JUST WHEN A GUY gets back from vacation and figures it's safe to pick up a newspaper again, what's he greeted with? A passel of letters to the editor, railing against one Paul T. Graziano, Baltimore's housing commissioner and a man with a drinking problem.
Graziano is on a paid 30-day leave of absence while he is getting inpatient alcohol treatment. On the night of Dec. 28, he was in a Fells Point bar thundering against "fags" when he was asked to leave. He refused. Bar employees called police, who again asked the apparently inebriated Graziano to leave. He refused a second time and was arrested.
The next day, Mayor Martin O'Malley said that booze was a "mitigating factor" in Graziano's remarks and indicated he would not fire his housing chief. Those who felt O'Malley didn't express proper revulsion at homophobia -- meaning they figured he should have treated Graziano as a moral viper right down there with a child molester -- then started in on the mayor.
On Jan. 3, The Sun devoted an entire editorial page to readers' letters about Graziano. The overwhelming majority of them called for Graziano either to tender his resignation or be fired. Some of the writers hail from Baltimore suburbs like Catonsville, Owings Mills, Lutherville, Ruxton and Severn.
If you're looking for the next sentence to read, "Why are these folks poking their noses into Baltimore's affairs?" you'll be sadly disappointed. Some Baltimore suburbanites work in the city. Thousands of others come here to visit the Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center. They're probably the majority of folks at Orioles and Ravens games. Were it not for the good folks in Baltimore's suburbs, this town would be in an even more sour pickle than it is. They have as much right to gripe about what's going on in Baltimore as do city residents.
But suburbanites strongly supported O'Malley's mayoral candidacy in 1999. Because their candidate won, it behooves them to back their guy in this, his first major crisis. Because O'Malley is too tactful, too decent, too damned nice to say this, I, totally lacking in any of these qualities, will say it for him: On the matter of Graziano, O'Malley is right, and those calling for the housing commissioner's head are wrong.
Alcohol addiction is a mitigating factor in boorish, even bigoted, conduct and comments. Alcohol is also the No. 1 abused drug in America. Rather than rail against Graziano's anti-gay comments, critics should wonder, as one caller did, how Graziano got into a substance abuse treatment program when there's a waiting list of people trying to get in. The caller, a woman, opined that a person shouldn't get bumped up just because he happens to work for the mayor.
But alcoholism and the need for treating it -- and drug abuse in general -- have taken a back seat in this debate. Gays and lesbians have turned the issue into one of bigotry.
Gays and lesbians struggled for years to get society to realize that what two consenting adults do in private is not the business of local, state or national government. Now their struggle is to see that no one thinks incorrect thoughts about gays and lesbians.
The first struggle was noble. The second smacks of a creeping neo-fascism, a movement that has unleashed an unofficial thought-police force of gays, lesbians, feminists and some minority activists of color.
Gays and lesbians tried to browbeat WMAR-TV into not airing Laura Schlesinger's afternoon talk show. Her sin was making comments some gays and lesbians found offensive.
You would think that, with all the self-righteous preening of the last two weeks, no one had ever heard white gays give a drunken tirade on how they feel about blacks. I have, and I know for a fact that there are gays every bit as off base as Graziano. I know, too, that alcohol affects judgment and makes abusers of it bellicose and unbearable.
The man known to me as Maurice Phillip Kane was the kindest, gentlest man I have known -- when he was sober. When he was drunk, he was obnoxious, hurling obscenities at everyone. Mercifully for his kids, he was never violent. But he clearly wasn't the same man. Still, one good thing came out of my father's alcoholism: He helped make me the teetotaler I am today.
But those who are itching for Graziano's scalp would have me believe that the cursing, evil, foul-mouthed wretch who was Maurice Phillip Kane when drunk was the real man, and that the tender, easy-going guy he was when sober was just a put-on.
I prefer to think the opposite. The real Maurice Phillip Kane was a benevolent, loving soul who never got the help he needed with his alcohol addiction.
"I love you all to my heart," he told me one day, speaking of all six of his children, four of whom were not his by blood.
I prefer to think the real Paul Graziano is the one who wrote in The Sun on Jan. 7, "I am truly sorry for the pain I have caused and ask for forgiveness."