In Baladi's cabbie classroom, the meter was always running

January 24, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

I ARRIVED HOME from an overseas trip this week to learn of the death of my friend, the faithful cabdriver Marc Baladi, who perished in the line of driving duty in the fiery gasoline tanker truck accident on Interstate 95.

For 20 years, he was one of my essential city teachers, a person whose windshield observations about Baltimore were squarely on the mark. He saw the city through eyes that wisely knew that things were not always what they seemed to be.

What I found so appealing was his kindness to his patrons and his happy acceptance of Baltimore, good and bad. He could tell me which Inner Harbor restaurants were favored by the drug kingpins. He knew the city's secrets, its good and its evil, like a voyeur on a merry binge. He freely chatted about his patrons, myself included, in that grand Baltimore style that circulates your business all over town.

His accounts of running the Fells Point and Market Place drunks home over a busy Saturday night and Sunday morning were hilarious. He loved their big tips, too. He was not a prude, though he was a man of fastidious courtesy and Old World manners. He had ideas about the coarseness of this town; he could also praise its gentility.

Marc had a positively photographic memory. He would routinely summon up the details of a fare 23 years ago as if it were yesterday. He also had striking powers of observation. He could read a fare's inner personality.

If I had guests along on a ride, he would later lecture me on their pluses and minuses. On one December evening, when he chauffeured me home from a Christmas party, he told me the event did not attract the kind of guest list I normally court. I bit my tongue and paid the fare. He was right.

The man never stopped working. So many times I'd spot him - or he'd spot me - as his pink and red cab, No. 68, made its rounds, again and again. He was not, however, the world's safest driver. I forgave him and more than once told him to stop yakking and keep his eyes on the road. When he got really worked up over politics, his passion, he would occasionally drive the wrong way down a street.

Here he was, a cabdriver with a degree from Swarthmore College, who once taught French at the Key School in Annapolis, who read four good newspapers daily and preferred stops at the Patisserie Poupon by the Shot Tower for Three Kings Cake or the Trinacria food market above Lexington Market, where he bought his weekly imported wine and Italian goat cheese.

We often chatted and had occasional disputes. He was outraged this past fall when he left his cab parked at BWI to assist his passengers with baggage. When he went back to his idling car, he'd been given a ticket by a vigilant young police officer on the lookout for unattended vehicles left in a high security zone. Marc took offense; helping his fares with their luggage was more important than security rules. He then lapsed into righteous indignation when I mentioned that, after all, he was in the wrong. You don't cross airport security officers during a terrorism alert. He could not see my point.

My last encounter with Marc was on the night of Jan. 8. He picked me up at work and offered a rare, free ride. I reciprocated with some Merlot and bleu cheese. But with Marc there was often a slight edge. Where, he asked in a schoolmaster's tone, were the crackers that must, of course, accompany good cheese?

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