the past four years. Like how you’ll never think of TV as temporal, and you’ll never have to wait for the library to open on Monday before you can find out the answer to a question about the world or the past, and you’ll barely even comprehend what a “phone number” is, and I’ll never know what it’s like to earn seventy-five cents on the dollar. That kind of stuff.

Look, anyway, read that stuff I wrote for Dylan when you get the chance. But before that, above that, just remember not to hurt other people if you can avoid it, and remember to never, never let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough, that you’re not strong enough, that you’re not tough enough, that you’re any less of a person, that there’s anything “just” about being a girl. Be the best you that you know how to be. And if you don’t like being that, then figure out someone else to be and be that instead. And I might treat you differently from the way I treat your brother, because you’ll be a different person with different needs, but if you ever catch me treating you worse, you go and call me out on it.

Because I love you, and I am proud of you, and I have faith in you. You got this. You are going to be amazing.

And it’s not like I let him watch The Walking Dead or anything.

Scene: After dinner. DADDY is loading the dishwasher.

DYLAN
My friend at school likes zombies.

DADDY
Oh?

DYLAN
Are zombies scary?

DADDY
Yes

DYLAN
Why?

DADDY
Because they eat people.

DYLAN
That’s scary. You should run away from zombies.

DADDY
Yes, generally.

DYLAN
Unless you want to get eaten. If you want to get eaten, you should hunt for zombies.

DADDY
I suppose so.

DYLAN
Or if you want to kill zombies. But for that, you need a sword. Or arrows.

DADDY
Um… Yes?

FIN

Anniversary

I know I don’t talk about religion all that often. I got something to say today, but if that sort of thing isn’t cool with you, go on and skip this one. Also, fair warning, there’s a bit where I imagine Jesus dropping a bunch of F-bombs. I’ll get back to mocking ’80s sci-fi and Doctor Who sight gags Wednesday.


I went to a wedding today. Not necessarily my first choice of activities, but it was nice enough and the couple look suitably in love. My wife was forward-thinking enough to restrain me when the pastor got to the bit about how God alone defines what counts as marriage and not the state.

But in-between the usual problematic stuff about wives obeying their husbands, a really good bit about love as a choice, and a strange-but-somehow-coherent analogy (marriages should be like icebergs, not piñatas. Though I think the comparison between the betrothed and the Titanic was ill-advised), there was a little bit in there — a juxtaposition I assume was unintentional — that got me thinking.

There’s this bit in Ephesians:

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
Ephesians 5:31-32

I guess I never really gave it much thought before. Too busy being upset about the whole “Husbands love your wives / Wives obey your husbands” thing.

There’s something profound there. If you look back at the old testament, there’s a big old recurring pattern of humanity fucking up, and The Big Guy responding with smiteyness. Adam and Eve. The snake. Noah. Sodom. Israel. Israel again. Israel again.

Certainly, the traditional way to interpret this is to say that humanity is just that unspeakably awful that God is constantly struggling to hold Himself back from just turning off the strong nuclear force and being done with it.

Even leaving aside that this is a pretty fucking awful view of humanity, what, in this view, are we to make of the comparison between Christ and the holy mystery of marriage?

You could read it as “Humanity was so bad that God had no choice but to put a ring on it to make them settle down.” But (1) real fucking misogynist and (2) kind of makes God sound like Cary Grant in a ’30s screwball comedy.

Fred Clark wrote an article some years ago on the idea of Epiphany. He refers back to the climax of the story of Job:

“Life seems pretty unfair and bewildering to us humans,” Job says.
“Well,” God replies, “you’re just going to have to trust me.”
“But you don’t understand what it’s like to be us,” Job says. “You don’t understand how all this looks from our point of view.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t understand how it looks from my point of view, either,” God says. “One of us loosed the cords of Orion and laid the foundation of the earth and the last time I checked, it wasn’t you. So just trust me, OK? I’ve got this.”

I have this little story I like to tell, a sort of little skit. It about what happens when Jesus arrives in heaven after the crucifixion.


 

God: Welcome back, son. Good work with the whole dying for the sins of mankind thing.

Jesus: Dude! What the balls, Dad! Me H. Me that fucking hurt!

God: Um, yeah, sure. Anyway, now that’s over with—

Jesus: Dad, you are not getting this. Dying really fucking sucked.

God: Language, Son.

