The big sign out front reads: ''A Kinder, Gentler Pawn Shop.'' How about that, a pawn shop with a political perspective. It's George Bush's old line with its pockets turned out.
In The Recession That Has No Name -- just ask Bush -- the pawn shop, Equitable Jewelry and Loan, is doing business strictly at odds with the rest of the nation.
''Kinder and gentler was actually my line,'' says John T. Glorioso, the shop's owner, who has a little twinkle in his eye. ''See, I was dining at Duke Ziebert's Restaurant in Washington one night, and I said, 'You know something? We need a kinder and gentler pawn shop business.'
''And who do you think was sitting two tables over? George Bush! Yeah, and he overheard me and put it in his speech.''
Glorioso waits a beat and laughs at his own little joke. The words have come to haunt the man in the White House, like those thousand points of light that have become fodder for the stand-up comics.
''Kinder and gentler, yeah,'' says a customer named Dewayne Hunter. ''Like the president said.''
Hunter's here yesterday morning with his fiancee, Maria Hamilton. They want to hock her ring, and they're asking $40 for it. Hunter's got a truck for moving and hauling, but he says business has dried up. He needs a few bucks to get him over a rough spot. At the moment, he hasn't even got money to put his truck on the road.
Behind a Plexiglas window sits Glorioso, weighing the value of the ring vs. the likelihood of Hunter coming back for it with his 10 percent buy-back fee vs. the possibilities for reselling it if Hunter never shows up again.
''Forty, huh?'' he says.
''It's hard,'' Hunter says. ''Times are real hard.''
Glorioso fills out some papers and hands him the cash. He's heard this tune before. To understand something about the nature of this recession, and its impact on working people, it helps to locate this pawn shop on the map: It's Liberty Road, just north of Northern Parkway in northwest Baltimore County.
In the entire history of this community, it has always been middle class: nothing fancy, but solid families, working people who make their money and pay their bills and have never needed help from pawn shops.
But now, yesterday morning, we have John Glorioso standing here beneath his big sign and declaring, ''The recession's doing all right by me.''
He says this in an apologetic tone, a man who doesn't want to be seen as profiting from others' misfortunes. It's just business. If it's bad for America, it gets better for the pawn shops, where people turn for quickie financial assistance.
''Eighty percent of my customers,'' says Glorioso, ''are working people. They stop here on their way to work in the morning, or on their way home from work at night. Right now, they're living paycheck to paycheck, and if something comes up, they need quick cash and they come here.''
L Most of his business, he says, comes from Randallstown, from
Woodlawn, from areas out here where people once considered pawn shops a kind of foreign territory.
In a newspaper rack not far from Glorioso yesterday, there is a front page headline: ''More Americans Get Food Stamps; 44% of School Lunches Are Free.''
These are just barometers of our time, more indications that the economy is still staggering along and that Glorioso and his kinder and gentler pawn shop will do bigger and bigger business.
Three years ago, when George Bush made his ''kinder and gentler'' remark on national television at the Republican National Convention, it seemed a hint to that part of America that felt cast aside, an apparent acknowledgment that the previous eight years had been rough on too many innocent people.
The difference between haves and have-nots had widened in that time. The middle class was squeezed and the poor were going under, and only the rich were partying. Without actually taking a swipe at Ronald Reagan's economic policies, the line seemed to say: ''Trust me. I understand what's happened and we're going to make corrections.''
And yesterday morning, standing in a cold wind on Liberty Road, a memory of George Bush campaigning in Baltimore returned. It was a dozen years ago, when Bush was still running in the Republican presidential primaries against Reagan, and he met with a few reporters in a Little Italy restaurant.
In those days, George Bush talked a different game. Ronald Reagan boasted of increasing defense spending and cutting taxes and somehow balancing the budget. Bush called this voodoo economics. He gave it that name until Reagan got the Republican nomination and tabbed Bush as his running mate, at which point Bush embraced that whole line of empty thinking.
And suddenly, Bush had a different explanation for his famous line.
''Gee, I wish I hadn't said that,'' he laughed.
But the laughter dies when we realize Bush not only embraced Reagan's voodoo, but kept it as his own. His words were empty, just as they were three years ago when he talked of a kinder and gentler nation without telling us what he meant.
So yesterday morning, here was John T. Glorioso on Liberty Road, standing beneath his big ''Kinder and Gentler'' sign and explaining how it all came about.
''Originally,'' he says, ''the sign was gonna say, 'Smart People Don't Buy Retail.' But then it came to me: 'Kinder and Gentler.' ''
It's a way for Glorioso and his customers to laugh their way together through these treacherous times.