HMM WEEKLY for August 27, 2019

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HMM WEEKLY for August 27, 2019

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This Is a Good Flag

BECAUSE I STARTED my life in the City of Baltimore and then grew up, from second grade onward, along a country road outside the town of Aberdeen in Harford County, I always believed that there could be nothing worthwhile about what lay in between those two modes of living, namely Baltimore County. In a just world, Baltimore County would not even exist, but would be incorporated and politically integrated into the artificially constricted city on which it subsists as a suburban parasite.

So I was shocked to discover—while engaged in an online chat that's supposed to be about the Orioles, but which has branched out of necessity into other subjects—that Baltimore County has a good flag. It was not in the Capital News Service's ranking of the state's top five county flags, but the Capital News Service was clearly mistaken.

Here it is:

It is based on the state flag of Maryland, which is vexillologically and politically complicated, divided in quarters between the two heraldic schemes of the family of the first Lord Baltimore: the black and gold of his paternal line, the Calverts (later associated with the Union, and with Baltimore City), and the red-and-white cross of his maternal line, the Crosslands (later associated with the Confederacy, and with not–Baltimore City). The Baltimore County design keeps the Baltimore City quarters but dismantles the Confederate-sympathizing ones, the cross of the secessionist army literally reshaped into a plowshare, or rather an entire plow, as well as a mechanical cog, so that the red evidently becomes the red of labor.

In fact, the Baltimore County Historical Society reports that, according to the Sunpapers, the county council declared the design—a high school student's winning entry in a flag-design contest in 1962—as "too Communistic looking." Eventually the county executive made it official by executive order. A year later, the Sun reported that a flag company run by F. Murrell Stevenson in Baltimore had made 100 copies of the new flag, and was "stuck with about 90 unsold yellow, black, red, and white county ensigns." ("'I honestly think it's a darned nice looking flag,' Mr. Stevenson said. 'It ties industry and agriculture together. It's really a terrible shame.'")


The Boutique Experience

Boutique teevee

EVERY YEAR I travel to Saratoga Springs, New York, to try and make a pile of dough at the horse races, and then in turn to use those winnings to splashily patronize several bars, restaurants, and retail establishments (See this week’s VISUAL CONSCIOUSNESS DEP’T) in the area. My wife and I used to make this visit to Saratoga Springs a day trip as part of our annual weekly stay in the Adirondacks, but a few years ago we decided to make it an overnight so I wouldn’t have to sweat driving back to camp after a full day of gambling, bars, and restaurants that have bars.

When the thoroughbreds are running at the track, it means Saratoga Springs is in full moneymaking mode, and the hotels are not cheap, even the cheap hotels are not cheap! The most reasonably priced (for peak Tourist Season), centrally located place I’ve found to stay has been the Community Court Motel, which is a few blocks’ walk from the center of town, where a lot of the action is, and it’s a tolerable schlep to the track with a cooler and lawn chairs. The Community Court is nothing fancy, it’s the Value choice, it’s perfectly OK, but after several years I decided to go nuts and book a room at another motel, right in the center of town, aptly named the Downtowner, which always seemed to have the well-worn and relatively—again, during The Season—affordable look of the Community Court Motel, but with a swimming pool, which I always enjoy. I figured it’d cost more, but I was fine with that, I wanted to stay in the place I always walked by and thought “Hey, it’d be nice to stay there once.”

I didn’t know the Downtowner had been sold and was in the process of being reinvented as a Boutique-type hotel.

The Daily Gazette had the story

Boutique! That means trendy minimalist decor and somebody spinning vinyl in the lobby and stuff, but this joint is a motor court, you know? How Boutique could it get? I looked at some pictures online and figured it was what people on sites where they rate hotels call a “room refresh,” throughout, so that’s good, new paint, new furnishings.

A sampling of images on Yelp dot com. Suspiciously select pictures of the older, pre-boutique era persist

I booked the room on Hotels dot com, I guess I got a deal, I knew it was more than the other place would have been, but it’s a Boutique hotel now, should be kinda cool, yes?

Upon entering our room, other than the overwhelming odor of what I assumed was a powerful disinfectant cleaning product, the first hey-it’s-a-Boutique-Hotel thing I noticed was the bed situation. I booked a room with two beds in case any of the friends we were meeting later in the evening needed to crash, and when we walked in, we certainly were presented with a trendy Boutique-type sleeping situation, foot-to-foot. You know, for starters! Boutique Hotel!

Boutique bed layout at today’s modern Downtowner

Another thing, and I could have predicted this, was that the room had a curtain-less half-wall “open” shower others have noted results in a big wet mess on the bathroom floor. The way for these no-curtain showers to work is you need to have a shower that’s the square footage of an entire hotel bathroom, so the shower head is at least four feet farther away than what we’re looking at here. Anyway, tiny-bathroom Boutique hotel, what’s a few extra towels on the floor?

