Thank You, Urbanite

Last week I was among the countless people who were shocked and saddened to read David Zurawik’s article in the Baltimore Sun about the end of Urbanite magazine. If you’ve lived in Charm City long enough, you’ve definitely seen Urbanite magazine’s imprint around town. Whether you picked up a copy in your favorite eatery or watering hole, or if you curled up with the latest copy during an extended visit to Panera Bread or Starbucks. Urbanite is broad, ambitious and it symbolizes what is right and what is possible in Baltimore. Each month’s issue focused on a theme that celebrated and explored the potential for change in Baltimore.

I’ve been an avid reader of Urbanite since it first hit the stands almost 10 years ago. I have a stash of dog-eared Urbanite issues in my I-cannot-part-with-this-just-yet pile of magazines. Urbanite is Baltimore, and Baltimore is Urbanite. It wasn’t slick and pretentious, but rather gritty and real. Its vibrancy reflected that of its readership, and that’s what made Urbanite more accessible than other local publications. I could open an issue and see familiar names –those of fellow writers, faculty and classmates from Hopkins — in the bylines.

I took the plunge in 2008 and submitted a piece to Urbanite’s “What You’re Writing” feature (using my maiden name). You can read it below. (According to Zurawik’s article, Urbanite’s website will be shut down any day now, so I wanted to capture it for posterity.)

Sun columnist Lionel Foster wrote fitting tribute to Urbanite magazine and its staff in the paper last Friday. Reading his piece reminded me of how deep the connection was between the magazine and the city, and how much of a void that will be left in its wake.

Urbanite publisher Tracy Ward told the Sun that the possibility that Urbanite might return one day does exist. Perhaps we should not say goodbye just yet, so I think it’s more fitting to say thank you, Urbanite.

And without further adieu my piece “Saying Yes” as it appeared in the August 2008 issue of Urbanite magazine…

Saying Yes

“Who is interested in hosting an exchange student this summer?” Mademoiselle Eisen, my eighth-grade French teacher, stumbled to the front of the classroom, holding a bunch of packets. No one raised a hand.

Allons-y, etudiants,” she whined. “We have more than thirty exchange students coming to Maryland this summer, and we need host families.”

Half of me was genuinely interested in hosting an exchange student. The other half of me felt sorry for Mademoiselle Eisen. I don’t remember which half raised my hand, but before I knew it, she had dropped a packet on my desk.

That afternoon, I anxiously waited for my mother to come home from work. I knew she would be just as excited as I was.

“An exchange student?” my mother sighed as she flipped through the packet. She had only half a year of junior high school French. “Do you realize the amount of responsibility there is in hosting someone from another country?”

The morning after Emmanuelle’s arrival, my mother fretted over what to fix for her breakfast. “Cereal? Eggs?” she asked the French girl, holding up cartons and boxes. They looked at each other, puzzled. My two years of French suddenly evaporated.

Emmanuelle was tall, wiry, and timid. “Chocolat chaud?” she asked repeatedly. After she went upstairs to retrieve her French-English dictionary, it occurred to me that she was referring to hot chocolate.

That was just the beginning.

For the entire time that Emmanuelle was with us, she kept asking us to take her to “Le McDonald’s,” where she would suck ketchup out of the packet before eating a French fry. Emmanuelle later learned that besides “Le McDonald’s,” there was also “Le Wendy’s.” My mother learned that French fries, French toast, and French dressing weren’t necessarily French cuisine. My family learned about Catholic Mass, and Emmanuelle learned how emotional African Americans could get during Sunday church service.

On the Fourth of July, we took Emmanuelle to watch the Inner Harbor fireworks from the shoulder of I-395. It was one of the few moments during our time together that didn’t require translation on anyone’s part.

—Baltimorean Kimberly S. Williams writes fiction, poetry, and essays, and is planning on publishing a collection of poems and essays later this year. She is a volunteer instructor for the Writing Outside the Fence workshop held at the Re-Entry Center at Mondawmin Mall. The names in this essay have been changed.

Follow @davidzurawik and @LionelBMD on Twitter.

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