Monthly Archives: October 2010

Baltimore Free Store: Part 1

The Baltimore Free Store is an organization dedicated to the reuse and recycling of unwanted items by distributing (most of) them for free from their storefront one day each week (typically Saturdays, with donations accepted on Wednesday evenings).

Their storefront is a large former appliance store on a gritty section of Southwest Baltimore (just west of Hollins Market) lined with pawn shops, liquor stores and fried chicken restaurants (all of which close down promptly at sundown). Windows in this neighborhood were adorned with either metal bars or large sheets of plywood, and most doors (including the Free Store’s) were protected by large metal gates.

Yet, it maintained an active street life with neighbors stopping each other on the sidewalk to chat and kids biking in middle of the street past teenagers standing stoic guard of their respective turfs. As store manager Bonnie said during my orientation a few weeks ago: it was a logical location to put a store like this…and it was “the only place we could afford.”

Unfortunately, affordability and accessibility are not necessarily the same thing. True, several buses pass by the store each hour, but the nearest light rail station is over a mile away and the closest stop for the (free) Charm City Circulator is at the “UM Biopark Garage” – five and a half blocks east of the store.

However, this didn’t stop people from lining up in the cold autumn air up to two hours before the otherwise unmarked store was slated to open. In fact, by the time I arrived at the store the line already stretched halfway down the block, but no-one arrived to let me (or anyone else) in for another half-hour.

It didn’t take long for things to get interesting: the well dressed older lady in front of me (a dead ringer for Kathy Bates’ character in Titanic) was chatting with a young college-aged couple while a large woman in a ragged blue folding chair passed out candy from a small Ziplock bag. Then the crowd scatters slightly as a man near the front of the line begins throwing up reddish-yellow bile all over the sidewalk in front of the store.

A few minutes later an average-sized woman with reddish-blond hair and a greenish-grey T-shirt arrives and unlocks the gate to the store. After some prompting she comes back out to unlock the “exit” door as well; while she’s doing that a short black man comes out and passes around a clipboard with a sign-in sheet attached as the woman in the folding chair gets her nearly empty bag of candy back.

The woman with the grey T-shirt turns to us, and starts shouting announcements that none of us could here but essentially boiled down to: enter in an orderly fashion, don’t be greedy and limit 25 people in store at once.

It was that last point that led to the day’s second exposure to bile:

“What the fuck is taking these people so long?” said a tall white man with a battered baseball cap. “Oh right, some of them have 6-7 people listed in their house.”

I couldn’t decide if that remark was more brazen or stupid – especially given his surroundings. Thankfully, the red headed lady came out, looked at me and pulled me inside before I could see if he got the beating he deserved.

Her name tag read “Kathleen” in big red letters and had a small sticker on the lower left hand corner. She was glad I’d come, but I got the distinct feeling she had no idea what she was going to do with me now that I was there. That seems to happen everywhere I go.

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Baltimore Free Store: Part 2

The inside of the Baltimore Free Store is considerably larger than the caged up entryway would have you believe, but the aisles were narrow and the shelves so jammed with stuff that the volunteer staff was having trouble finding places for everything. However, the first place she led me to was the front desk, or as general manager Bonnie called it during my orientation “Central Command,” where she had a young Asian lady named Shon fill out a name badge for me.

As expected, she and her fellow “commando.” an older black woman, had trouble with my name until I finally pulled my ID out of my wallet (but at least they could see I was a man). She then, despite my protests, put a small dinosaur sticker in the lower left hand corner of the badge (for God’s sake, I’m not that old) and led me into the work area.

The back room was almost the same size as the front one, but it was so full of cracked bins, flimsy clothes racks and volunteer sorters that it was nearly impossible to navigate through. But our destination was past all that and back down the steps into the small outside “Receiving Area.”

This small, but open, backyard consisted of gravel with a few medium sized plastic bins along the west wall, a narrow fire escape leading to the unused second floor along the east wall with the north gate open so we could place donations in the middle.

However, at the bottom of the steps, Shon turned to a huge pile of empty boxes tossed randomly next to the door. Said pile was damp, dirty… and easily taller than I was.

“Your job,” she said in perfect, unaccented English, “is to break all of these down for recycling. No-one wants to do it, so it keeps getting bigger and more insurmountable each week.”

As she was talking, someone came out and threw another load of boxes onto the already massive heap. I could tell this was going to be a fun day.

But before I could get started, our first donor arrived and I was tasked with emptying his car while Shon filled out his receipt form. As soon as he pulls out of the alley, another car arrived, and it was like that all morning. I’d break maybe two or three boxes before the next wave of cars came through and by then the next load of boxes would appear.

By noon traffic on both sides of the Free Store had virtually disappeared, and Kathleen began making the rounds telling people that while the store would remain open, the staff was “free” to go to lunch if they chose to. But most people seemed to work right through it, in fact, I was helping with the mid-day restocking when a woman arrived in a blue truck and offered to take some of the books along the fence to some “Book Thing” in Dundalk (apparently, it’s a book exchange program in Baltimore County).

Kathleen came out, and said “take all of them” and then disappeared into the store coming out a minute later with another box of books. The woman asked if she was sure she wanted to get rid of all those books.

“Eh,” she shrugged. “We’ll get more.”

I followed Kathleen back inside and proceeded to sign myself out. I had no idea where I was going to go or what I wanted. But it was almost 1pm and I needed to eat something (if only to get away from those stupid boxes).

