Despite the time change, it wasn't that hard to get up on the early side today because, "We're going to the White House" was running through our heads on an endless loop. Well, Rick also had a refrain of "Good God, I'm a year older, Why God, Why?" and, for some strange reason the overture from "The Nutcracker", running through his head, but mostly it was White House stuff.
To get on a White House tour is difficult because you have to go through your Congressperson who only has so many tickets per day and then if you manage to get an entrance for the day that you want you're going to have to pass an FBI background check. Even though we know we have done nothing that would have raised any alarms, this is still disconcerting for some reason as it brings back a lifetime of indiscrections that suddenly seem much more serious than they ever were. An unreturned library book will probably not keep you from getting a White House tour, for future reference.
Prior to the tour, you receive a list of forbidden objects and a list of acceptable objects, which is much, much shorter - basically wallet, keys, and cell phone. Leave your pointy objects and cameras at home, kids. Once you're there however, the guards are awfully nonchalant, perhaps a trifle alarmingly so, at least after they check your name off the list as you go through metal detectors and the like.
They seem to have just reinstated guided tours instead of self-guided, led by in our case by an enthusiastic young man chock full of cool White House trivia. We loved the story of Dolly Madison saving the painting of George Washington from the original White House, fleeing out the back door even as the British were busting in the front door, but we couldn't help but notice that the painting in question is considerably larger than Dolly sized. She must have had help. It is sweet that they have put the portrait of Mrs. Madison in a position that looks straight at the portrait she saved so that she can "continue to watch over him," as our guide put it.
In total we saw the White House Library, the China Room (aka Dish Room), the Green, Red, and Blue rooms, the State Dining room, and the East Room where the 1,200 pound crystal chandeliers were getting their annual cleansing. It's a pretty cool process to watch and certainly not a job we would want. What's that? You want me to clean the priceless chandelier laden with history? Sure, I'll get right on that.
Scattered throughout these rooms are various presidential and first lady portraits, our favorites of which, by far, were the ones of the Kennedys - hers elegant and artistic, his evoking a quiet grief.
And yes, we kept thinking "The Obamas have been here. Are they here now? Are they close? Where's Bo?" We can't tell you the details of our lunch with them - national security you know.
From the house of the living to the resting place of the dead, Arlington National Cemetery was our next stop. Mary's uncle, her father's brother and father to two people we will be meeting up with in Cleveland, is buried there very close to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a high honor. Despite the overwhelming size of Arlington, with good directions on a map and a grave number he was located pretty easily. We were struck to realize that tomorrow is the 49th anniversary of his death. We told him he would be proud of his kids and his grandkids.
Since we were so close, we strolled up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Not surprisingly we were impressed and moved, all the more so when we learned that the Vietnam casualty's tomb is empty. DNA testing identified the body eleven years ago and in fact, such testing probably means there may never be anymore unknown soldiers. It's an interesting thought that this concept could vanish.
Well, it would be nice to not have any other soldiers, known or unknown, arriving here due to conflict but that's a whole other discussion.
From there we attempted to leave Washington DC. Several times. But the capital seemed to have the same hold over us as the infamous Branson Vortex, and we suspect it was planned that way to confuse the invading British. We're not British but we were suitably confused for quite awhile. We stumbled upon the Pentagon... that was cool.
Anyway, we finally got on the road to Baltimore, though we deliberately took a round-about trip there in order to pay our respects at yet another grave, that of notorious and beloved John Waters' performer Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine.
Now, we were hungry, so we stopped at a promising looking diner on the way to the cemetery where we had merely adequate hamburgers and a truly disappointing chocolate shake. When we were done, we asked employees at the front counter, who clearly had been working there for quite awhile, to verify that there was indeed a cemetery just up the road. "No," they answered with a little bewilderment, "Never seen one of those." "Huh," we thought, "Our directions say it pretty close to here." But of course our directions also suggested it would be easy to get out of Washington DC, so we didn't stand firm.
Another patron confirmed there was a cemetery down the road and so we drove about 45 seconds to find the small and somewhat overgrown Pleasant Hill. By the way, you could just about see the diner from outside the cemetery gates. Perhaps if we had asked in a different way - "Oh you mean the graveyard!" Maybe they thought it was a park with really oddly shaped swings.
Without a human attendant or a map, we had to rely on a scanty location, direction, and photo from findagrave.com, but after a little effort we did locate Divine. For the record, "near a small parking area on the lower level" is not exactly accurate, unless they consider the grass a parking area. If you are inclined to visit there is a single road that winds through the cemetery, first on an upper level, then turning left and down to a lower level. As soon as you finish making that turn, the grave will be over a few rows on your right.
Divine's headstone is covered in graffiti - we couldn't decide if this was insulting or endearing. Maybe a little of both.
With perfect timing, Rick popped "Good Morning, Baltimore" from "Hairspray" on the stereo (yes, we figured out some of the geegaws on Plucky Mobile), just as we crested into the city itself.
Our hotel for the night, The Brookshire Suites, is well-located, two blocks to the wharf and an easy cab ride to everywhere else you'd want to go in a short stay. The lobby and the public areas are all done in modern tones with big purple couches and sculptures in the lobby and fluted sconces and colorful framed art in the halls, which only makes the traditional - some would say stodgy - decor of the rooms seem more anachronistic. The good news is they are all suites with a proper living room and bedroom, which translates to a lot of elbow room, two flatscreen TVs, a microwave, a mini-fridge, free high-speed Internet and access to full breakfast in the morning and snacks and drinks in the evening. We think this would be a good choice for families, especially with the convertible sofa in the living room.
