A new take -- gasp! -- on window dressing


Little Sophia Thompson, toddling down Charles Street in a fluffy pink parka, stopped short at the window of Klein's Antiques yesterday and brightly blurted: "What's that?"

"That's a dead rat," Janice Ryder told the 2-year-old, then gasped a little as she began to absorb the display's full bounty: "Ohmigosh - that's lots of dead rats."

This time of year, when most shop owners festoon their windows with greenery, velvet bows and twinkly lights, Federal Hill proprietor Yale Klein has taken a sharp left onto the road less traveled by choosing petrified rats.

"I wanted something to dress up the window," Klein says matter-of-factly. "And it's just that I had these rats."

He arranged the half-dozen dried and leathery-looking specimens in the shop's front window, purposely posing them among kitchenware - rolling pins, bowls and enamel pots and pans that belonged to his grandmother.

Klein considers the rats, like the shop itself at 912 S. Charles St., Baltimore relics. Found at the building his immigrant grandfather bought and moved the family into nearly a century ago, the rodents are gritty, authentic, Klein family history - a piece of Americana with a tail.

He's saved the rats since unearthing them years ago while razing an outhouse that used to grace the back of the store. Until two weeks ago, unbeknownst to most, they occupied a bucket on the shop's private third floor.

But then, Klein said, "I thought it was time for their debut."

South Baltimore has embraced the rats - albeit not as tightly as Klein. Though the local business association is less than thrilled, and some other merchants are annoyed, window-shoppers consider them with equal parts revulsion and admiration.

`Pretty cool'

A few folks have even offered to buy them.

"It's pretty cool," says William Hodges, business manager for the Frenchman White Corp. across the street, noticing that one of the bonier carcasses bears an uncanny resemblance to museum-quality dinosaur remains. "I've got a camera and I'll be over here later shooting this."

Though one might expect the owner of a shop called Life Smells Good to have issues with a rat still life, Theresa Cangialosi takes Klein's artistry in stride.

She was so interested in a white chest at Klein's store that she almost missed the rats until he proudly pointed them out.

"He never got back to me on the price of the chest," she says. "All he wanted to talk about was the rats."

Less amused with Klein are the folks behind Federal Hill Main Street. The advocates for area small businesses boast on their Web site about the neighborhood's "inviting atmosphere, created through attractive window displays."

"Oh my god!" Bonnie Crockett, the group's executive director, all-but-screeched upon hearing about the rats. "That's so insane! Why would anybody do that? I'm absolutely horrified."

Even with her limited policing abilities, Crockett vowed she'd do "everything she possibly could do" to discourage Klein's decorating sense.

At Shofer's Furniture next door, accessory buyer Rob Stack, who's partly responsible for his store's impeccable and occasionally award-winning window displays, declared the rats simply "inappropriate."

Though the rats might have flustered neighborhood aestheticians, Baltimore authorities remain blasM-i.

"Rat eradication is the Health Department," Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher declared yesterday. "I would suspect that decorating the windows with dead rats would also be their concern."

Not so much.

Acting Health Commissioner Francine Childs, giggling a bit, said, "It may not be the most attractive thing in the world but ... "

No health threat

Basically, she explained, as long as the rats no longer contain bodily fluids - which Klein's menagerie most certainly do not - they probably can't spread disease. Hence, Childs said, the display is probably not a health hazard.

There's nothing in the code, she added, against grossing people out.


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