I come from people who are tight with a buck. When they go, they go first-class -- Tio Pepe's for special celebrations, good schools for the kids and solid furniture. But they don't splurge often and rarely risk money earned with the kind of sweat that good schools have spared me.
My father's father could have scooped up a nice parcel or two of beachfront property in Ocean City after World War II. Mr. Sanchez, his good buddy from Rappolla Street via the Canary Islands, was buying and exhorted my grandfather to get in while the getting was good.
But the prospect was too risky for a Sparrows Point shipyard worker who'd grown up milking cows in Pontevedra -- the West Virginia of Spain -- and the old man passed.
In the 1960s, a federal highway was scheduled to destroy Fells Point. My father was a veteran engineer for Baker-Whiteley at the time, and Polish tavern owners around Thames Street were offering him their gin mills for a half a song. But my folks had two boys in Catholic school and a mortgage on a brick rancher in the suburbs, and Dad played it safe.
Mom -- who still thinks the Depression is on and never failed to declare, "You've never been hungry, mister!" when we'd turn up our noses at leftovers -- wrestles bank statements to the mat until dawn looking for 17 cents she is sure has been stolen from her checking account.
So you can imagine the flock of fears that flew around my parents' Linthicum kitchen the day I announced I was quitting The Sun -- my employer since I was a teen-ager -- after 23 years.
A good paying job!
With seniority and benefits !
And union security!
As my Polish grandmother often lamented from her Dillon Street lawn chair: "Yezus, ka-hah-nie ..."
(That's "Lord have mercy" to you and me.)
Like singing convicts breaking big rocks into little rocks, Mom and Dad took turns saying: "I guess you know what you're doing."
Jumping -- with a net
This is what I'm doing: I'm buying that ocean-view property whether I live to see it developed or not; I'm grabbing a million dollars worth of Fells Point real estate before outside money comes in to give the bars stupid names and insipid motifs; I'm trusting that the God which brought me this far will not drop me on my head because I have embraced the idea that art is worth more than news.
I have no doubt that this is right -- right for me, right now -- in the way I imagine that married people leave their spouses in their hearts long before sharing the decision.
As the not-yet-famous John Lennon often asked the other unknown Beatles as the band paid its dues in Liverpool dives: "Where are we going, boys?"
"To the top, Johnny!"
"Where's that, boys?"
"To the toppermost of the poppermost!"
I'm going for it, Johnny.
Faithful to the frugality of my forebears, however, my leap from the roof of 501 North Calvert St. is calculated.
America doesn't give its rank-and-file parachutes lined with gold, but I am leaving with both a reasonable check and subsidized health coverage in a buy-out offered to longtime Sunpapers workers by its new owners.
And, having paid my dues on the city desk -- from chasing cops to obits to the callous surgery of rewrite and the free verse of a thousand weather stories -- I am leaving with pencils sharpened to the fine edge that knife-grinding legend Pio Vidi used to lay on local meat cleavers.
What will I do with this bag of tricks?
For nearly two-and-a-half decades -- all in the employ of the paper you are now reading -- I've sliced the rough cloth of life in Baltimore into ribbons just long enough for a single bow.
My first byline, at age 20, was an interview with Studs Terkel in Chicago during a break in the Rolling Stones "Some Girls" tour at Soldier Field. It ran on the front of the features section. My last as a staff writer came about a week ago, a rewrite of a dispatch on a College Park provost taking the president's job at Iowa State University. It ran deep inside the local section, beyond the lost and founds.
In between, I have chronicled men who wanted to read their obituaries before they died, women who owned corner bars that sold more egg sandwiches than beer, sewing machine mechanics who dreamed of being composers and way too many teen-agers who wound up in coffins.
Now, in the vestibule of middle age -- not a midlife crisis, but a midlife epiphany that arrived with a farewell check -- I want to try something different.
Ribbons are pretty, but they don't cover very much. I want to try my hand at ball gowns and tailored suits: novels and screenplays and memoirs set in the city which this newspaper paid me to study for 20 years.
As a journeyman reporter, I will pick up what factory hands used to call "piece work" to keep my kids in good schools and the mortgage paid on Macon Street. But I will only take as much as is necessary.
For me, that challenge -- not to take jobs out of fear -- is greater than the decision to quit The Sun.