Good Times: Dion Fearon in Baltimore, asking all about Jean Brown

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 21, 2019

Yesterday at Studio 4 in downtown Baltimore, producer Dion Fearon asked me questions about lifer Jean Brown, the Baltimore-based Jamaican who in 2009 ordered and oversaw the tortuous murder and dismemberment of Michael Knight, Brown’s friend and co-conspirator in a $1M-a-month Mexican cannabis-trafficking operation. Knight’s body, which was sawed to pieces, packaged, and tossed into various dumpsters in the Baltimore area, was never recovered.

I’d first written about Brown in late 2010, when a search warrant in the case dropped at U.S. District Court in Maryland, and ended up writing about her two more times. Fearon is now putting together a documentary about Brown, and managed to track me down just in time for me to go back over my records and writings quickly in preparation for the shoot.

We covered a lot of ground involving Brown, but Fearon also asked me about how the Brown conspiracy compared to other major pot-trafficking cases I’d covered. That prompted me to recall that the very building we sat in was once part of the real-estate holdings of Jeremy Landsman, who played a role in the globe-trotting, jet-setting cannabis conspiracy headed by Matt Nicka, and that next door used to be the location of Sonar, Dan McIntosh‘s nightclub that prosecutors contended, unsuccessfully, was part of the scheme.

When I arrived at the studio just prior to the appointed time, former federal prosecutor Stefan Cassella, who led the prosecution of Brown, was seated in front the cameras. When we were introduced, he was incredibly pleasant – considering all the words I’ve written about his work in Maryland over the years, much of which was critical reporting. There were stories about seizing assets from South Mountain Creamery, prosecuting online gambling and synthetic drugs, a forfeiture case marred by agents’ creating a faked drug-dog certification in litigation, and an occasion when Cassella drew the ire of a veteran federal judge – and that’s just what I can readily recall.

That’s Cassella on the right. Photo: Dion Fearon

When my interview was over, Fearon and I spoke about other stories, including Querida Lewis – Fearon brought her up her name, asking if I had heard of her – and Sean Hinton, the Baltimore police trainee whose body was found floating off Manhattan in 1992, and whose son Ronald Hinton was later convicted, on shaky evidence and a controversial confession, of raping and murdering a four-year-old girl.

I had presumed Fearon was a Californian – which she is – but it turns out she grew up in Baltimore. I predict we’ll be crossing paths again, and look forward to seeing what comes of her Brown biopic.


Two Swift Kicks


By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 17, 2019

Sibling conflicts roiled our household yesterday. It was nothing off the curve of normalcy for a four-member family, but extreme enough that I decided to take one of the kids on an outing, leave the home storminess to calm behind us, and start fresh elsewhere for a few hours before the afternoon agenda.

I push the garage-door opener so we can walk into the alley, and the rickety, screeching piece of essential machinery opens.

I say the door is essential not only because we park a car in the garage, but we also keep there: four bikes, four push scooters, a Honda 50cc scooter, a pedal-assist electric cargo bike, and an assortment of kayaking, camping, sledding, and picnicking gear. Even when we aren’t using any of that, we walk through the garage on the regular. We need the door to be operational. The only other option is the front door, which opens to the sidewalk of a busy city street, and that’s simply not doable as the only point of egress for our active lifestyle.

It’s not the door’s opening, but its closing, that’s occasionally problematic. This I’ve chalked up to what’s likely a decades-long accumulation of lightly damaging blows from vehicles trying to negotiate the tight confines of the narrow alley, and lately as well to the kids pretending to be superheroes by lifting it as it opens.

Now we’re in the alley, and I hit the hand-held clicker. This time, the door gets close to closing, and then, pop!, the bottom flap flies off track. It retracts and, once fully open, falls silent.

My plan for restoring familial peace is foiled.

I take off my jacket and start the door-fixing ritual. Basically, it requires hitting the hand-held opener and, having put on leather gloves, manipulating the door back on track as it comes down or retracts. Then you hit the opener again and again, opening and closing and making adjustments to the moving door’s position so as to, hopefully, eventually, after much trial and error, assure it stays on track throughout its to-and-fro journey.

Today, my best efforts aren’t working. After 10 or 15 minutes, with me getting increasingly agitated and shedding more layers of clothing as I huff and puff, I send the kid inside, rolling the dice on what might result of an unexpected sibling reunion mid-morning on this already exhausting day.

I empty the last of the little can of WD-40 onto all the door’s moving parts. Still, it goes off track. About two-thirds of the way down is the point where it pops every time, but I can’t puzzle out the exact point where the sound is coming from. I break out the tube of marine-grade lube, apply it to the wheels in the tracks, but it too is of no use.

I keep trying, pretending I don’t care, hoping for a magical fix. I can close it all the way by forcing it down with my hands while standing inside the garage, but that doesn’t help when you’re out in the alley, trying to get on with your day.

After an hour, I take a seat on the backyard furniture, frustrated and tired. No one has emerged yet from indoors to update me on the state of play, and I decide I’d rather not know at the moment.

The sun is shining, though it’s brisk out. I grab my jacket, put it on my lap, put my heavy boot-clad feet up on the table, and lean back into the thick, soft seat cushion, my face turned partly away from the sun. It feels wonderful. I pull up a sleeve to catch more of the rays on my skin. I fall asleep.

I am not a napper. A 10-minute siesta can ruin my day. I need two hours, minimum, or I’ll just be a groggy mess of sleep-addled grumpiness. So when I awake after some fraction of my minimum, I go inside and head straight to bed, mumbling something about my intentions as I pass the rest of the family.

Later, when I re-emerge, the house is empty. I make a cup of coffee. I head into the back yard to sit in the sun.

I look at the garage door. I hit the clicker. It retracts, as always. I hit it again. It starts to close, but, as expected, it pops somewhere about two-thirds down, and goes back up.

This time, though, from the acoustical perspective of my comfortable chair, I think I know where the “pop” is coming from. I get up and hit the clicker again. I walk up to the door and force it all the way closed.

The spot I’m thinking of is about a foot off the ground, just right of center. I haul back with my foot and let it swing, hard, right onto that spot. I kick it again, surprised at how loud the sound is.

I hit the clicker. The door opens. I hit it again. The door closes. Over and over again, it works. With two swift kicks aimed just right, it’s back to fulfilling its essential purpose so I can go back to mine: preparing a roasted vegetable tart for dinner before movie night.



Stones in my Pathway: For a Backroads Enthusiast, Hunting for Mason-Dixon Markers on the Eastern Shore is a Joyride

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, May 21, 2003


It’s one of my fondest childhood memories: my mom, myself, my sisters, and our pets (a dog, a hamster, a guinea pig, and a mouse) packed into a station wagon, doing the long haul up the East Coast during summer vacation. We called it “getting lost”–purposefully taking random exits off of Interstate 95, armed with a good map, in search of obscure, out-of-the-way places.

A riverside picnic spot off the beaten path, an ancient barn crowned with an interesting weather vane, a crafts co-op run by back-to-nature hippies–where we were headed (and we often didn’t know exactly where) was less important than the route taken. The main idea was to have the weighted-down wagon’s tires meet asphalt or dirt they had never before touched, taking us through landscapes we’d never before seen. Sometimes it seemed like a treasure hunt, with the arrival at one destination bringing clues to the next.

The Eastern Shore, with its vast, flat expanses of storied territory, offers excellent possibilities for getting lost. The hinterlands between and beyond Route 50 and Route 404 are often bypassed by the fun-seeking hordes en route to the ocean. Leaving the shore traffic behind to hit sleepy towns and dusty roads makes for prime back-roading. It helps to have guideposts to seek, and Delmarva’s Maryland-Delaware border is lined with just the thing: stone markers, first laid down in the 1760s by British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.

According to Roger Nathan, a New Jersey resident whose book East of the Mason-Dixon Line (Delaware Heritage Press, 2000) describes the making of Delaware’s borders, the 3 1/2-foot-high English limestone monuments were placed at every mile point along the line during two weeks around the Christmas of 1765. Many have disappeared, either sunk into marshland or removed, and many that remain are damaged. There are still plenty to find, however, and looking for them makes for a DIY tour of a slice of Delmarva that few tourists ever see.

The Mason-Dixon Line, the world-famous boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, defined the geography of this country’s mid-19th-century political conflict over slavery, culminating in the Civil War. Mason and Dixon undertook their celebrated survey between 1763 and ’68, in order to settle a nearly century-long property dispute between the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calverts of Maryland. What today we call the Mason-Dixon Line, though, was but one part of Mason’s and Dixon’s task. Back then, this latitudinal boundary was called the “West Line” and was started only after the English surveyors completed the “Tangent Line”–the north-south line that now marks the Maryland-Delaware border.

The Tangent Line starts at the “Middle Point,” which falls between Mardela Springs, Md., and Delmar–a town that straddles the Maryland-Delaware border–and is the center of the “Transpeninsular Line,” the east-west line that marks the southern Maryland-Delaware border, which runs from the Atlantic coast near Fenwick Island, Del., to the Chesapeake Bay. From the Middle Point, Mason and Dixon in the summer of 1764 chained 82 miles northward, through farms, marshland, and forests, to touch the 12-mile arc they had drawn around New Castle, Del.

Before starting out on this stone-seeking tour, some reading and references are in order. Nathan’s book is concise with the particulars, giving photos and rough descriptions of the markers and their locations, along with accounts of the surveyors’ charge and challenges. But it also a good idea to chase down a copy of The Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (American Philosophical Society, 1969; out of print) to let the men tell their own story, although as men of science, their entries are frustratingly stark. To round out the picture, Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon (Henry Holt, 1997), intimidatingly thick at nearly 800 pages, provides a fantastical glimpse of the surveyors’ characters and the Age of Reason’s hellbent pursuit of all things knowable.

Lastly, but most importantly, get some good maps. Delorme’s Maryland-Delaware Atlas and Gazetteer is invaluable for modern-day explorers, but even better detail is available from Maryland Geological Survey topographic maps of Wicomico, Dorchester, Caroline, Queen Anne’s, Kent, and Cecil counties.

Nearly all of the existing, accessible Mason-Dixon markers can by found by land travel, but somewhere under the marshy north bank of the Nanticoke River is the long-submerged seven-mile marker, regained only via water. To get there, intrepid stone searchers can put their watercraft in at the public boat ramp at Sharptown, Md., on the south side of Route 313’s Nanticoke River bridge.

The river here is wide and tidal, and the two-mile trip to the boundary is likely to be attended by ospreys, herons, perhaps a bald eagle, and plenty of fish a-jumpin’. The spot itself is somewhat anticlimactic, as no stone can be found, but the boundary is marked by a signpost and metal National Geodetic Survey markers alerting passersby to the nearby presence of the submerged marker. Just upriver from the signpost is tiny Wright Creek, a relaxing side trip for canoeists or kayakers, taking paddlers through a meandering, marshy waterway that is home to an abundance of turtles and alive with trout.

A car tour of the markers is best started at the Middle Point, a short distance off Route 50 on Route 54. Protected in a gated pavilion are three stones. The Middle Point monument is a crownstone, so-called because it bears the coats of arms of the Penns on the Delaware side and of the Calverts on the Maryland side, as do other existing crownstones at five-mile intervals along the Tangent Line. (The crownstone pictured above is near Greensboro, Md.) The other two stones at the Middle Point pavilion, Nathan told me before our trip, are the 25-mile marker of the Transpeninsular Line and a stone of no historical significance, set by a local resident.

Gazing north from the Middle Point pavilion, you’re all set to look for more Mason-Dixon stones, with one important catch: Many of the stones are on private property, and thus not available for viewing without permission from the property owners.

On the outskirts of Sharptown is the former site of marker No. 5–a crownstone that Nathan reports has been missing since 1999. Locals pointed us to the location, along a dirt road that follows the border, with fields on the Maryland side and woods on the Delaware side. The National Geodetic Survey markers there–small metal signs on posts–have been nearly destroyed by short-range shotgun blasts, perhaps a sign of local hostility to government totems.

As we scuffed around the area where marker No. 5 used to be, a man travelling in the local fashion–that is, wearing a timeworn baseball cap advertising agricultural products and driving an old pickup truck–pulled over next to us. “You fellers studying the Mason-Dixon Line?” he asked, friendly as can be. When we confirmed we were, he added, “You know, they resurveyed the line using laser beams a few years back, and those fellers had it right on the money.” And then he headed off down the road, leaving us in a cloud of dust. We were unable to confirm the use of laser beams in conducting the resurvey, but he was right: In 1978, a coalition of government agencies checked Mason and Dixon’s work and found it utterly accurate.

The next stop is the nine-mile marker, just north of Galestown, Md., en route to Reliance, Md.–where the house of Patty Cannon, infamous for kidnapping freed slaves in Delaware and reselling them to Maryland slave owners in the early 1800s, is commemorated with an historic plaque. Transgressing in our own small way, we skirted around a private home along a field to take a look at the stone, which has an m carved on the Maryland side and a p on the Delaware side, referring to that state’s colonial origins as part of the Penns’ land grant.

The 15-mile marker is a well-preserved and easily accessible crownstone on the east side of Route 549 near Oak Grove, Del. Here we began to detect a land-use pattern where the state border also delineated different zoning–in this case, farming on the Delaware side, woods and homes on the Maryland side. Then, on to the 17-mile marker, located just north of Route 318 in the middle of a hay field near tiny Atlanta, Del. The stone carver goofed on this one, Nathan speculates, as the Delaware side has a “p” carved over an “m”–making it the Mason-Dixon stone hunter’s equivalent of a philatelist’s Three Skilling Yellow Banco, the world’s most valuable stamp due to a printing error.

As we moved northward, we grew more adept at finding stones–and also noted that the towns and villages north of Route 404, a major highway, grew increasingly lost in time. No Wal-Marts, no McDonald’s, no malls to undermine the old village general-store-and-a-post-office economy that probably hasn’t changed much since the advent of railroading. Naming towns–Schultie Crossroads, Melvin Crossroads, Ringgold’s Green–was a simple matter of connecting family names with a description of the locale.

A daring close to our tour is a climb up a high and frail tower at the state border on Route 404, about 25 miles north of the Middle Point. The tower was built to commemorate the 1978 resurveying of the Mason-Dixon Line. Apparently unmaintained since it was constructed, the tower features rotted pine steps and rickety Tinkertoy engineering. The fence gate at its base, meant to keep the public out, is off its hinges, so temptation got the best of us–despite a dire warning from a kid who lives next door, whose brother, he said, almost fell through the tower’s weather-beaten steps the last time he climbed it. Gripping the metal rails and stepping carefully to avoid weak spots, though, we managed to gain a high vantage point.

The risk was worth it, if only to see Delmarva’s Mason-Dixon Line as Mason and Dixon never could: from above, with miles and miles of Eastern Shore vista spread out all around us. Traveling through this new-to-us territory, and then seeing it from above, serves to drive home the marvel of their surveying feat–and the value of getting lost.

Thanks for Sharing

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 14, 2007


My father seemed every bit the academic surgeon he was. His patient, professorial airs, strikingly polite and unpretentious, draped over him like the well-tailored suits he usually wore for work and family occasions. One Thanksgiving in the mid-1990s, just after my mother called out that dinner was about ready, Dad announced that he had something he wanted to show us.

“Before we sit down to eat, I’d like everyone to come into the TV room and see a VCR from my very successful doctor’s visit,” Dad said. “It’s very short, but it’s very important, and it’s a very good sign that Grandpa’s in good shape inside,” he explained as his grandchildren, all of them old enough to understand (and very much like) the words “VCR” and “TV,” expectantly gathered around the screen.

