Feb 07 2015


Published by under City Life,House Love

This morning, while changing a light bulb in the kitchen, I smelled burning plastic. Odd, I thought. Usually, our neighborhood smells of oak woodsmoke from the excellent, new restaurant a few blocks away: it has a wood-fired grill. I stepped onto my porch to get another whiff. Yep, burning plastic. I peered out the porch poor, turned my head and saw flames leaping from the second story window of the house three doors down. Holy shit. I called 911. The fire already looked out of control, feeding on something fast and easy. By the time I hung up, the sirens were nearing.

The most common cause of the more than 400,000 annual house fires in America is cooking. We don’t yet know the cause of this fire but most of us are pretty sure it started in this neighbor’s kitchen, at the back of the house. Usually, it’s a pot of something that catches fire. A single pot of, say, oatmeal that burns up in your kitchen can devastate your house with smoke damage. Something like that happened to my mother’s townhouse many years ago. And, I’m sure you know, smoke is what kills, usually, not the flame: you asphyxiate.

The street was foggy with smoke as three firetrucks roared up to our block. The burning building was evacuated. The tenant above the burning apartment was burned (though not seriously) and suffered smoke inhalation and, sadly, lost her cats. Jill and I heard the firefighters smashing every window of the burning house. Then they slammed the building with a jet of water from the front. But the back was the bigger problem, harder to get to and the firefighters had some maneuvering to do and it took a while to get the hose back there and the flames were roaring out in huge dragon bursts. The neighboring porch, just two narrow rowhouses away from us, was smoking like dried leaf laid on hot stone–it seemed just a matter of minutes before it would blow.

The firefighters evacuated the two houses between us and the burner but said we could stay with our house. The question was, Could they get this fire out before it spread? One truck aimed its ladder to our roof. I assumed the firefighters were up there waiting and watching for the telltale signs of smoke snaking out of the roof.

After the Great Fire of Baltimore, in 1904, wooden rowhouses were outlawed in the city and every new construction was made of brick or other forms of masonry. Fire codes were put in place, which is why every rowhouse after that time has a firewall that projects through the roof, to discourage the spread of fire from one dwelling to the next. Unfortunately, fire can jump buildings via the rickety back porches that most of these old buildings have. That’s what was happening in this case. It was clear that the fire was spread through the porch in the house closet to the burner. So we were worried.

Worried as I was, however, I had great confidence in Baltimore’s firefighters. I mean, these men and women combat difficult and dangerous fires every day. They don’t mess around. I recall the day that our house’s fire alarm malfunctioned and suddenly, startlingly, there were four fully-geared firefighters at our front door, axes in hand: “You all right?” the leader growled. “You got a fire?” They looked like helmeted giants and they were amped up, breathing hard and ready to tear into the house. I assured them that everything was fine. But I was grateful too, for their readiness. A f**king fearless crew. God bless them.


They did their job today. We did not have to evacuate. The tenants have been displaced, however, and it’s likely they didn’t have insurance to cover their loss. The house, no surprise, is a total loss. Gutted. All told, it burned for no more than thirty minutes before it was doused. But think about that: three stories, 3,300 square feet plus the basement, charred to a cinder in thirty minutes.


Our house smells of . . . burnt plastic. Tomorrow, a warm day, we’ll air it out. The houses closer-by have some smoke damage. We were very lucky. And we remain very grateful to the Baltimore City Fire Department. Three cheers for those brave souls who risk their lives — every day — for our safety!



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Jan 11 2015

How I Got Burned at the Flea Market

Published by under City Life,House Love

If you’ve watched “Antiques Roadshow,” you’ve seen segments where a collector believes he’s brought in a priceless artifact–like a Ming vase–only to be told by the Roadshow appraiser that he’s got a fake or a reproduction or he’s grossly over-estimated the value of the item in question. In short: he’s been burned.

Sometimes the collector has broken even on the buy–the appraiser’s estimate is about what the collector paid–and so he goes home with a dashed dream but no great damage. Other times, the collector has lost thousands of dollars in the transaction, having bought a $30 trinket for $3,000.

I love watching these segments because, sorry to say, schadenfreude kicks in and I relish the would-be collector’s misery. Then I shake my head in dismay, sometimes disgust, and think, “Man, I’m never gonna get taken like that. No, sir, not me!”

Just yesterday, Jill and I went to a big antiques show and spent a pleasant afternoon browsing through the dealers’ booths. Then, as we were getting to the end of our browsing, I made my first mistake: I sneaked away from Jill to buy her a couple presents for Christmas next year. But, I should add, I am not to be trusted alone. I can be an impulsive buyer.

