The fat lady sings, but opera ain't over

April 24, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Opera star Luciano Pavarotti is bellowing "O Sole Mio" through 9-inch patio speakers into the street-lighted parking lot of a 7-Eleven store in Catonsville.

Joe Chilcoat, who owns the store and is playing the recording, can't stand the sound. He hopes the kids loitering in his lot will hate it, too, and leave. The tape runs about an hour, then starts over.

"Isn't that torture?" Chilcoat said.

But it seems the adults and the teen-agers have switched sides in the perennial generation gap.

"Quite beautiful," said one loitering teen.

"Killer," gushed another in a term of endearment.

The 7-Eleven stands at the Junction, at Edmondson and Dutton avenues, where young people have gathered for at least two generations to meet, get directions to a party, go to it and return in hopes of finding more festivity.

"They come to the Junction to find the function," Chilcoat said.

He opened his 24-hour store there in 1980. He owns two other 7-Elevens in Catonsville and one in Arbutus. But this is the only one that features Pavarotti.

Chilcoat began playing the tape earlier this month on weekend nights after reading a news story about a Seattle 7-Eleven that used the tactic to allay problems similar to his.

Elderly people and adults with children tell him they are afraid to walk the gantlet of teen-age loiterers to enter the store, especially on warm summer Saturday nights when the crowd can swell to several score. Business is still good, Chilcoat said, but added, "I know the business would be better if they were not there."

The loiterers may put customers off from a distance. But most are "pretty much good kids," Chilcoat said, although they do tend to litter the lot.

Chilcoat knows many of them. He has sponsored Little League baseball teams as long as he has worked 7-Elevens in the area and hired as many as 20 local teen-agers at a time in his four stores. While they work, the store manager monitors their grades to make sure the job doesn't cut into school performance.

"These are not thugs. These are not hoodlums. They're not dirtballs," Chilcoat said.

He has tried calling the police, who shoo away the young people only to find that a new crowd has appeared a half-hour later. He has tried asking them to leave.

"I'm not loitering; I'm waiting for somebody," they tell him.

"That's biggest excuse I get," he said. "They're not trying to get over on me. They just think that way."

Now he is trying music. If Pavarotti doesn't succeed, Chilcoat may load his cassette player with heavier ammo: Accordion music.

When told of this threat, one teen-age boy hanging out Saturday night cheered, "Yeah."

He was one of only about 10 young people who had gathered in the April chill. They said they were loyal customers who buy cigarettes and chips and sodas in Thermos-sized cups.

The group hanging out was assembling before marching to a party off Frederick Road that they said would feature a beer keg, live music by the local band "Simon Pure" and possibly a performance by another one called "Juice."

While they waited for friends to join them, they were all ears for Pavarotti. Steve Snyder, a sophomore at Mount St. Joseph High School, recognized the famous tenor voice immediately from a Pavarotti concert he once attended in Baltimore.

"I like it. It's different," said Andrew Eitel, a junior at Catonsville High, meaning not like the normal music he listens to every day, such as Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead or Motley Crue.

His music appreciation was alloyed to the joy of frustrating the store management's scheme to drive off him and his friends.

"It's sort of like a rebellion," Eitel said. "We're sort of like disobeying."

Cold and rain, more than the music, have kept the crowds small this spring. Store manager Tim Gilmore doesn't think the plan is working, if only because the patio speakers can't compete with what some youths pack in their cars.

"There are kids who have got stereos louder than what I've got in my house," Gilmore said.

What's more, the store is bucking tradition. Some of the young people said their older siblings, even their parents, had hung out there before them.

The Junction has a lasting appeal.

Next to the convenience store is an older, half-timber building with pizza delivery shop and a restaurant and tavern. Behind the store is a bus turnaround. Before the advent of the bus, riders had access to three streetcars there -- one that ran along Edmondson, one that came up through the woods from Frederick Road and another that shuttled to Ellicott City.

With only a pair of speakers and a bit of music that the young people may like after all, Gilmore said, "the tide of history is hard to stand in front of."

On Saturday night, the tide rolled on. About an hour after leaving, some of the group of 10 young people returned, looking a bit glum about the party that failed its advance billing. As his friends shopped for chips and sodas, one boy soothed the night's disappointment by sitting on the concrete beneath the blaring speaker.

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