I like to tell people that my husband and I have a mixed marriage.
It’s not that we’re different races or religions, mind you.
It’s that he’s from Baltimore.
And I’m not.
I grew up on suburban Long Island, the child of two Bronx natives. And, like most kids raised anywhere near the orbit of the Big Apple, I believed that New York was the center of the universe, the city that all other cities aspired to be. It never even dawned on me that I would want to live anywhere else. I was intimately familiar with the nuances of New York life—what it meant to live in a particular borough, go to a certain high school or to patronize one bagel or pizza joint over another. I understood how seriously people took their various team allegiances and why our family’s loyalty to the Mets in baseball and Giants in football disrupted the natural Mets/Jets Yankees/Giants world order.
And then a funny thing happened. I went to college in Charlottesville, Va., and became enamored of the decidedly slower pace of life there. I mellowed so profoundly that living in New York City after graduation completely lost its appeal. I landed instead in Washington, D.C., a city that seemed like a good compromise between the two. There I met my husband, a product of Northwest Baltimore County who was born at Sinai Hospital, just like his father was before him. His grandfather had never lived outside a Baltimore ZIP code in his entire 90 years.
So naturally we ended up back in Baltimore. Because Charm City has a way of luring its native sons home, doesn’t it? I’ve often suspected that there must be homing devices in play.
Before I met my husband, I thought of Baltimore mostly as the city you passed through on 95 South just before you got to D.C., the place a girl I knew in high school used to go to visit relatives who were doctors at Hopkins. My most noteworthy Baltimore experience was in April of 1992, when I went to the first game ever played at Camden Yards—a Mets/ Orioles exhibition game. (In a bit of serendipity, my husband—whom I’d yet to meet—was there, too.)
When we finally moved in together in Canton in the fall of 2001, everything about Baltimore seemed appealing, in large part because I was so starry-eyed about playing house here. Life in Baltimore seemed like a fun diversion from my “real” life in Washington. But playing house eventually became getting married. And getting married became having two kids—both of them born at Sinai like their father and grandfather. We bought our first house in the city and lived there for 12 years until this summer. And we’ve now spent close to a year renovating our forever house here.
And through it all, I wore my outsider status like a badge of honor. I fell in love, naturally, with Atwater’s and Berger cookies, with the Stoop Storytelling Series and the Visionary Arts Museum. I cheered for the Orioles. But I kept a kind of ironic distance, never allowing myself to fully engage, as if I never quite unpacked emotionally.
I bristled at how insular and parochial this town could be, with everyone assuming that Baltimore was the center of the universe. It was as if it never dawned on people that they’d want to live anywhere else. Exactly like I had always felt about New York. I started to realize how hypocritical I’d been.
Last summer, my family went to the Orioles’ 60th anniversary celebration at Camden Yards, which included a video tribute filled with emotional highlights. As the black-and-white memories played out on the Jumbotron, I looked over at my brother-in-law, who was wiping tears from his eyes. And while I could barely identify a single player from those vintage Oriole teams, I found myself choking back a sob as well. This may not have been my childhood team, but the feelings engendered, the memories of lazy 1970s afternoons spent watching baseball with my own dad as he sat in his red plaid recliner, were undeniably universal.
My immigrant grandparents happened to put down roots 200-odd miles north of here, leading me to root for the Mets and have impossibly high standards for pizza. But I could have just as easily ended up a Ravens-obsessed, Natty Boh-drinking product of Pikesville. We all feel superior about the place we’re from…because it’s the place we’re from. My husband probably would have felt exactly the same had we moved to Long Island, rolling his eyes at how invested people were in whether your bagels came from Town Bagel or Bagel Boss.
When the riots broke out in April, and Baltimore was briefly Ground Zero of the national media universe, I found myself feeling instinctively defensive of my adopted hometown. I knew that there was so much more to this place than the almost cartoonish caricature I was seeing on TV. An editor at USA Today reached out to me to write an op-ed about the situation. And maybe for the first time, I felt like a legitimate Baltimorean.
This will be never be the place where I am from, but it’s the place my children are from, the place where my husband runs his business and the place I’ve lived for 14 years now. It’s home. And that’s enough for me.
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives with her husband and their two boys in Mount Washington. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend.