Bright, brassy politics segues to sophistication

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 14, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

"I don't feel good," Mimi DiPietro announces yesterday.

"What's the matter?" an early-morning caller asks.

"What's the matter?" he bellows incredulously, throwing his hands into the air. Even over the telephone, you can hear Mimi DiPietro throwing his hands into the air.

"I'm getting throwed out of here," he says. "That's what's the matter."

He never imagined it would come to this. All those years behind his City Council desk, all those jobs he got for strangers who swore they would vote for him, all those East Baltimore streets and alleys he got fixed, and now the ingrates have throwed him out.

Where is a guy his age, which is 87 or so, supposed to find work now?

In three weeks, pieces of a new generation move into City Hall. DiPietro's out after 30 years, John Schaefer's out after 20, and Hyman Pressman, his poetic license finally expired, takes his leave, too.

In Mimi DiPietro's office, there used to be pictures on the walls: Mimi with presidents, Mimi with governors and mayors and television personalities. Always, here was Mimi looking like some Italian Renaissance painting of a grown-up Cupid.

Now there are only three photos remaining in the room, all of religious figures, plus there is a refrigerator.

"Fifty dollars," DiPietro says.

"Fifty dollars?"

"For the refrigerator," he says. "I bought it for $300, and you can have it for $50. It's in good shape. I never moved it, and I only put something little in it. I want fifty dollars."

The refrigerator brings back memories of distant times, of council members who hung out at City Hall all day long and sometimes worked and sometimes just lived lusty lives.

In his 6th District office, the late Dominic Leone could be found on his knees, a pair of dice in his hands and a Marlboro hanging from his lips, welcoming visitors to a reasonably honest game of craps.

In his 1st District office, Clarence "Du" Burns would hold forth on issues ranging from New Orleans jazz to the best methods for hitchhiking to Washington Senators baseball games to the racial subtleties of politics in a sensitive time.

And, in Mimi DiPietro's office, radio reporter Eddie Fenton would peek into a refrigerator where he stashed his booze. It was strictly self-defense. Eddie always said it was cruel and unusual punishment to cover a council meeting in a sober state.

But Leone and Fenton have been dead several years now, and Mimi DiPietro's asking $50 for his refrigerator. Du Burns has just sung his political swan song. And in City Hall's Board of Estimates room at noon today, there will be a little ceremony honoring Hyman Pressman.

Pressman, for years the blithe spirit of City Hall, will exit in three weeks on the same day as Mimi DiPietro. Some of Pressman's friends want the Board of Estimates room to be named after him, since he spent so many hours there keeping tabs on the city's money.

"A little something," says a friend, "so that people won't forget him."

Time steals everything, even memory. There's a new breed of politician at City Hall now, many of them passionate, some of them hard-working, though few of them with the same idiosyncratic flair as a Du Burns or a Mimi DiPietro, a Hyman Pressman or a Dominic Leone.

There's a self-consciousness in the air now. You imagine council members checking themselves in the mirror each morning over their blow-dryers and wondering if they look appropriate for the TV cameras.

This doesn't mean they're bad people, just too self-aware and sometimes too self-important. Mimi DiPietro was always thrilling -- not merely because he actually worked full-time for his constituents, but for the way he surrounded ideas with his

version of the English language.

Hyman Pressman was legendary not only because he kept track every dime of the city's, but because he took such unashamed joy in his own self-promotion. He understood the game in the political business.

Du Burns could tell an anecdote to illustrate an arcane point. Dominic Leone could invite you to a crap game and not feel uncomfortable. Leone wasn't the most articulate guy in the world, but everybody in South Baltimore knew they could turn to him for help, and when work was slow, everybody could take a break.

It's tougher to tell about the newer crowd. Unlike their predecessors, they've learned how to hide, how to conduct themselves with public propriety, how to duck and weave

around a difficult question.

The other night, Councilman Lawrence A. Bell was talking about troubles he sees in West Baltimore. Here's a young guy, bright and concerned, and in a couple of minutes he moved from a discussion of crime and drugs to the psychology of kids growing up in one-parent families to the need for more foot patrols to the influence of churches and synagogues to the emotional makeup of Kurt L. Schmoke.

It was impressive stuff. You spend a few minutes with Bell, and you sense someone who is paying attention. He's the new generation, and he makes it seem like it might be OK.

But it hurts to lose some of the old crowd, too. Flaws and all, they were fun. And it so happens they did some pretty good work.

"What am I gonna miss?" Mimi DiPietro said yesterday morning. "I'll miss helping people. I done got two calls already today. People getting a rough time from the city. So I call the department bosses and I say, 'What are you doing to my people? I want you to take care of the people.' "

Over the telephone, you sense him throwing up his hands again. Or putting them in the face of some bureaucrat who should have been paying attention.

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