The crunch silences an Arbutus soap box

December 05, 2008|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,

When Variety Auto Brokers closed its doors last month, one guy lost his business of 30 years. Five employees lost their jobs. And all of Southwest Baltimore lost a beacon of both political discourse and check-bouncing shame.

The Caton Avenue used-car lot had a big light-up sign that owner Mark Richards turned into a soapbox to comment on world events ("Let 'em have it, George," as the war in Iraq was launched) and local politics ("Dixon and O'Malley - Bonnie and Clyde.")

The sign also served as a modern-day scarlet letter for writers of rubber checks.

"It would say, 'Introducing the bad check club' and it would list customers' names that had bad checks with the store," Richards said. "It was effective. They'd want to rectify it."

The sign, which Richards put up about five years ago, was one of Greater Arbutus' more notable landmarks. A Salisbury University student once told Richards that when he visited his parents in Violetville, he always got off the highway at Caton Avenue instead of Wilkens because he wanted to see what was up on the sign.

"I come through to see what's going on," the kid told Richards.

Richards said his employees - he had eight as recently as four years ago - would beg him to wipe out the political messages when he went on vacation. Otherwise, they'd have to take the calls from irate motorists who dialed the number out front. When he was in, Richards would gladly get on the horn with them.

"We'd always tell them, 'Come in for a debate,' " he said. "Of course, they'd never come in because the liberals can't debate."

Today, no one's calling Variety for debates or cars or anything else. The economy in general and the credit meltdown in particular did the place in.

"We lost all our funding for midscore credit tier people," he said. "We lost all those banks. We probably had, a year ago, 13 to 15 banks we had access to to get a customer a loan. When we closed the door the week before Thanksgiving, we were down to two."

He sold off all the cars and plans to retire in Florida. And the sign?

"I have that in a barn at my farm," he said. "Do you want to buy it?"

Give and take in the blogosphere

Fox newswoman Greta Van Susteren didn't like what The Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik wrote about her recently on his blog, Z on TV. So instead of just stewing about it, she fired back on a blog of her own.

"I am supposed to take his silly whacks? I don't think so," she wrote on GretaWire. "I don't take his criticism personally - frankly I am on TV, he isn't. You know ... those who can, do ... those who can't, are TV critics."

Was it more fun being a TV reviewer before reviewees got their own blogs?

"Call me strange, but I actually enjoy the give and take of doing criticism on the blogosphere - even with people like Greta Van Susteren," Zurawik said.

Yikes! I'm staying out of this one.

History, civic awareness in a cartoon map

Baltimore cartoonist Tom Chalkley teaches his art at Hopkins, has made The New Yorker twice and early this year had one of his political caricatures featured in a Super Bowl ad for Coke. Now he's achieved something else: creating a poster-sized cartoon map of the city.

"This is a work of personal OCD but, I hope, a popular item with Balto-philes this holiday season, and something parents can use to teach kids history and civic awareness," he writes in an e-mail.

"This is a big 2-foot by 3-foot, full-color poster featuring caricatures of about 150 famous, infamous, and oughta-be famous Baltimoreans - from Charles Carroll and Frederick Douglass to Sisqo and Michael Phelps, from H.L. Mencken to Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisterhood, Wild Bill Hagy to Big Jim Staton. Deciding whom to include has been an interesting and slightly agonizing process. ... The city itself is caricatured - about 30 landmarks and a grossly compressed street grid."

He'll be autographing and selling them from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow at Hometown Girl in Hampden.

"It could get some interesting discussions and arguments started," he wrote. "I already hear choruses of, 'You left so-and-so out.' I left out several of my own favorites, too."

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