Jesus: Do not talk to me about language, Pops. Three fucking hours. Do You have any idea what being crucified is like?

God: Do I have any idea? Omniscient, remember? I loosed the cords of Orion and laid the foundation of the Earth in case You’ve forgotten, Young Man.

Jesus: Yeah, and how long did that take?

God: Um. I just kind of magicked it into happening.

Jesus: Three fucking hours. How many times have You had to carry your entire body weight by your rib cage for three fucking hours — which, in case You’ve forgotten, nails in your wrists.

God: I just don’t see why You’re making such a big deal of this

Jesus: And that’s not even getting into the scourging and the crown of thorns. Or that I had to carry the fucking cross up the hill for them to murder me on it. It’s not enough that they’re like, “Hey Jesus, we’d like to kill you slowly over the course of three fucking hours by nailing you to a cross, and oh by the way, we’ll need you to bring your own cross; we don’t have one prepared or anything. Oh, and hey, guess which local carpenter just happened to have the big cross-building contract?

God: Son, I get that you’re upset about this. But really. It’s only a painful mortal death lasting three hours. What’s three hours compared to the entire 14-billion-year history of the universe? Or maybe it’s only four thousand years, but we’re still talking about a pretty insignificant ratio here. And, I mean, it’s not like You thought it would stick or anything.

Jesus: Do You not remember me shouting “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”

God: … I thought You were being ironic.

Jesus: For someone omniscient, You can be real dumb, Dad. Let me lay it out for you: when you’re a human, dying really really sucks. It doesn’t matter if you know that there’s something better coming after. It doesn’t matter if you’re prepared. It sucks balls. It’s painful, it’s scary, and most of the time you end up soiling yourself. Seriously, have You ever asked anyone about this?

God: I, uh, I’m not really big on asking people things. Omniscient and all.

Jesus: Go ahead. I dare you. Ask Moses. Or Noah. Ask Methuselah.

God: Okay, fine. Yo, Moses.

Moses: Sup?

God: That whole “dying” thing. You did that, right?

Moses: Yup. Got this close to the promised land, but You were like, “Nope!”

God: Right. But it wasn’t a big deal, right? I mean, you had a good run on Earth, and then you got to come hang out here, so it’s all good, right?

Moses (sheepish): Um… About that… I mean… Okay, look, I’m totally over it now, and we’re completely cool. One hundred percent cool. I mean, this whole thing with the Romans sucks. And the Seleucids. And the Babylonians. And the Assyrians. But anyway, yeah, like I said, I got over it. But, uh, yeah. The actual dying itself was pretty bad. You know how you always want me to come over and watch the wars with you and I always say I’m washing my hair that night? Yeah, actually, it’s just that having gone through it, I kinda get flashbacks when I see someone buy it.

God: Oh. I… Do the others feel that way too?

Moses: I don’t know about everybody. I mean, not Enoch, obviously. But me and Noah and Joseph hold a support group the first Tuesday of every month.

God: Ah holy Me. Crap. You guys think I’m a giant hooting asshole, don’t you?

Moses (quickly): Oh, no- no not at all. We all love you up here. You’re the tops, Boss. It’s just, Y’know, sometimes, uh, little things get missed. It’s cool. We all know You’ve got all that big important loosing the cords of Orion stuff and the making Behemoths. But, uh, Noah would really appreciate it if you laid off the “giant piles of drowned animals” jokes.

God: For the love of Me! I thought he loved those. Why does no one ever tell Me these things? Okay. New plan. Son, Imma need You to go back down to Earth. Let everyone know that we’re working on the problem, and maybe suggest that they try to cut back on killing each other in the mean time.

Jesus: Fine. But give Me a couple of days first? I want to go spend some time with my buddy Lazarus first. I want to make sure he’s okay.


 

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,” is a reference to Genesis 2:24, and more proximately, to Matthew 19:5, where Jesus quotes the passage and adds, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

That’s another popular passage for wedding liturgies, along with Matthew 19:14-15 (You want to skip Matthew 19:8-12 because no one really wants to be told how it would be better if those who could handle it became eunuchs instead at a wedding), the one about letting the little children come to Jesus.

