Old car goes from clunker to culture

April 25, 1994|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

The first tip-off to Conrad Jay Bladey's eccentricity is his backyard.

There's a rusty chimney pipe with carved mouth, eyes and nose sitting atop an old railroad stove. When the stove gets piping hot, fire shoots through the pipe's holes.

Then there's the rusted, steel frame of a headless horse -- a Republican by Mr. Bladey's estimation -- virtually buried in the lush foliage, and there's the tadpole pond and the dirt-filled silver bowl with a doll's leg jutting up out of it.

Sometimes birds nest in the leg, said Mr. Bladey, 41, as one of his dogs, Fritz, trotted around the yard, barking.

But what really sets Mr. Bladey apart is his yellow 1978 Dodge Omni. It is covered with bumper stickers, dozens of them -- from politicians, schools, state fairs, restaurants.

There are bumper stickers that say, "I Smile Because I Have No Idea What's Going On," and "Proud To Be A Rat." Passers-by have been known to leave stickers under the windshield.

"The car without a doubt is a masterpiece," said Robert Hooe, a longtime friend. "It tells a story. It may be a very abstract one, but it's a story."

The Omni will be displayed at Artscape '94, the arts festival held in Baltimore's cultural district in July.

In his letter to Artscape officials, Mr. Bladey, an archaeologist who teaches Irish culture at Anne Arundel Community College and adult education in Baltimore County, tried to explain the car's affect on the people who see it.

"People who would not always stop and talk do so, whether about Omnis or about content of sticker messages or just to lead into another conversation," he wrote. "Conversation with other humans in this modern world is a scarce commodity. And, as I work at home, the suburb is a desert devoid of human interaction. The Omni, so modified, is an oasis" bringing people together.

Mr. Bladey admits that "not all enjoy the sight. Some avert their eyes. Others walk on the other side of the street."

To his neighbors along Nancy Avenue in Linthicum and to his friends, Mr. Bladey, who wears his silver hair short, spiked on the ends, and often strokes a beard that flows over onto his huge chest, is a good-hearted man who's just a bit "odd," "strange" and "weird."

Some neighbors say the backyard looks "like it belongs on a farm," and that their guests have mistaken it for "a junkyard."

"We just put up with it," said one neighbor. "We thought about getting one of those high wooden fences. But we never did. We didn't have the money."

"He's really wild," said Mr. Hooe, who knows his friend's zany, off-beat side can be disturbing. But Mr. Hooe knows there's more to Mr. Bladey.

"I tell you, Conrad has really helped me," he said, noting that when his youngest son, Robert Jr., was murdered last year, Mr. Bladey stuck by him, offering consolation.

They met four years ago, when Mr. Bladey brought the Omni into Mr. Hooe's shop for repairs. Mr. Hooe remembers Mr. Bladey wore bib overalls and round eyeglasses held together with wire.

"His attire was unique. His beard is unique," said Mr. Hooe. "He's his own man. He doesn't hide behind things. He's not plastic. He's real people. Either you like him, or you'll never like him."

The Omni's metamorphosis from broken-down used car to attraction began nine years ago.

It was sitting in front of the Bladey home when some Andover High students plastered it with stickers from their school.

Rather than get angry, Mr. Bladey said he decided to follow their lead.

On one recent day, as the Omni squeaked down Ritchie Highway, with Mr. Bladey's daughter Margaret, 4, safely tucked in the back, an elderly woman in a passing car turned around, pointed at the Omni and laughed.

"See, it sort of brings joy to other people's lives," said Mr. Bladey.

Despite its notoriety, the Omni remains something of a wreck. The driver's seat is braced from behind by a wooden crate and is held in place not by bolts, but by strong rope. The floor rotted out once.

But Mr. Bladey loves the Omni, much to his wife's dismay and despite the fact that he has two other vehicles, including a blue 1994 GMC truck. Mary Bladey, 38, has declared it a bumper sticker-free zone. As for the Omni, she tries to avoid being seen in it.

"I think of it more as an artwork than as a mode of transportation," she said, trying to muffle her laughter.

Occasionally her husband has brought the car by her job at Fort Meade, where she works as a computer programmer.

"My co-workers think it's hilarious," she said.

Yet, it was her husband's quirky nature that attracted her. They have been married 14 years.

"Life with Conrad is always interesting," she said. "Things are never quite ordinary."

She admits the backyard is a bit much, even for her. But they have an agreement. Mr. Bladey can run wild in the backyard, as long as he leaves the front yard alone -- and he can do whatever he wants with the Omni.

"Conrad is the more original and inventive one around here," said Mrs. Bladey. "I've never denied that."

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