One of the things that distinguishes Baltimore from larger cities like New York or Philadelphia is its relative lack of auto- and pedestrian traffic in the midtown during the day. After the bustle of rush hour subsides and commuters are safely esconced in offices, stores, and coffee shops, street activity subsides dramatically until lunchtime.
The quiet can be downright eerie, especially if you find yourself ambling past Mount Vernon Place at 10:45 on a Wednesday morning, and you realize with a bit of a chill that you're the only living creature out and about, besides the sparrows and squirrels. And, since Baltimore's reputation for weirdness is richly deserved, such a moment can quickly take a left turn toward the surreal.
One morning a couple of years ago I was walking south on Charles St. to a meeting downtown, when I noticed that I was just about the only thing moving, human or machine. Mt. Vernon was so quiet that my footsteps echoed on the sidewalk and I could hear the hum of traffic on MLK Boulevard, blocks away. It was like being in a film set in some horrible, post-apocalyptic future where a neutron bomb had detonated, killing all the people but leaving the buildings intact. Or like waking up the day after the Rapture to find that I had been "left behind."
As I was entertaining fantasies of frolicking naked through a depopulated Baltimore, I caught a snatch of what sounded like music coming from the west. I stopped walking and cocked my head to listen. Definitely music, and getting louder. It didn't sound like the standard rock or hip-hop that one might expect to hear blasting from a car stereo. There was something about it that sounded cheerier, funkier, tantalizingly familiar.
It wasn't until the source of the noise - a dilapidated pickup - rounded the corner that I recognized the music: it was, unmistakably, the theme from 'Sanford and Son.'
I stood rooted to the corner of Charles and Monument streets, gaping at the disreputable-looking jalopy as it rattled past. The truck's color was hard to determine, speckled as it was with mud, dust, and peeling paint. Its bed was piled high with broken furniture and other detritus, and inside the cab were two men wearing wide grins, paying me absolutely no attention. Mounted on the roof was a pair of speakers through which the music blared.
The truck bounced and sputtered on its way north, and I stared at its retreating taillights. The Doppler effect distorted the music as it faded. Finally I blinked a couple of times and looked around for a fellow pedestrian, any other person who could corroborate the unusual scene I'd just witnessed. To my chagrin, the street had grown quiet and empty once again.
I have never again seen or heard that truck, nor met anyone else who has. At times I wonder if the moment actually happened, or whether it was a hallucination brought about by a bad breakfast sandwich and too little sleep. I only recount what I remember, and I believe the memory to be a factual one.
After all, this is Baltimore. Weird crap happens all the time.