Crowd at Enrico's missed the flight to the suburbs

October 16, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Some of us went to Enrico's in East Baltimore the other night, because we find such places good for the soul.

The city may contain its edgy nighttime shadows, but the neighborhood joints like Enrico's bring together those who know each other's rhythms, who create a dense amiability, who throw back a beer and a shot, who scour the jukeboxes for the old Sinatra songs, who get up from the table to dance a tune with somebody else's date and it doesn't mean anything, who want to know the day's number, who eyeball the waitresses in their outfits that are briefer than this sentence, and who exit the place at the end of the night understanding that those who packed up and moved to suburbia don't know what they left behind.

Enrico's is the Haven Street restaurant and bar Bud Paolino bought a couple of years back, after he sold his old seafood place a few blocks over on Lombard Street. It's got pool tables, if anybody's in the mood. It's got big-screen TV, in case baseball ever comes back.

But mainly, it's got people showing up all night long, generally from the surrounding neighborhoods, who've heard something over the last 30 years about an exodus to the counties but never quite bought into it.

It feels like the way Baltimore used to feel and sometimes still does. The fundamental things apply: Sure, crime's up; sure, the kids are acting crazy. But this is a place of refuge, where yesterday and today seem a piece of the same thing.

It feels like maybe 1958 in here. It feels like Marchetti and Donovan might walk in at any moment and look for a quarterback to hurt. It feels like the one-eyed Mr. Boh should still be doing beer commercials. It feels like guys at the bar could be scanning the News-Post for racing tips. It feels like the wedding party scene in that tavern in "On the Waterfront" where Brando tells Eva Marie Saint, "You want to know what my philosophy is? Get the other guy first."

These are working people in here. The days are tough, and the nights are for blowing off steam. There are half a dozen women at one table, mostly in their 30s and 40s, with the cigarette smoke wafting out of them and somebody inquiring, "Hon, can we get us some beers?" while they go over the news of the day from Eastern Avenue.

There's Mickey Light, the Sinatra impressionist. He's dressed in a tux and a snap-brim fedora, jammed into a little corner of the room where customers are passing him paper napkins to blot the perspiration running down his forehead as he sings "I've Got You Under My Skin," which prompts an ex-boxer in the back of the room to extend a hand to a middle-aged lady in a bouffant hairdo, who takes it with all the grace of a debutante, and the two of them dance lightly and pretend nobody else is around amid the general calls for drinks, and the cigarette smoke, and the sound of Mickey Light going ". . . got you, deep in the heart of me . . ."

A few feet from Light is a table with a fellow holding football pools and a guy who's big in bingo games. They're waving hello to a one-time gentleman of the law who saw the light and decided to take up bookmaking back when the state of Maryland was making moral arguments about gambling activities, if anybody can imagine such a thing, who's sitting near a lady in a pink jump suit, giddy with laughter, triumphantly blond, wearing a shiny ring on one finger and waving her arms about as if doing the Australian crawl.

"I've got the world on a string," Mickey Light's singing now, "sitting on a rainbow." It's yesteryear's song, but it's every year's hope. At some of the tables, people talk about crime in the city. Didja see that story in the paper? The one about them kids hitting the old man's car with the rocks, and the old man hits him with a gun, and don't these kids have respect for nobody no more? Didja see that story on the teevee? The one about the criminal escaping when the cops gave him a chance, and don't these police know better than . . . ?

Out there in the counties, they see the same stories in the paper and the TV news, and they shake their heads in wonder: Who would put up with such business when they could move away and live in the suburban greenery?

Here at Enrico's, the crime brings a collective shudder. But here's the difference: It's collective. Nobody's sitting at home in an empty room with nothing but a television making sounds.

The city offers its neighborhood gathering places. There's always company around. You make enough noise, you chase away the demons outside. A lady in a polka-dot blouse is snapping pictures of a guy who's celebrating his birthday, and a fellow with a toothpick dangling from his lower lip's asking somebody in an Orioles cap if he knows the spread on the Maryland game, while over in a corner there's Mickey Light and he's going ". . . on the sunny side of the street . . . "

And sunny it is, inside the crowded, noisy, exuberant neighborhood places like Enrico's, where people heard there was an exodus to the suburbs over the last 30 years, and they heard people feel safer in their pockets of isolation out there, but here in East Baltimore they've decided to have a life instead of a lament.

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