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City Folk

Colleens and Resurrection

The unlikely tale of Baltimore’s oldest hipster

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano


“Bowtie” Bob Nelson is seemingly ubiquitous, rivaled only by BMA Director and benevolent scene queen Doreen Bolger in attendance of the city’s hip events: He goes out between five and seven nights a week, to anything that sounds cool: a gallery opening in SoWeBo, a drag burlesque show at the Windup Space, a poetry reading at Liam Flynn’s. He dances in the parking lot of Mother’s, hangs out in Fells Point, watches nearly every outdoor movie, and goes to all the after-parties. It’s not uncommon to see him in one of the warehouse spaces around Station North at 3:00 A.M. “I used to say I’d go out all the time, have a couple drinks, and look for colleens, and people thought I was a lounge lizard,” Nelson says, sitting at the booth of a local bar. “Now I say I’m networking and they say, ‘you’re working so hard.’”

Colleen is Irish slang for a woman, and Nelson’s preferred beer is Resurrection. “I love the Resurrection,” he says. “One time, I went to Hoodscape in Hampden and it was 6 P.M. I bought a couple six-packs of Resurrection and sat down with some people, and I didn’t leave until 6 A.M.”

Yes, “Bowtie” Bob is a hipster, but he is Baltimore’s oldest and unlikeliest hipster. The 67-year-old conservative loves talk radio and Fox News; he is a practicing Catholic (perhaps inspiring the love of Resurrection) and a dedicated preppy.

Today, Nelson is wearing khaki shorts, a blue polo shirt, a seersucker jacket, orange boat shoes, and circular, tortoise shell glasses, on which the waitress compliments him. “People say, ‘I like your clothes,’ and it’s nice but I don’t really care,” he says. “But I love when they notice the glasses. It took me two fucking years to find these things.”

And, of course, the bow tie. His business card has a bow tie on it, and people often just call him “Bowtie.” “I’d never been to the Hustler Club before,” he says. “But I had a reason to go, and this dancer comes up and yells, ‘Hey Bowtie.’ I must have looked worried because she explained: ‘You’re on my friend’s Facebook and I’ve seen pictures of you.’ It was funny. But I don’t really like those places. I like my naked women like I like my food: alone, at home.

In truth, Nelson doesn’t spend a lot of time at home, and he doesn’t really want to settle down. “Sometimes I might wish that I wanted to get married or have a girlfriend, but I don’t wish I was married.”

Nelson was married once before, however. “After school, it was just what you did, but I knew it wasn’t working,” he says. “My problem with marriage is like that old commercial: ‘Wow, I could have had a V8.’”

Nelson, who claims that the actress Grace Kelly was his babysitter when he was an infant, grew up in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood he likens to Hampden—working-class and Irish Catholic—but he went to school in a neighborhood more like Roland Park. “I can still remember my mom and dad at dinner, figuring out how to scrounge up the $400 to go there.”

Although he never attended college, he developed his signature “Joe College preppy” look. After high school, he joined the Airforce. He began working as an insurance sales manager after his service ended. For 20 years, he was a vice president with AAA. After his marriage ended, he was working in New Jersey and fell in love with a Juilliard-trained singer in a country band, and they moved to Greenwich Village in the late ’70s . “I have a fetish for women, in general,” he says. “But especially for singers.” He remembers the gritty New York scene of the time, recalling the storied CBGB and OMFUG club, where he remembers seeing “all that goth stuff,” but he was never drawn to it the way he is now drawn to the nightlife of Baltimore.

He hated the city when he moved here in 1981, but he attributes this to the fact that most of his friends hung out in Towson.

“I was working in Bolton Hill,” he says. “And now I think if I would have just bought a place over here back then, how different things would be. But back then, the only bars in town I ever went to were the Brass Elephant and the 13th Floor at the Belvedere. I thought it was a different kind of city then.”

Nelson lives in Parkville now, but he finds himself driving into the city every night and is considering a move, either to Mount Vernon or SoWeBo. His work mostly as an independent contractor now, helping find commercial vehicles for organizations, including the many charities he works with. He says that the picnic for the kids of St. Vincent’s in Timonium is the only picnic without alcohol that he’ll attend. “I joke about colleens, but the Little Sisters of the Poor are the most beautiful colleens in the world,” he says, using his phone to pull up a picture of an elderly nun in long white robes.

Nelson is as comfortable around the nuns as he is the young art students he enjoys hanging out with. “I always look different than the people I hang out with,” he says. “I’m not going to try to look not-preppy to hang out with not-preppy people, but not-preppy people are a lot more fun. My friends think I’m crazy to go the places I go, but I am having fun. I don’t feel 67.”

Nelson’s phone rings. He answers, talks for a few minutes, and hangs up. It’s time to go. He has a long night ahead of him: Brewer’s Art, a movie in the park in Mount Vernon, and after that, maybe Liam Flynn’s or a party somewhere. He straightens his bow tie, gets up, and walks out the door in search of adventure.

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