Star Gazer Comet Hale-Bopp brings a bonanza for Herman Heyn, who has been peddling the night sky for years.


March 28, 1997|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The Sunday sky is deepening into dark blue; the breeze is turning bitter. A crowd a dozen thick and growing is huddled around the eastern corner of Thames and Broadway. In the middle is a man in drooping corduroys, black Reeboks and a tattered sweater. Herman Heyn is in his glory.

The self-named Street Corner Astronomer, a neighborhood fixture in Fells Point since he first set up his 8-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope a decade ago, is basking in the hype of Hale-Bopp, one of the brightest comets to streak through the sky in recent history. On this particular evening, it is a mere 123 million miles from Earth -- the closest it will come. And it's coinciding with a separate celestial phenomenon, a lunar eclipse.

But Hale-Bopp is the star of the night: a tight bright ball with a fan-shaped tail, looking exactly as one imagines a comet to look. It has become a media darling, receiving saturation coverage in newspapers and on television.

"It's like my own billion-dollar publicity campaign," says Heyn, who suggests a contribution of $1 for a look through his prized possession.

Sometimes he and his telescope stand outside, idle for hours, usually he has to sell himself by calling out his trademark "Have a look!" But tonight Heyn barely has time to assemble his telescope before potential stargazers form a line, fishing for singles in their wallets. Public interest in Hale-Bopp is translating to a boom in business.

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the heavens.

"It's something I can tell friends at parties or like playing trivia. I saw the comet," says Alex McNamee, a Fells Point reveler waiting for his peek through the telescope.

In the two hours that the sky is dark and clear, scores of strollers, conventioneers, partyers and many Heyn devotees glimpse the decade's most talked about comet. And with every stargazer come questions: "What's the tail made of?" (gas and dust) "Why's it wavy?" (the rippling is caused by the rotation of the nucleus) "How fast is it going?" (40,000 mph) "Isn't there supposed to be some comet or something out tonight?" (yes, come have a look!)

Heyn repeats the answers over and over.

"I think of it like Broadway. Those actors have to get on stage every night and say the same things over and over. I'm like that, I don't get tired of it. I like it," Heyn says, his voice a bit raspy from hours of chatter.

His own passion for the sky is undeniable. Early in the evening he stops mid-sentence and points eastward toward a pink glob, "Ohhh look at that beautiful moon." Later he takes every chance he can to steal looks at the comet himself. That love of the stars was first inspired by an assignment to find the Big Dipper in Ms. Wicker's 8th-grade science class at Garrison Junior High. As the Street Corner Astronomer, he not only earns a little cash, but gets to introduce others to the marvels of Ms. Wicker's science class.

"I'd say I do it 50-50. Half for the money, and half to share the stars. But if somebody were to come up to me and say they got their Ph.D or went to college for astronomy because they first got interested in the stars and planets here, well, that would make this really worthwhile."

Heyn himself had a difficult time in school, struggling through with what he now believes were learning disabilities. He liked science, but left college before earning a degree. By his own account, the Baltimore native has had every kind of job, from T-shirt salesman to substitute teacher. Now, between his Social Security checks and income from his home photography business, he depends on his street-corner contributions for about half his income.

In that sense, Hale-Bopp has been a godsend. Physically, however, the comet's mass following is taking its toll on Heyn.

"To tell you the truth, I was excited about last year's comet, Hyakutake. I came out every night for that, really pushed myself. I didn't need another comet so soon. I could have waited a couple of years."

At 66, the demands of a night on the street are getting increasingly difficult to endure. Heyn's long, curly, gray hair and weathered skin suggest his age, but his energy and physique do not. At 5-foot-10 and about 165 pounds, he credits a high school and college swimming career for his sturdy frame. His stamina, he says, comes from biking around town every day and a semi-vegetarian diet.

But a night of work often means standing outside during the coldest hours of the day, constantly cheerful, constantly talking. On Saturday, he decided to stay home when he heard the temperature would plummet. That decision disappointed more than a few of his regulars. "Where were you last night?" was as frequently asked the next evening as any other question.

He says he'll stick with his gig as long as he can lift his 42-pound telescope, but admits that he is slowing down.

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