Economy turns Baltimoreans into tough customers


October 24, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Fort Avenue we find Eddie from South Baltimore, the semi-well- known bookmaker emeritus. We say emeritus because this is the elegant Latin word meaning "retired from active service," and the bookmaking business being what it is today, Eddie has retired to more elegant pursuits.

"Elegant?" says Eddie's friend, Phil the Bender.

"Don't criticize," says Eddie. "I'm on a comeback."

He has one foot propped against a car parked between Riverside Avenue and Covington Street. He pulls from his coat pocket several plastic bags containing wristwatches which are lovely to the eye and may even tell time.

"Those are watches," says Phil the Bender, who everyone knows to be a quick study.

"They're beautiful watches," says Eddie, removing a glittery one from the plastic case and holding it aloft in the sunlight. "This one alone has six diamonds in it."

"For how much?" says Phil the Bender.

"For $15," says Eddie.

Naturally, when everyone finishes multiplying six diamonds by the value generally ascribed to them, this is thought to be a very good price and maybe a little too good.

"Fifteen dollars?" says Phil the Bender. "With six diamonds?"

"They're from Russia," explains Eddie from South Baltimore. "Diamonds are cheaper there."

Eddie has come lately to the selling of watches owing to the dismal state of the free-lance gambling business. With the state of Maryland all but monopolizing the lottery, the street number is not officially dead, but it remains alive only because some sentimental diehards play it out of old loyalties.

But taking the street number is no longer enough to make a living. Eddie has been forced into a mid-life change of career, reflective of people everywhere. The state lays off about 1,500 workers any day now. The city's financial heart beats strictly from force of habit. And we now have a report in this newspaper that bankruptcy filings in Maryland are up 50 percent over last year, which is a figure up 25 percent over the year before.

"Why don't you buy a watch?" says Eddie from South Baltimore.

"I got a watch," says Phil the Bender.

"It's almost Christmas," says Eddie. "Buy some for your grandchildren."

"Forget it," says Phil. "Let 'em buy their own presents."

He says this in a semi-comical tone of voice, which mirrors an entirely grim attitude. Things have gotten very rough all over. On Fort Avenue, Phil the Bender, whose connection with glasses of beer explains his nickname, tells a story which illustrates much about current conditions.

"Monday nights," he says, waving a hand up and down the street, where a bar is never far from sight. "A lot of bars like to put out little spreads of free food. It's a gesture to the regulars, which encourages them to drop in and watch the Monday night football game.

"But the bar owners are all telling a new story now. Guys are calling several bars. They're calling five, six bars. They say, 'What are you serving tonight?' They're doing comparison shopping before they decide where they'll watch the football game."

All who entertain for a living face similar problems. Restaurant owners grip the edges of empty tables. The local theaters hold their breath, though not so you'd notice from the Abell Foundation.

"The Mechanic Theatre," says a guy on Fort Avenue.

"I went there once," says Eddie from South Baltimore. "The ticket was $27.50 and they sat me in the right field bleachers. I never went back."

The latest news about the Mechanic is also about money, and it says much about some people's inability to come to grips with our true economy. The Abell Foundation says the Mechanic is outdated. It says this city must find a way to build a big new theater, or risk losing large scale Broadway hits.

The cost of building a new theater, it is estimated, runs somewhere between $25 million and $100 million.

"Like a new ballpark," says Eddie from South Baltimore, showing his own cultural inclinations.

The need for such a new theater, it is explained, is to enable Baltimore to continue drawing large-scale Broadway touring productions, such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon."

It is made to sound as if Broadway is just churning out monster hits which this city must clutch to its theatrical bosom or risk becoming a cultural desert. No one mentions that Broadway itself is kept alive via life-support systems. Monster hits? The word, we are told, refers to the actual size of the shows, whose large casts and production values demand big theaters to guarantee financial success.

Again, no one mentions that Broadway turns out maybe one monster a season worth seeing, which means a new theater would guarantee maybe one play per winter that could not be witnessed at the Mechanic.

This sort of news does not translate very smoothly on Fort Avenue, however, where the entertainment lately is reduced to Monday night football games at bars with the heftiest catering.

"Oysters," declares Phil the Bender. He mentions a local bar, which served free oysters to its Monday night drinking crowd.

"Maybe I could do some business down there," says Eddie from South Baltimore, putting away his watches. The hour grows late -- not only for Eddie, but also for those watching the economy crumbling who do not come to grips with it.

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