Boldly linking Teddy's burritos to national debt

DAN RODRICKS

March 23, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Should I fail to accurately convey all that Mr. Teddy Getzel is trying to say about the federal budget deficit, please remember: I have been distracted by a burrito.

It arrives at my table, the size of a small log, smelling of grilled chicken and melted cheese and the essence of suppertime in Juarez. (I have never been to Juarez, but I got a scratch-and-sniff postcard from there once. So I know what I'm talking about.)

As a result of this luscious distraction, requiring two hands, I won't be taking as many notes as I should during lunch with Teddy Getzel, who operates Mencken's Cultured Pearl Cafe, which is where I am sitting, fans twirling overhead, burrito before me.

Not just any burrito.

"SoWeBo Burrito!" Getzel says. That's short for Southwest Baltimore Burrito, which is the specialty of the house. "We use rice instead of beans, and all the spices are imported from Texas."

I tell Teddy to talk. I'm going to eat the burrito.

He slaps his key chain on the table, and when the keys land, they fan across the wood like a wild turkey tail. There are so many keys making such a loud ring you'd conclude that Teddy Getzel works part time for Wackenhut. But there's no way. In addition to running two restaurants -- Mencken's, near Hollins Market, and the Telltale Hearth and Grill, a block away -- and organizing the wonderfully weird and artsy SoWeBohemian Festival, Getzel is working on the federal deficit.

"Someone has to," he says, and I hear the first of many reports of laughter. Getzel doesn't laugh, he explodes. His laughter sounds like semiautomatic gunfire, but it's charming nonetheless, especially the way it reverberates in the Cultured Pearl's brick dining room. The walls are festooned with red hot chili pepper Christmas lights and some delightfully strange artwork. The music is Mingus.

Talk, Teddy, talk.

"I listened to Clinton's speech on his economic package, and I concluded he needed help," Getzel says. "He needs help with reducing the budget deficit, in particular.

"I mean," says Getzel, "it was a fine speech, and I remain optimistic for Clinton.

"But see, as a restaurateur, I prefer butter over guns. It's a natural instinct for me. . . . As someone in the inner city who has been running a business, pretty successfully, for the last 10 years, I have seen no help from government. In fact, I have seen government disinvestment in the inner cities.

"One day, I was playing around with some numbers -- the price of a B-2 bomber. I figured out that it would take 1,400 years for this restaurant to gross that much."

And the Cultured Pearl is a popular place, maybe the hottest establishment in Hollins Square.

"Now I'm seeing possibilities that things might change," Getzel says. "We might see investment in people again, particularly in young people, their education and training. . . . But this debt, it's a monster under the table."

(Or, if you're Ross Perot, a crazy ole aunt down in the basement.)

"So, with the new light and the new sense of priorities in Washington, I decided I wanted to help out."

Getzel has sponsored all kinds of events over the years, whether it was to encourage young artists and poets or to raise badly needed funds for an adult literacy program. Last year, Getzel was host to the "procession of the Chili Goddess" and a hot sauce-tasting festival benefiting Viva House, the Catholic Worker soup kitchen. He has given a percentage of his receipts to the Maryland Food Committee, too.

Next project?

"On Income Tax Day, April 15, the Telltale Hearth and Mencken's Cultured Pearl will allow you to painlessly sacrifice for your country," he says. "The management of the two restaurants will contribute 10 percent of the check to reduce the national debt, to be applied to principal only. . . . The more you eat and drink, the more you will reduce your children's and grandchildren's burden and possibly your own burden on tax day some time in the future."

That's what I call biting the burrito, er, bullet.

"Hey," Teddy says, "it's a start. I'm hoping the big restaurant chains will join us.

"If they do, we can really dent this thing. A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we're talkin' about real money."

A burrito here, a burrito there . . . pretty soon, we're counting beans.

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