Rich tales of peanuts and panhandlers and even a certain billionaire


April 06, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

Mr. Max Nolan Powers has such a perfectly dignified way of telling this story -- and, it's my suspicion, of conducting himself generally -- that one soon forgets the man is talking about hawking peanuts.

"Well, you see, this all started three years ago when the ladies held a strawberry festival," said Mr. Powers, treasurer of Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, two blocks east of Camden Yards. "And one of the ladies had purchased 25 pounds of roasted peanuts for sale at the festival. Well, by midafternoon, she had only sold two of 102 bags. So I approached the lady and said, 'Would you like to get rid of those bags of peanuts?' And, once she agreed, I then took two pieces of art board and constructed a sandwich board sign: 'Peanuts, One Dollar per Bag. To benefit Old Otterbein.' Well, in 20 minutes, I had sold 100 bags."

Do you think maybe bells rang in Mr. Max Powers' belfry? Old Otterbein is the oldest surviving church building (constructed 1785) in Baltimore, and the job of restoring it and preserving it is ongoing and costly. So Max and other church members decided sell peanuts to Oriole birds on their way to Camden Yards. "Last year we sold 43,688 bags," said Mr. Powers. "About $12,000 of [the $43,688] went to pay for peanuts."

And some of it went to pay for permits. Mr. Powers said the church was careful to secure all necessary vending permits from the city, mostly to avoid accusations that Old Otterbein was using its exempt status to unfair advantage over other vendors. "We did not want to encroach on others who sell," Mr. Powers said. "We pay $280 a year in licenses and permits.

"We still sell the peanuts at $1 bag -- they're $2.75 inside the ballpark -- and all the proceeds go to refurbishing the church. The parsonage was built in 1812 and needs to be restored." The peanut money has meant that more donations from church members go to the congregation's charitable services in the neighborhood. All around, it sounds like a good deal. Old Otterbein Peanuts are sold at every Orioles home game except,

of course, those played on Sundays.

The grateful panhandler

One evening last week, Dolores Mitchell, a Towson State student, and four friends were strolling down Ann Street in Fells Point when they were approached by a 30-something panhandler. "Don't hit me, don't hit me," he said. "All I'm trying to do is get a few dollars so I can eat." Despite being low on cash, Dolores offered the guy a dollar from her pocket. He was grateful. So grateful he wanted to give Dolores something in return. He asked for her date of birth. He asked for a pen and a scrap of paper. He then wrote some numbers -- one with six digits, one with four, one with three -- and advised Dolores to play the numbers in the state lottery. "He said they were his lucky numbers, so I played them," Dolores said. She played the three-digit number over the weekend. And it hit. For $250. "It could have paid more had I played [the game] differently,"

Dolores says. "That's the first time I ever got something back for giving someone a dollar."

A judge we will miss

My last column about Judge Robert J. Gerstung was not the most flattering one. The judge had been accused of making a sexist remark in court to a female defendant, who felt humiliated and complained to the judge's superiors. Later, I was told, Gerstung apologized for the remark and agreed to take part in some kind of sensitivity training.

I'm sorry I didn't get back to Gerstung's courtroom before he died. Despite his faults -- stretching to be funny at inappropriate moments, and making sarcastic comments -- Gerstung was an intelligent and entertaining judge. (After a couple of decades, he seemed frustrated with the grind of the District Court docket, and I think his attempts at humor were meant, more than anything, to break the monotony.)

I went to his courtroom several times with the hope of hearing his artful musings and reasonings, and Gerstung never failed to deliver. (To a man who started a huge neighborhood brawl the day he was scheduled to move away from Baltimore: "You don't spit in the crocodile's eye till you cross the river." To a man headed for the lockup: "Let him have lunch with us today; I think the chef is serving a nice filet." To a burly guy who got in a fight at the old Hammerjack's: "Next time pick a place that has a four-star rating for food, not fights.") His knowledge of the law, language, literature and political history was impressive, and the comments he distilled from his intellectual storehouse were downright Menckenesque. We aren't likely to see his likes again.

Loaded for whatever

I'm giving the Loathsome Sluggard of the Month Award to the Hanover, Pa., guy who went bear hunting in Maine -- they must have killed all the bears in York County -- and ended up doing something really vile and stupid. According to a report out of Portland, the first wolf known to have roamed wild in the forests of northern New England in 40 years was killed by the bear hunter. Why? He was just protecting his bear bait.

A line from the governor

Here's what the governor of Maryland tells associates and legislators about the owner of the Washington franchise of the National Football League: "The only difference between God and Jack Kent Cooke is that God doesn't think he's Jack Kent Cooke."

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