When asked, "I'm visiting Baltimore, what should I do?" John Waters would reply, "Just stand on the street and wait for something hideous to happen." We did the next best thing - we went to the Baltimore Tattoo Museum, which is also (or perhaps primarily) a tattoo parlor. See, Rick got a tattoo last year about this time and immediately wanted to make it bigger. But he wanted the artist who had begun the work to finish it, so here in Baltimore he decided to get an entirely new tattoo. Now, keep in mind that it took him nearly 20 years to figure out what he wanted for his first, so there was much back and forth in the few weeks between idea and execution, but he finally settled on the Chinese characters that mean Courage and Survivor, the closest he could get to Plucky Survivors. Apparently Plucky doesn't have it's own Chinese character.
The tattoo artist, Bill, bonded with Mary while repeatedly jabbing an ink stained needle into Rick's arm over their mutual experiences with late 70's to mid 80's punk rock and promoting small club shows. He was bemused when Mary just helped herself to the padded table next to the tattoo chair and laid down, shrugging "I've never had anyone do that before." First time for everything, we suppose.
Even if you're not getting a tattoo, the museum part of the facility is pretty cool with lots of art, tattoo themed pop culture ephemera (Butterfly Barbie!), bios of famed tattoo artists, and more.
Rick is very pleased with the results (see picture), although hailing a cab is probably best done left-handed for a couple of days.
From there we went to the Museum of Visionary Art, which is the founder's term for what is more commonly known as Outsider Art. This is a fantastic institution that challenges what a visitor may have previously considered "art," especially if one has not been exposed to outsider/unschooled artists before. They often lead or have led lives that were just as (or even more) interesting as the art they created, with the result being a visitor can spend as much time reading the absorbing back-story graphics as gazing at paintings.
We loved the one that listed 21st Century Wonders (velcro, zip-lock bags, The Fountains of Bellagio, and true love among them) and were struck by the sculptures that emerged when a kleptomaniac with Down's Syndrome sought to hide her stolen goods by wrapping them in exceeding thick layers. This place is a must do if you come to Baltimore.
We stopped off in the crammed gift shop, chock full of tchotchkes, unusual jewelry, books, and some folk art, partly for souvenir hunting and partly to get the local's opinion on where to get the best crab cakes, this being Maryland and all. The manager of the place, Ted, suggested a little corner hole-in-the-wall called LP Steamers and concerned that it might be difficult for us to get there because of the scarcity of cabs, and since it was only a two minute drive and his shop was closing, he offered to drive us there. Along the way we discovered that he has a second store in Cleveland called Big Fun, which we intended to go to except it's going to be closed when it's there. We also learned he's from Cleveland and half-Hungarian like Mary, and she made him very jealous by telling him of her upcoming Hungarian feast.
LP Steamers was, in fact, a hole-in-the-wall style joint in South Baltimore but in that good, neighborhood way that is often missing from the more tourist driven locations. A few picnic tables (that are covered with paper for the steam crab pounding if you so choose) and a counter line the narrow room and the staff was definitely of the "how y'all doin?" variety.
Rick's not a seafood fan, so he sat it out while Mary had her crab cake, which since it consisted of good lump crab meat, pleased her very much.
Then we walked a couple of blocks to a barbecue shack we had noticed on the way so that Rick could have dinner. The Harbor Que (see what they did there?) is within a stone's throw of the south side of the harbor and serves up what they refer to as authentic North Carolina BBQ. They have everything from pulled pork to smoked polish sausage plus ribs, smoked chicken, and more, but Rick decided the occasion of his 43rd birthday called for ham. Thinly sliced direct from the pit on a fat roll, it was delightfully smoky and the homemade sauce put it into BBQ heaven. Plus it had extremely cheesy mac and cheese and homemade cornbread on the side! Mary cursed her malady that prevented her from having an appetite big enough to have a second dinner.
After waiting a kind of ridiculously long time for a cab back to the hotel, Mary headed off to rest after the long day (White House! Tattoo!) and Rick decided to walk off some of his dinner with a stroll down by the harbor. Mary was as perplexed by this as she was by his statement that at some point on the trip he plans to use one or more of the workout facilities available in the various hotels in which we are staying. "Aren't you the one who made fun of me when I used the gym on Plucky Survivors 1?" she asked. Rick says that he would never, ever do such a thing and since he's the one who codes this particular website you're going to have to go back and re-read the previous Plucky trips to see which one of us right, because he's not going to put a link to any incriminating evidence here.
Baltimore has gotten a bad rep over the years as not being the nicest or necessarily safest of cities, and while there are certainly some areas of town that still live up to that rep, the Inner Harbor area is not one of them. A model of city core revitalization, the pedestrian friendly harbor area was full of tourists, locals, and a comfortingly heavy police and security presence even at eleven o'clock at night. Stores, restaurants, and bars line the water along with a number of very nice public arts projects. It was perfect for a casual amble on a warm September night and the pictures Rick tried to take simply don't do it justice.
Tomorrow we head into Philadelphia for more Red, White, and Plucky fun including a visit to the Liberty Bell.