It is not a popular view in most branches of Christianity to say that “changing” is the sort of thing God is wont to do, and I’m enough of a pussy about committing straight-up heresy to propose that God changed in a literal sense. Fortunately, I’ve read enough Aquinas to know that we only ever assign predicates to God by analogy. So, analogy: marriage is to two people as Christ is to God and mankind. And if in the holy mystery of marriage, spouse and spouse “are no longer two, but one flesh,” and “What God has joined together, let no one separate,” then in Christ, mankind and God are no longer two but one flesh.

I don’t believe that marriage is a union of unequals. I got married because I wanted a partner, not a pet. And the complementarians keep assuring me that just because the husband is called to lead and the wife to obey, that’s totally still equal because separate spheres and also sit down and shut up, this is a wedding.

So what does it mean if the eternal, unchanging, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, purely transcendent God ceased to be a separate being from humanity?

If you’re curious why my little comedy sketch up there mentions Lazarus at the end, it’s because (Yes, I know I’m Lazarus of Bethany with Lazarus from Luke. I don’t care.) he’s the reason for the events portrayed in the famously shortest verse of the bible. Here’s Fred Clark again:

When Job learned that his children had died, he wept. But God did not weep.
Jesus wept.

Lazarus got sick and then, like Job’s children, Lazarus died. And when Jesus saw Lazarus’ sisters weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And then God Almighty — God who laid the foundation of the earth, who determined its measurements when the morning stars sang together, God who commands the morning and causes the dawn to know its place, God who bound the chains of the Pleiades and loosed the cords of Orion — wept.
That’s an epiphany.

Maybe the point of the incarnation isn’t that we were so wicked that God needed to come down and straighten us out. Maybe the point is that after hundreds of years of trying to smite humanity into being better, it finally occurred to God that maybe the problem was him. That maybe He just didn’t get mortal, linear beings. And so He decided to fix that.

 

Bargaining

The Family Room. A few days after Christmas. DYLAN and DADDY are sitting on the couch. DYLAN is playing Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man on his new LeapTV video game console.

DYLAN
Daddy, will you ever take my video games away?

DADDY
I don’t want you. But if you’re really naughty I might have to. For a little while.

DYLAN
(thoughtful)
Actually, Daddy, my favorite toy right now is… Is…. Is… Um…

DYLAN looks around the room. He sees an old toy shopping cart he’s given little thought to in years.

DYLAN
Is… My toy shopping cart

Misspent Youth: Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center

Chesapeake Heritage Center SignIt has been a quiet week in Kent Island, my home down. I guess. I don’t really know. The Queen Anne’s County Board of Education held a dance competition fundraiser at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club. There’s been a rash of mailbox vandalism in Chester, as crops up from time to time, typically ending when someone buys one of those concrete-post mailboxes that’s been cunningly disguised as a wooden post, which is probably about as close as you can legally get to legally setting up booby-traps to maim trespassing vandals. Some asshole did donuts in the athletic field at Batts Neck Park, tearing ruts in the sod ahead of a scheduled lacrosse game. Saturday, the business district of Historic Stevensville held their third annual “Small Business Saturday Shopping Destination”, where patrons of town businesses were entered to win a gift basket. An elf-on-the-shelf themed children’s version of the event was new this year. This coming Saturday, they’ll be holding a chocolate chip cookie competition among local businesses. Proceeds will benefit the Arts and Entertainment district.

A few weeks ago, an article crossed my news feed about how there was a temporary exhibit of some models of Cheseapeake Bay workboats at the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center at Kent Narrows. Now, workboats of the Chesapeake Bay is not a particular interest of mine, but scale models of things is. And more to the point, it turned out that there was such a thing as a “Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center” at the Kent Narrows, which, frankly, seemed a little implausible to me, and as I was scheduled to drive down there for dentistry a week later, I decided to check it out before my regular, “Wander around forlornly looking for traces of my misspent youth and then go to Hardee’s.”

Kent Narrows Bridges, Chester, MDThe Kent Narrows, which I mentioned in passing last time, is a really narrow strip of water that connects the mouth of the Chester River to the Eastern Bay. It’s basically just a deep part of the marsh on either side that they dredged until they could get boats through it. It’s crossed by two bridges, the Kent Narrows Bridge, which carries US-50/301 off of the island, and the much older Route 18 drawbridge, which sits in the shadow of the newer bridge and is officially called the “Waterman’s Memorial Bridge”, but as far as I know, everyone still calls it “The Old Narrows Bridge”. The “new” Narrows Bridge is an immense, steep structure that seems just ridiculously grandiose for a body of water I am pretty sure you could throw a Frisbee across, but the whole point of it is that you need to get sailboats under it, and four lanes of shore traffic over it, unlike the old bridge, which sits closer to the water, only carries two lanes, and, y’know, opened up in the middle a couple of times a day.