I don’t know about the rest of the adults present, but I thought what was to come would be something quite clinical and inscrutable, like blood cells moving around with running commentary by Dad, partly in Latin. That’s the type of thing that usually happened when he waxed about medical topics.

When I heard the word “colonoscopy,” my jaw dropped. It was too late to stop what was already happening. Nearly a dozen brains tried to process the hazy pink, gray, and brown images a tiny lens and light had recorded earlier that week, while traveling up Dad’s bum. “See how pink it is?” he cooed. “Now that’s a healthy-looking colon.”

Everyone watched, paralyzed and silent, as Dad explained that the camera was now bumping up against an interior sphincter muscle, now passing through it, and now, after traveling as far up as it could go, backtracking. Thwoop, back through a muscle ring, back, back, more pinkish tissue until . . . thwoop, back through another muscle ring . . . and there it was. A picture of my father’s anus, flashed up on the TV screen. It was up there for a second or two, a still image at the end of the tape.

As soon as it was over, I told Dad in no uncertain terms that he’d just done something that I was going to tell people about over and over again for years, and he just chuckled. “I’m proud of it,” he explained, “and I wanted to share it.”

Somehow, Thanksgiving dinner went on as normal. As far as I can tell, all the grandchildren have grown up to be quite normal, too. Perhaps it is I–the one who’s committing this story to print in a newspaper–who still has issues to work out over what happened. I think not. I think, just like Dad, I simply like to share.

The Diary of Doc Watkins

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Oct. 28, 1998


Until recently, New York City wasn’t on my life’s itinerary. So far as I expected, I would stay in Baltimore, where my mother’s father’s family had settled in the early part of the century and where I had lived (other than a few short forays and travels) since I was a four-year-old in 1970. I was quite comfortable with the idea of riding a lifelong learning curve as an obscure observer and chronicler of a waning, eccentric city. But, alas, 1998 has so far proven a pivotal year for me, and suddenly I’m living in Queens.


The first 10 months of this year took a lot out of me. I started out by purchasing a charming Civil War-era house in a forsaken Baltimore neighborhood, then flew to Amarillo, TX, to testify as the lead defense witness in Oprah Winfrey’s libel trial over disparaging statements made on her show about the poor eating habits of cows. What landed me in Amarillo was a piece I wrote about what goes on inside a rendering plant, where animal tissues are boiled into their constituent parts of fats and proteins and some of the proteins were (until the feds stepped in with new regulations in 1997) used in cattle feed. I was the only reporter Oprah’s attorneys could find who had actually observed the workings of a rendering plant, and my firsthand observations, it turns out, substantially supported alleged false statements made on Oprah’s show.

This was followed in May by my own libel trial, in which a consultant for Baltimore city tried unsuccessfully to convince a jury that I had written false facts about him in my investigative coverage of a contracting scandal at the city landfill. Over the summer, between filing stories (at City Paper, Baltimore’s weekly) about the state elections, I helped my parents move from Baltimore to an island in Maine. Then I succumbed to the lure of a job at NYPress, abandoned my newly purchased home to a fellow Baltimore writer and shacked up with my girlfriend in Sunnyside.

The breakneck pace of these events proved quite stressful – so, after unloading and unpacking our vanload of belongings, my girlfriend and I were ripe for an extended fall-foliage trip through New England in my 1981 piss-yellow Dodge Diplomat.

Properly stocked with food, music and vices, the Diplomat made for a comfortable ride. While hopelessly passe, especially when chugging up 95 in Connecticut and Rhode Island amid the Volvos and the Land Rovers, the vehicle to me remains esthetically pleasing, particularly when outfitted as it was on this trip with two bikes and a large plastic trunk attached to the roof rack. Being in no hurry, and acutely aware that our gypsy boat was a powerful cop magnet, we went the speed limit and conscientiously avoided road Cokes in an effort to prevent legal trouble – or a dose of wood shampoo from New England’s finest.

The first leg of the trip ended in Manomet, MA, between Plymouth and Cape Cod on the south shore of the Massachusetts Bay. The town is a few coves east of the Pilgrim Station nuclear power plant and, due to its existence, the entire region is ominously served by an antiquated emergency-warning system consisting of huge air-raid sirens.

In Manomet, my great-aunt, the late Agnes Watkins, a classics teacher at Windsor School in Boston who never married and whose exceptional frugality allowed her to travel the world, had owned a small cottage – perfect size for one or two people – near some bluffs leading down to the ocean. On her death some years ago, the cottage came into the possession of my father and his sister and it is now enjoyed by family and friends throughout the summer season as a quiet, phoneless getaway. We spent our first night of vacation there and were off for the Maine coast in the morning.

After staying a few days with my parents and observing their somewhat hyperactive efforts to get their waterfront home in a proper state of readiness before the coming winter storms, we headed inland to Andover, ME, for some outdoor recreation and backwoods relaxation at my girlfriend’s family’s ancestral camp in the woods of the White Mountains. This was the shank of the trip, and it effectively assuaged our nerves and restored our shrunken bellies to fullness.

It was back at Manomet, however, on the last few days of our 12-day New England junket, that we were treated unexpectedly to the most noteworthy discovery of the trip: the memoirs of my great-great-uncle, Robert Lincoln Watkins, as typed, single-space, by his niece Agnes in 1972. The document, found in a bookcase containing numerous family archives, was in a green three-ring binder and was titled: A Story of His Life, by a man who has never gotten anywhere. The cover page indicates it was written in 1927 in New York City.


As we learned on reading the memoirs, Robert Watkins, a medical doctor and inventor who died in 1934 at the age of 71, was a curious, stubborn man who was inexorably attracted to charismatic characters and con men and who tragically coveted elusive fame and fortune, for which he strove with opportunistic abandon, but to no avail. In the process, he racked up a riotous collection of anecdotes, a large number of which ended in a description of the deaths of those involved. The glimpses of his life were made all the more interesting by the fact that, though I had heard mention of him in family dinner conversations, I had no idea such an engrossing, romantic figure inhabited my family’s history or that his involvement in turn-of-the-century New York life was so fascinating.

We found ourselves completely absorbed in Watkins’ memoirs, belly-laughing at his fantastic misadventures and touched by his loneliness late in life. Born in 1863 in Proctorsville, VT, of an inventor/capitalist who was financially ruined by a Black River flood that washed out his factory and a school teacher from the Berkshires, he was raised, he wrote, in “a puritanical environment” in which regular prayer and strict observance of the sabbath were practiced. A terrible book-learner, he turned instead to experimentation, building a boyhood chemistry lab in the basement where he blew up a jug of hydrogen, constructed a photophone (“to talk over distances without a wire by means of a ray of light”) and tried to make diamonds by heating in a sealed tube iron filings, carbon and nickel.

Rather than become a chemist (“my father said, and induced me to believe, that there was only $900 a year in it”), Watkins graduated from New York University’s medical college. He interned in Newark Hospital, where he and his inexperienced colleagues treated a passed-out saloon keeper “by pouring hot and cold water alternately on him, and by flagellation.” The drunkard died in the process and when the newspapers ran with the story, they all found themselves “arrested for killing, or for assisting a man into the next world,” but after several months were absolved of the alleged crime.

Apparently unsated by this small taste of fame, Watkins found another angle to get his name in the papers: self-inoculation. Fancying himself a player in the day’s scientific debate over the causes of disease, Watkins opposed the view that germs themselves are infectious agents, believing instead that they are the “result of degenerated tissue” in the course of disease progression. So he set out to prove his point by injecting himself with “the pure cultured tubercle bacillus,” believed to be the disease agent in tuberculosis. He was proven wrong, but didn’t die, though his reputation suffered. The experiment got “into the papers [and] caused a furor and much worry and innumerable letters.”

