Robert L. Kaufman, affectionately known to his co-workers as "Moose," is a gentle, determined kind of guy who works three days a week as a runner, delivering and picking up cargo documents in downtown Baltimore for Samuel Shapiro & Co. Inc., a customs brokerage and freight forwarder.
The word "runner" has an ironic ring to it when applied to Mr. Kaufman, an 83-year-old man with thin, wispy hair and a gray mustache all but invisible on his upper lip. He has arthritic knees and wears thick glasses necessitated by cataract operations on both eyes. Nothing about him suggests great speed.
Yet twice each workday, he steadily and reliably makes his rounds, covering a mile-long route that takes him to the offices of many of the city's steamship lines and agents.
"I'm thinking about hanging it up because my knees are getting bad," he said during one recent sweltering afternoon as he waited for a break in the traffic that would allow him to cross Lombard Street.
Someday, Mr. Kaufman's job could be done by a computer. He says that wouldn't bother him in the least. "Hell, anybody could do my job. They can do anything they want with me," he said, a broad smile breaking across his face, his eyes magnified by the lenses of his glasses. "I'm too old to argue about it."
But Mr. Kaufman doesn't need to worry about his job just yet. His knees are likely to give out long before his job disappears.
Although the state has invested more than $10 million on computer hardware and software to speed the movement of cargo in the port of Baltimore, very few port businesses have found much use for the state's computer systems. Instead, they have continued to rely on runners and other traditional methods for moving information and documents.
The waste of much of that investment has for years troubled people in both the private sector and the Maryland Port Administration. Meanwhile, computerization has become symbolic of the larger issues of efficiency, service and good management -- and keeping Baltimore's port competitive.
"It's just critical," said John T. Menzies III, head of the Terminal Corp., a locally based warehouse and distribution company. Mr. Menzies also chairs the Private Sector Port Committee, a group of port executives who advise the MPA.
Computerization has become a central issue for people in the transportation industry and good computer links with customers often represents the difference between getting the business or losing it, he explained.
"It's like having a highway with no bridges," Mr. Menzies said of a distribution system without good computer links for the exchange of information. "You have to be able to move data and freight."
O. James Lighthizer, Maryland's new transportation secretary, calls computerization the most pressing internal problem that confronts the port agency.
And Robert Shapiro, a vice president of data processing for the ** company that employs Mr. Kaufman, said, "We're making the transition from moving cargo to moving information. Our focus needs to be on how we move information."
Taking the port in that direction might seem like an uncontroversial proposition. And earlier this year, Mr. Shapiro found an enthusiastic ally at the MPA in Jeffrey Snodgrass, the port agency's head of management information systems.
The two proposed setting up a committee to work with the private sector on ways to encourage and coordinate the adoption of computer technology in the port. The idea was to establish a core group of computer users who could plan a portwide seminar to discuss the problems and propose solutions.
But the proposal was opposed by Brendan W. "Bud" O'Malley, former executive director of the MPA.
"I was flabbergasted," Mr. Shapiro said. "I don't quite understand why that would have been stifled. It seems like a fairly simple, low-cost, productive way to open up communications."
Mr. Snodgrass is more blunt about what happened. "The whole thing went down the toilet," he said. He maintains that a whole host of data processing issues at the port administration need to be addressed. "Bud didn't want to hear these things," he said.
Mr. O'Malley could not be reached for comment.
Since Mr. O'Malley's departure last month, Mr. Shapiro has been given the green light to proceed with his plan. "It's back on track," he said.
The main reason: Mr. Lighthizer, who is running the port agency until the new port director, Adrian G. Teel, takes over. He is scheduled to assume the helm of the port agency today.
Mr. Lighthizer, who worked for International Business Machines Corp. before entering politics, has expressed strong dissatisfaction with the MPA's own internal computer operations.
"Nothing about the data processing problems would surprise me," he said. "It's one of the few organizations in the port [agency] I've seen that needs more people." He called the need to improve the MPA's management information systems department the "No. 1 in-house priority."