The community of Kent Narrows, I assume, refers to the area around the waterway on either side. The mainland side features a number of hotels and locally renowned restaurants. I never went to any while I lived there, but there’s a really nice one we go to sometimes when I visit my sister with a model train track around the ceiling and a big collection of antique oyster plates. The island side is almost entirely mooring, storage and maintenance facilities for yachts. And, of course, the extinct shopping center.

See, back in the late ’80s or maybe the early ’90s, there was a successful strip of outlet stores in Queenstown, anchored by the Chesapeake Pottery, a sort of, if I’m remembering correctly HomeGoods-like shop that sold, uh, mostly a lot of stuff I didn’t care about. In the back, they had a little gourmet shop, and after the Pottery closed down in, I’m guessing, the mid-’90s, the gourmet remained until a few years ago, when it suddenly closed up right around Christmas and unceremoniously fired all the employees, including my sister. So not too much later, they decided that the Island needed something like that. And right at the Kent Narrows, where thousands of travelers crossed on their way to and from the shore every day from May to September, would be an ideal place for it.

So they built this enormous blue clapboard shopping center. The center consisted of two buildings, and housed an Old Navy store, a really good deli where I had my first Turkey Club, a small toy store… And frankly nothing else I can remember just at the minute, because, come on, it was 25 years ago. But it was convenient and a big step on the Island’s long march to modernity.

And then they built the new bridge. So, see that picture of the bridges up there? If my orienteering skills are what I think they are, the camera is pointed directly at the Kent Narrows Shopping Center. Notice what you can’t see in that picture? Yeah, it’s just as bad from the highway. If you’re on the old bridge, the place is completely invisible. If you’re on the new one, you can catch a glimpse of it if you look to your right while heading east, just after you’ve passed the only exit that will take you there.

Kent Narrows CenterYeah. By the time I was sixteen, all that was left was the Old Navy, a hair salon, and, I think, a gym of some sort. The Old Navy closed down not too long after. These days, it’s just the hair salon and a former restaurant that a catering company leases out for private parties. I think some of the mall offices are rented to DNR. The clapboard has turned gray with age, as befits a creepy ghost-mall.

So when you go looking for the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center, by taking the Piney Narrows exit from Route 50, or making the last left before the Route 18 bridge, you find yourself on a winding road past a lot of yacht mooring, then suddenly up in front of you is this creepy ghost-mall, and it starts to feel like you’ve made a mistake. Follow the road around to the right, and it’s more docking facilities and yacht maintenance facilities, and I think a strip of townhouses that are accessible from the water, and you’re totally thinking that it would not be out of place if you passed an old man in a flannel shirt and yellow waders with a squint in one eye who tells you through teeth clenched around a corncob pipe that, “Aye, we don’t get many vis’tors ’round these parts this time o’ the season, least, not since the Old Navy Ghost been seen walkin’ the grounds at the old pier…”

So you follow Piney Creek road as it turns again to the right, and about this time, it occurs to you that you’re heading east again, and you were basically at the water when you turned off the highway to begin with, and this is an island, and surely there can’t be much more of it left before you drive into the water and drown. And this, approximately, is when you see a comparatively new, modern looking building. It’s got a bit of the look of an office building, rather than the industrial look of the rest of the area. It’s got a distinctively east-coast waterfront-community look to it, hipped roof, wood shingles. It’s not up on stilts, but you could easily imagine if it were. The front part of the building is a field office for the county police. The remainder of the first floor of the building is the Heritage and Visitor Center.

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor CenterParking is plentiful, optimistic even. Or maybe it just seems that way at the moment. The 1906 Skipjack Anna McGarvey normally stands outside the building on display, but it’s been temporarily removed for restoration. Also closed for the season is the attached Ferry Point Park (I’m not sure about the origin of the name. As far as I know, the ferry services ran from Love Point, Matapeake and Romancoke, not from the Narrows), which is undergoing shoreline restoration.

