Personal attention oils wheels of commerce and education

October 19, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

I WOULD buy an overcoat in a July heat wave if a sales clerk singled me out for sincere personal attention. Maybe that's the reason I always pay my mortgage at a bank where I know the tellers by name and they know mine. Yes, I could write a check and use a postage stamp, but there's nothing like face-to-face personal attention.

One of my earliest recollections of this most gratifying form of human interaction happened every afternoon of my childhood. After lunch, at the hour for naps, my mother pulled a well-paged book off the shelf. She never made any claims to being a good actress or musician, but she could read well.

Mama had a wide range, but early on, she favored Bible stories, especially Daniel in the lion's den and Moses in the bulrushes. There wasn't a bulrush near the concrete corner of 29th and Guilford, but we used our imaginations and stared at the engravings in her book.

When you grow up with a pair of grandparents, your own parents, an aunt and an uncle, plus assorted helpful neighbors, the hours dedicated to homework become a personal tutorial. I've never gotten more personal attention than when Pop Monaghan, my grandfather the engineer, schooled me in long division, or great Aunt Cora patiently drilled me in the memorization of the sonnets of Shakespeare.

Attention came in many forms. Come Sunday morning, my father at times was called upon for Sunday church duty, often when my mother needed some extra help getting her brood to the altar. So Joe Kelly, ever a devoted Jesuit-educated alumnus, selected the nearby St. Ignatius Church at Calvert and Madison streets.

To a 7-year-old, the sermons droned on long, but the old church was beautiful in a Victorian way, and the frumpy downtown congregation was fun to watch. They drove very old cars and dressed like characters in the 1930s RKO dramas that regularly filled Baltimore television screens on 1950s afternoons.

The church people were also very polite and made a polite fuss over a young father who brought his children to this ancient temple. In this, they practiced the art of personal recognition, first cousin to personal attention.

The attention didn't stop there. On the way home, my father selected a route that was neither direct nor speedy. Along the way, he called out all the sights of local history -- a favorite being the mysterious old Bond mansion, which sat atop its own hill in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood.

The stone house was then known as the Norwegian Seamen's Home. It was a real stretch for a Rambler-station-wagon-full of little Kellys to figure out why a bunch of Norwegian sailors would be holed up in Baltimore, but that question led to a long discussion about the port of Baltimore.

At times we would stop at a delicatessen, or a place like Fiske's, a fancy sweet shop on Park Avenue near North. A man we always called Mr. Fiske stood behind the white enamel counter. Talk about attention. No matter what the tab for his wares (they were not cheap), he always dipped into the case and picked a fancy crescent-shaped cake for my sister, brother and me. I never thought about how many people my family knew, but it was an amazing number. On every outing they encountered people they knew. A short trip to a local market took twice as long because of the conversations along the way.

When you lived in a house for as long a time as my family had, personal attention and recognition were just presumed. When I visited the neighborhood soda fountain at Guilford Pharmacy, for instance, a clerk named Jack Lansdale always knew that when he made my mother's take-out chocolate milkshake, he needed to add a scoop of crushed ice before he fitted the cup with a paper lid.

Then he asked if Mother needed a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. If the answer was "no," he didn't stop. "Well, could she use any matches?"

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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