In 1973, the appearance of the late Lanford Wilson’s play, “The Hot L Baltimore,” was a major event in the New York Theater District, and over the succeeding years it has become a recurring part of our family’s dialogue. The latter happening is of particular significance in that none of us ever has seen the play or the subsequent television sitcom.
The drama’s theme revolves around a dilapidated hotel occupied by a desultory bunch of oddballs, deadbeats and freeloaders, who are facing eviction as the hotel has been condemned. The title comes from the hotel’s marquee, in which the neon “e” in “hotel” has burned out and not been replaced. For nearly 50 years now, whenever an exterior light bulb on our house expires, we refer to “The Hot L Baltimore” effect on our neighbors and passersby.
For the past six weeks, one of the two sidelights on either side of our front door was burned out, and I have been preoccupied with other matters and have not had the time to take to replace it. Each day, I told my Good Wife that I planned to install the new bulb, and thereby terminate the “The Hot L Baltimore” effect, but other tasks kept getting in the way. Finally, this past weekend, I took control of the situation, got my ladder, and returned our front stoop to proper illumination. No more “The Hot L Baltimore,” at least until the next bulb passes into history.
Many years ago, I was called to attend a conference at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I had returned from the Northern Neck, and as it happened, I did not have a suitcase to use on the trip, having left mine at home. Trying to make the best of an awkward situation, I packed my traveling clothes in two brown paper grocery shopping bags, and then I was off to the meeting.
When I arrived, I was greeted by a bevy of academics, some of whom asked if I had been shopping. I replied, “Er, yes, right you are,” and proceeded to check in at the front desk at the hotel. I eschewed having a bellhop carry my “bags” to my room. All these years later, I do not use the term “suitcases,” when I travel, but always refer to my traveling items by the more colloquial term, “bags,” although that was the only time the word was literally true.
I have read that Prince Charles speaks to his plants. Personally, I do not go to that extreme, but I do refer to my plants’ “health” when chatting with others. I engage my plants by my actions, not by my words. I know what they need, and I attempt to fulfill their requirements. In turn, they seem to be appreciative, as they grow and bloom accordingly.
By the age of five, I was acquainted with the rudiments of animal husbandry. I knew what made my barnyard friends happy, and what did not. Whereas I do not talk to the plants, I do engage the chickens, geese and goats. Some are more responsive than others. I understand that a particularly bright dog can learn 250 words, and I like to push all of my pets to their fullest potential, as my father did before me .
Among my childhood friends was a pet Dominecker hen, “Daisy,” who was extraordinarily alert. Psychologists call that talent “instinct,” but to me, it was plain smarts. Daisy was the only Dominecker among 100 White Leghorns. Each morning we would not collect 100 white eggs, but always one brown one was somewhere in the multitude of nests. Daisy knew her name, and she responded enthusiastically when called.
Language is fun and rewarding, whether one is appropriating a play’s title to a random occurrence, packing a “bag,” or summoning a chicken. We all should make the most of it.