I wasn’t the only visitor to pass through that Wednesday, but the receptionist was surprised all the same, doubly surprised that I wasn’t a local, and trebbly surprised that I’d read the article about the model boats. The Visitor Center consists of two galleries and a wildlife porch. You enter through (Here, I’m guessing, since I did not note which room was which) the Eastern Bay Room, which is dominated by a large tabletop map of Queen Anne’s County. The periphery of the room has smaller exhibits: local photography, a few foam jigsaw puzzles children can assemble to learn the shape of the Eastern Bay, and a collection of vintage, modern and reproduction products of the Eastern Shore, such as canned produce or the shipping containers used for tobacco. On your way back toward the rest rooms, there’s an old-fashioned refrigerator in the corner with a sign inviting you to open it. Inside are trays of preserved teeth from local and historical sea life. You can also pick up tourist maps and brochures here, as befits a visitor’s center.

Down a hallway past the reception desk is the Chester River room. If the front room is more “Visitor Center”, the back is more “Heritage Center”. One of the first things you’ll see is a display of a half-dozen or so duck decoys by local artisans, celebrating Kent Island’s now largely lost tradition of decoy-making. There’s a collection of snuff boxes, clay pipes and tobacco containers as part of a display about the importance of tobacco to the early economy of the area. The drawers of an antique roll-top desk contain artifacts from early settlers, such as gun flints and tableware. The next section shows mock-ups of the various trade goods important to the colonial economy in the form of barrels of plastic corn, baskets of plastic rockfish and the like. There’s a reproduction of a seventeenth century print showing the native Matapeake tribe engaged in typical activities like fishing, hunting and farming. Panels on the image open up to reveal modern photographs of twenty-first century white guys engaged in the same activities.

Past this is a chest of drawers illustrating the geological history of Kent Island. Drawers down the left side each contain a map of the island and a few paragraphs about the conditions and population (human and otherwise) during time periods ranging from the present day back to 8,000 BC. Each map is superimposed with the Island’s present-day outline to show how erosion has nipped away at the edges of the Island. The corresponding right-hand drawers contain small artifacts of the period, mostly arrowheads, clovis points and knapping tools. Beside this, set into what looks to have been meant as a coat closet, is a temperature-regulated display case of colonial-era tools, including a badly deteriorated but mostly intact flintlock mechanism.

The gallery is loosely partitioned into three sections by partial walls. While the first section primarily covers the precolonial and colonial era, the large middle section is oriented toward the history of Queen Anne’s County, and Kent Island in particular, from American independence through about the middle of the twentieth century. There’s nothing directly about the wars, the Island not being of tremendous direct strategic importance in either so far as I know (More relevant but also unmentioned is that time that Virginia and Maryland kinda sorta went to war over ownership of Kent Island, mostly because William Claiborne didn’t know when to give up). One wall displays pages from 18th century farmers’ almanacs and examples of period farming equipment and techniques. The opposite wall houses displays of the tools of the trade of watermen, equipment for fishing, crabbing and oystering, as well as samples of silt from various beaches around the county.

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor CenterI don’t recall anything in the display explaining this, but farming on Kent Island went into a decline in the 19th century due to soil degradation. Fortunately, an industrial revolution started up shortly thereafter which made Stevensville a viable shipping and transport hub between the middle Delmarva peninsula and Baltimore. Appropriately, the east wall of the gallery covers Kent Island’s role as a transport hub. One display shows photographs of the ferry boats that were the primary means of accessing the island until the 1950s, along with some small artifacts like fare tokens and a coffeepot. The section also covers the long-extinct railroad, with photos of the old railroad bridge and a model train carrying examples of the sort of freight that would travel the long-defunct Queen Anne’s Railroad (That is, they put a can of corn and some plastic vegetables in one of the freight cars).

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center exhibitThe exhibits get a bit more fanciful when they come to cover the construction of the Bay Bridge (Which is, for you pedants, technically called the “Governor William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge”, but not even most official state publications call it that). In addition to photos of its construction and ephemera from the opening celebration, there’s a case of Matchbox cars meant to be demonstrative of the traffic volume over the bridge, and a couple of paint cans labeled with the amount of paint it takes to coat the 4.3 mile steel structure.

The northernmost section of the room is where the aforementioned model boats are exhibited. The exhibit consists of about six or so models of some of the more signficant styles of boat used for pulling sea life out of the Chesapeake. And I should be up-front here: they’re not really all that much to look at. I mean, these are fantastically well-made models, and they’re at least as accurate as my minuscule maritime history knowledge can tell. And if you’re into that sort of thing, more power to you. But here’s the important thing to remember if you’re most people and don’t have any particular specialized interest in the subject: these are working boats. Their entire raison d’etre is to take a waterman out somewhere where he can pull up a bunch of aquatic life, then carry him and the aquatic life back to port, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Which is to say that we are for the most part talking about boats that all more-or-less look like a flat box with a point at one end. A boat with a large, flat deck for working, a flat keel for shallow water, and a sail design that minimizes the amount of manpower needed to do the not-fishing work of making the boat go where you want it. Skipjack Anna McGarveyThe only boat that’s properly interesting to look at all on its own divorced from maritime history is the Skipjack. The official state boat of Maryland, the Skipjack was a late 19th century design to make oyster dredging cost-effective in light of legal restrictions on the use of powerboats. Their most distinctive feature is their disproportionately large sails, which provided the power needed to pull an oyster dredge. Limited use of powerboats in oyster dredging has been permitted since the 1960s, so most modern Skipjacks hang a small motorboat from a davit off the back that they use to tow them around when they’re working.

There’s also, without explanation, a 1950s television set. Which is cool, but I have no idea why it’s there.

The wildlife porch is a small room at the end of the building, facing the park. On a nice day, I imagine it could be pleasant to sit a while on the bench and bird-watch out the windows, though I guess if the weather was amenable for bird-watching, you might just as well go outside and do it there. It’s also the home of their live animal exhibit, which consists of a terrapin named Francois and a horseshoe crab (unnamed). There’s a couple of small horseshoe crab skeletons you can look at next to the live crab’s tank too. Possibly as a warning to him if he doesn’t start bringing in the business. There’s also wildlife identification cards available so that nature-watchers can figure out what they’re looking at.

The Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center is a neat little place. Certainly, it’s small and the exhibit room is a little spartan, but there’s enough there to spend an hour or two. It feels like they’re mostly set up for school groups. I’m not really sure it’s big enough to justify a field trip, but maybe they do half-day field trips now? When I was in school, field trips were always all-day affairs, but then, driving a school bus anywhere worthwhile would be close to an hour each way back then. Chesapeake Bay Maritime Musem Brochure Cover, Autographed by William Donald SchaeferIt strikes me as pretty much a scaled down version of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, where I took a field trip in fourth grade and met then-governor William Donald Schaefer (This was before his infamous “shithouse” statement got him banned from the Delmarva peninsula), and indeed, the CBMM provided a bunch of the exhibits.

The tour is unguided, which I normally prefer, especially in a small museum like this. But in this case, without a guide to explain the exhibits, I think I’d like there to be more explanatory text accompanying the various displays, since a lot of them don’t have anything beyond the names of things. That’s particularly lacking in the case of the model boats, which really don’t give you any sense of their historical context.

I wouldn’t say that the Heritage and Visitor Center is really worth the trip all the way to Kent Island, but it doesn’t really have to be. Like I said, it’s fun enough to waste an hour on. And it’s about five minutes off of the major highway that you basically have no choice but to drive if you’re going to or from the Eastern Shore. So if you happen to be heading back from the shore in the early afternoon and you feel like stretching your legs for a bit, pull off at exit 41, wind your way past the ghost-mall, and stop by.


  • The Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor’s Center is located at 425 Piney Narrows Rd. in Chester, MD. Its operating hours are 10 AM to 4 PM, seven days a week during the summer months, and weekdays December through April, except holidays.
  • The model workboat exhibit runs through December 11.

It’s Been a Hard Day’s…

Scene: DYLAN’s room. Bedtime. DYLAN and DADDY are playing with his remote-controlled robot, who is fighting a fuzzy bear slipper.

DADDY
Okay, we have to finish up and lights out.

DYLAN
But the bear isn’t the Big Boss. If he calls the Big Boss, the robots will have to fight him.

DADDY
Dylan, it’s ten minutes past lights out. I think we’re going to have to defeat the bear and call it a night.

Dylan holds the robot remote to his ear as though it’s a phone

DYLAN
(to remote)
mumble mumble

DYLAN
(to DADDY)
Okay. I called in the knight. He’ll be here in a few minutes to defeat the bear.