Baltimore's best

April 27, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Milton, thou should'st be living at this hour, Baltimore hath need of thee. - After William Wordsworth's "London, 1802"

If a city can love, surely this one loved Milton Bates.

Broadly speaking, he was a Baltimore archetype, the tin man, a practitioner of the home improvement arts. "Winder man to the world," someone called him. In a business not always known for its fair dealing, he was a paragon.

He loved the story of Willie Blank, who would close the deal, turn to his customer and say, "By the way, some of our customers like to have glass in their windows. How do you feel?"

He was the essence of Baltimore's colorful characters - and character.

He loved the city's special, idiosyncratic language. He loved to remind us it was Alee-she-anna Street, not Alice-anna.

To his very soul, he was a writer and storyteller - a commentator with a stake in his subject: the welfare of his city and nation. He was writing and thinking about writing - from the left side of the political spectrum - until the end of his life, which came last weekend.

His wit and wisdom, his puckish humor will survive him. Should memory fail, there is the e-mail record. As newfangled as it could have been for an octogenarian, e-mail might have been invented for him. He loved to stay in touch.

Dec. 12, 2003: "Bawlmer, being the village that it is, when driving home I turned on the noon Steiner show and heard two voices known to me ... that sort of thing happens all the time in this big little town. If I have any claim to fame it's living here all my life (except almost four years in the Good War). I'm a lucky man - Milton."

Feb. 19, 2004: In response to news that National Public Radio had inherited millions from the widow of a burger magnate. He wrote to this toiler at the local NPR affiliate:

"O frabjousday/Caloo/Callay!!

Two hundred mill has come your way

That so, it makes no sense to say

(Should lunch ensue) that you can't pay."

Nov. 28, 2004: Just after the diagnosis of his illness. "Hope the holiday went well for you. I am trying to untie a few tangled shoelaces of life right about now. Still many bright spots. Best, Milton."

April 12, 2005: "See you Friday noonish at Eichenkranz [an East Baltimore restaurant]. Looking forward and feeling good ... what's left of me. Did I hear someone mutter `no one's to the left of you?'"

April 28, 2005: Responding to a newspaper article, headlined "The Year of Vinnie," about his friend, lobbyist Vincent DeMarco: "I wasn't offended but did you ever consider, in small type, `The Minute of Milton.' Guess not. Best, Milton (who continues to do quite well)."

July 26, 2005: "Your mission: Show for breakfast on Wednesday, August 3, 8:15 a.m. Place: Blue Moon, south side of Alee-she-anna Street. Bring wallet, appetite for both food and conversation. Exaggerations encouraged; lies tolerated. I'll bring the gavel. Check out the hobo omelet and buttermilk biscuits. (Signed): The Chairman."

Aug. 25, 2005: "Yesterday I hit the big 84 (Hooray) and enjoyed a brilliant, beautiful birthday. Who is speaking? Baby Bates. Check out my birth certificate at the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Of course how a Member of the Tribe got the name Bates is another thing. (Enroll in my Remedial Yiddish 101 with illustrious others. Spots are limited). M."

March 5: In a note of approval about someone else's writing: "A three-base hit, maybe the game's most exciting play. I recall that ages ago, either Gwinn Owens or Mike Bowler [former Sun editors] labeled a piece of mine, `Triples and other Summer Wonders.' Always liked that. M."

And on March 22: "Sorry about long silence. I've had a bumpy patch but am getting beyond it. Details unimportant. We won't set a time yet for a get-together but that will happen. Keep in touch. M."

Bumpy, we can handle. And as long as there is memory, there will be no silence.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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