The View from Power Plant Live(!)

(This piece was written in early 2006. One amusing fact that never made it into the piece was that, in the course of my research, I was actually escorted out of one of the Power Plant dance clubs by a bouncer after a manager saw my notebook. The bouncer let me finish my beer and, on the way out, told me “you seem like a nice guy, I don’t know why they’re kicking you out.” He told me he was just doing his job. I decided to forego the obvious Cool Hand Luke quote.)

When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown.

– Petula Clark

There is this one block of Market Street in Baltimore where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately, mostly on the weekend, mostly late at night, just standing or walking around, watching.

Over the course of about ten hours, on four different nights, I’ve seen: a group of women in matching feather boas carrying an enormous, inflatable penis; two drunks complimenting a bouncer for his skill in subduing a friend of theirs (who, they concede, “never should have swung that bottle”); one drunk making fun of a deaf-mute; hundreds if not thousands of men wearing untucked, button-up shirts with loud, vertical stripes; hundreds if not thousands of acres of exposed female flesh, on nights when a coat and hat were not enough to keep me warm; four different pairs of young women on four different occasions, pretending variously either to make out with each other or to grind their crotches against one another’s thighs or both, to the loud encouragement of their male companions as well as male strangers who happened to be passing by; about a dozen drunken piggyback rides (all of which consisted of females riding males except for one in which a very large male leapt – apparently unexpectedly – onto the back of another male and which resulted in torn pants and a skinned knee); a young man holding a piece of bloody gauze to his head and answering a police officer’s questions; more than four dozen extra-stretched limousines, of which about two dozen were designed to resemble various models of sport utility vehicles, of which, in turn, about a dozen were based on GM Hummer H2s; the driver of a Hummer limo voicing loud, ugly theories concerning the immigration status of an African cab driver whose broken-down cab was blocking traffic; and – in a scene I don’t want to read too much into, but still – two young white men handing money to a middle-aged black man before being allowed to put their arms around two young black women and then climb with these young women into a decidedly un-ritzy limousine that quickly departed the scene.

I could go on, but perhaps you get the point.

“Noting credible evidence that two bars at Power Plant Live served alcohol to underage college students, the city liquor board fined the developer who controls the entertainment venue $800 yesterday for violating state liquor law and vowed to forge ahead with legislation that would make it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to enter a bar in the city.”
– Baltimore Sun, March 3, 2006

Over breakfast one morning I learned of “kids getting sick… boys carrying intoxicated girls… [y]oung women sprinting toward musty corners… to urinate…” The newspaper article made me wonder what I was missing. I had found it possible to live in Baltimore for more than six years without once feeling the slightest inclination to visit the downtown dance-club complex known as Power Plant Live [FN 1], and yet here were all of these thousands of people making a veritable pilgrimage there every weekend, “some from as far away as… Delaware,” according to the Sun.

Power Plant Live, I realized, is the face of the city for a great many people – probably the only thing some of them know about Baltimore, this city whose future concerns me, this city suffering from apathy and neglect, this city that, each year, loses more residents than it gains.

I began to wonder what message this ambassador was carrying to these people.

“Far from constituting a kind of backdrop that we can ignore at will…[our surroundings] affect not only physical health and mental grasp and agility but our sense of humanity’s pressing problems and unfinished business.”
– Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place

Power Plant Live lies at the dead-end of Market Street, one block north of Lombard Street, two blocks north of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. On a Sunday afternoon in winter, the area is deserted and almost appealing. A wide brick sidewalk runs alongside Market, and then – as Market curves to the left around a traffic circle to join Water Street – the sidewalk opens into a plaza, also brick, about the size of a football field. A large, square fountain sits at the front of the plaza, just off the traffic circle, and on the other side of the fountain a wrought-iron fence encloses a courtyard – elliptical on side and bordered by rowhouse-style restaurants on the other – that takes up most of the plaza. The area inside the fence is Power Plant Live.

Though the fence is clearly visible, it is softened by a row of small evergreens in bulky concrete planters; the trees also happen to obscure whatever is at ground level inside the fence. Rising above the courtyard, two and three stories up, are the neon signs advertising the dozen or so bars, restaurants and clubs located within.