But Watkins’ determination to serve as an experimental subject didn’t stop there. While in Paris with his uncle during a cholera outbreak, he read in the papers that a “Dr. Hafkin at the Pasteur Institute had discovered a serum for the cure of cholera, had tried it out successfully on rats and guinea pigs, and wanted to try it on humans beings, I decided to lend myself for the purpose immediately.” After being injected with live cholera germs, Watkins fell unconscious in a doctor’s office and was already being called a martyr for science when he came to.

He quickly recovered from the self-inflicted cholera and proceeded to urge his uncle, who was suffering jittery nerves, to take a substance called “Testicular Juice, good for nervous diseases and especially Locomotor Ataxia; the name implies the source of the remedy,” which was bull testicles. I can only presume the “juice” was sperm. For $20 an injection, Watkins’ uncle took the juice and “used it till he got the chills and could not see that it was doing any good. He remarked that he was sick of having that stuff stuck in his backside.”

A few years after his hijinks in Paris with his uncle, Watkins returned there with a  Southerner named Brodnax, an NYU classmate whose medical career was floundering but whose social charms Watkins believed would help scare up Parisian interest in Watkins’ inventions and theories for studying blood. It turned out Brodnax was a complete fraud, and the six-week Paris trip a $600 loss. Later Brodnax, who had contracted syphilis, looked Watkins up in New York. “The last time I saw him was on the corner of Broadway and 34th St. He was crossing with a fine looking woman who he introduced to me as his wife … I never saw him again, but understand he gave the disease to his wife and both died in the insane asylum.”

When typhoid fever raged through New York, Watkins went to live on North Brother Island, next to Rikers Island, to study and treat victims of the disease. “I did not learn much of practical value, but the fact that I saw the dead being carried away in cart-loads, and learned to identify the peculiar sweetness of the smell of all who had the disease.”

Considering himself a social klutz, Watkins sought to  improve matters with dance lessons. He found an instructor named McGregor on 55th St. near 5th Ave., who “gave me a cane which he told me to put across my back, hooking my arms over it at the elbow to hold it, standing perfectly erect and by myself. With a circus whip in his hand he went to the other end of the hall, giving me orders how to step with the snap of his whip. I got it in about three lessons.”

He also tried makeshift experiments in his office, using animals, like when he tried “to make Siamese twins with guinea pigs by cutting out the flesh on the sides of two and sewing them together to see if they would grow. They never stayed bandaged together for more than ten days at the most, and then on taking off the bandage I found that the wound had sloughed … I experimented with that considerably and concluded it was not for me.”

As an inventor, he found a measure of success, but nothing at all in the way of financial returns. He obtained patents for a storage battery, a bullet probe (to help locate metal missiles lodged inside the body), a type of rheostat (for regulating electrical currents), a “micromotoscope” (which he called his “little moving picture camera, the first small one ever constructed up to that time, I think, 4X5X6 inches”) and a device he called a migraf – his greatest invention, into which he sank much of his savings to produce, but of which he only managed to sell four. The migraf was “a machine to photograph microscopic objects” that he eventually sold to “the Brewer’s Academy at 23rd and 9th Ave.,” to “the Norwegian Hospital” and to “the Mayo Brothers in Rochester, Minn.” He also donated a goldplated migraf to “the Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie.”

To help manage Watkins’ affairs as an inventor, he formed a partnership with a man named Heinson, who Watkins believed to be “a natural-born executive.” Heinson did nothing once the contracts were signed, but demanded a share of the money nevertheless. Heinson, Watkins points out, later “died of tuberculosis in Philadelphia.”

In publishing, Watkins also tried hard, but without much success. His motives were good (“My mind was always on the idea of driving my views [on medicine] down the throats of the profession whether they wanted them or not”), but his methods faulty. After Harper & Brothers (among others) rejected his manuscript, he self-published 1000 copies and claimed to have gotten rid of the whole batch, some of them sent as far as China and Malta.

Watkins’ delusions of grandeur in medical research once led him to the door of the Carnegie household on 54th St. near 5th Ave. A reporter friend named St. Clair, of the New York Herald, was off to interview the rich man, and Watkins asked St. Clair to ask Carnegie if he would meet with him; “perhaps I can get him to build me an institution.” When St. Clair failed at the request, Watkins knocked on the door himself, and persisted when his petition was declined until it appeared he would have to be forcibly removed.

His private practice consistently failed to bring him much business, especially later in life, but some of his patients were fascinating folks. He treated an old sot, a prominent (or once so) lawyer from DC who claimed to have been a confidential messenger for top military brass during the Civil War and, afterward, an assistant U.S. treasurer under President Grant. A binge drinker and sometimes chloroform addict, the fellow, named A.A. Brooke, was an impeccable dresser, drunk or sober, and slowly deteriorated over the years until dying in Bellevue at the age of 75, which he said he dreaded because they treated him with morphine. “Never give a drunken man morphine, it makes him crazy,” Watkins remembers Brooke telling him.

One of Watkins’ friends was Joe Norcross, an aging vaudeville actor and singer who performed with his wife and who had started out in minstrel shows. Norcross had Watkins (whose obsession with music was insatiable) onstage to sing with him at the Bushwick Theater in Brooklyn. The performer’s wife “came from a nervous, erratic family, and while he watched her closely … she managed to cut her throat one day and died before his eyes in their home in Springfield, Mass. That broke the old man all up. He acted one year alone, and then passed away with the asthma which he had been fighting all his life.”

Watkins’ interest in studying blood brought him in contact with other such researchers including one Ephraim Cutter. “The Cutter family were erratic geniuses and good musicians: the doctor played the bass viol, his wife the piano. They had a son who was a musician to the court of the Emperor of Japan; another son, a boy of 21 with bright red hair, was an expert electrician. One day he stood before his mother, exclaimed ‘I’m no good and father’s a crank,’ took a drop of Prussic acid on his tongue, and dropped dead at his mother’s feet.”

Watkins’ tales are populated by a magician, an idiot-savant cripple and Charles Ottman, the Fulton Market butcher. While in his 50s, he tried to “get in the game” of World War I and went to Washington, where he met Charles Scrivener, the chief of that city’s detectives who, in 1926, was mysteriously murdered along with his fiancee on the eve of their nuptials. He went to work for the DuPont Powder Works, where he “was dumped into a camp of 4000 workmen of all nationalities making black powder and nitro-glycerine.” He then, under government orders, went to another powdermaking plant in Penniman, VA, where, on his second day on the job, there was an explosion. “We found only pieces of clothing and flesh parts. 25 men had been blown to nothing … It was kept out of print.”


While reading Watkins’ unpolished prose, so rich with facts and innuendo, I happened upon a short anecdote that jerked me quickly back to the present day. “I had been treating for three or four years,” Watkins wrote, “a man named Clinton, for syphilis … He acquired the disease in the usual manner when on a political spree, had given it to the girl he loved …” Somehow, it sounded hauntingly like an item on the Drudge Report.

My girlfriend and I read aloud to each other much of the memoirs, then made a copy of it at the Manomet library and brought it home to Sunnyside, where we continued reading it late into the night. Watkins’ profound loneliness, excruciatingly communicated in a short essay entitled “The Man with the Bulldog Jaw” by one “Wayne Sniktaw” (Watkins spelled backwards), perplexes me. Given his remarkable experiences and acquaintances, I find it acutely ironic that he felt oppressive solitude amid the New York bustle. Watkins solution to his affliction? “Stick to your job,” he wrote.

And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Scouting Report: Going for the Poolitzer

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Mar. 10, 1999


I got a phone message from a close friend, a school teacher in the Bronx, who for good or ill keeps up with the nitty-gritties of my life. “I’m just curious as to how far that rod got jammed up your asshole, Van,” my friend said. “And, you know, what kind of roughage – what kind of whatever you call it, excess – you had. … So please give me the details when you can. Thank you.”

