Shrine to greed towers above comedy of need

DAN RODRICKS

February 06, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

So I'm walking through downtown Baltimore, on my way to the Merritt Tower -- even though it's no longer called that -- with the intention of inspecting this marvelously weird shrine to ego and greed, when a guy named Chester steps up and appeals to my ego and greed.

"You're a GQ man!" he says. "You look good. You're wearing a tie. Take a look at this."

I make Chester for mid-30s. He's wearing a parka, jeans and sneakers. A burning cigarette bounces between his lips. He guards a piece of tissue in his right hand.

"Look at this," he says, a puff of smoke attached to each word.

Chester opens the tissue to reveal a flat snake of gold, a smart-looking necklace, about 20 inches long, a quarter-inch wide.

"Fourteen-karat gold," Chester says. "Come on, GQ man. Forty dollars. You look good."

Attached to the necklace is a white tag, with "$300" written in ballpoint.

Chester has appealed to the ego and the greed that hide like rats inside everyone. I'm tempted.

Instead, I tell Chester I'm in a rush to get to the Merritt Tower -- to have a look around, kick the tires, so to speak -- before the state of Maryland springs for $12.2 million to buy it.

"Come on, man," Chester says. "I'm just trying to get money for a room."

It's too bad Chester, who is presumably homeless, can't get a room in the Merritt Tower, though it's no longer called that. With 28 floors, there's plenty of space. Maybe, after the state buys the building, we should designate a couple of floors for the homeless.

From where we're standing, to the west, the Merritt building, with that tall condo-needle aimed at the sky, appears to be making a massive digital gesture toward the stately old Maryland National Bank building across the street. Others have noticed this and giggled at the symbolism.

The building, a white elephant in downtown Baltimore, is now known as 6 St. Paul Centre, the name having been changed to end the building's association with the defunct Merritt Commercial Savings & Loan. It was Merritt's failed chairman, Gerald Klein, who, in the role of corporate Penguin, brought this bizarre building to Gotham City. In fact, with its faux-copper xTC pillars and tinted glass, the place looks like something in a Batman film.

Klein is long out of the picture. Though its chairman was acquitted of charges common to the savings and loan mess -- overstating the value of his thrift and the real estate projects to which it lent money -- Merritt went belly up. Control of the office building changed hands a few times. One of its big tenants went bankrupt. It's "too much empty," as they say.

Now, the state could get it at a bargain. We'd save a few million bucks in annual rent on other office buildings, and maybe some day someone will want to buy it and the state would make a profit.

Before I endorse the deal, however, I must inspect the building personally.

I find good carpeting, good elevators, a nice mural and pleasant receptionist in the lobby, and lots of room for more offices. I also find whole floors that are unoccupied and unfinished, with exposed pipes and ducts and drywall waiting for paint. The view from the 23rd floor is fantastic. This looks like a good deal for the state. I suggest we raise money for the state by holding weekly lottery drawings and offer as grand prize a weekend in the condo-needle tower.

Inspection complete, I emerge from the shrine to ego and greed and, in the plaza in front of the building, a guy named Tony appeals to my humility and generosity.

"I'm trying to get a little change," Tony says.

He's carrying a cardboard sign bearing words written in white shoe polish: "Spare A Little Change Homeless." He's holding a cup in his right hand.

It is a gorgeous, unseasonably mild day in downtown Baltimore, with a sky of blue streaked with long, white contrails from jets. The American flag atop the condo-needle atop the office building now known as 6 St. Paul Centre is stretched against the sky.

I am distracted by the awesome weirdness of the building and the beauty of the day.

Tony keeps trying to get my attention.

I see his cup. I see his sign. I reach into my pocket and plunk a fistful of change into Tony's cup.

I hear a plopping sound.

I have just put a handful of change into a homeless man's soda.

The state buying 6 St. Paul Centre is probably a good idea, but, frankly, I think the place is jinxed.

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