Mayor's lunch with the people is short on sweets

ROGER SIMON

February 22, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

For all intents and purposes, it was a terrible day to be the mayor of Baltimore.

Two people were killed and two others were wounded in a spray of automatic weapons fire in one of the city's "Drug Free Zones." A woman was shot in the head and killed in broad daylight in front of her home after taking her grandchild to school.

A gang of armed robbers was still at large after holding up two grocery stores with shotguns, and the mayor had to attend a memorial service for a 7-year-old boy who had been sexually assaulted and murdered.

So now Kurt Schmoke hurries as he enters the Northeast Market on Monument Street and quickly takes a table next to Harry's Delicatessen in order to hear some more problems.

The mayor has been going to a different city market at lunchtime each week since late last fall. He got the idea from Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. "He just goes to a place and sits at a table, and people can come up," Schmoke says. "I thought it was a good idea."

Today, things start badly.

A man in a stocking cap walks up ahead of everybody in line and leans over to Schmoke and bellows: "What about that pipe on Chase Street? Helluva odor from that pipe."

"I thought we took care of that," the mayor says quietly.

"No way, no way," the man says. "It's got a helluva odor."

"We'll take care of it," the mayor says, and an aide with a pad of forms takes down the details from the man.

Schmoke decided from the start that these lunches (actually the mayor never gets to eat) would not work unless things actually got done as a result.

I was with Schmoke at this market in November, and after a very long session in which people asked him for everything from more police protection on the streets to fewer rats in their homes, the last man in line asked Schmoke for a drink of water.

"They should put a water fountain in here," he said.

Schmoke said he would look into it.

Now, three months later, I look for the fountain. And Richard Davis, director of markets for the city, proudly points it out. "There," he says, pointing to the east wall of the market. "And it works! At least it better."

A woman, mid-20s, in a black coat sits down in front of Schmoke. "I'm pregnant," she says, "and I'm on Social Services . . ."

"When are you due?" the mayor asks.

"July," she says with a shy smile, a little surprised that he cares what month she is due. "Well, they say they are going to reduce Social Services, but I have an idea. I say limit everybody to three kids. If they have more than three kids, hey, after that, they on their own."

The mayor decides to leave this particular hot potato where it lies. "How are you doing?" he asks her.

"Well, $205 a month is not sufficient for me to live on," she says. "I'm looking for work."

The mayor gives her the name of a program that can help her find work. She thanks him and gets up.

"All the best to the baby," he says.

She gives him the same shy smile. He gives her a "City that Reads" bookmark. A woman in a purple dress carrying a red shopping bag sits next. "Dirt in the streets," she says. "Garbage. Everywhere. They drop it everywhere. How can you get them to stop?"

"There is a new program," the mayor says. "It's called: 'It's Your Baltimore -- Don't Trash It.' People will be going door to door. But I want names from you of the violators in your neighborhood."

She gives his aide the names. Her place is taken by an older man who reports the startling news that drugs are being sold in his neighborhood. "On street corners!" he says.

Schmoke calls over a police officer and tells him to take down the information from the man. Names, dates, places.

A woman, mid-30s, sits down. "I'm in Water," she says. "Waste Water." Which means she works for the city's Bureau of Water and Waste Water. "Conditions are terrible in some of the homes we go into. Dog feces. I worry about hepatitis. What can you do about it?"

When Kurt Schmoke was a young man, dreaming great dreams of becoming mayor, he probably never dreamed about hepatitis and dog feces and waste water.

But that is what being a mayor is about these days. It is not quite as much fun as cutting ribbons, but it's what the job requires.

A foster mother sits down across from Schmoke. "I got two sickle cells and three asthmatics," she says. "I need more room. So I ask for a bigger house, and they offer me near Murphy Homes. No way. I want my home there when I get back."

The mayor nods and says he will see what can be done. "And thank you for being a foster mother," he says.

"You get me more room," she says, "I'll take more kids."

A tired-looking man sits down heavily across from Schmoke. So what is on his agenda? Crime? Drugs? Disease? Pestilence? Famine?

"I got to tell you my basement used to flood," he says. "But now you got people, crews, clearing the sewer, and it doesn't flood anymore."

The mayor looks at him.

"So," the man says. "So . . . uh . . . thanks."

"You're welcome," the mayor says. And hands him a bookmark.

After about an hour, the mayor stands and shakes some hands and prepares to leave. He says he likes these lunches. They don't bring him down; they bring him up.

"It's immediate gratification," he says. "It's taking care of problems. That's what's good about being a mayor."

For all intents and purposes, it was a terrible day to be the mayor of Baltimore.

But, hey, a guy's basement doesn't flood anymore. And he thanks you for it.

And some days you take what you can get.

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