In Orlinsky, city has lost a true piece of its charm

February 11, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

I ALWAYS asked Wally Orlinsky for a piece of his mind. It was the best thing he had to offer -- smart, informed, outside-the-box thoughts on anything from heroin addiction in Baltimore to the crisis in the Middle East. He was sole inhabitant of a think tank called Wally World.

Even as a defrocked public official, he had a keen and fresh grasp of local and national politics and fascinating opinions about everything -- mass transit, municipal water supplies, the news media, police corruption, trees, the Internet, rap music, Japanese art, the Orioles, the Palestinians. He even knew all the words to "That's Amore."

He would have frowned at -- but found predictable -- the line in his obituary yesterday that characterized his idea of an overhead monorail for downtown Baltimore as "downright silly." Wally floated that one while serving as City Council president. He envisioned "airbuses" running on tracks suspended above the streets. He believed they could carry as many as 18,000 passengers a day and travel at speeds of 50 to 75 mph.

Twenty-five years after his big idea was dismissed as flaky, he was amused to hear the mayor of Baltimore suggest an overhead monorail as a way to efficiently move people from Camden Yards to Fells Point. It hasn't happened, of course, but who can say it never will?

Wally was always thinking that way -- thinking big and thinking better. And with irony about himself. And always with humor. (None who knew the man will be surprised to learn that, in his final days, when asked what musician he'd like at his funeral, Wally said, "How about Billy Joel?")

Of course, there was nothing funny about the bribe he took in 1982. It was the most foolish thing he ever did -- a couple thousand bucks in an envelope under a table in Little Italy. He left a million people scratching their heads over that one. I never believed Wally was trying to get rich. His reach for that envelope was more like political hari-kari -- a frustrated and depressed man's bizarre way of getting out of public life after he realized he'd hit a wall.

He never seemed to be able to find his groove after politics, though he wrote a sardonic and entertaining column in the City Paper for a while and had some happy days running a government project to plant trees. He was particularly proud of how Tree-Mendous Maryland stirred city residents to improve the Herring Run watershed, a swatch of woods and creek that meanders through Northeast Baltimore.

It was a shame his tree-planting gig did not last.

But even as he stood in Oriole Park, selling programs and slicing lemons, he mixed weary lamentations about his underemployment with humor, sarcasm and trenchant insights about the city, the state, the nation, the world.

You always got at least one brilliant thought while visiting Wally World.

Even after the cancer diagnosis.

He had some terrible slumps, but he always seemed to keep a positive attitude.

"I am on the mend," he said in November. "The cancer is a non- issue. I seem to have won that battle for now. My problems are from the effects of the treatments on my system. Slowly I am making progress. I look fine so folks would not know I am having any problems at all."

I mentioned I was involved in a kids' hockey tournament at Mount Pleasant Ice Arena over Thanksgiving weekend. Wally volunteered to supervise a penalty box for a couple of games and, though it was a frigid assignment, he laughed and enjoyed the experience.

"It was really wonderful to see kids being kids and having fun," he said afterward. "In a world where all you see is ... most of the time, it helped restore my faith in the future."

Let me say it: Wally Orlinsky was a Baltimore treasure, perhaps our most unappreciated one, and I guess that sad truth made him qualified to be a contributor to a list I have been compiling for a few months.

It's a list of places in Maryland people should visit before it's too late -- for them or for the places.

When Haussner's closed a few years ago, a lot of people groaned that they had let too many years pass without a visit to that venerable Highlandtown establishment. Wally was pained by the failure of the City Life Museums, too, and he saw it as a symbol of a disconnect, caused by the geographical and generational divide between the city and the suburbs, the old and the young. He loved Baltimore and wanted even those who didn't live within its borders to love it, too. He became terribly blue at the idea that people in the sprawling counties didn't know the Baltimore of intimate neighborhoods, of small shops, of corner bars, of easy cups of coffee between friends in a familiar diner.

So, what we needed was a list of taken-for-granted places that newcomers or old-timers should get to if they haven't been there in a long while, or ever.

In December, during lunch in one of those places -- Samos, the Greek cafe on Oldham Street -- I asked Wally for his list, and he came up with a bunch of places, including Ikaros Restaurant and the little Greek taverna on Eastern Avenue.

Later, he mentioned Attman's Deli on Lombard Street. He mentioned Stefan, the opinionated, opera-loving shoe repairman on Roland Avenue. He threw in the Sip & Bite, and Jimmy's in Fells Point. He recommended a stop at Fields Old Trail ("Both the green grocer and the bar") in Govans.

"And don't forget to get to the Cat's Eye Pub," Wally wrote in his last e-mail to me, signing off, "That's all for now."

I'm sorry I didn't pin him down for more of his list when I had the chance. I could have done it with one more trip to Wally World. But that's the way it is with good places and good men -- you've got to get to them before they're gone.

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