By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, May 3, 2006
Paloma’s, the Mount Vernon nightclub whose run on West Eager Street from 1999 to 2003 started strong but fizzled in debt by the end, is planning an invitation-only reopening at its new location May 5. The invitations, which were gift-wrapped and delivered to the City Paper editorial staff April 26, announce that “the spirit and energy of Paloma’s has moved to Sowebo!” The catered, open-bar event promises five DJs, living sculpture, and valet parking. “Industrial sheik attire” is encouraged.
The new Paloma’s is marketing itself as “Sowebo’s Esoteric Nightclub,” and its new abode—at Ramsay and Woodyear streets, near the Mount Clare Junction shopping center—has been renovated to fit the bill. The concept and design of the club belongs to a middle-aged self-described artist who calls herself River, and it includes graffiti-style murals on the walls, fabric hanging from the ceilings, high-tech lighting, loungy furniture arrangements, computer stations, and sketch-pads with colored pencils. While the new Paloma’s isn’t actually located in Sowebo—a Hollins Market-centered arts-community concept dating from the 1980s that lives on in the annual Sowebohemian Arts Festival—it’s pretty close.
River, in an April 30 telephone interview, points out that, unlike the original Paloma’s, she is not a part of the business running the new club. The liquor license is held by others: River’s daughter Charity Deeb, 34; a 26-year-old Ellicott City guitarist named Jason B. Crebs; and a 45-year-old man River calls her husband, Robert A. Fogle Jr., who says he works for BGE. Fogle, she emphasizes, is the main owner of the business. “I’m involved with Paloma’s in the concept and design,” she explains. “But my husband is the one who wanted to make it happen.” River lives upstairs, above the club.
The reason River isn’t officially involved with Paloma’s is because she’s consumed with “other projects,” according to its liquor-license application. She is preparing to open another club, Eris, in October. “I’m the owner of Eris,” River says, though both Fogle and Crebs appear in official documents as partners in Eris. She sketches out her plans: a 1,500-capacity live-music venue on the 500 block of South Monroe Street, about 10 blocks west of Paloma’s, where River says she plans to showcase “national and seminational acts,” drawing crowds from Washington.
She and Fogle and Crebs, operating as Monroe Street Properties LLC, have already closed on the real estate for Eris—a $1.8 million multiple-property deal with a $200,000 down payment to former owner Abdolreza Parvizian, a D.C.-based rug merchant who, River says, holds the note for the transaction. The loan involves $10,000 payments each month, with the balance due after two years. On top of the $350,000 deal for the Paloma’s property, these transactions add up to rather large commitments to draw entertainment revenue from West Baltimore.
“We have some investors,” River explains, without elaborating, and adds that part of her enterprising spirit is to bring life to neglected places. If Eris’ business plan, which was submitted to the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners during its ongoing licensing process, is borne out, it would be a surprising shift in the neighborhood’s lagging fortunes. In its first year of operating, the plan states, Eris will host “at least five high-profile, sell-out concerts of nationally recognized acts, such as Moby,” a famous electronic musician.
A look at River’s previous stabs at success suggests that her plans should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. As the original Paloma’s was withering, River’s attempt to gain federal bankruptcy protection in 2002 failed. (City Paper was listed as a creditor in that case, but publisher Don Farley says the $1,180 owed was written off as bad debt.) According to Maryland court records, River has a total of 13 outstanding judgments against her, some dating back to the mid-’90s, for a total of more than $82,500, not including interest and attorneys’ fees. Those cases are against River personally, and do not include judgments against her various defunct companies. Fogle, meanwhile, emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2000.
Judy Laylon, a retired Harford County public-school teacher, is one of River’s creditors. The wife of retired postal worker and military veteran Leonard Laylon of Bel Air holds a $16,000 judgment against River. Because she is hard of hearing, Leonard Laylon answered questions for her.
“When the judge ordered [the judgment]” in 2004, Leonard Laylon recalls, “we thought we could find this woman, but she stayed one step ahead of us.” After loaning the $16,000—which Leonard says Judy Laylon did because she believed her brother Caitlyn Lance Antrim, a postoperative transsexual son of a former U.S. Navy admiral and an international-law expert, was a partner in Paloma’s—the Laylons came to the conclusion that they’d been duped. Although Antrim was a Paloma’s liquor licensee, the Laylons later decided that the business, in fact, was all River’s. (As of press time, Antrim could not be reached for comment.)
“I was told so many stories” about the ownership of the business and the real estate, Leonard says over the phone, “that I’m not sure what to believe.” In the background, Judy Laylon proclaims, “I want my money!”
Another creditor, Hail Haleem, was River’s landlord in Rockville in the mid-’90s. He says she parsed out partial payments on the monthly rent during her entire tenancy. “I’ve been following her ever since” says Haleem, who won a $10,437 judgment against her, plus interest, in 1995. “I’ve never written it off,” he says, adding that “this is the first time I’m actually learning that she’s in Baltimore.”
River, when asked about the court judgments against her, says that “things aren’t always as they appear.” Which brings up another issue: her real name. Records of past charges against her for driving while intoxicated, passing bad checks, and theft (she pleaded guilty and received probation before judgment in the 1994 DWI case, and prosecutors declined to pursue the other charges, dating from 1999 and 2002) show her legal name to be Martha Jane Biton. In more recent liquor board and corporate records, she is listed as “Martha River Bitton Fogle” or “River Fogle.” This confusion was one of several “material misstatements” that were unearthed during Eris’ licensing process that were brought up in a liquor board investigative report from last fall. The city liquor board, as a result of the report, is awaiting clarification pending license approval.
To explain her various names, River says she “went through a spiritual cleansing and was given a new name” a few years back. In the process, she continues, “a little girl named Martha Jane went away. I released her, and I released her pain, and I let her go. She’s free now, but River does exist.”
Haleem, meanwhile, is happy to have learned her various new names— he says when he knew her she was “Marti Biton”—because now he can look forward to pursuing repayment. “I want her to succeed,” Haleem says of River’s new enterprises, “because that just makes it better for collections.”