Call it a scheme, but it involved Aunt Ethel


January 05, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

I probably should have bowed out when the guy told me his aunt was Ethel Merman. I probably should haved laughed sardonically and said: "Look, pal, Ethel Merman was a large legend with a voice as big as Broadway. If she knew you were invoking her name to mooch a few bucks off some sucker in Baltimore, she'd rise from the dead and run you out of town."

Alas, there's no business like this guilt business, and I just couldn't bring myself to tell the guy to kiss off.

Aside from the dubious reference to a dead American vocalist, his story sounded pretty good. Who was I to walk away from a stranger in need, even if he claimed his aunt's name was Ethel Merman?

This happened Friday evening in Northeast Baltimore, at Mount Pleasant Ice Arena. I was there doing the Hockey Dad thing when a fellow knocked on the arena's locked front door. He was a handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken, polite American male of about 35 years. "I need a jump," he said.

It was about 6 p.m. Of the three hockey parents within earshot of "I need a jump," I was the one who opted to listen to the rest of

the story. The guy claimed to be an Army sergeant from California, on 30-day leave, awaiting assignment to either Aberdeen Proving Ground or Fort Meade. He was staying with an aunt in Laurel. He was passing through Baltimore, on his way to auntie's house, when his car died.

"Where's your car?" I asked, stepping outside the ice rink doors.

"Down by the Giant," he said, pointing south, referring to a supermarket on Hillen Road, a good hike from Mount Pleasant, which sits at Hillen and Northern Parkway. I didn't ask how Hillen Road figures in a trip to Laurel for a fellow from California "just passing through" Baltimore, but I didn't want to seem overly suspicious so early in the conversation. "I got a jump from someone, but my car just wouldn't turn over," he said.

"Oh," I said, "then you need road service, a tow."

"What I'm really looking for is a ride."

A ride to Laurel, as a matter of fact.

Right away, I rejected that idea. I wasn't about to leave my 7-year-old son at hockey practice and drive this stranger anywhere.

"Do you have any money?" I asked, beating him to the punch with a question I figured he'd get to any minute.

"Just 7 dollars," he said.

"Credit cards?"

"I have a Visa card, but not with me."

That should have been another clue, I suppose. Who leaves home without it these days? But I didn't push the issue. The guy was likable. He hadn't asked for money yet.

"Do you belong to triple A?" I asked.


At some point - I can't recall exactly when or why - I asked for the name of his aunt in Laurel. And faster than you can say, "Annie Get Your Gun," he said, "Ethel Merman."

"Ethel Merman? Your aunt's name is Ethel Merman?"

"Yes," he answered, his response just a tad testy.

"Can you call her to come and get you?"

"She's 70-something years old and ..."

Right, and 70-something aunts don't like to drive at night. Right, right.

"Well," I sighed, "what exactly do you want me to do?"

"I don't want you to do anything," he said. "I'm just hoping maybe I can get to Penn Station and plead with someone there. You know, show them my military I.D. and all, and hope they give me a break ..."

"Look, if you have 7 dollars, why not just call a cab?"Beautiful. I figured that would get things moving. If he called a cab, we could both be on our respective ways, gracefully. I was thinking of spotting him the cab fare to Penn Station. Maybe 10 bucks. Of course, I know how that sounds today; it sounds like I got ripped off. But I wasn't convinced the guy was a phony, even with the reference to Aunt Ethel. For whatever reason, I couldn't bring myself to tell the guy to get lost.

So we went inside the ice arena. The "sergeant" called Yellow Cab from a pay phone. He arranged to meet the taxi at Northern Parkway and Hillen Road. I decided to walk out there with him. I wanted to see him off. I wasn't about to give him money and have him just disappear into the night.

"You know," I said as we walked to the corner, "Ethel Merman was a Broadway singer."

"She was?"

"Yeah, a famous Broadway singer. She sang, 'There's No Business Like Show Business.' You could look it up."

"Well, that's my aunt's name. You know, you've asked me a lot of questions. I don't take offense to it. I understand why you're asking. But I'm a Christian man. I don't lie."

I let that last line go.

A cab came around the corner, and the "sergeant" waved to it.

"What's the fare to Penn Station?" I asked the driver through the front passenger door.

"About $10."

So - call me a sucker - I handed a $10 bill and my business card to the "sergeant" and watched him get into the cab. He said thank you but, of course, made no promise to pay back the money.

As I watched the cab make a U-turn and head west on Northern Parkway, I felt a little like Homer Simpson, but not totally so. I felt burned, but not by much. (Hey, I just met Ethel Merman's nephew!) At least I had called the guy's bluff, forcing him to pay for cab fare, which probably hadn't been the ultimate goal of his dressed-up panhandling.

So I was feeling pretty good about how I had handled the situation - until I told my 7-year-old son about it.

"Dad," he said after hockey practice, "you should have given the money right to the cabdriver."

A chip off the ole block - on his mother's side!

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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