Pushing aside the dark shutters at City Hall, Kurt L. Schmoke peers out a window, his face in a scowl, his voice low as he consults with Lawrence Bell's emissary about a delicate problem.
Is the mayor of Baltimore broaching a redevelopment project that will radically alter the Inner Harbor skyline? Is the aide to the council president trying to repair the rift between the two bitter adversaries?
Not exactly. The mayor and the aide are consumed with an even more fundamental question. They're debating whether to install a public latrine behind a bush in the plaza.
"If it's done in green, maybe it won't be so noticeable," Schmoke says, turning away with a trace of his dazzling smile.
He has a minister waiting in the next room. It's past 4 p.m., a perfect time to relax, do some paperwork, maybe check the sports scores. He has already given three speeches, honored police officers at a news conference and taken a damp, chilly boat tour of the harbor. He sipped a soda but didn't have a chance to eat at a luncheon for summer interns at a downtown law firm. In 15 minutes, he has another meeting.
For almost 10 years, Kurt Schmoke's days have been like this past Thursday. His life has moments of glamour, brokering multimillion-dollar deals, welcoming Hollywood stars to town, dining at the White House. But mostly, it's filled with a mundane and often thankless litany of chores and appearances that blur together with numbing regularity.
"I'm trying to see if you have ribbon-cutting in your eyes," civic activist Sally Michael told him when he was state's attorney and debating what came next after Yale, Oxford, Harvard law and the Carter White House.
He's deft at snipping ribbons these days at the celebratory openings of new stores or housing developments. He's quick to make the right remarks at a business gathering or a neighborhood rally. He's learned to use his self-deprecating humor to exude goodwill and to overcome the stiff personal reserve that makes him reluctant to cheerlead.
Yet halfway through his third term, Schmoke, 47, is reaching a political, and in some ways personal, crossroads.
He's hopeful of making a bid for U.S. Senate in three years if Paul S. Sarbanes decides not to seek a fifth term. But Schmoke, whose political ambitions once seemed so easily attainable, acknowledges that it would be an uphill struggle. He is burdened by his public stance in favor of drug decriminalization and the suburban counties' growing antipathy toward Baltimore.
When he lapses into a daydream, Schmoke dares to imagine the career he would really love. A sports commentator -- that's what the one-time high school football hero wants to be.
A more serious prospect would be to switch careers and become the president of a university. Schmoke admits he's intrigued, but fears he lacks the proper curriculum vitae of a professorship and years of academic research.
His work, while in keeping with his Oxford degree in social anthropology, hasn't been academic. A huge water main breaks and floods an East Baltimore neighborhood. Two rowhouses collapse within a week. Six major fires in eight days destroy more than a dozen houses, a Woolworth's store and a mattress warehouse.
He quotes the mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell, who said, "Right now, with things like crime and drugs, and with the potentially disastrous effects of welfare reform, it's like asking somebody who's in the midst of a hurricane, desperately trying to keep his house from flying away, 'What's your vision for your house?' The vision for his house is to keep it from falling apart."
It's one of his poignant remarks that reaches a crowd Thursday evening, in his eleventh-hour of meeting and greeting.
Out of the house before 7: 30 a.m., he's at the Convention Center within an hour for the opening of the Fire House Expo, an exhibition of firefighting equipment and memorabilia, to tour Baltimore. "I came by to congratulate you on your work, to thank you and also as mayor to encourage you to collectively spend as much money as possible," he says.
Two hours later, he bumps into his father and a few other unexpected people, including Baltimore County Councilman Lou DePazzo, while dedicating a new Meals on Wheels van.
"Even when he was young, I felt that sooner or later he would get into politics," Murray Schmoke says. "He always liked to be in charge."
Next, he's encouraging a group of young lawyers working for the summer at Venable, Baetjer and Howard to return because "our best years are ahead of us."
Janet Martineau, 31, a student at the University of Maryland Law School, tells him she is "concerned about the lack of empowerment for residents," especially those living in the impoverished areas of downtown. Schmoke urges her to join her neighborhood association, then goes on to list his gains -- from the declining crime rate to the rebuilding of Lafayette Courts, once a deteriorated high-rise housing project that will reopen next month as a community of modern townhouses.