Inside the courtyard, low ornamental fences in front of the restaurants demarcate open-air seating areas. The center of the courtyard is open, uncluttered. A pavilion stands ready for conversion to an outdoor bar, and, when I lean my elbow on its counter and squint at the awkward two-story structure in the center of the courtyard, I can almost imagine that I’m somewhere I’d like to be: the English Gardens in Munich, perhaps, in the beer garden at the foot of the pagoda.

I open my eyes and read the first sign I see: Tiki Bob’s Cantina.

According to Google, Tiki Bob’s Cantina is home to “the number one beach party” in, variously, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Seattle, Dallas, Detroit and – where am I, again?

The illusion shattered, I drive to Fells Point for lunch.

The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements.
-Edmund Bacon, The Design of Cities

Maybe I’m being too hard on Power Plant Live. What’s the harm in a bunch of chain bars and clubs, anyway? Doesn’t the city benefit from having successful, tax-paying enterprises in a spot that sent two previous clubs into bankruptcy? [FN 2]

And it’s not that I have a problem with out-of-towners. I wasn’t born here, after all. At least because of Power Plant Live, people who might not otherwise visit Baltimore are exposed to the city. Perhaps today’s Power Plant Live patrons are tomorrow’s Fells Point pub-crawlers, and the next day’s Mount Vernon brunch eaters. Maybe, the week after next, they’ll be plastering “Live Baltimore!” bumper stickers on their cars. [FN 3]

Stranger things have happened.

Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?
Don’t you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?

– Pussycat Dolls [FN 4]

It is after 11 p.m. and the parking garage feels even colder than the street – which is to say extremely cold – on this mid-March Friday. The air looks greasy under pale yellow lights. A pair of women in brief denim skirts and spaghetti-strapped tanktops hurry on tall high heels toward the elevators. Four shadows drink from red plastic cups behind the tinted windows of a parked SUV. Tires bark and squeal toward the last open parking spaces. Loud shouts and taunts spill out of car doors and echo against the dingy concrete walls. Doors thud closed. A bottle smashes. Applause. Cheers.

On the sidewalk outside the garage a lanky boy with a firefighter mustache is passing a dollar to a panhandler. “Use it for…good use,” the benefactor drawls, his tongue thick with cold or drink or both. A group of girls pushes past, bare arms hugged to chests. “Oh my god I have to pee.” Four lanes of traffic rush down Lombard and all the lights are off in the office building across the street.

Around the corner, Market Street is choked with cars. Crowds – mostly white, mostly young – flood the sidewalk. Couples on dates, tight bunches of women walking fast, big ambling men in studiedly loose packs. “What the fuck, motherfucker, all I said was she has a sexy walk.” No one walks alone except for the panhandlers. A black man cuts back and forth through across the sidewalk, waving a card that shows the sign language alphabet. It only costs a dollar but no one is buying. Another black man in stained white pants blurts and sputters: “Hey, you got 35 cents? Hey, you got 55 cents?” Hunched figures sit wrapped in blankets in front of the McDonald’s but the sidewalk widens just there so you can keep your distance if you want to and everyone does. Ahead the sky is bright with gaudy neon. Three police officers and a bouncer in sunglasses stand at the opening in the fence, checking IDs, a thudding bass line calling low and sweet under everything.

In the blank bored windows of the clubs I see only my own blurry reflection, a man lamely dressed for the cold, the people rushing past me, some from as far away as Delaware.

I listen to Power Plant Live, and, save the bass, I hear only one thing. Why would you want to be out there when you could be in here?

I walk back to the garage and drive home to Baltimore.

FN 1: Just so you know, the official name ends with an exclamation point, thus: Power Plant Live!

FN 2: Of course, one of these was named the Fish Market. It closed in 1989. There used to be a fish market there, of course, but still, respect for history aside, I just think it should have been obvious from the start that this wasn’t a good name for a dance club.

FN 3: This is just shorthand for “maybe they’ll move here.” Personally, I hate those “Live Baltimore!” stickers.

FN 4: Yes, I know that this song was originally (as in, last year) recorded by Tori Alamaze, and that her record label took it away from her and gave it to the essentially inflatable, poseable Pussycat Dolls. But, unfortunately for Alamaze, it wasn’t her version that got the bodies moving at Power Plant Live’s Have a Nice Day Café this St. Patrick’s Day. I have to go where the story takes me.

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