A chill wind shuts the door on Esskay plant


October 04, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The news about Esskay sends a shudder through East Baltimore. Hundreds lose their jobs, and the chill is computed in numbers, and also in names like Gary DePasquale and Kevin Yancy, and Santoni's Groceries and the Lucky Spirits Go Go Bar and Mary's Diner, too.

Mary's Diner is located a block west of Esskay. You can get two eggs, any style, home fries and toast and jelly for 99 cents, or a slice of free amateur psychology. It's a hangout for Esskay workers, but not for long. ''See these?'' says Mary Karras, who owns the place. She points to two walls filled with snapshots: Esskay workers mostly, sitting at the counter, grabbing a bite, captured in their comfort.

''That's what you call a family,'' says Karras. ''They come to us, they ask our advice about things, we feed them. It's about as close as you get to a family.''

Now the family's breaking up. Esskay officials say the plant's too dangerous, so they're closing it. All of a sudden, they discover the building's a wreck? They don't have engineers monitoring these things routinely, making improvements as they're needed, the way every other big plant does?

The company allegation draws sneers from workers who do not wish their names used in the newspaper. Conspiracy talk fills the

air: Esskay didn't want to deal with the union, they want cheaper labor, they made people agree to give-backs, and then they purposely let the building run down.

But it's rearview-mirror analysis. Up the road, the going looks rough. Take paychecks away from 500 workers and begin multiplying by their paychecks. A conservative estimate, says one Esskay manager, might be $300 a week net pay for the average employee.

It means $150,000 a week that has originated here, much of it spent here in the neighborhood, most of it certainly between Patterson Park and Dundalk. Those losing their jobs don't need to be told: It is not a wonderful time to be seeking employment. ''I've been here 27 years,'' says Gary DePasquale, a supervisor of dry goods supplies whose father worked at Esskay for 30 years before him. ''I was was 18 years old when I started here. This company's fed my family for a long time.''

He turns away for a moment, composes himself, remembers the moment when he got the news that Esskay was closing its operations.

''I couldn't believe it,'' he says. ''You figure it's forever, don't you? I'm mean, 27 years, right?''

Kevin Yancy's at the other end of the time line. He was out of work for four months before Esskay hired him. One week later, he was told the place was shutting down. ''I know what it's like looking for work out there,'' Yancy, 21, says softly, ''and it ain't good.''

The White House talks of trickle-down economics, and here's what it really means: The trickle evaporates, and communities dry up. It starts with a company closing its doors under a cloud, and then it hits everybody nearby.

Suddenly nobody's got money for a beer at My Cousin's Place or the Lucky Spirits or Johnny G's Cafe. It's a community of corner bars, which are East Baltimore's version of the suburban club basement.

Then it cuts deeper. There's a direct line from Esskay to Santoni's Market, a block away on Lombard, but the line gets interrupted now.

''The closing's gonna hit us, absolutely,'' says Eric Rebbert, vice president of operations for Santoni's. ''The economy's already hit hard. We've got the same number of customers, but they're just not spending the amount of money they used to.''

Rebbert points down a row of shops: a few months ago, the Bank of Baltimore closed its branch here; around the same time, Plaza Laundromat shut its doors. Both locations are still empty shells.

Other shopping center stores hold their breath. The card shop, the video store, the kitchen supply outlet: which of these will now begin to seem like extravagant luxuries to people worried about the next payment on their row home?

''Used to be,'' says Tom Gabbert, a Yellow Cab driver parked outside Mary's Diner, ''I used to make $600 a week driving between East Baltimore and downtown. Now I'm down to $200. In 20 years of driving, it's never been this bad. And now they go and close down the Esskay plant.''

In the places like Mary's Diner, and Enrico's Sports Bar and Dagwood's Subs and Leon's Tavern, it's all they're talking about these days. There's a chill in East Baltimore, and the closing of Esskay makes everyone shudder.

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