One time I nearly brought home a giant “Zombies of the Stratosphere” poster but I couldn’t find the dealer (he was in the bathroom) and so I stood around and waited for his return. Then Jill found me and asked what I was up to. When I showed her the poster I was intent on buying (a garish thing as big as a dining room table), she turned and looked at me with appalled disbelief. She said, “I will not have that thing in my house.” I told her I thought she’d like it. She said, “What ever gave you such a crazy idea? Zombies of the Stratosphere?”

So here I was cruising the antiques show on my own, thinking, “Oh, boy, I’m gonna get some cool stuff and won’t Jill be impressed!” True to my plan, I bought Jill’s gifts. But then I saw it: a big Beatles poster, banner-style, in great shape and clearly original. It looked like an advertising piece. Maybe rare. I’m no Beatles expert but I pride myself on having a good eye for antiques and collectables. This item looked cool enough that I could, at least, ask what it was selling for. The dealer was willing to let it go for $425. He said it was a banner used to sell the Beatles’ first paperback book in 1964. “Very rare,” he said. “Probably worth $1200.”

All of the photos on the banner were of the early Beatles’ era. Early Beatles’ stuff sells best, I figured. I said to the dealer, “I’ll give you $300.” He shook his head and said, “Man, I’m been carrying this thing around too long and know it will sell eventually but you hit me in a weak moment. $300 is what I’ve got into it, but what the hell. Sure, it’s a deal.”

Just then Jill called me, wanting to know where I had gone. I said, “I’m making a purchase. It’s an investment. I’m sure I can sell this thing for three times what I’m buying it for.”

She said, “Oh, no. Don’t I get a say?”

I said, “Nope. This is all mine.”

“Is it something that goes in the house?”

“No,” I said. “It’s just an investment. I’ll put it in my rehearsal room for the time being.”

“You scare me,” she said.

A bit later, when she saw the item, she said, “It’s cool!”

It is was cool: a three-color banner about five feet long and about 20” high. It show Paul, John, Ringo, and George in big headshots and also in various foursome poses.

Somebody came up to me and asked, “What’d you pay for that?”

“Three hundred,” I said.

“And what’s it worth?” the stranger asked.

“About twelve hundred,” I said proudly. Like money in the bank! I thought.

Then Jill said, “Hey, we should take your banner to Antiques Roadshow!” She had just signed up for tickets for their summer filming in Cleveland.

“Excellent idea!” I enthused. “No two ways about it. This will get us on TV!”

I imagined the buzz I’d create as the appraisers beheld my rare Beatles advertising poster and asked “Where did you find that?”

To be double sure, I did a little research online when I got home. Let me emphasize “little.” It took all of two minutes to discover — on eBay — that my banner was indeed a poster but not an advertising piece at all. No, it was simply a poster that had sold for 35 cents in 1964, folded up into magazine size, published by DELL, the paperback manufacturer. It is not rare. And it sells on eBay for about $35. Ten times what I paid.

Ouch. So here was my second mistake: I should have taken the time to pull up eBay on my phone and do a quick search before I purchased my poster. That would have taken me five minutes, tops.

Mind you, I don’t think the dealer scammed me. He wasn’t an expert in the Beatles; he was actually a dealer in antique toys. He seemed sincere when he described the piece as a rare, advertising banner. But then again, you never know.

So here’s the lesson:
1) Buy what you know.
2) If you don’t know the field of collectible you’re speculating on, be suspicious of really good deals.
3) Dealers are not experts. Antiques dealers are often nothing more than passionate collectors. They can be swayed tremendously by their own wishful thinking. They will always exaggerate the value of their items.
4) Do your research. If you have a smart phone, look up the item on eBay — that will tell you the market rate for any particular collectible or antique.
5) Let your partner or spouse be the voice of reason.

Am I pissed? Am I bummed? Not really. I deserve the burn and I’m a big believer in paying for my mistakes. So I’ll live with this awhile to teach myself a lesson. And the next time I’m at an antiques show, I gonna stick with Jill.


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Dec 24 2014

Christmas in the House We Love!

Published by under City Life,House Love




Christmas is a special time at our house. We really enjoy dressing up the place in a traditional style. Every year we try something different, including new (old) ornaments. Jill can’t stop collecting antique ornaments we find at flea markets and garage sales.


Click here for a brief video tour of our first floor

We wish you a happy holiday!


