An hour and a half before Sunday's Ravens game, Jimmy Scaletta took his usual seat near M&T Bank Stadium — in the middle of the eastbound lane of the Hamburg Street bridge. On game days, it becomes a pedestrian bridge, and Scaletta sits with his cup and cardboard sign facing the incoming fans, hoping for handouts.
He's been doing this for years, before and after Ravens games. He doesn't walk around and ask for money. He sits quietly with the handmade sign. Sunday the sign read, "Homeless People Help Happy Holiday."
Scaletta wore a black watch cap under a white hoodie and a gray T-shirt over the hoodie. He sat on a sheet of blue plastic.
I sat on the curb next to him. I told Scaletta he reminded me of the late actor Dennis Hopper, with a goatee.
"People tell me I look like Bob Saget," he said, referring to the comedian who appeared in family-friendly television shows.
I didn't see Saget at all. I saw Hopper, and maybe all his name evokes — rebellion, the darker side of human nature. I saw Shooter in "Hoosiers," though decidedly less troubled and more clear-eyed.
Just then, a Ravens fan tossed Scaletta an opened pack of Marlboro menthols and kept walking. Scaletta caught the cigarettes, yelled thanks over his shoulder, held them up and said: "This is my only vice."
A few minutes later, a bottle of white wine appeared between me and Scaletta.
It was a clear glass bottle, its contents half gone. The hand holding the bottle was small.
Scaletta and I looked up. A young woman in a purple Ravens jersey had stopped on her way to the game from a tailgate party to offer the wine.
"I don't know if this is right," she said, "but I can't drink all this. Do you want it?"
"No, thanks," Scaletta said immediately and softly. "I don't drink. Thanks anyway."
I asked Scaletta where he camps, and he said under a bridge.
I asked why he didn't spend his nights in one of Baltimore's shelters, and he shook his head and said: "Too many drug addicts, alcoholics and thieves."
I asked why he was homeless and he said the explanation would take two hours. I settled for pieces of the story. Scaletta said he was 46 years old, a native of Montgomery County, a Marine veteran who worked as a finance manager for a number of car dealerships after his military service. He said he had been depressed for many years until he found the right medication. He said he had been in a long, drawn-out dispute with the Marine Corps over wages he had earned. He said that, until the dispute is settled, he trusts no government agency, from the Veterans Administration to the local agencies that provide services to the homeless.
I asked if that meant he did not go to shelters even in winter.
"I'm a soldier, man," he said pridefully. "I'm not doing anything until they pay me what they owe me."
Just then, a boy headed to the game dropped in Scaletta's lap a clear plastic freezer bag filled with toiletries — toothpaste, deodorant, a hairbrush, soap and a pair of new socks. The boy walked on, and Scaletta yelled his thanks.
A young man in an autographed Ray Lewis jersey handed him a $20 bill. Scaletta thanked him, then turned to me and said, "It's Christmas."
We make assumptions about the men and women who panhandle on the streets of Baltimore. We think they're drunks or drug addicts, or scammers who would rather ask for change than take minimum-wage jobs. The more sympathetic of us assume that panhandlers are mentally ill or maybe physically disabled; surely something must be deeply wrong, or else they would not beg in our streets.
Drew Haugh, a Ravens season-ticket holder, has been saying hello to Jimmy and giving him a few bucks at each home game for at least eight years. He makes no judgments about the man and never asks questions. His kindness, like those of others on the bridge, is unconditional.
"It has been a strictly Ravens-day encounter, then I don't see Jimmy for a year," Haugh said. "But he is resilient in his ways. He seems to show up in the same spot every season. I find myself thinking about the guy and wondering what he does, where he goes."
A teacher and wrestling coach at Boys' Latin School, Haugh recently heard a Catholic priest speak of "giving Christmas away." He thought of Scaletta.
So on Sunday, Haugh put on a Santa cap and he carried a trash bag full of wrapped gifts — clothes and shoes — up the Hamburg Street bridge to the place where he always finds Scaletta. He handed him the bag and sat with him as Scaletta opened his presents and had his Christmas morning on gameday afternoon.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.