That bath mat is soaked

Turned out the bathroom, in the rear of our rental space, was the source of the initial overwhelming chemical odor, and it’s not the first time I’ve encountered it in frowzy non-Boutique motels, so I didn’t stop and think “Hey! Boutique Motel! What the fuck,” I just did what I always do, which is crank the AC and/or fan and open any window I can access.

Also, I could have sworn I smelled chlorine—like for a swimming pool—as we were entering our room from the parking lot side, but part of the quick mini-tour I got when I picked up the room keys (not swipe cards, metal keys with plastic hotel room-key tags, which is either Unimproved or Boutique Retro) revealed that there is no longer a swimming pool at the Downtowner. The courtyard pool area is now a Boutique-looking common area with a painting of a swimming pool on the floor where the pool was, so that, actually, was the first official disappointment about this place, no goddamn pool. It’s a painted-on pool. This was not the Downtowner I requested!

I get it though, it’s just a money squeeze, cutting costs. Another amenity they have in the no-pool courtyard is a set of beer-looking taps for coffee and water; they removed the whole water bottle and coffee machine deal in the rooms. By making it minimal and Boutique, they are cutting all sorts of costs after the "refresh" of the rooms. They got rid of a huge expense with the innovation of the no-swimming non-pool. I still swear I smelled chlorine on the way in. Could it be possible they just floored over the pool and it was still there, somehow full of pool chemistry? I may never find out. Meanwhile. let’s look at the mini-refrigerator amenity in our room:

It’s a cold box in a hot box

Har! they put a typical cheapo hotel dorm fridge inside a classy-looking container, but when you open the door on this thing, you are hit with a wave of warm air! I could see a thin horizontal slit in the upper rear of the enclosure to allow for ventilation, but it does not do the trick. What’s the Carbon Debt for forcing a fridge to be geometrically more inefficient than it would be if it was allowed the ventilation it was designed to enjoy?

Before I get to the Piece of Resistance (I know), I want to warn you that I will be posting an exclusive separate post about my battle with the Television Amenity in our room at The Downtowner in Saratoga Springs, New York. You’re not going to see this on Hotels Dot Com or Trip Advisor or Yelp, this will be exclusive Hmm Weekly complaining, so stay turned, subscribe to the Hmm Weekly emails or follow us on Twitter for critical Complaint updates.

OK, here we go. So I’m sitting in the bathroom on the can, minding my own business, and my eyes drift over to the closed door, and down to the corner, which would be unavailable to the eye when the door is open. I see these—I dunno—pellets, let’s call them, as opposed to calling them RAT TURDS, which is what I immediately thought they were, medium-brown rat turds, so add to that the strong chemical smell in the room, and VERMIN INFESTATION is immediately where my panic brain goes. Then I notice more pellets in the other corner of the bathroom, where I am seated, with my naked and afraid feet on the floor, and I look to my left under the very cool and nicely minimal sink and I see MORE PELLETS. Now I’m over being freaked out, I’m just angry. I do not go anywhere near the stuff because why should I? Boutique Hotel!


Momentarily we are headed out the door to the track, and I duck over to the front desk, where in low, measured tones, I inform the person at the desk that I think there are what looks, to me, upon a cursory inspection, to be rat turds on the floor in the bathroom in room 107, and I don’t want to make a big deal about this, we’re headed to the track, I just want a new room if it turns out those things scattered around the bathroom floor are indeed what I think they are, just move our effects into a new room and I’ll know what’s up when we get back from our otherwise enjoyable trip to Saratoga, the track, the bars I love, all the food and the fun, except now for this whole Boutique Hotel experience. The desk attendant, apparently a seasoned pre-Boutique employee of the Downtowner, immediately says stuff to the effect of NO NEVER IN MY YEARS HERE I WILL GO TO THE ROOM IMMEDIATELY.

Much later in the day, possibly the next day, technically, we get back to the room, I check the bathroom—no pellets—and I assume I was incorrect about the stuff on the floor, I mean, it wasn’t a clean room we checked in to, and that’s a legit complaint, but I guess those weren’t RAT TURDS on the floor in the bathroom, they woulda moved us, right? They would have told us if there were rat turds on the floor of our Boutique bathroom. Har! I’m glad I did OK at the track, I mean, I didn’t win a big pile of money, but I cashed enough to cover my bets and a few drinks, so at least I wasn’t a complete sucker, eh?

Later on I thought the pellets might have been RAT POISON but I discussed this with Hmm Weekly’s editor and I was informed rat poison bait is brightly colored and would not be a turd-shade brown.

