The Lyceum at North and Linden avenues

James M. Merritt

March 08, 1991|By James M. Merritt

BEFORE they became the killing grounds that too many of them are today, many street corners in Baltimore were places where a young man could complete his education.

The hours of instruction at these finishing academies were from 7:30 to 10 p.m. (roughly), and the rules of conduct were few, simple and strict: Do not block the sidewalk; keep your voice normal in volume and your talk profanity-free; make no remarks, complimentary or otherwise, about female passersby; and whenever the beat cop happens by, his opinions should be solicited and given attentive respect.

To this day I believe my alma mater at the northeast corner of North and Linden avenues was the best in the city. Its campus encompassed Mike's confectionary and Nate's and Leon's delicatessen (for use in inclement weather), a basement bookmaker across North Avenue and a five-table pool room one block west.

Discussions on professional sports were led by specialists in each branch listed in the curriculum. The edicts of the oracle on baseball were seldom contested because he maintained statistical records of the game and its players that must have rivaled the library of the Sporting News, baseball's bible. However, the opinions of the head of the racing department could be interpreted in several ways and were frequently subject to criticism. The instructor would then suggest a private wager, and this generally silenced the student critics.

Our chief stock market analyst worked under the disheartening realization that his clients had no money to invest. So he concentrated on keeping the class up to date on the assets, mergers and maneuverings of local and national corporations and which ones were most receptive to job applications.

The qualifications of the professor teaching the men's furnishing class were impeccable. From a well-known family of men's clothiers, he was always neatly turned out, and his detailed advice on the proper raiment for success in the business world was revered as gospel.

But it was in the field of municipal politics that my school boasted a gem. So knowledgeable was he in his subject that the local precinct executive, on whose front steps next to the corner drug store the classes were held, never missed a lecture. Our instructor's address, delivered two days before the mayoral election of 1927, became a classic. To our astonishment, he proceeded to show us why William F. Broening, the Republican candidate and 3-to-1 underdog, was going to win by a comfortable margin over William Curran, Democrat.

He reminded us that the Democratic bosses, Frank Kelly and Sonny Mahon, had been feuding for years. Back in 1919, George Weems Williams, Kelly's candidate for mayor, had defeated Mayor Harry Preston for the Democratic nomination, only to have Mahon stand by and let Broening win the general election. (This result, incidentally, signaled the entrance of Theodore R. McKeldin into City Hall as Broening's executive secretary.)

Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, realizing that Baltimore would never elect a Democratic mayor as long as the bosses were at loggerheads, had engineered a truce for the 1923 election that effected a sweeping victory for Howard Jackson, Democrat. Now, in 1927, our oracle sensed another split developing that would cause a rerun of 1919 and ensure Curran's defeat. He urged us to get well by betting on Broening but not to touch the rest of the Republican ticket. Events followed his scenario to the letter.

Finally, there was one field of social science that the public secondary schools of those days would not touch with a 50-foot pole. In fact, it was not on the agenda of many father-to-son dialogues. The corner school, however, handled it efficiently: The delights and dangers of contact with a certain class of the opposite sex were explained forcefully by tutors who could speak from experience.

If field trips were deemed advisable for novices in the class, they were escorted, under faculty guidance, to an ancillary area of the school that was practically on campus. This was stately old Eutaw Place, one block west, where an embowered stretch from North Avenue southward to Dolphin Street had become a last mile for the male virgin.

Isn't it time for a revival of these corner Lyceums? Young men are going to hang out anyway, so why not provide places where they can do so properly while rounding out their education? The community relations division of the Police Department could pick the spots and set the rules with little or no cost.

It would sure beat abandoning such places to the drug dealers.

James M. Merritt writes from Baltimore, though he now hangs out in a retirement community.

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