LOU KARPOUZIE holds things together. There he was, Friday night at the Local 2609 Steelworkers Hall on Dundalk Avenue, 75 years old now but still spry as a scatback, greeting about 300 old East Baltimore guys piling into the place, some of whom still remember 18-year-old Lou taking a reverse handoff and bolting 18 legendary yards to help Patterson High upset City College 57 autumns ago, and all of whom remember this part of the city when it was the center of their universe.
Karpouzie keeps their memories fresh. For the past 12 years, he's been bringing back the past at his annual east-side reunions. For about the past 15 years, he's been throwing free Thanksgiving dinners for hundreds of people in East Baltimore. And he and some buddies built three athletic fields near Patterson High to help give kids a ballgame instead of an excuse to get into trouble.
Friday night at the Steelworkers Hall, guys arrived who grew up in the rowhouses around Highlandtown and Canton and Fells Point, who went to Patterson High or the neighborhood parochial schools, and played ball down in Patterson Park and went to the movies and the bowling alleys on Eastern Avenue and tried to keep their composure around all the pretty girls strolling outside.
Karpouzie keeps bringing them back: to a place, to a time - and a state of mind.
"The greatest time," Gus Hansen was saying at the Steelworkers Hall. Hansen's a tile man who still lives a few blocks from Patterson Park, and he was standing there when Nick Filipides poked his head out of the kitchen Friday night. Nick owns Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point, and he catered the reunion.
"What's the feedback?" he asked Gus Hansen. "They like the food?"
"They love it," said Hansen, and he moved to plant a playful kiss on Filipides' cheek.
"Not till I know you better," said Nick, backing off. The number of years these two have been friends is only computed in decades.
That's the way it is at these Lou Karpouzie reunions. At the packed Steelworkers Hall, at tables brimming with food and drink, guys still remembered sandlot ballgames of half a century ago, and math lessons where they should have paid closer attention, and teachers they had who disappeared suddenly.
"Remember Mr. Hasselbach?" a guy mentioned through the din.
The name stopped everybody for a moment. Richard Hasselbach was a teacher at Patterson when World War II broke out. In the modern context, the traumas of war are remembered afresh. Hasselbach went to Fort McClellan, Ala., and then shipped out for Europe in the spring of '44. Nobody heard his name again - until the D-Day invasion, where he was hit at Normandy.
The past doesn't go away; it only comes back in a different form. In war, only the weaponry changes. In neighborhoods, only the faces and some of the problems. In Lou Karpouzie's youth, East Baltimore was a collection of ethnic pockets with roots in Eastern Europe. The memories come back like a security blanket draped around the shoulders.
But Karpouzie lives firmly in the present tense, as well. In East Baltimore, there are serious rehabilitation efforts on streets that had fallen into disrepair. The nonprofit Patterson Park Community Development Corp. has been buying and rehabbing houses around the park. The Eastern Avenue commercial strip is showing signs of perking up.
And Karpouzie's the ever-present. Next week, he'll hold his annual Thanksgiving dinner, mainly for those not likely to have a bountiful table of their own. This year's is set for Nov. 22 at Bohager's, 701 S. Eden St.
"It's the true spirit of Baltimore as a melting pot for all people, regardless of race, religious beliefs or financial status," Karpouzie was saying Friday night. "The spirit of freedom and community is alive and well in the city of Baltimore. That's all there is to it."
The only caveat: Dinner's limited to the first 1,000 people.
Friday night at Steelworkers Hall, they honored some of the old neighborhood athletes: Joe Miller, who starred on some of the old Red Shield Salvation Army boys clubs in the '70s; Chris Serdenes, who played ball and wrestled at Patterson High in the '70s; Louis Schroeder, who played there in the 1940s; and Troy Stevenson, now coaching at the school.
Some of the older honorees brought their sons with them. The sons were visibly awed. They've grown up out in the suburbs. They've moved around. They hadn't quite conceived of a place like old East Baltimore, where people settled in for decades at a time, when many imagined they'd never move.
A lot of them did. But, every year at this time, Lou Karpouzie brings them back.
"I just get a good feeling when I see people enjoy themselves," he said Friday.
And then he was off, mingling with old pals, remembering ballgames out of the past - and helping to hold things together in East Baltimore's here-and-now.
Those wishing to donate to the Thanksgiving dinner can call Shelly Baker at 410-258-8049 or Lisa Sommer at 410-563-7220.