Checking out and handing over the keys in the daylight, the person at the front desk—a different employee—asks me how was the room. “You tell me,” I reply. Their eyes registered confusion, then darted around, maybe looking for a note or something, but then the eyes return to me with nothing but puzzlement. “There’s my answer,” I say, and out the door I went, to an enjoyable late breakfast and the balance of an otherwise entertaining and satisfying trip to upstate New York.

Back at home sorting out my emails I received the HOW DID YOU LIKE HOTEL email, and I intend to leave a review, mainly about how I got zero communication about the suspect pellets littering the bathroom floor, and the only resolution was that somebody went in and swept up whatever was there, which I am going to say I think was rat turds, but I don’t know. That chlorine smell, am I right, is the pool still there? The dang pool could be floored-over and kept at a low level loaded with chlorine to prevent mold and mildew, a fetid sub-chamber, crawling with chemical-huffing rodents? I don’t know.

The main thing here, which you do not want in your Boutique Hotel Story, is for your imagination to run wild with paranoiac thoughts of Toxicity and Pestilence because you smelled powerful chemicals in two locations on the premises and you observed suspected rat turds, unconfirmed, but never disavowed by the authorities.

I guess it’s a no-win for me and the Downtowner. They move me out of the room and that’s an admission of guilt with no guarantee I wouldn’t complain. They leave me there, and I go away unhappy, never to return, and they can challenge what I report on the hotel-rating web sites.

So I give this joint one suspiciously-shaped star with no points on it and it’s a star that resembles a rat turd, and all I know is next year we’re staying at the goddamn Community Court Motel, even if they Boutique the fucking thing. What are the odds something like this could happen again? Hiyo!


A visit to Soave Fair Art & Office Supplies in Saratoga Springs, NY. They also sell hats.

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I put out milkweed and fed the thing that lives on milkweed

EARLIER THIS SUMMER I posted on the Hmm Daily Premium Newsletter about milkweed pods:

I'm Trying to Help the Butterflies, but What Do You Do with These Space-Pods

Last summer here in Baltimore our modest front lawn collection of Indigenous Plants—guaranteed to thrive no matter how bad we are at gardening—welcomed a new item, a spontaneous outburst of milkweed, which I remember from first grade and the movie I watched with the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the resulting Monarch Butterfly. The caterpillars eat milkweed, so I was excited to see the tell-tale holes in the leaves and the caterpillars growing fat, but we never saw a cocoon or a butterfly.

The weeds came back this summer, twice as many, and I haven't seen a bug-hole yet, but I'm wondering about the Science Fiction pods on the plants, can I eat that, should I feed it to a caterpillar? Does somebody want some milkweed pods? Any ideas? Suggestions appreciated, send to:

I was feeling good about helping the Monarch butterflies, our pollinator insect friends, in their struggle for survival on this changing planet. I saw one dead Monarch by the plants a few weeks ago, and on a recent kayak excursion in the Adirondacks we were at one point set upon by butterflies:

Back home in Baltimore, however, no sign of hungry caterpillars. I was disappointed I didn’t make a connection this season with the insect I know that consumes milkweed, but it turns out there’s another creature that survives on the plant.


This is the Large Milkweed Bug, or more accurately, this is a whole bunch of ‘em, chowing down on the milkweed in my front yard, and, I guess—but I’m not sure—ruining the chances for any Monarch caterpillars to munch out. The Insects of the Duke Campus website teaches us:

Oncopeltus fasciatus, the Large Milkweed Bug, feeds on milkweed plants, preferentially the flower buds and seed pods, which are rich in nutrients.

I looked around and determined that the Large Milkweed Bug is a bug that enjoys milkweed and is not an Invasive Pest, such as a Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, or a sign of Pestilence in the manner of a Bedbug, so I will salvage some seed pods and plant some milkweed in my back yard, in addition to the front yard next year, again in hopes of attracting Monarchs.


WE PRESENT FOR our continued amusement, delectation, and possible degustation a selection of recipes for anachronistic but entirely achievable sandwiches, found in The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, published in 1909 and now in the public domain for all to enjoy.

Chop three apples and three stalks of celery fine. Mix with a little mayonnaise dressing and place on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread.Put the two slices together.

Cut crisp lettuce leaves into ribbons with the scissors, salt and pepper and moisten with a little mayonnaise dressing. Place on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread; on each lay a thin slice of tomato and cover with another slice of buttered bread. Press together and serve as soon as made.

Chop four boiled eggs very fine, season with pepper and salt and spread on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread; on top of eggs place three pickled oysters; over this spread a tablespoonful of curry sauce and cover with another slices of bread. The sauce is made thus; put a tablespoonful of butter into a sauce pan, add a cup of milk, thicken with a little flour dissolved in a little cold milk, let it come to a boil, then add a dash of onion juice, salt and pepper, and a teaspoonful of curry. Let simmer a minute, then set it aside to cool. When sandwiches are ready to serve, spread this sauce over the egg and oysters, then cover with the other slice of bread. Garnish with parsley.

