Some thoughts on Agnew, carrot juice, and keeping everything in perspective

April 15, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ALBERT Carmine Isella, closing in on his 87th birthday, rose from his bed at Franklin Square Hospital Center last week and pronounced himself ready to go 15 rounds with the whole wide world. He was recovering from a slight bout of pneumonia but said he was eager to go home. Plus, he was tired of drinking something he said tasted suspiciously like carrot juice.

"What kind of food is carrot juice to serve a sick man?" he asked in his plaintive way, which sounds like a truck backfiring in a traffic jam on Albemarle Street. "I never heard of a hospital making you eat stuff like this."

"Good," said Isella's wife, Jean, sitting by his bedside. "If he's starting to talk nasty like this, it must mean he's getting better."

This will please the sporting fans, touts, enthusiasts of all kinds and visitors to Little Italy who have known Isella over the years. For a long time, he was maitre d' at Sabatino's Restaurant, and still matriculates there each day between bouts of pneumonia.

Also, for some time Al was known as a fine fellow to see about a bet, either the horse-racing kind or the three-digit street number. This can now be said calmly in a family newspaper, as we have the state of Maryland doing precisely the business, in its daily lottery, for which the cops routinely used to arrest Isella and call him a criminal.

In fact, it was Isella's attorney, Richard Karceski, who set the record straight on that matter. On the night Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak, and the scoreboard at Oriole Park repeatedly flashed "2,131," Karceski blithely inquired of the fellow sitting next to him:

"How come they're flashing the number of times Al's been arrested?"

An exaggeration, but only by degree. Al mostly took the arrests in stride. The charge was always gambling, and every judge in town knew it was the thing known as a victimless crime. Al was simply a facilitator. Some of the judges themselves were known to facilitate a bet or two with him.

"Politicians, too," Isella remembered last week, perking up in his hospital room. It was a former governor who discovered that state police had wiretapped a telephone Al was using, and quietly warned him not to use it.

And it was another former governor, named Spiro Agnew, who bumped into Al the very evening Agnew pleaded nolo contendere in a Baltimore federal courtroom and ceased being vice president of the United States.

Agnew decided to take his family to Sabatino's for dinner that historic night. Ironically, as Agnew was copping his famous plea that afternoon at the old Calvert Street federal courthouse, Isella was directly across the street, paying a small fine for taking some numbers bets.

When Agnew arrived in Little Italy that evening, he immediately bumped into Isella, who put the whole thing into perspective.

"Hey, governor," Al cried, "I see they got you today." Agnew braced himself. "What the hell," Isella said, "they got me, too. Don't worry about it, boss, it don't mean a thing."

That's always been his philosophy of life: Take it in stride, tomorrow's a new day with fresh possibilities.

Also, define yourself by your own terms. While prosecutors were pronouncing him a bookmaker, others have always called him one of the most generous spirits in town. He helped bankroll a few generations of the down-and-out. Once, a priest in Highlandtown told Al his parish was so poor they couldn't afford candles. Al shook down every bookmaker in East Baltimore so they could pay their bills.

And, always, he's had a great sense of pushing boundaries. Once, on a distant Election Day, Al walked into his precinct voting area and asked, "What's the story?"

"Nobody's voting," said a precinct worker, glancing up at him.

"Well, if nobody's voting, they oughta let some of us vote twice," he said, glancing down at a printed list of voters. "You got a name available?"

It was just his way of kidding the process. To make certain everybody understood this, he turned to a couple of cops standing nearby.

"These guys don't care, do you?" he said.

"No, go ahead," one of the cops said with a laugh.

In that simple sentence, the officer caught the essence of the whole persona of Al Isella: Sometimes, it is best to wink. Sometimes, life is a laugh and not a thing to be turned into a federal case.

Or, for that matter, dragged into a hospital room. By week's end, Al had his wife there, his daughter, a granddaughter, an old friend.

"Carrot juice," he said. "Ugh."

When he shows up for lunch in Little Italy this week, carrot juice will not be featured on any menu.

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