Old Joe is gumming a burger. Izzy is ranting about the Orioles over in the corner but finding few takers. Up and down the Formica counter, the preferred topic of discussion is the mayor's race.
Forget the polls, and fire the spin doctors. It's lunchtime at the Sip & Bite diner.
Down by the harbor in Southeast Baltimore -- at Boston and Van Lill streets -- it's the home of the best $12 crab-cake platter in the city and headquarters to some of the most astute electoral handicappers in the state.
If the election were held today, the experts agree, it would be a fistfight between City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and his old amigo, Councilman Martin O'Malley. Never mind the issues. This one's about personalities.
"Those are the only two I hear about these days," says waitress Denise Evans, 20. "Bell and O'Malley. O'Malley and Bell. All day long. A couple weeks ago, we started hearing that woman's name -- Mary Something-or-Other. Then she got into some kind of trouble and just disappeared."
That would be Mary W. Conaway.
In a political roller derby of 25 candidates, she was among a handful of serious contenders until questions were raised a few weeks ago about how she managed to attend divinity college full time while sarving as the city's register of wills full time.
Conaway said she attended classes at night but refused to release her transcripts.
"Poof!" said Evans, coining perhaps the most apt description of this year's mayoral race.
Former Councilman Carl Stokes, a well-liked and experienced former school board member, was the 49-year-old elder statesman amid the two thirtysomethings tussling at the front of the pack -- until he was forced to admit that he did not graduate from Loyola College, as he had claimed in campaign literature.
Another candidate, Dorothy C. Joyner-Jennings, was arrested on a burglary warrant.
And another, Phillip A. Brown Jr., has a criminal record that includes larceny, shoplifting and impersonating a police officer.
Bell, meanwhile, has been sued for failing to pay his bills, and his car was repossessed in January.
"That leaves O'Malley, hon," says Audrey Mayer, 62, as she digs into a $5.50 plate of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes drowning in a mysterious brown sauce. "Got anything bad on him yet? I keep expecting to pick up the paper any day and read that he has a criminal record or something."
"He's a lawyer," another patron pipes up. "That's bad enough."
O'Malley, too, has come in for criticism from voters and political opponents for his defense work, which has included representing drug dealers.
Pining for the past
Such bemused fatalism was the side dish with every platter at the Sip & Bite on Tuesday. And with that ball of dough stuck in their craws, most diners pined for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
Much maligned in certain wards of the city, blamed for the inexorable trend of urban decay that predates his birth and famed for his marshmallow blandness, Schmoke is looking pretty darned tasty these days.
"We've been spoiled, really," says John Hollman, 66, an auto appraiser and lifelong east-side resident, tossing a crumpled napkin onto his empty plate. "We just didn't know it. To have a mayor of Schmoke's stature -- a Rhodes scholar, a Harvard graduate, that million-dollar smile -- he put Baltimore on the national map.
"The closest thing we have to him now is Carl Stokes. In terms of legislative experience, he's got it over Bell and O'Malley put together. And he's the only candidate with any real insight into how to fix the schools. But he's going to have trouble raising the money to stay in the race, especially with this stuff about him overstating his academic credentials."
But what about the issues? Please?
"Same as it ever was," offers Ron Paige, 37, sheet-metal worker and father of two, unfurling the wrapper on a steaming cheese steak sandwich. "Drugs and schools. If you live in the wrong part of town, it seems nobody does nothing about it. This city is dying, man. Parts of it are dead already.
"But all we get out of City Hall is people talking about it, when what we need is radical action. Radical action, man, like now."
Paige is the only west-sider at the Sip & Bite, on the edge of Canton, which draws much of its clientele from Stokes' east-side stronghold. He lives on Druid Hill Park, the heart of Bell country.
"I'm voting for O'Malley, no question," Paige says. "Bell and O'Malley were like brothers on City Council. They stood for the same things. They fought for the same issues. I always looked at them like they were one in the same. But since this campaign started, we've seen what Bell is really about."
And it's not his debts that bother voters, Paige said.
In the predominant view of the Sip & Bite jury, Bell hobbled himself early by delaying his candidacy until his cousin, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, decided whether to run.