What's so funny about Dundalk?

October 17, 1995|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN STAFF

I'm born and raised in Dundalk

It's here I got my start.

I'll always live here in my heart.

I'm born and raised in Dundalk

I'll always live in Dundalk,

If only in my heart.

Refrain to "I'll Always

Live in Dundalk"

At 10 on a recent workday morning, the sun is high in the sky and Dundalk Avenue is green and leafy, with not a rusted El Camino in sight. The women are all handsome and the men above average and the children are in school soaking up knowledge, the way God and the federal government intended.

Inside Tom Toporovich's black Lincoln Town Car, Sinatra is playing on the radio. A minute ago, Mr. Toporovich was smiling, only now he doesn't look so good, like a man who should be reaching for the Maalox.

As a 26-year resident and the unofficial mayor of Dundalk, Mr. Toporovich has just been asked why it is that people take such glee in bashing his community, with every two-bit nightclub comic, sportscaster and DJ getting his shots in over the years.

"People who bash Dundalk are ignorant people," Mr. Toporovich says finally. "They don't take the time to learn what they're talking about. I've lived in seven states and spent 21 years in New York City. But there isn't another place in the U.S.A. I'd want to live."

The latest to treat Dundalk like a pinata is disc jockey Brian Wilson of WOCT-FM (104.3), who has been whacking the community with gusto for four months now on his morning drive-time show on "The Colt."

Other people jump out of bed in the morning and knock off 50 push-ups or 100 jumping jacks as part of their wake-up ritual. Brian Wilson throws off the covers, drops to his knees and thanks The Man Upstairs that there's a Dundalk to rip on the air.

Then he rushes to the phone to make sure the place is still there, that some freak geological accident didn't cause it to go spinning off into the Patapsco River.

"There's a shortage of pharmacists in Dundalk," Mr. Wilson told his listening audience recently. "Apparently they can't figure out how to get those little bottles in the typewriter."

Another time Mr. Wilson noted: "It's 7:48. Time for all you people in Dundalk to move your El Caminos to the other side of the street."

Depending on your point of view, this stuff is either a real hoot or one cheap shot after another in a continuing series of tedious Dundalk jokes that have worn increasingly thin to the residents of this working-class community.

Brian Wilson says the jokes are just part of his act, nothing to be taken seriously, and he professes astonishment at the outrage they provoke.

But for people like Tom Toporovich -- and dozens of other civic and business-minded Dundalkians -- the jokes are no laughing matter. In fact, at 6 on a Friday evening two weeks ago, at a time when thoughts of Happy Hour and Buffalo wings and icy drafts might occupy some people, 120 citizens showed up at a meeting at Dundalk Community College to discuss the singular theme: What should we do about this Brian Wilson guy?

"I frankly think it's important to respond to this thing,' says Deborah Cornely, the managing editor of the Dundalk Eagle, which has blasted Mr. Wilson on its editorial page. "My feeling is if this man were telling ethnic jokes this man would be off the air in minutes. But because it's the Dundalk community, it's OK."

They don't whine

One thing you learn about Dundalk -- the people there don't sit around and whine when things aren't going their way. Soon after Brian Wilson began ripping the place, Mr. Toporovich and community activists Jeanie Jung and Milton Schwartzman met with station officials of "The Colt," hoping to persuade them to rein in Mr. Wilson.

When that didn't work, Debbie and Gene Golden, owners of Golden Signs, began spearheading an effort to get advertisers to drop Mr. Wilson's show. (Thus far, they say, seven advertisers have bailed out.)

The Goldens have also formed the Dundalk Image Group, a grass-roots committee to counter the negative perceptions so many people have about their community.

The fact is, though, that outsiders have been taking shots at Dundalk since at least the Grover Cleveland administration.

Long-time resident Milton Schwartzman, 80, says he knows a 103-year-old lifetime Dundalk resident, and SHE remembers hearing Dundalk put down when she was a little girl.

Lorenzo Romiti, 43, whose family has run Squire's, a popular Dundalk restaurant, for over 40 years, has heard the abuse all his life, too.

"I live in Ellicott City now because of my wife's job," says Mr. Romiti, "and the people there say: 'Wow, you're from DUNDALK?!' They think it's like the Wild West! It still has the old image of drunken longshoremen belting back shots and beers. Obviously it's not like that anymore.

"Besides," he continues, "if we were as bad as Brian Wilson says we are, we would have sent someone down to the station to kick his ass."

For the record, it should be noted that Mr. Romiti is laughing as he says that, and that none of the men sitting at this table in Squire's appears to be reaching for a baseball bat.

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