So, enjoy, and if you make any of these sandwiches, kindly send a picture to


A Serial Travelogue, Part One

Kia Soul

THE KIA SOUL was the seven-year-old's choice. We had ridden the bus to the O'Hare rental car facility, a big and featureless box that opened into a vast, immaculate space that felt like a newly built international terminal. At the foot of a two- or three-story-high wall filled with twisting, clustered sculptural elements was the Avis counter, behind which a brightly smiling clerk told us that, with our reservation for a compact car, we had a choice of a Volkswagen Beetle, a Kia Soul, or XXXX—the third option didn't even lodge in the mind. I thought the Beetle might be funny, but before I said anything, the seven-year-old, in his capacity as the car enthusiast, spoke up loudly and confidently for the Kia.

Why not go with what the kid wanted? We had come straight from the last day of school in New York, nonstop from LaGuardia, to catch up with my wife, who was at a conference in Chicago. The idea was for the children to see the country, or what seemed like a manageable stretch of the country, on a family road trip.

This was something I'd grown up thinking of as a normal activity, without ever really having done it, from reading Henry Reed's Journey and the Family Circus vacation cartoons. One time, when I was maybe five, we drove from Baltimore to Minnesota, where my mom's family came from. I remember crossing the gray immensity of the Mississippi, in a city, somewhere in Iowa, and I remember getting lost in an alfalfa field after we arrived at our destination. But we were driving to get somewhere, not to see the sights.

Now we were going to be on the road for the road's sake. Figuring out what was where, from Chicago, we'd picked out Mount Rushmore as an indisputable tourist attraction, the sort of thing you ought to see if you were trying to see things. And we had friends in Denver who we'd always promised to see, without seriously meaning it. I'd gone 47 years without seeing Denver—or anything between Minnesota and Los Angeles, really—and it didn't seem like an occasion was going to present itself. But Denver looked like it was a reasonable day's drive from Mount Rushmore, so that would be our endpoint. Pick up the rental car at ORD, drop it off at DEN. In between: America.

Now that reservation was going to be the Kia. Later, the twelve-year-old would tell me that he had said he'd wanted the Beetle, but he'd said it softly and tentatively, and his younger brother had drowned him out. Had I known we had two votes to one, we might have worked out a different result. Instead, I merely gestured at the two suitcases, one of which was very large, and asked the clerk if the Kia really could fit them. She assured me it could; it was definitional, for cars in the Avis compact class, of which the Kia Soul was one.

A few minutes later, we had ridden the gleaming new elevator up to the gleaming new garage  in the building, and I was standing at the back of the Kia Soul's numbered parking space, glaring at the tall and shallow rear space it had in lieu of a trunk. Would the luggage fit? Not well; not without the smaller suitcase having to stand upright, dislodging the cargo cover and sending it tilting up into the field of view.

For a long moment I thought about backtracking down the elevator to the big hall and finding the nice clerk and very apologetically asking if I might swap out the Kia for the Beetle after all. The Google Maps app on my phone said the 17 miles to the hotel would take an hour and 4 minutes in traffic. We could take the time to reset and swap the car, or we could just get on with it. We got on. Repacking the Kia the next morning, I would figure out how to properly detach and stow the cover of the not-a-trunk so that it and the luggage all fit in there OK.

Google Maps

When I first started driving, before the internet age, I used to look up where I was going in a road atlas and draw out the route by hand, step by step, so I knew where I was going before I did it. Then came MapQuest, and its badly formatted printouts jammed in the door pockets, but still you would go over the steps before turning the key in the ignition. Now I’ve given up on that. We used Google Maps on the desktop to chop up the route into manageable-looking legs—six and a half hours seemed like the longest reasonable day’s drive, if we were also eating and seeing sights—but I didn’t bother getting the names or numbers of the roads, or figuring out where the turns would be. Tell the phone the endpoint, let the phone tell you what to do in between.

Google Maps lost its absolute mind on the way out of O'Hare, giving us a turn too late to get over in time, then giving another turn as we were already passing it, then, after we'd U-turned to get back to where we'd originally missed the turn, telling us to go straight after all. The whole time in Chicago, by car or on foot, it kept guessing our location wrong. We had 1,320 miles to go with Google Maps entirely in charge of the navigation.

Continued in next week's HMM WEEKLY.


The thing in Slack that tells you what time it is for others

HMM WEEKLY IS written by Tom Scocca, editor, and Joe MacLeod, creative director. If you enjoy Hmm Weekly, let a friend know about it, and if you're reading this because someone forwarded it to you, go ahead and sign up for a copy of your own right now. Thanks for reading.