Ah, the details. It started a few weeks ago when another friend of mine, an artist and photographer from Baltimore, came to town to keep an appointment with Maya Goldenberg, a certified iridologist and colon therapist who runs the Natural Health & Nutrition Center in the Homecrest neighborhood of Brooklyn. My friend ponied up $50 to use Goldenberg’s Libbe colonic hydrotherapy machine. This convenient device is, as my friend described it, essentially a self-service colon-cleanser. Plug yourself in, let the water work its magic and watch huge volumes of effluvial night soil parade through clear and backlit plastic plumbing.

He said it was supposed to be good for you. Knowing that he’s a scatalogically obsessed Virgo, I had other, more psychological theories about why he might go for radical bowel treatment, but I kept them to myself.

That’s about all I kept to myself, though, since I myself am somewhat scatalogically obsessed, and there’s nothing I like more than telling a good story involving the GI tract. So on a recent Saturday afternoon I crossed the threshold of Goldenberg’s office, gripped with mild, butt-clenching anxiety over the impending penetration of my rectum. Accompanying me for moral support was a close companion. The first thing I noticed about Goldenberg’s office, on the second floor of a rowhouse on Ocean Ave., was that its walls are pink. Like the inside of a newly flushed colon. New-age music floated quietly through the air in rhythmic drips and drops. The atmosphere was conducive to the peaceful release of whatever’s binding you up.

Goldenberg, a prim and proper white-clad Russian immigrant reminiscent of a young Dr. Ruth, greeted me warmly and handed me a questionnaire. I answered all the usuals – name, address, date of birth, height, weight, etc. – and then came to the one question that I briefly thought might put the kibosh on the assignment. “Have you ever had surgery? If so, where?”

When I was 18, I perforated my intestines in a moped accident. Massive infection had resulted, so the doctors had opened me up like a baked potato to clean out the pus and stitch up the cut. I thought that that session under the knife might cause Goldenberg to cancel on me. But she just perused my questionnaire, made a few asides (“A writer? I get writers, movie stars …”) and proceeded to explain the procedure, without once asking me about my intestinal surgery. With the preliminaries out of the way, she escorted me through a door that bore a sign: “Colonic irrigation.”

Inside was the Libbe machine. Goldenberg kept up a singsong banter about the device, which is made of blue molded plastic and looks like a combination of a La-Z-Boy and a bidet. As she spoke, she ripped open a packet of lube, greased up a nozzle sticking up out of the bowl and fitted a clear, disposable plastic tube over it. Then she handed me the packet and told me I would need to take off my pants, lubricate the tip of the tube and my anus, and insert the former into the latter while making myself comfortable in the Libbe’s reclining seat. She placed a folded sheet and a blue splatter-cover on the table next to the machine. Then she instructed me to cover my private parts with the sheet, and the Libbe’s bowl with the splatter-cover, once everything was in place. When I was ready, she said, I was to push the buzzer, and she’d come in and kick the Libbe into gear.

Now, some people say it’s a playground down there, but I’m not one to make fun with my brown eye. Except for some routine care and maintenance, I’m pretty adamant about leaving the sucker alone. Thus, as I probed a greasy finger around the ring and tried to relax and let the tip of the tube make its entry, I felt profoundly embarrassed, even a touch humiliated. I took small comfort in knowing that Maya Goldenberg wasn’t taking care of this end of things, at least.

Once all the parts were in their proper places and I was decent according to such dictates of modesty as still apply when you’re plugged in for a colonic, I buzzed for Goldenberg to enter. On the wall next to me was a cabinet, which she opened to reveal a series of clear tubes filled with filtered water. She explained that the water was warmed to just below body temperature for cleansing comfort. She turned a knob and, as the water level in the tube descended, by bowels distended.

According to Goldenberg, the Libbe’s great advance in colon-cleansing technology is that it ends the need to insert a painfully oversized tube in order to carry away the flushed bowels’ contents. Instead, the built-up mess just rushes out of the anus around the slim, inserted tube. This, she explained, makes for a much more comfortable ride, since the patient controls the rate and timing of release.

Having explained all this while my guts were slowly filling, Goldenberg left me in peace to contemplate the strange sensations and to worry about the inevitably loud sounds that would result from the release. The waiting room, after all, is just outside the thin door. As if reading my mind, Goldenberg offered to turn up the new-age music before she left.

Then came the deluge. I watched the clear drainpipe with great anticipation and fascination. Wave after wave of effluent left my body, but all I saw was fecal matter in suspension, some dark – some of it even black – and some of it shades of light brown to yellow. One thought dominated my mind as I watched: God, if all that was inside me, I really needed this.

I spent a little over a half-hour in the room. After I cleaned myself up with some paper towels (despite the splatter-cover, a little backwash tends to hit you in the cheeks and thighs) and got my pants and boots back on. I opened the door. Another patron awaiting use of the machine successfully avoided looking at me. It dawned on me that the music doesn’t quite cut it. What Goldenberg needs to play is a little G.G. Allin or some other shitty punk music. As my companion said later, “I heard the whole thing – every bit of it.”


The Zippo Kid: I’ve Quit Smoking … Many Times

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Feb. 17, 1999


I wish I could remember what was going on in my mind when I decided to start smoking. My reasoning escapes recollection, though, perhaps because I was too young and those memories are lost somewhere in my mind’s dark and dusty attic. The circumstances, though, I recall.

I was in third grade at the time and attending a public elementary school in suburban Baltimore. I would pilfer packs of Kent Multifilters from my dad (who apparently made no attempt at keeping an inventory) and take said contraband to school, where I and a small group of similarly bad-minded tykes would stoke up as many as possible in the nearby woods during recess or while playing hooky. If we lacked matches or a lighter, we would intensify the sun’s rays though a magnifying glass to light up.

We rarely inhaled, just held the smoke in our mouths the requisite second or two before blowing it out. When I on occasion did inhale, though, the rush of narcotic sensations to my brain would cause exquisite disorientation and numbness. This high spurred me to continue smoking experimentally. By sixth grade, unbeknownst to my parents (they must have been in denial), I was a regular, though secret, smoker.

Perhaps it was the Ritalin that contributed to my enjoyment of preteen smoking. Since I was loath to sit through an entire elementary-school period without causing some sort of disruption, the school officials, my parents and a psychologist conspired to put me on a regular regime of the potent antihyperactivity drug. These doses, I presume, inured me to the shock of chemically induced altered states; in fact, I grew to desire them. Somewhere I still have a school picture from those early years. I looked like a seven-year-old pothead, heavy lidded and mouth agape. I looked like I could use a cigarette.

Even at my young and confused age, though, I probably should have recognized the ravaging effects smoking has on the lungs. One of my grandfathers, a college track star in the 1920s and a World War II hero, died of emphysema brought on by a lifetime of smoking. He smoked right up to his dying breath. The other was given to wheezy, cough-ridden fits of laughter between sips of cocktails and drags of non-filter Chesterfields until he quit the habit when his wife died, a year before his own quiet, lonely and purposeful demise in the early 1980s. His wife, too, smoked Chesterfields. The two would buy boxes of cartons, rip them open for the coupons and stuff the bounty of fresh butts into tin cans they kept in each room of their house. That way they never had to know the unpleasant reality of precisely how many they smoked each day.

Despite my grandparents’ ill health from smoking, though, I persisted. My habit became an adventure, almost a competition with myself to see how far I would go. In junior high,  I got into smoking clove cigarettes. Swisher Sweet cigars, even pipes. I’d buy fancy European cigarettes like Gauloises. In high school, I got to know the tobacco geeks who worked at the three fancy tobacco stores in the Baltimore area. I tried to participate fully in the local tobacco culture and economy behind my parents’ backs and, for the most part, I succeeded.

