Highlandtown's 'Mimi' DiPietro dies

August 07, 1994|By Michael Olesker | Michael Olesker,Sun Columnist

Well, God's gonna get an earful tonight.

He's gonna hear it but good from Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, who will rise to his full 5 feet 3 inches and want to know why his time down here in East Baltimore had to run out right in the midst of his very own legend, at the age of 89, when there's still all them alleys to be cleaned and potholes to fill and, hey, what about all them people looking for work?

So you get your choice today. You can believe the news that Mimi DiPietro died Friday night at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, or you can think of it thus:

Mimi will live as long as there's a grammar rule left to be broken.

Or as long as there's a soul alive who's heard of an afternoon on the White House lawn when Mimi simultaneously greeted the president of the United States and Pope John Paul by grabbing the president by the back of his trousers and calling the pontiff "Mister Pope."

Or as long as there's a politician helping a constituent in trouble -- because that's the way Mimi spent every hour of his quarter-century on the Baltimore City Council.

He looked like a little butterball of a man and talked like a fellow trying to surround an idea with the English language before it could escape the room.

The trouble with the courts? "Too much flea bargaining," Mimi explained.

His code on truth-telling? "I would never tell a lie. If I have to lie to you, I'll deviate from you."

His personal popularity? "I have been to half a dozen political affairs lately and each time I get a standing evasion."

Everybody had a DiPietro story, and some needed simultaneous translation. He was an elementary school dropout who fractured the language but didn't let it get in the way of his only business: Working full time for East Baltimore, because he'd had his own tough times and never forgot them.

"I was a catcher's helper down at Sparrows Point," he remembered one day, driving through Highlandtown and recalling how he'd spent his adolescence in the steel mills. "We'd do 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off. The heat was too much jTC to go past 15 minutes. Iron and tin, you picked it off the rolls and threw it to the catcher with a pair of tongs.

"It was so hot, you had to wear a mask. I had burnt eyes, burnt cheeks, a burnt chin. Then my old man got me a job in the hot mill till they went out of business. My father had to pay $50 to get me my job."

He slowed the car along Eastern Avenue, and the muscles in his face clenched.

"Then he slapped me across the face with the back of his hand," Mimi said, "and busted my mouth. Why? 'Cause I saw him pay the money. He was humiliated in front of me. And I never forgot it, 'cause everybody's got a right to a job."

That's the piece of Mimi DiPietro people should remember when all else is said and done -- though, in Mimi's case, plenty was always done and plenty said. When he thought his old buddy, the reporter Eddie Fenton, had unfairly nailed him on the radio, it was Mimi who uttered the immortal words, "Fenton, you're trying to scruple me."

When he was interviewed by Ted Koppel, on ABC-TV's Nightline program, about the great Baltimore renaissance, it happened by chance to be the week Mount St. Helens had erupted.

"What makes Baltimore such a great city?" Koppel asked on national TV.

" 'Cause we ain't got no volcanoes," declared Mimi.

When he was appointed to a committee to build a statue of Christopher Columbus on the east side of the Inner Harbor, it was Mimi who complained that the statue didn't seem to have fingers.

"What about the famous statue of the Venus de Milo?" someone said. "She didn't even have arms."

L "Don't look at me," Mimi said. "I wasn't on that committee."

Did he have rough edges? Absolutely. And they were sometimes part of his charm, and sometimes an uncomfortable throwback to less politically correct times. But he spoke his mind, which is something rare and thrilling to find in most politicians.

Some will say the death of Mimi DiPietro ends an era in Baltimore politics, without entirely understanding why. Partly, it's that Mimi was the most uncontrived politician imaginable. He was what he was, and never could have changed even if he'd tried.

And partly, it's that politicians have learned now to conduct themselves not merely for their constituents, but for television cameras. Thus, they dress like anchormen and talk like tax accountants. By the time of TV cameras, Mimi was far too set in his ways to change.

So we remember him in better times: with the telephone at his ear, helping some poor constituent with a problem; sitting with a guy like Clarence Du Burns, the two East Baltimore warhorses in their twilight years, one black and one white, each understanding the need to reach across ancient bridges to forge a new, racially calm Baltimore; or Mimi sitting at Bud Paolino's old restaurant, cracking open crabs and explaining his version of the world.

L Or Mimi performing one of his grammatical miracles, such as:

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