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Nov 04 2014

Where the Wild Horses Are

Jill and I spent the weekend at Assateague, Maryland’s coastal island and home to its famous wild horses. It was cold and windy but lovely–we had a heater in the van (a new addition). And we took the dogs, of course. They always make travel more interesting. I love the beach during the off-season for the obvious reason: we have it all to ourselves.

Legend has it that Assateague’s horses were survivors from a shipwreck two hundred years ago. A more plausible explanation is that these stocky, wooly horses are feral descendants of horses belonging to local inhabitants who brought their horses here to avoid taxes and fencing restrictions. The horses, I guess, got out of hand — and got out. If you camp in a tent, you’ll hear the horses hoofing through your campsite late at night, looking for an ice chest or storage container to break into. They can be very aggressive and persistent, as more than a few eager camera-toting tourists have found out.


Our dogs, Cleo and Sadie, love the beach. I imagine that for them the big-sky expanse of sand and the rumble and wash of waves are amazing sights and sounds. If we are amazed, why wouldn’t they be?


Jill and I played cards in the van, watched movies, read. The wind buffeted the van so roundly, it felt like we were in a treehouse during a storm. It’s actually a cozy feeling, the dogs sleeping under the bed, lots of goodies in the cupboard, and–just outside our windows–the dunes, the Atlantic, and the wide-open sky.

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Oct 23 2014

The Whiteboard Scam

Published by under City Life,writing & arts

If you are a teacher, you are familiar with the “whiteboard,” also called the “dry erase board.” It has replaced the chalkboard in most schools. Also it’s common in the workplace for lectures, strategy meetings etc. It consists of a laminated glossy white surface on which you write with colored markers. When it first appeared in the late 1980s,it was touted as a modern, much-improved alternative to the chalkboard. This was bullshit.

Proponents of the whiteboard claimed that the traditional chalk board was messy and too dusty. Chalk dust could affect kids with asthma. If you’re older than 40, you may remember your grade school teacher sending a volunteer outside to clap clean the chalk-filled felt erasers every day. It was a job most kids envied because you got out of the classroom to do something nobody else got to do. Until this year, when I was put into a “high-tech” classroom, I have always used a chalkboard–for 25 years of teaching. It never occurred to me that the chalkboard needed improvement.

The great thing about a chalkboard is its simplicity. Nothing could be more fundamental than chalk. It is soft white limestone–the compacted skeletal remains of sea creatures. Shells mostly. Stuff that’s millions of years old. The chalkboard itself is porcelain enamel. It was invented in the early 1800s, so it’s not as old a technology as it might seem. It’s incredibly easy to use. You may think that the whiteboard is an improvement insofar as it’s easier to erase whiteboard marker than it is to erase chalk. True enough. And chalk leaves a film on the chalkboard. Dry-erase markers don’t leave a film.

But dry-erase markers leave a mucky smear on the eraser itself. And that smear can get all over your hands. Dry-erase markers themselves used to be toxic, containing an odorous ketone. They now contain ethanol. But they’re still odorous, a smell I don’t like–and it can aggravate people with asthma. The worst thing about the dry-erase alternative is the markers. Yes, they come in many colors, but they don’t last long. If you press too hard on them, the marker’s wick disappears inside the container. If you don’t cap them, they dry out. Also you have to have a special fluid to clean the erasers. I don’t know if the fluid is toxic, but most likely it is.

The result is that the dry erase marker is a hassle, taking more time, attention, money and maintenance than the traditional chalkboard. A box of chalk lasts a year, maybe more. A box of dry-erase markers might last a month. You have to buy dry-erase “kits” to keep up with the use. Also, unlike chalk — which you can use varying ways, to create block letters or elegant script — each dry-erase marker comes in only one thickness. So, if you need a bolder line, you need another dry-erase marker. Pretty soon, you find yourself sorting through a pile of markers, half of which have dried out, capping and uncapping them to find just what you need.

In short, the dry-erase marker and its whiteboard is a scam manufactured by supply companies who have capitalized on our perceived need to improve the things we use. (A simliar scam is the Compact Flourescent Bulb, which is toxic, fragile, and much more short-lived than the manufacturers claim.) Let me be clear: I don’t advocate keeping the chalkboard for sentimental reasons that conjure quaint schoolroom scenes from a bygone era. I advocate keeping the chalkboard because it doesn’t need improvement, as its 200-year-old history plainly shows. Some things come to us in their ultimate and most useful form. The chalkboard is one of those. Wherever I can, I shun the messy, high-maintenance whiteboard. Maybe you will too.

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Ron Tanner is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction, author of A BED OF NAILS, KISS ME STRANGER, and other works. For more on his latest activity, click here. Or go to: