Mimi's many malapropisms never interfered with the job

September 28, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SOMEWHERE IN God's heaven, where the angels sit in celestial puzzlement over Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro's enduring grammatical miracles, the great man's spirit gazes down and smiles. His friends haven't forgotten him. They'll gather at Mimi's old Claremont Street political club Thursday night to celebrate the upcoming centennial of his birth and raise a few bucks to spruce up his old East Baltimore neighborhood.

Mimi's ghost will love it. After all, Mimi's the guy who once spent lunch with President Jimmy Carter, at Chiapparelli's Restaurant in Little Italy, and told the befuddled leader of the free world, "Mr. President, you gotta do something about them potholes in East Bawlamer."

Potholes, the 5-foot-3 butterball councilman understood. Clean neighborhoods, he understood. It's more than a decade now since Mimi died, at 89, but his devotion to Baltimore, and his fracturing of the English language - too much "flea bargaining" in the courts, "standing evasions" after speeches, "Mister Pope" when he met the pontiff - resonate forever.

Kathi Sibiski sat at Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point the other day and remembered Mimi when he was between linguistic eruptions, "walking up and down Claremont [Street], picking up trash. We want that back, that sense of people caring deeply for their neighborhoods."

Sibiski is director of development for the nonprofit Southeast Community Development Corporation, organizers of Thursday night's party, to be held at Mimi's old club at 3723 Claremont. Already, she said, several hundred tickets have been sold, at $35 a pop, with money going toward the city's Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative and Highlandtown's ongoing rejuvenation.

"He was there for people," Sibiski remembered over a morning cup of coffee.

"Was he ever," said Nick Filipides, owner of Jimmy's, striding through the breakfast bustle. "You called that guy with a problem, it was done. I called him one morning at City Hall, he put me on a three-way hookup with Public Works, and they had a crew out here in two hours. He was into making neighborhoods work, he wasn't into all that international politics stuff."

True enough. It was Mimi, after all, who once emerged from several hours of tense council meetings on the city's investments in apartheid South Africa, and declared, "Them guys is only interested in one thing - South America," thus missing by only a few continents.

It was also Mimi who was interviewed on ABC-TV's Nightline about this city's first great modern renaissance. As it happened, it was the week Mount St. Helens erupted.

"What makes Baltimore such a great city?" Ted Koppel asked Mimi.

"'Cause we ain't got no volcanoes," explained the councilman to a breathless nation.

And it was Mimi who chaired the committee raising money for the statue of Christopher Columbus, on the east side of the Inner Harbor, and was disappointed when blueprints indicated the statue had no fingers.

"Big deal," somebody told Mimi. "What about the famous Venus de Milo statue? She didn't even have arms."

"Don't look at me," said Mimi. "I wasn't on that committee."

Such stories reverberate across the years and become part of a city's folklore. That's why, at this week's gathering, they'll hold a contest for Best Mimi Story. The winner gets $100. Remember those tales?

"Oh, God, yes," said Gene Raynor, who hired DiPietro for the city's Board of Elections after Mimi's 25-year run on the City Council ended. "How about the time at City Hall with the Indians?" Mimi was sitting on his Highways and Franchise Committee, which he tended to call Highways and French Fries. "A guide arrived with a group of visitors from India, asking, `Can we interrupt?' Mimi says, `Sure, it was your country before it was ours.'"

"That was Mimi," said Mary Rodriguez, who was his City Council secretary. "Like, he used to say one of the radio reporters was `a commissar of fine wines.' But you know, when I think of him, it's remembering him on the phone to clean up neighborhoods, or get people jobs."

For all his misguided sense of history (he thought Gov. Millard Tawes was "Mildred" Tawes) and the malapropisms ("Great coffee urinals," he declared of his favorite coffee shop), and his lapses into political incorrectness, many remember Mimi because he paid serious attention to his job.

"I remember one time," said Kathi Sibiski, "when a lady over by Our Lady of Pompeii told Mimi, `My daughter's getting married tomorrow, what are we gonna do?' There was snow piled all over the streets, nobody could get out. Mimi got Public Works, and they cleared it out right away. I said, `How did you do that?' Mimi said, `I told 'em it was a funeral.'"

Mimi's funeral was in 1994. But his spirit, like his linguistic miracles, lives on.

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