Tom DiVenti was born and raised in an early 1960s working-class Baltimore City neighborhood. It was row houses, apartments and small ’30s-40s houses on dinky city-sized lots. Most people worked in Baltimore’s industrial world, and their children of the 1950s and 60s were expected to do so too. However, young DiVenti discovered a box of old books in an aunt’s basement that led him down a treacherous literary path. That early literary immersion shape-shifted at around 12 years old into a brave, perceptive poet and artist.
His work is the real thing, reflecting the world of the thinker and doer, whose head is well-lubricated with various intoxicants, trying to make sense of an upside down world. At an early age, he developed the very Baltimore attitude of “I don’t give a f***… I’ll do what I feel.”
Tom was drawn to ’60s iconoclasts like Frank Zappa and Charles Bukowski. He became a keen observer, and participant in the darker, more dead-end world of Baltimore’s, corner alkie bars, strip clubs, racial and class barriers, rock’n roll greasers, liars, cheaters, nefarious basement bowling alleys and pinball machines, cheap Saturday William Castle double matinees in theaters you rode the bus to, with sticky floors that sucked your shoes off your feet, chaotic city markets and dirty diners covered in grimy layers of Baltimore’s lower-class immigrant past. What else could he become but a poet, and genuine all-around underground figure in the sprawling and beautifully disintegrating landscape of old Baltimore.
I grew up in Baltimore about the same time as Mr. DiVenti. Back then, Baltimore was a small, aging out city, with not much going for it. There was no theater district, no string of used bookstores, no block of coffee houses, comedy clubs, new-American restaurants, or a meaningful local music scene. There were few new buildings downtown, and much of the elegant gilded age architecture had survived, with their massive columns, mansard roofs, and gaudy architectural details. They were still standing, but often on the skids, as anyone of substance skedaddled to mall-ridden suburbs.
Urban renewal and office parks, replacing the shuttering heavy industries seemed to be Baltimore’s future. However, enough of the old city life, with its Jewish delis, Polish Home Club, cheap beer, Crab Houses, art house movie theaters, incredible art museums, elegant libraries, and extravagant townhouses had been spared, thankfully. Not to mention a genuine established art school, The Maryland Institute, that was an asylum for most of Baltimore’s artsy freaks.
These places drew the curious, arty type of baby boomers who lived in neighborhoods, along, or just over the county/city line, with big trees and front lawns with bushes to play hide ‘n seek, but sought something deeper, edgier, and… more impure. This included John Waters, Divine, and many others.
But the paucity of mainstream arts opportunities made many people with talent and smarts move away. Baltimore was a place to flee, if you were an inspiring writer, poet, artist, filmmaker, actor, dancer, musician, academic, nature lover or world vagabond.
But there were a few singular places that DiVenti describes, which nurtured the artists and rebels, and were crucial to those seeking signposts for out of town, or, if you were committed to Charm City, a survival-level dose of funky, counter-cultural urban American culture.
These waysigns included Martick’s French Restaurant, Mee-Jun Lows Chinese Restaurant, The New Era (Communist) bookshop, Abe Sherman’s Bookstore, The Parkway Theater (art house films), The Crack of Doom/Dawn Coffeeshop, Peabody Bookshop and Beer Stube, Ted’s Music, Read Street, the Mt. Royal Inn, Bertha’s bar and restaurant, and Jimmy’s, (a waterfront greasy spoon where John Waters and closest friends - met every Sunday morning after Friday and Saturday nights of swilling 50 cent draft beers and dollar mixed drinks.
Tom haunted them all, took detailed notes, and finally published many of his memoirs this year in the collection of poems/essays, THE BALTIMORE KID (Hecate Publishing). Though Mr. Devinti and I hung around in much of the same crowd, we never actually knew each other. So it was stunning, more than 30 years after I left Baltimore, that I’d be lucky enough to read the thoughts and memories of a person whose experiences frequently mirrored mine.
DiVenti is a snarky, endearingly abrasive curmudgeon, a very Baltimore personality type - so don’t expect kitties and puppies. This personality type may have begun in the 1920s, with H.L. Mencken, god-father of beer-soaked, self-indulgent and hyper-opinionated Baltimore writers. John Waters did a pretty good rendering of it in his book, CRACKPOT.
If you have some knowledge, or just fascination with Baltimore and its notorious culture of kitsch, criminality, camaraderie, and outsiderism, you’ll love this book.
Tom DiVenti’s writing is harsh and compelling, and an open mind is a requirement. A warning to English majors: Tom has own ideas about how paragraphs should work, or even if they’re necessary. Actually, they don’t exist at all.
The book has a very stream-of-consciousness style. It took me a few pages before I realized he had written an epic poem that moved at punk-rock, lightning speed through dark thoughts with righteous indignation, and an acerbic pov of the modern world liberally punctuated with wit, and yes, even tenderness. His language is often beautiful with very colorful and rhythmic rants and raves, and hysterical frustrations at the “homo-boobians” who run the world.
If you like H.L Mencken, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frederick Douglas, and Blaze Starr, read this book to get another loving/hateful voice of their wild and wacky world.