My father, a physician and for much of his life an avid smoker, was acutely aware of the health risks of smoking. But he continued to puff away happily until after I moved out of the house at the legal age of 18, by which time I was already a hopeless addict. Dad successfully kicked the habit in the mid-1980s, using a combination of nicotine gum and increasingly clean filters in a special cigarette holder designed for quitting. After he quit and once he realized that I had picked up the habit, he became relentlessly self-righteous about my smoking problem. A visit with him was never complete without a zealous admonition to fight my addiction.

When I was 19, shortly after moving out of my parents’ house, I had a little scare that caused me to quit for a while. My first year of college had been a doozy, with lots of hard drinking and drugging that lead to weight loss, freaky hairstyles, perpetual bags under my eyes and – this was the puzzler – a voice that degenerated over a period of a couple of months into nothing more than sequences of raspy, guttural sounds.

Before my voice became so mysteriously afflicted, I had been smoking Merits in the morning (setting my alarm clock to an hour early just to have a pre-waking cigarette), Marlboro reds in the afternoons and evenings, and any of a number of brands of non-filters while carousing late at night. When short on cash, I sometimes rolled my own from tobacco scavenged out of discarded butts. To regain that nicotine rush I had come to love in elementary school, I learned to do ‘chillums,’ the popular name of a clay tube with a fluted, ribbed core that was used to smoke an entire cigarette in one hit. The doctor’s diagnosis was infected cysts on my left vocal cord, a problem that required corrective surgery.

After the vocal-cord surgery, I was told not to speak for a month. That wasn’t the hard part, though. The hard part was following the doctor’s instructions not to smoke. The surgeon told me my chances of throat cancer had gone up exponentially with the arrive of the vocal-cord cysts, so any more smoking and I might as well start digging an early grave. I believed him and quit.


And I stayed quit for about two years until I had spent three months in Bologna – in Italy, where it seems everyone smokes without any apparent adverse affect on their health. What the hell, I figured, and settled happily and comfortably back into a moderate habit of about a pack a day, which habit I brought with me back to Baltimore months later.

My father was supremely disappointed in me and continued his campaign to shame my addiction back to the penalty box for the duration of the game. Eventually, he found a line of argument that worked with me. He told me that men who smoke have a pretty good chance of rejuvenating their smoke-ravaged lungs as long as they quit while their bodies are still developing, which happens, he said, up until you turn 27. Once you turn 27, he said, your body will start its inevitable decline toward the Great Hereafter and your lungs will never really pink up again even if you quit.

His theory sounded like a bunch of well-intentioned balderdash to me. It reminded me of a theory his mother, also a doctor, had conveniently invented to justify her continued habit of smoking non-filtered Chesterfields; once she reached her 70s, she would say with great authority that it had been scientifically proven that it is not healthy for women over 70 who smoke to quit their addiction. Despite my misgivings about Dad’s facts, I took his advice to heart. On my 27th birthday I quit again, cold turkey.

Once again, I quit for about two years. This time, though, it wasn’t the fashionable smokers of Northern Italy who wooed me back. It was merely this: the sight of my good friend’s Swedish girlfriend having a long drag from a delicious-looking Marlboro red – the first taken from a freshly opened pack – in the dark, angst-ridden atmosphere of the now-defunct D.C. Space in Washington, D.C., where a group of us had gone after a many-course meal with lots of wine. While watching her smoke, I ordered a shot of whiskey, which I gulped down before asking her for a drag. Then I asked the bartender to please give me change for the cigarette machine, which he obligingly did. I was back where I began.


Round three of the quitting game was on my 30th birthday, when I hinged my hopes of staying quit on the idea that smoking was something I did before I turned 30 – an idea that I thought would become more precious to me the longer I stayed quit. Lo and behold, after about 18 months, I took a drag off a friend’s cigarette during the course of a long night of cavorting around Baltimore. Within two weeks I was buying packs again.

Now I’m into round four. It started early last November, shortly after moving to New York. My lungs already hurt and thoughts of quitting had already been nagging at me when I grew sick from an upper respiratory infection. The pain and suffering from this sickness were bad enough that I couldn’t smoke a cigarette. As I got better, my desire to smoke lessened, so I decided to just quit.

I can’t say I have much confidence anymore that I won’t start smoking again, but in the meantime I take comfort in the fact that I’m taking some time off. At the very least, resuming smoking will be a pleasure worth the wait.


Crunch Time: Cicadas Do Not Taste Like Chicken

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 26, 2004

At first, back in the early spring when I proposed it, I thought it’d be a good idea: cooking cicadas at a campfire, photographing the fun, and printing the results in the paper. Sort of an experiential guide to cicada eating. But as the appointed day approached for the shoot–May 15, two days before copy deadline for this issue–I was discouraged by the media glut of cicada-eating stories. The only saving grace for my piece, as far as I was concerned, was that no one was yet eating any from this batch of cicadas, which arrive here only every 17 years.

The week of the big event, to my growing consternation, I was told that a young Roland Park fellow had been cooking and eating them for two weeks already. He’d gotten the jump on me, presumably by digging up the subterranean nymphs before they’d emerged to shed their shells. For I had found from my own surveillance that, while some early birds had already crawled out–including about a dozen in mid-April that left their shells in my backyard, within earshot of Camden Yards–the infestation had not yet started in earnest.

Cicada eating on the scale I wanted was going to have to wait for the series of nights when successive legions of the little buggers rose from the soil all across the region, like oversized ants from a giant, kicked-up anthill, and affixed themselves to any available surface in order to shed their underground attire. And the freshest cicada eating was going to have to happen in the middle of the night, when they break free of their shells and glisten new and white in the moonlight.

The experts call these “tenerals,” and their moist, tender abdomens and undeveloped wings make for the best eating. Within hours, as the sun starts to rise, they’ll morph into their most familiar form–hardened adults, with red eyes and plump black bodies, who periodically burst from the foliage into slow, unsteady flight. You can still eat them then, but they’re crunchier, and you’d best pluck the wings off before snacking. It’s kind of like the difference between soft- and hard-shelled crabs; tenerals, like soft-shells among crab enthusiasts, are the bomb.

So it all came down to timing and location: Would the legions arrive by May 15 at Patapsco Valley State Park’s Hollofield Area, just east of Ellicott City, where I’d made camping reservations? If so, we’d have a story. If not, I’d be having my own private party after deadline. The cicadas complied–at the last possible moment.

While waiting, I researched and planned various feasts. I learned that you can “blanch” the tenerals for a minute or two in boiling water, then refrigerate and save them for later use in recipes. Alternately, you can dry-roast cicadas on cookie sheets in the oven at 275 degrees until they’re brittle, and use them like nuts or pound them into flour. Whole bugs, chopped bugs, or cicada-based dough can replace other ingredients to make a range of dishes from any cookbook.

Cooking outdoors with adult cicadas is another kettle of fish. Females are preferable for their protein-filled abdomens, while males offer little substance. When hunting them, though, I found it nearly impossible to tell the difference–until cooking, when the males’ bodies shrivel up. Marinating live bugs in Worcestershire sauce also helps weed out guys (the vinegar in the sauce slow-cooks them, so they start to collapse) while tenderizing the ladies.

Given the logistical challenges of campfire cooking, I made simplicity the rule. In the end, it came down to two approaches: deep-frying and spice-boiling. For the first, I got some Old Bay, cornmeal, flour, eggs, and corn oil. For the second, I got some Old Bay, salt, beer, water, potatoes, onions, corn on the cob, green beans, and smoked sausage. Round out the supplies with Worcestershire sauce, sealable plastic containers, an iron skillet, a five-gallon steamer, a sharp knife, a cutting board, some large bowls, and some dishes and silverware, and you’re outfitted for a cicada cookout.

