Checking in with Midway, the Block's only bar, after the fire
The Sunday after a devastating fire consumed The Block, I went to grab a couple of two dollar Bohs at Midway Bar to see how the city’s beleaguered red-light district was coping.
It had just been two days since the area was re-opened to the public, and signs of the fire were everywhere. The street was still blocked, and police tape cordoned off the Gayety Show World bookstore, which stood gutted.
But there were also signs that the area’s bars and clubs were slowly getting back on their feet.
As I walked down the street, guys in overcoats peddled free tickets to various strip shows as shamelessly as they had before.
“No cover here tonight,” one of them yelled. “C’mon, naked women!” As I quickly passed him, he re-focused his pitch: "Naked men?"
For years, Midway has been the only place on the Block that’s a bar and nothing else.
Yet, even if there aren’t strippers dancing inside, the bar is unmistakably of its surroundings. The walls are decorated with decades-old, hand-painted portraits of burlesque dancers from The Block’s glory days. They didn’t so much look like the glamour shots of dancers as those of Depression-era MGM starlets.
And strippers still make up a bulk of the its clientele, popping inside between shifts to buy soda and Utz potato chips and to make a phone call away from the all the clubs’ ruckus.
Vicky Brandt, who’s worked as a bartender here for 28 years, told me she was on her way to work the day of the fire when her manager called her not to come in. Apparently, the smoke inside Midway was so thick he couldn't even see the cash register in front of him.
Brandt has big, poufy hair, its red only slightly faded by the years, and what Dan Rodricks would call an unmistakably South Baltimore face. She was born and grew up there way before it became Federal Hill.
A former waitress, she's chatty, and though I was only there at midnight, she seemed like she'd be just as quippy at 3 a.m.
She told me she'd only been offered to work as a stripper once, but that she preferred to work behind the counter. "This job is better. It's not like I'm on stage all day," she said.
When I was there, she told me business was dead. Since then, it's slowly come back to life, especially after the police barricade was taken down and people realized the Block was finally open to the public. “More and more people are coming in,” she told me earlier this week. “I don’t know if it’s because of the holidays.”
It's still not back to pre-fire days, though. “There are a lot of people who lost jobs in the fire that don't haven't found new ones yet," she said.
Still, she's bullish on recovery, if only because she has to be. “I hope it picks up,” she said. “It's my income.”
Photo: Midway decorates for the Holidays (Maza)