In the springtime of his 86th year, Mimi DiPietro stretche himself to his full 5 feet 4 inches the other night, stood in the doorway of Tiffany's in East Baltimore, and greeted the faithful as he launched one last campaign for a seat on the City Council.
"Running?" said Mimi, counting the house and multiplying by $100 a head. "Of course I'm running."
"Running?" said his wife, Frances, sitting a few feet away. "Of course he's running. I don't want him to retire -- he'll drive me nuts."
Everybody within hearing laughed. Mimi DiPietro has often vowed to live until 106 -- it just sounds like a good number to him -- but nobody expects his political career to go on
forever. Some said he wouldn't run this time around. Mimi was never among those voices.
"He's an institution in Baltimore politics," Mayor Kurt Schmoke said, as he shook hands at the DiPietro fund-raiser. "He's 86, but he's still keeping us on our toes. He comes into a room and says, 'What the hell's going on here?' and everybody knows he means business."
"Let me tell you," added Councilwoman Jacqueline McLean, "he is the king of constituent services. I can hear him on the phone. He screams at people for action. Oh, yes, I can hear him. My office is down the hall from his. I have to close the door, he makes so much noise."
An aura of good cheer has generally surrounded Mimi DiPietro. He opens his mouth and malapropisms fall with the subtlety of manhole covers. Previously innocent nouns and verbs skulk about in new garb and try to imagine where they are.
He berates an inquisitive reporter because "you're trying to scruple me." He says he dislikes a politician who has a big igloo. He means ego. He says he buys his clothes from the portable section. He means portly. He assures friends, "I'll never lie to you. If I have to lie to you, I'll deviate from you."
On some matters, though, Mimi DiPietro speaks with the clarity of a bell: Yes, he is running for re-election. No, he has not considered not running.
This is tricky terrain for a man of 86, though DiPietro has generally laughed at the clock. Eleven years ago, Mimi bought himself a brand new Cadillac and explained, "This thing will last me 10 years."
It's nice for 75-year-old men to have 10-year game plans. The Cadillac later died, but Mimi lives on. But 86-year-old men generally do notmake political plans.
For years, Mimi was the perennial ticket-leader in the 1st District. Last time out, he finished third and held on to his seat. This time around, redistricting has shifted lines everywhere, and votes once taken for granted have gone away.
"Thank you for coming and giving me a little scratch," DiPietro told the crowd at Tiffany's the other night. "I'll use what I need to run, and the rest I'll give to my wife."
Everybody chuckled. Around the room were people who have voted for him for a few decades now, and others who have known him for half a century and more.
This was politics as usual, and yet it was not. It had the feel of a last hurrah, one final march around the block before one generation passes the torch.
"I love youse all," Mimi said. "I'm the man who's there for you every day, answering my phone." He paused, looked around the room and smiled at all the familiar faces.
"And now," he said, "I'm gonna go, because they just told me to say something and get the hell off."
Everybody laughed some more and applauded him warmly. It's the beginning of a campaign but the twilight of a career. It's the last go-round not only for Mimi DiPietro, but also for a brand of street politics that he sometimes seems to have invented.
International politics? Forget it. When the council argued for weeks about South African apartheid, Mimi emerged one night and declared, "Them guys is only interested in one thing: South America."
Higher-level politics? Nah. Asked once if he might run for Congress, Mimi said, "The job looks pretty easy. All you gotta do is sit there and watch them bills."
But the stuff of day-to-day neighborhood life, that's where he always earned his pay. In fact, in all the recent sound and fury over redistricting, one irony seemed glossed over: At its best, council work involves constituent service, which has nothing to do with race.
Maybe so few people on the council made mention of this in their individual power grabs because so few of them acknowledge the real purpose of the job.
But this is where DiPietro has always made his mark, making sure alleys are cleaned, pot holes filled, jobs secured for people down on their luck.
"The way he does politics," former Mayor Clarence "Du" Burns said, glancing at his old council colleague, "is strictly by people. His district comes first, and then the city, and then the state and, somewhere down the line, the country.
"His people, his people. That's the politics of Mimi," said Burns. "And he's the last of 'em. Just looking out for the people, and that's all that matters."
The politicians today have learned to carry pretentiousness as part of their portfolios. Mimi DiPietro's never been that way. The question is: Does that kind of politics still work? And, at 86, can he make it work one more time?