Through the air with greatest ease

Dan Rodricks

April 05, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Jim Conway, who tells great stories when he's not giving traffic reports on the radio, peppers his bits of Baltimore folklore with nicknames. As an accomplished raconteur, he knows that when a story begins to sag, nothing punches it up better than a good nickname.

Just yesterday, for instance, we met for refreshments at Iggy's (a wonderful nickname itself) in Little Italy, and Mr. Conway rattled off the names of a bunch of old friends from Fells Point: Cut Nose Walter, Crippled Alice, Kinky Bird and Fat Milton. He remembered buddies from his days as a staff pilot with the Canadian Air Force: Snuffy Barker and Tailspin Tommy Tompkins. And, of course, he mentioned guys named Hunky and Hooky, both from Pigtown.

"That's Pigtowne, with an 'e'!" Mr. Conway said, beaming with pride for his boyhood haunt.

I first met Mr. Conway several years ago, when he introduced me to his friends from Pigtown. During a round-table gathering at the 1019 Pleasure Club, many nicknames were sprayed into the conversation -- Harpo, Smoke, Hacky. One Pigtowner had two nicknames: He was called either Hepner's Mule or Pineapple Murphy, sometimes both.

"In the old days, if people liked you, they gave you a nickname," Mr. Conway said.

Which made one wonder why Mr. Conway has gone through life without having had that particular form of affection bestowed upon him. For he is one of the most affable fellows ever to have stepped out of a rowhouse. Always with a story, always with a bad joke, always with something good to say, Mr. Conway has accumulated the wealth of many friends and the respect of countless radio listeners who remember his service from the sky as a traffic reporter.

In 1964, he was working for the city's Transit & Traffic Division when Bill Zorzi, a supervisor, sat him down with a tape recorder and asked him to provide impromptu advice to motorists caught in a hypothetical traffic jam. A local radio station, WFBR-AM, was looking for a man to provide rush-hour traffic reports from a helicopter.

Who better than the loquacious Jim Conway, a Baltimore native who knew the streets, the alleys and, if needed, the lore attached to them? He can still recite with ease the route used by stockmen to lead thousands of pigs to the slaughterhouse, thus giving Mr. Conway's southwest Baltimore neighborhood its honorable nickname.

"From the stockyards on Dukeland, to Wilkens, take a right on Wilkens, inbound to Payson, then Payson where it comes together with Monroe, to Washington Boulevard, a left, then Bush Street, a right, then Hamburg and a left, then all the way through the heart of Pigtown, to one of the side streets, like Leadenhall, to Henrietta and the slaughterhouse."

As one might expect from someone with a sharp memory, Mr. Conway also remembers exactly the traffic problem Bill Zorzi presented the day of his "audition" for the WFBR job: "Disabled vehicle, Jones Falls Expressway, outbound side in the afternoon, just north of Falls Road."

What would Mr. Conway tell commuters via car radio?

"Play it by ear. If they're coming up and they can't get any closer than 28th Street, get off 28th Street and/or 29th. If they can get closer, use Falls Road but be prepared for a slowdown at Falls Road; the signal at 36th can't handle all that heavy traffic. You'll get a green light, but you'll wait a while."

Mr. Conway got the job. He went into the skies for WFBR until 1972, providing up to eight live traffic reports each hour during drive time. He later flew daily missions for WPOC-FM. Between 1980 and 1990, all of Mr. Conway's reports came from WPOC's studios, where he worked with his two feet firmly on the ground. He retired for health reasons in January. There will be a party in his honor next Tuesday evening in Fells Point.

"I enjoyed the work, I worked at it," Mr. Conway said. "I didn't say the Fort McHenry tunnel was running freely if I didn't fly over there and see it myself. If you didn't see it for yourself, that was the day a truck tips over at the tunnel entrance."

With all those years flying 800 feet over Baltimore, what was Mr. Conway's most exciting experience? Did he ever have a close call? Was he ever forced to land his chopper on the roof of the World Trade Center?

"Nah," Mr. Conway said. "But we had a pigeon come through the windshield once. The pigeon was flying about -- what? -- 30 miles an hour. We were doing 80. No surprise there. Do the math."

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