Tony 'n' Zamir's Excellent Adventure
The show not about a place, or even places, per se. It’s certainly not a well-rounded introduction to the food scenes of Baltimore or Detroit or Buffalo. And it’s probably not what the respective chambers of commerce of these three fine, noble and deeply troubled American cities would like us to see right now. Baltimore, arguably, isn’t even really a “Rust Belt” city.
I like to think that tonight’s episode celebrates that particularly American character — who proudly survives and thrives in places like late era Baltimore, Detroit and Buffalo. And it does introduce a few quirky indigenous specialties.
Each city has its own sort of twisted, wonderful, off-beat sense of humor, its own injured but still strong pride — and I guess, that’s what this show is about. It’s about places where the American dream has fallen a little short — as seen through my eyes — and those of my old Russian buddy, Zamir — a guy who should know how much worse things can really get. I didn’t originally know if I was doing Zamir a favor when I invited him along on this adventure. He IS, after all, the man who made me an Enemy of the State in Romania. But I did get a sense that his odd admixture of indefatigable optimism, his birthright Russian fatalism, and his unquenchable appetite for new opportunities might make him the perfect person to appreciate these places a new.
Baltimore, in particular, needed a fresh set of eyes. My own view had been negatively (and entirely unfairly) skewed by an unhappy period in the 1980′s when I was briefly employed in Charm City. I was the one junkie in Baltimore too dumb to find heroin there — and had to commute to New York for my ever increasing needs. I told this story to “Snoop” Pearson by the wa y– to peals of laughter. I gathered from our conversation that in the past, she has some familiarity with the retail end of that business. As we cruised West Baltimore in her white Escalade, much merriment was had at my expense. In spite of the fact that she was raised in the very worst part, under the very worst circumstances, she loves her hometown.
Jay Landsman, legendary murder police, role model for the Detective Munch character on Homicide and then Law and Order, also for the “Jay Landsman” character on The Wire — also (confusingly enough) an actor on that series, also loves Baltimore. Jay the cop and Snoop, the killer share that mutant form of only-in-America success, where one moves unexpectedly and seamlessly from the real world to television — playing (basically) oneself. In fact, between Jay, Snoop, Nelson Starr and Zamir, this process also became something of a theme.
There has been predictable apprehension about this show on blogs and in the Baltimore press — from the same folks, I suspect, who were less than pleased with The Wire9 9s portrayal of their town. They probably don’t find much to love in the early, hilariously funny works of John Waters either. Like it or not, I would say to them, those are your ambassadors. You made them. The greatest dramatic series in the history of television (whose subject, to be fair, is really much larger than Baltimore), and a great, filthily funny auteur — the John Ford of the American underbelly. Neither could have happened anywhere else. It was the uniquely Bawlmer sense of humor, the dark, cultish attractions of the sinister sounding “lake trout” (which I first heard about on The Wire), that brought me back to Baltimore, a city I once had little interest in revisiting. It was Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble and Jay Landsman and Felicia Pearson and the world David Simon created that made Baltimore a “must visit” destination for me.
I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business”, always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city — or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy — and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philarmonic.
I arrived in Baltimore apprehensive. I left a fan. And in case you’re wondering, blue crabs were out of season.
Detroit. Where just about everything cool originated. As angry as one gets looking at block after block of abandoned row houses in Baltimore and wondering how the hell that happened, it’s mind boggling to see how far Detroit has been allowed to fall. But what a truly magnificent breed of crazy-ass hardcase characters have dug in there. Of all three cities we visited, Detroit, oddly enough, even while looking the jaws of death straight in the face, remains closest to being a true culinary wonderland. This is due entirely to the successive waves of migration and immigration from all over the world, when people came to MAKE things in America — each group bringing their own food and traditions. Detroit IS the story of America, for better — and worse, and I think we’ve missed that, allowed ourselves to look away. Detroit, after all, made us who we are. Literally. A country of cars, highways, car culture, upward mobility, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and what were once, unlimited dreams. Whatever happens next, Motown, Eminem and the Stooges’ “Fun House”, at least, shall surely outlast the automobile.
Back in the days of our FAN-atic special, Nelson Starr could have pitched us on anyplace on earth. He had the camera, the talented video personnel, technical skills, the smarts, and sense of humor to make a very entertaining and compelling presentation that could have convinced us to take him to Bali..or Rio… Instead? He pitched his hometown of Buffalo. In winter, no less. You have to respect that. It certainly made an impression on me. What’s seldom mentioned when discussing Buffalo is how beautiful it is, especially in winter…The tiny red neon lights of the saloons inviting in the snow and the dark. Another delightfully demented breed of hard drinking gastronomes … And, it turns out, a sizeable Zamir Gotta fan club. Yes, I’m quite sure there’s somebody’s idea of “better” beef-on-wek somewhere else … and that we missed (fill in blank here) and that there’s somebody doing really excellent fine dining across town, but again, this misses the point.
One of the “take-aways” from this show, I hope, is that people who might never in a million years have considered Buffalo as a place to visit, will say “Hey! Buffalo actually looks pretty cool!” Like Cleveland, it’s become a sentimental favorite.