Getting Malled

Baltimore's been a city since 1796, and though the place has been rebuilt and expanded a bunch of times since then, it has that good ol' heritage feel to it. Maybe it's because I hail from the wild west of Boise, Idaho, where everything seems new enough to be made of plastic, but I am still blown away by how old stuff is out here. From the Battle Monument-set on North Calvert between East Lexington and East Fayette, at what was supposed to mark the farthest north the city would ever reach-to our castle of a City Hall downtown-cornerstone laid in 1867-our streets are all history, all the time, a dream for the armchair historian or the retired viewer of Ken Burns documentaries. I am both of those things (except for the retired part), and oh, I love it here.

But sometimes I don't want the history, the glory of Old Baltimore. Sometimes I don't want to engage what can feel like mandatory reflection on the contrasts so visible on a bike ride that takes me past the fancy mansions of Roland Park and the rows of vacants in East Baltimore, just a few blocks from the lively Mount Vernon. Sometimes I want ease and predictability, the McLiving of the big-box County. I want sterile sameness, uncomplicated by the contrasts of the city. Ah, but that experience is frustratingly out of reach for those of us without motor vehicles, too cheap to rent a car by the hour.

So what's a secretly suburban girl to do when the urge for a day at the mall hits and Mondawmin just won't cut it? This week, I scratched that itch with a bike ride out to McHenry Row for something like a bored-housewife field trip.

The trip was a quick one, no lollygagging. I had a one-track mind, and that track ran straight to the pedestrian mall's bucolic setting, all that new brick recalling the historic neighborhoods surrounding it but with none of the old-world charm. As soon as I took a left on Whetstone Way, I was at home in a place that could be anywhere in the world and still look mostly the same.

I started my day with a massage at the Row's franchised spa. Sure, you could go to one of the dozens and dozens of independent massage therapists or body workers in the city, but Massage Envy will call you a member, lock you into a steady contract, and occasionally offer member-only benefits-it's downright patriotic! Ursula was my therapist this time, and she massaged the kink right out of my neck and made my headache go away. I signed out, declined the many upsells, and stayed on a few minutes to chat with the desk staff about our girlfriends. Apparently two of us are dating women who look like Shane from The L Word, and a third is dating a woman who is Shane from The L Word if Shane were black, and so we all agreed that we've hit the jackpot and deserve it because we are fabulous ourselves.

A strenuous massage is best followed by rest, so I took myself to the World of Beer across the "street" for an early beer. I mean lunch. I had the place pretty much to myself, and bartender Derrick seemed happy for company. I ordered the spring tasting menu and got four samples of beer that I guess tasted like spring-I'm basically a teetotaler, so what do I know? I had a lot of questions for Derrick, and he happily answered. No, they don't serve liquor. Yes, there will be another World of Beer opening soon, this time in Towson. Yes, there's an app to help you choose from their gazillion types of beer based on some kind of criteria robots and beer snobs understand. And yes, I could join a Loyalty Points Rewards Star Bonus program for regular drinkers. You earn a point for every new beer you try, and from the look of the leader board scrawled on the wall, they need some women to get drinking if there's ever going to be equality. I'm a feminist, I thought-I could totally win that contest! Then again, that might have been the beer talking. Derrick was great fun to talk to, and he taught me a ton about beer and other kinds of alcoholic beverages in our hour together. Did you know the Mai Tai craze of the 1950s and 1960s ignited such a run on rum that they had to change how they made it to keep up with demand? Or that you can triple-distill your cheap vodka just by running it through your water filter three times? Thanks, Derrick!

Although the only other customers I saw at the World of Beer were a guy who came in to buy a couple of gift cards and another guy cheating on his diabetes-treatment plan with a high-carb pint, I'd chalk that up to it being a Wednesday afternoon. Apparently the place is packed on nights and weekends (see "Globe-Trotting at World of Beer," City That Drinks, Nov. 6, 2013), largely with people who occupy the apartments above the mall and don't want to walk all the way over to Fed Hill just to smell the urine of the 20-something sports fans they're pressed up against (that's how Derrick described the neighborhood up the road). Yes, that's right, people live here. At the mall. And they exercise at the shared complex gym and watch movies in its basement movie theater and shop at the sparkling grocery store at the end of the block and get their nails done and their hair cut at this same mall where they also buy their dog food and watch their football games and have sandwiches delivered up to their apartments from just downstairs-and then it hit me. You could live here and never leave McHenry Row, except to get on the highway to go to work and back. I want to live in Baltimore, though, and I took that feeling as my cue to get back on the bike and ride home, to Baltimore.

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