A few friends and I ran around the park on Saturday, May 15, collecting adult cicadas, but we only found a few dozen. I de-winged the marinated catch, males included (given the slim pickings), and started the deep-fry production line by the fire: a bowl of beaten eggs, a bowl of flour and cornmeal mixed with Old Bay, and a hot skillet of oil.

I deep-fried a couple dozen individually, then added the remaining dozen or so to the leftover beaten eggs, threw in some of the Old Bay-flour mix, and fashioned a sort-of cicada pancake, which bubbled rigorously in the oil. A hot-sauce aficionado arrived just in time with a wide selection (and tortillas), saving the day since I’d neglected to get any in the morning rush.

They say you can deep fry anything and it’ll taste good with hot sauce. It’s true with cicadas. Even the pancake, drenched in hot sauce and held between two tortillas, was a hit. A 1-year-old girl smiled as she slowly chewed on a fried cicada. “We couldn’t get her to eat anything before coming out here,” her mother exclaimed. It’s also said cicadas taste somewhat like a cross between asparagus and walnuts. I say it’s hard to tell if you cook them right.

The next round–the spice boil–had to wait until the wee hours of May 16, for I was determined to bag me some tenerals. But long before then, the small day-time crowd thinned to one, as the photographer said he’d return around midnight. I was left to nap in my tent during a rainstorm. Shortly before midnight, the storm slowed enough for me to wake and jump-start the fire.

I stepped out into the damp, drippy woods with my flashlight, walking no more than 20 yards before seeing them–tenerals, all over the place. I immediately got busy, filling the steamer with water, beer, and Old Bay and setting it on the campfire. I grabbed some Tupperware, poured a few ounces of Worcestershire in, and had just started gathering the juicy white bugs when the photographer showed up, as promised.

Within a half-hour, between the two of us we’d gathered maybe 150 cicadas. The pot was boiling, and I went through the succession of ingredients: first the garlic, then the potatoes (halved), then onions (wedged), then corn (halved), then smoked sausage (sliced into short pieces), then green beans (snapped), and finally, the cicadas, drained of marinade. I boiled the mixture for a minute or two more, then drained everything into a large bowl.

It was 2:30 in the morning and time to eat spice-boiled teneral cicadas–and, like the deep-fried adults, they were a hit. The photographer shoveled rapid-fire forkfuls of bugs into his mouth, relishing them with contented chewing, and washing them down with cold canned beer. He commented on my timidity as I concentrated mostly on the sausage and potatoes. The bugs, I knew, were delicious. But when I swallowed a bite of that pancake earlier, a leg snagged on my esophagus and raked its way down as I chugged some beer. That memory hung on, just like the cicada leg had. Tenerals don’t do that, I knew. Still, I was timid.

The next morning, the leftovers made for a delicious omelette. It came off the fire, ready to eat, just as a few more friends arrived. We ate–again it was good–and then we hiked down to the river, took a dip, broke camp, and went home. I immediately called for pizza delivery. And I thought, Hey, I bet cicadas would be good on pizza. Once every 17 years, you can give it a try.

Stung By Honey: Viryta Is Hard To Know, Easy To Like

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 21, 2005

I was force-fed a little Latin as a tyke, so when I see a word like “viryta” I’m reminded of “veritas,” Latin for “truth.” And as someone who’s known to be, on occasion, a bit of a tippler, when I see “viryta” on a liquor label, I think, “in vino veritas”—in wine is truth. But when it comes to viryta, a sweet and potent honey liqueur popular at the city’s Lithuanian gathering places, the truth is hard to come by.

My first encounter with viryta was in early 1996, when a series of snow and ice storms incapacitated the city. My piss-yellow Dodge Diplomat was encased in the tundralike mixture, and the city’s snow-removal effort had seemingly lost my address, so I was walking to work. As I passed Hollins Market trudging east one of those mornings, a familiar face poked out of an open window on the second floor above the Corner Coffee House. It was a young fellow from the neighborhood, of proud Lithuanian stock, and he was beckoning me upstairs for a taste of ethnic pride.

“Hey, Van!” he shouted out. “Come on up! My grandmother’s cooking up a batch of vitatis.” That’s what I thought he said—“vitatis”—and that was how I referred to his grandma’s potion until just recently, when I finally was schooled about viryta within the bounds beyond which outsiders aren’t welcome to venture.

At first, I balked at my friend’s kind invitation, claiming to be duty-bound to my waiting desk at the paper, but he cajoled me until I relented, propelled as much by curiosity as his browbeating. At the very least, I wanted to see what had made this normally reticent gent so upbeat and red in the face this early in the morning.

Upstairs, in the family kitchen, his nana, robed in a flower-printed housedress, was using a long wooden spoon to stir something in a large pot on the stove. Empty jars and bottles of honey and grain alcohol were scattered on the counter, along with various spices and some dried grassy-looking vegetation. Everyone there—three generations, maybe a half-dozen people total—was ebullient, excited about the snow, and happily expectant about the product of the old lady’s labor, which they’d already tasted prematurely.

“It’s just about ready,” my friend said, “but we couldn’t wait.” The simmering batch of viryta scented the room like a Christmas candle, and the grandmother shooshed sniffing faces away from the lip of the pot. Then the ladle came out, and the teacups, and I had my first taste of viryta—and my only taste of it hot. When I finally did make it to the office, no work got done.

Since then, I’ve taken many opportunities to introduce people to viryta, and to enjoy it, cold or at room temperature, with wizened aficionados. Mum’s, a bar in South Baltimore, has it, drawn from a bottle labeled “Evil.” At the Harbor Way Inn in Ridgely’s Delight, they try to keep viryta in stock, but the supply-and-demand chart is a little out of whack. The Lithuanian Hall in the Hollins Market neighborhood is, of course, a hotbed for viryta tasting, but its management tends to have a Soviet bloc-type attitude when it comes to answering questions about the shots that have made Baltimore’s Lithuanians quasi-famous. And J-Ray’s Tavern at the corner of Carey and Herkimer streets—a watering hole frequented by city cops—has it, too. There, the stuff’s reputedly mixed using whiskey—and cheap whiskey, at that. To each his own.

For those intimidated by such hostelries, I suggest awaiting the annual Lithuanian Festival, held mid-May at the Catonsville Armory. Next year’s will be the 34th festival, and each year plenty of viryta washes desra (Lithuanian sausage) and koputsai (sauerkraut) down many gullets.

Though I can’t claim to be a wizened aficionado myself, I thought, with nearly a decade as a viryta taster under my belt, that I’d imbibed some knowledge about the stuff. At the very least, I believed the label that dubbed it “Lithuanian Nectar of the Gods.” But then photographer John Ellsberry, a man with a drop or two of Lithuanian blood in his veins, returned from a trip to Lithuania a few falls ago with the news that no one he spoke to there had ever heard of viryta. Turns out, it’s strictly a Baltimore thing, hon. Well, maybe Chicago, too. Both cities have a strong Lithuanian presence.

“It was the Lithuanian community in the United States that discovered viryta, using their own ingenuity,” explains Vytautas “Vito” Makauskas, the 78-year-old erstwhile proprietor of the Harbor Way, who in 2003 gave the bar—which his mother had given to him in 1952—to his 32-year-old daughter, Anna “Spooky” Makauskas. “So it is not Lithuanian—though the botanicals in it come from Lithuania.”

These rare “botanicals,” found only in certain swampy areas of Lithuania, are the secret ingredients in viryta, the identities of which, Makauskas explains, cannot be shared with outsiders, “on pain of death. I would no longer be welcome in the Lithuanian community if I told you.” And these leaves of grass are not cheap. A bundle, about eight inches long and the diameter of a beer can, costs on the order of $90 and is shipped here by suppliers in the mother country. He declines to provide a list of other ingredients, but recipes available online list cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, and caraway, among other spices. The honey used in the best viryta, Makauskas says, is from the linden tree.

