I take a glass off the shelf at the Goodwill. It’s a small souvenir stein glass from the National Aquarium in Baltimore from the early 1980s. I’m unsure of why it appeals to me.
Here I am, rifling through the emptying of some deceased person’s cabinets. Nah, I’m being morbid. Someone just ran out of space, that’s all. Had to make room for their fresh Williams Sonoma glasses. You can hear the crisp and sparkling clink when you tap on those new expensive glasses. When you tap on this glass, it sounds like something older, a piano long out of tune.
There’s something I like about old glassware. It reminds me of my grandmother’s house in childhood, and her weird china cabinet filled with ornate stemware and cordial glasses that she never once used. She would sometimes let me look through them, unlocking the massive cabinet as though it held the Hope Diamond.
“Other people’s junk,” my mother used to lightly tease me and my interests in thrift stores and yard sales, though she would happily brag to others if I’d sold one of my many finds on eBay for a decent sum. Indeed, as I examine the glass, I begin to wonder if it might be worth a couple bucks.
It has the faded artwork of a puffin. The artwork has that particular shade of orange that you never see anywhere else but the 1970s — or in this case, spilled over into early 1980s, like most of the decade was.
The glass is dated 1981, the year the aquarium opened. It was the $21 million civic crown jewel of the struggling city’s brand new Harborplace. As a publicity stunt, the mayor, donning a 19th Century style bathing suit and straw boat hat, dove into the dolphin tank.
There’s something I like about 1980s Baltimore, even though it was another American city in economic decline. Heroin. Crack. White flight. Neglection. Abandoned warehouses and rowhomes, still empty four decades later. The Orioles won the World Series though. And Harborplace opened to one hundred thousand visitors, with its shiny new pavillions, and over one hundred retail shops and restaurants. The mayor invited “everyone in Maryland, in the United States and the world.”
My father used to take me on his weekends with me.
The quintessential 1980s divorced parents weekend visitation with dad. It had everything. There was a carousel. There was ice cream. There was the Science Center, the Power Plant, the B&O Railroad museum, the Aquarium and as many souviners that I could get away with gaming him for. Because you want — but know not what — so you ask for a neon coin purse instead.
Years later I am peering into the glass tanks at the Aquarium, on a field trip with my son and his preschool class. I had eagerly signed up to be a chaperone — afterall, the aquarium was one of my favorite places to go. But now I’m unsure of why it appeals to me.
It certainly doesn’t appeal to my kid. He’s too young, the darkened corridors too tempting to run through, lined with rows of fish to passively observe. Three-year-olds excel at passive observation in dark rooms. Fish are one of the most exciting action packed creatures on earth!
My kid is ready to crabwalk the walls upside-down. He only yelps with glee at the moving walkways that transport us from floor to floor — floors of fish to floors of more fish. He asks me if we can ride the walkway again.
We powerwalk the entire museum in about thirty minutes. Everything is powerwalking with kids. More than 500 exotic species — we blow through 16 species a minute at that rate. It nears lunchtime, but our preschool teacher overlords aren’t suggesting we sit and eat. Instead, the awesome idea is to make the kids sit still for the dolphin show.
The dolphins aren’t forced to perform circus tricks anymore like they were in the 1980s. It’s a relief and a disappointment for me. They used to jump through hoops and re-create the Free Willy movie on steroids. Now it’s mostly a lecture about recycling, how reusuable bags can end up in the ocean, and how bad plastic water bottles are for the environment. It’s a subject area that three year olds are greatly invested in. My kid is rapt with attention. Really.
Me and the kid duck out to get ice cream and check out the gift shop instead.
For the moment I’m back in one of those crystalline afternoons, the stickiness of vanilla ice cream still on my fingers, surrounded by the fragrant harbor water that laps at the brick walkways, the smell of salt, decay, fish, fries, unique then as it is now. I plot out what souvenirs I might ask for — the magnetic paperweight, the pencil case with a shark, the neon coin purse — I was always a sucker for the neon coin purses.