I RECENTLY published a book subtitled "Recollections of a Baltimore Newspaperman." Recollecting is fun. The trouble is, once you start, you can't stop. Even as I write, my mind is reaching back to a spring afternoon in the '50s when I was summoned to the desk of The Baltimore Sun's city editor.
"I don't know if you've been following the story," said Paul Banker, handing me an Evening Sun clipping, "but Gypsies are invading the center of town." He made it sound like a mass movement of people, suggestive of the Children of Israel invading the Land of Canaan. "Fortune-telling is rampant along North Charles Street. I want a piece that, without emphasizing the fact will draw public attention to it."
The following appeared under my byline in The Sun March 11, 1955:
I stood outside the store -- one of several Gypsy establishments on North Charles Street and one of dozens scattered throughout the city. A sign inside the window read:
"Reader and Adviser. Come in."
A motherly, gray-haired woman stuck her head through the door and said, "Do you want to come in?"
The first thing I noticed after getting inside was the racket -- an uproar of voices that came from behind a curtain in the back.
"It's a birthday party for the children," the woman told me. I gathered she was the Reader and Adviser.
She led me into a cubicle where there was a small table and no chairs. I stood there feeling silly.
"You want the full-life reading," she said.
I asked the price and learned it was $5.
"But I don't want to spend more than $2.50. Can't I have a half-life reading?"
The woman thought this extremely funny and repeated it in a foreign language to a beautiful young girl who at that moment looked in.
When the girl had gone, the woman took off my hat and felt the top of my head. "You come from a good family," she said. "Tell the truth. You own your own business."
I told the truth. I didn't.
"You work, but you don't like it much."
"Well, I wouldn't put it that way."
"Sometimes you like it; sometimes you don't."
"Now you're getting it."
"You going to change," she continued, giving me the full benefit of the full-life treatment. "You going do something you like better. You going to great success."
She touched my head again exploratively. "You never do anyone wrong. You got smile on your face but not in your heart. You worry.
"Friday and Saturday your lucky days. You like to have good time. But always in crowd, not by yourself. You got many friends, but you got two very bad enemies. One tall man and one short. They don't want you do good."
Every now and then one of the people at the party would come through the curtain at the back and go out the front door. "Any questions?" the woman asked.
I thought for a moment. How about going on a long trip? Did she see any possibility of that?
No trip. I didn't like travel.
How could she tell?
It was all there -- in those bumps on each side of my forehead.
Was she a phrenologist?
Did she have to study to become one?
No. It was in the blood. Gypsies were raised to know all about bumps.
I kept asking questions. Why was it Gypsies always acted so clannish and secretive? Why didn't they invite non-Gypsies to their birthday parties?
"We keep to ourselves," the woman said, "because we know each other." She looked at me speculatively. "In your job" -- she made scribbling motions -- "you write a little?"
I nodded. "A little."
"In newspaper maybe?"
There was a moment's silence.
"Well," I said, pulling out some bills, "here's your $5. It's been a very full full-life reading."
"You give baby girl dollar for birthday present." The woman held out her hand.
"You give it to her out of the five."
"You not going to give baby birthday present!" She seemed shocked. "I'm going to give her something better," I said with a beatific smile. "My best wishes. It's many happy returns for her."
As I emerged from the cubicle, the beautiful young girl stepped forward expectantly. "You give my daughter dollar for luck," the mother Gypsy said.
"You don't give her dollar, you have bad luck all year."
"Well . . ." I pushed open the door. "I never was very lucky." The woman yelled something as I left. Something threatening, no doubt, but I wasn't upset. After all, what did Gypsies know?
I moved off down Charles Street, my steps slow, my eyes contemplative. There was a smile on my face but not in my heart.
I kept thinking of those two men -- the tall one and the short one. I wondered just who the devil they were.
R. H. Gardner, retired theater critic of The Sun, is author of "The Splintered Stage: Decline of the American Theater" and "Those Years: Recollections of a Baltimore Newspaperman."