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Baltimore Free Store: Part 3

I signed back into the Free Store at 1:17pm and reluctantly went back into the receiving yard. When suddenly, I heard a commotion inside, apparently a woman was caught shoplifting … I’ll let Kathleen explain it:

“Just because we’re a ‘Free Store’ doesn’t mean we don’t have RULES to follow or RENT to pay. The sale of larger items that helps keep us open and able to give away stuff…”

At this point, I’m pulled away from my eavesdropping to help a donor unload his car, and just as it was starting to get good too. By the time I finished unloading his car (and that of the woman behind him), the fireworks had ended, and Kathleen came out to announce that she was canceling the afternoon restock due to “lack of (customer) interest.”

This meant lunch, and more importantly smoke, break for the women working in the back room, as well as the young men who supposedly spent the day restocking. Shon took the opportunity to try and start another one of her “lets get everything sorted” drives.

It didn’t take long for a battered white pick truck to stop in the middle of the alleyway. He obviously wasn’t here to donate (his truck was empty); he just sat there for a few moments staring at us as if we were a 10 car pile-up on the freeway.

Shon tells him about the Free Store, but he cuts her off.

“Ah, hail,” he said. “I DID hear about this place. My friends be telling me about it. Given out ‘free stuff’ on Sat’days, but I never did come here – ‘til just now.”

She then casually mentions that they need someone to come by “every other week” to collect metal (helpfully pointing to the rusted filing cabinet, a broken tailgate “umbrella” and a mound of wire hangers along the fence).

He agrees to take it, claiming that he “knows a guy” he could take it to and when asked if he’d REALLY come back in two weeks (as several haulers have not) he replied:

“If I said I’d be back in ‘two weeks,’ then I WILL be back in two weeks.”

Kathleen appears at the door, and comes down to meet the man who is solving her metal problems. He introduces himself as Charles, and she led him back into her office.

While they’re gone another two cars show up for donations, though they really couldn’t go anywhere until Charles truck was out of their way…and he couldn’t go anywhere until the donor parked in the opposite direction got out of everyone’s way.

But before I could play traffic cop, I was called to the front of the store to retrieve a baby walker from a woman’s car. She was small and thin with a two-year-old on her right shoulder, a three-year-old clinging desperately to her left pant leg, and the object in question was in the trunk. This exchange wasn’t eventful in itself, but it was the first time since I’d gotten there that the back room was actually navigable.

Meanwhile, another mess of boxes had been added to the already massive pile. Yet despite the store’s emphasis on recycling and helping your fellow man, I remained the only one actually breaking those boxes down. Yes, the staff’s second meta-smoke break took priority over crushing some annoying boxes.

“It gets like that every week,” Shon said. “Thankfully, we have you here to take care of this; otherwise it would never get done… and another thing, sometimes we get a line of cars at exactly 3 o-clock, in which case you’ll have to stay and unload them all.”

Nice to see her setting my schedule without notifying me first; fortunately, I was already signed out before any of that could happen. Servus.

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Review: Odyssey SHIPWRECK: Pirates and Treasure

    The first thing one sees upon entering Odyssey SHIPWRECK is a colorful pirate cut-out where you could put your face in the hole and become a buccaneer. It’s cute in a non sequitur sort of way, especially since it’s surrounded by small cases with coins, ship parts and small “everyday” treasures (like a Victorian head band). There was also a short video; however it wasn’t working during my visit. Past the theater area was the entrance to the exhibit itself; its black curtained off area belying the colorful, almost cartoonish theme for the pirate portion of their exhibit.

The first room featured a large map of known shipwrecks, a “pirate or merchant” game (based on a series of clues about size, number of cannons, etc) and a list of fun pirate facts (cannons were avoided in battles as they could damage the valuable cargo inside the victim’s ships). Next up was the heart of this section – “The Rogues Gallery,” a selection of profiles of famous pirates (which were somewhat hard to read since the shadow of the overhanging graphic obscured the first few lines of the text) and the flags their ships flew as well as a simple “guess the treasure” game and a fun (if somewhat cheesy) “Create a Pirate” interactive. There was also a short, repetitive soundtrack of nautical music and timbers’ creaking to give a more pirate-y atmosphere, but the poorly looped audio was more jarring than effective.

The last section of this black curtained area had information about the career and final week of the merchant ship S.S Republic (a large wall text proudly stating that it was built in Baltimore ). However, this section has no interactives and nothing to do with pirates; it’s more of a standard-average-exhibit that you can see at any maritime themed museum. Yes, the recovered cups and dishes are nice to look at, but the blown up photos and tinny “19th century murmuring” made it feel more like a documentary on PBS or The History Channel rather than the “compelling story” exhibition claimed in their press release.

Upon exiting the pirate area you are immediately presented with a choice: go left for the titular submersible or right for the insultingly small “physics of hurricanes” (and the much hyped “Hurricane Tube”) Either would make excellent exhibits in their own right, but coupled as it is with the Pirates section does all three a disservice.

    However, the poor layout\design choices don’t end there. Forget “Navigating in a Hurricane,” I was having enough trouble trying to figure out how I was supposed to navigate this exhibit! There were a number of interactives (“Find the Shipwreck,” operating the robotic hand, and what looked like a children’s play area), but very little direction as to how you were supposed to get around them.

    Than came the lightning round (also known as the “Holy Crap, we’re running out space” section), in which they shove lots of display cases and wall texts at you in rapid succession. These cases contained children’s toys, religious items, and coins from various countries as well as cursory wall texts on conservation and storage as well as a small but detailed section on the process of “certifying” recovered coins.

    I find it odd that while they have a cross promotional deal with Baltimore ’s Urban Pirates, they don’t any pirate or shipwreck themed movies in their IMAX theater (such as 2002’s “Ghosts of the Abyss 3D”).

    However, as I sat at a bench near the exhibit’s exit, I saw an excited 5 year old run out of the exhibit shouting: “Daddy, can we do it again!” 


*** out of 5.

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