Given the ingredients, no wonder viryta is supposed to be good for you. “It’s quite effective on coughs and colds,” Makauskas deadpans. “I strained my back once, and drank some viryta, and that cleared it right up,” Spooky Makauskas adds, apparently neglecting to give the grain alcohol (or vodka, or whiskey, or whatever liquor the maker uses) any credit for sparing her some pain.

Vito Makauskas dates the invention of viryta to, oh, sometime around 1913. “Everybody was experimenting,” he says. “It started out like a hot toddy, and at picnic time everybody brings their own. And then they found somebody who made the best. I got the original recipe of it, but it’s a pinch of this, a pinch of that. How much is a pinch? But my mother made her own in a big kettle, and would always keep a bottle around.” And where did Makauskas’ mother make viryta? “Washington Boulevard,” he says, “just around the corner from here.”

Makauskas may have been born in Lithuania, but he’s very much of his neighborhood. His path to becoming the Harbor Way’s patriarch was via war-torn Poland and Germany, as a boy, and it involved a lot of walking and border-crossing red tape. But here he sits, in his daughter’s tavern that was his for decades and, before that, his mother’s, and cheerily points out three bullet gouges on the bar’s coral-colored linoleum surface and a stuccoed-over bullet hole from his own .45 next to the front door. These scars are from a shootout in 1972, he recalls, when armed invaders stormed the place, then quickly turned and ran off at the sight and explosive sound of an itchy-trigger-fingered Makauskas in a cloud of gun smoke. His stories are hard-earned but happily shared—and often shed light on the shaky ground on which the truth sits.

Like this one: “Two drunks are sitting on a bench,” he gleams as he starts in on a favorite joke. They’re beholding a glowing orb, hovering in the sky. “One says it’s the moon rising. The other says it’s the sun setting. And they can’t agree. So a third drunk comes along, and they ask him, is that the moon rising or the sun setting? And the third drunk says, ‘I don’t know. I’m not from this neighborhood.’” This sends me and my friends into fits of laughter. I know, you had to be there. It was all in the delivery. But the point’s well taken. What is truth, when it all depends on how you look at it?

So, many thanks to Makauskas for dispensing some semblance of truth about viryta, including the meaning of the name. It has nothing to do with truth—except, perhaps, as a truth serum, in which case it doesn’t work on local Lithuanians, because they generally declined to give me many sought-after truths about it. The Lithuanian word means “cooked” or “stewed,” appropriately enough, given its effect on people who drink too much of it. And given my introduction to viryta—being stirred on a stove by an old Lithuanian lady—the literal name fits like a glove.

Still, one source of viryta lore eluded me. The reputed local master of viryta-making, who lives near the Lithuanian Hall, was suspicious of a reporter’s requests for an interview. She, along with the hall’s leadership, distrusts my motives for wanting to introduce the spirit to the general public. Makauskas says she once was approached by a large liquor company who wanted to purchase her recipe for a goodly sum, but she declined in a huff. For fear of alienating myself from all the Lithuanians in town, I’ll decline to give her name, even if I could spell it. After all, I still want my viryta, even if I still don’t know all that much about it. I suppose that’s as it should be.

Meet the Neighbors: 2000: My First Mistake–Calling the Cops About the Shady Characters Next Door

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 23, 2009

At first, in early spring, the business that took over the vacant garage on the alley behind my house seemed like it’d make a good neighbor. Evidently, it required only a blow torch and an air wrench powered via an illegal hook-up off the utility pole. The place hummed: zzzztch-zzzztch, vvvvt-vvvvt, all day long and sometimes into the night. I could see into the garage from my third-floor window, and learned that it worked on cars. With its door yawning open most of the time, it seemed not to have anything to hide.

But soon a fever prompted a series of events that started to change my attitude about the garage. Two o’clock in the morning rolled around and, sleepless blob of warm pus that I was, the ongoing racket boiled me over. One guy was working–zzzztch, vvvvt–and three or four others were playing music and generally having a cussin’ good time. I marched over, ducked under the arm of a guy who tried to block me, and became the textbook definition of the crazy white guy.

They quickly talked me down. The main guy–a giant of a man–was smiling, all mellow, and holding a fat wad of high-denomination cash in his hand, doubled over a finger. “I’m in charge, and I’m telling you right now, if you got a problem, you come to me, and I’ll take care of it.” He introduced himself as Blood, and his sidekick as Red. I went home, thinking, well, that went well.

The cash struck me, though, since I never saw any paying patrons. I put my long-lens camera on a tripod and watched. They were working on nondescript, second-hand cars, installing hidden compartments with electronically activated hydraulic lifts. I started to snap pictures and write down license-plate numbers of cars that frequented the place. I didn’t know what I would do with the information, but I was the homeowner here, and the criminal-renters would have to go.

I drove home in the wee hours one night to find there was no place to park, so I took an illegal space. Blood and Red’s completed inventory had taken over the neighborhood’s once-plentiful parking. I got up to re-park before dawn, and found the inventory–maybe 30 cars in all–was gone. They were doing a brisk business.

One late night in May, the crew was hanging out in front of the garage, smoking blunts and drinking and having a rowdy good time playing craps. The garage door was open, the cars lined up behind them. I called 9-1-1 and gave the operator the address, explaining that they were smoking blunts and gambling in plain view, but the true crime was inside, where they were refitting cars with hidden compartments for delivery of drugs, cash, and probably guns. A passing cop would end up with a major case instead of minor charges. I hung up and went out to my stoop to watch the show.

About a half-hour after the call, a patrol car pulled up to the intersection of the alley, slowed down, turned around, and drove off. That was it.

The next morning, an unmarked police car arrived, and two uniformed cops with portable radios got out and fist-bumped Blood. The three chatted a bit, then the cops got back in their car and drove off.

I realized I couldn’t call the cops on the garage anymore. Though no longer naive, I was very, very scared.

Soon, I contacted the FBI. I met with two agents. I gave them photographs and described what I’d been observing. They tried to persuade me to become a cooperator, to infiltrate the garage, to exploit the friendly terms I’d established with Blood and Red. I went ballistic and profanely refused. They told me that, absent that, it’d be two or three years before they could dismantle the operation.

Meanwhile, Blood and Red menacingly invited me to their Memorial Day cook-out, saying I would be the “guest of honor.” My spacious back yard–once a happy place, with a colorful picnic table and a fire-pit over which many sumptuous meals had been prepared, and where my cats often lounged–became mysteriously and repeatedly bombarded with cinder blocks. For an entire weekend, Blood and Red tried psychological warfare on me, playing one song–“Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown, why is everybody always picking on me”–over and over and over again. Good grief.

I called a retired cop I know, who referred me to a veteran at the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. The HIDTA guy was enthusiastic, and so was I when he said, “Based on what you’re telling me, we can go in there tomorrow.” Then he asked if I’d shared the information with anyone else. When I told him about the FBI, he said, “You told the frat boys? Well, that’ll probably shut us down.” And it did.

So I called a prosecutor I know, who referred me to a Drug Enforcement Administration guy, who told me they’d maybe get to it on a rainy day someday.

At that point, I wasn’t eating properly, I was hardly sleeping, and I was chain-smoking. I had set up a comfortable chair by the tripod on the third floor, along with an oversized ashtray, a glass, and a bottle of Pikesville rye. I was obsessed with the garage, and it wasn’t healthy.

In July, I told a friend in New York about my nightmare, and he suggested I take over his apartment in August while he and his family vacationed. I did, but on the way out of town, I called the neighborhood association president. “At the next meeting,” I begged, “pass a motion that a letter be sent to zoning enforcement about what’s going on at that garage. I don’t think it’s zoned for what’s going on there.”

When I got back in September, zoning had rousted Blood and Red. The garage was empty again, and the alley had returned to safe, familiar normalcy as a comfortable haven for hand-to-hand drug-dealing and strung-out junkies. I breathed a long sigh of relief.