Waving toward some low-slung nondescript buildings where tractor-trailers were maneuvering on and off a narrow street, he said something like, "And that's owned by one of the most powerful men in town. People call it the Hard and Stale Bakery."
It was the first I heard of H&S Bakery and its owner, John Paterakis.
Some 20 years later, I'm not sure I know a great deal more about him. His name is certainly familiar to many, as a bigtime political contributor and developer of the Harbor East neighborhood, but mostly he exists in the kind of shadowy, backroom world of people who get the big stuff done away from the prying eyes of the rest of us.
But last week, he was thrust into the spotlight when he was indicted by the state prosecutor as part of a City Hall investigation. Paterakis was charged along with City Councilwoman Helen Holton for campaign finance violations - the prosecutor alleges he contributed $6,000 toward a poll she had commissioned while running for re-election. That exceeds allowable limits and allegedly didn't go through proper campaign channels.
The indictment wasn't a complete surprise because his name had emerged as a possible target in June. His sometimes-partner in Harbor East projects, Ronald Lipscomb, was indicted for bribery in connection with that same poll but made the charge go away by pleading guilty to a lesser one and agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors.
And yet it was still surreal to see in black and white, in the standard charging papers that apparently are given to everyone criminally indicted, "State of Maryland vs. John Paterakis, White/Male D.O.B. 3/3/1939."
It remains to be seen how the charges against Paterakis will be resolved, but last week's round of indictments - Mayor Sheila Dixon was also indicted, for perjury and theft in connection with gifts she received from Lipscomb - give a badly needed jump-start to a case that was starting to look like a shadow of its formal self.
State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh had been through a rough patch: Since he indicted Dixon, Holton and Lipscomb in January, defense lawyers had been steadily chipping away at his case.
In May, a judge dismissed the charges against Holton, as well as five of the 12 counts against Dixon, ruling that Rohrbaugh had erred by using the city officials' votes and other acts of office as evidence of wrongdoing when they're protected by the long-standing precedent of legislative immunity. Then last month, Rohrbaugh lost another skirmish, when Dixon succeeded in getting subpoenas he had issued for three current and former City Hall employees withdrawn.
For a while, it looked as if Lipscomb's was the only indictment that would go to trial fully intact - one count of bribery, for paying for Holton's political poll. Talk about a letdown, particularly when you consider that Rohrbaugh had started out investigating a much broader pattern of questionable spending at City Hall.
And then, when even Lipscomb's trial ended before it began, thanks to a plea deal, you had to wonder what, if anything, Rohrbaugh's three years of investigations would ultimately produce.
But the plea agreement could well prove to be a turning point.
Lipscomb's cooperation with the prosecutor's office helped Rohrbaugh achieve something like a do-over - having lost much of what seemed to be a flawed set of indictments, the prosecutor was able bring new charges against the mayor, Holton and now Paterakis.
And for another, the addition of Paterakis broadens the case and draws more attention to it. Not that Lipscomb is such a bit player - his Doracon Contracting has a slice of many of the major development projects in town - but Paterakis is on another level entirely.
People tend to listen when "the bread man," as Paterakis is known, for both the dough that rises at H&S and in the coffers of any number of local politicians, is involved. His was one of the names, after all, that the former powerhouse state senator, Thomas Bromwell, was caught dropping some years back, bragging about his high-level connections to someone he thought was a Georgia financier. Rather, he was an FBI agent wearing a wire.
What Paterakis faces is considerably more minor: two counts of campaign finance violations. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which, if he pleads or is found guilty, he won't get a punishment similar to that of Lipscomb, with whom prosecutors say he split the cost of Holton's poll. As part of the plea, Lipscomb was fined $25,000.
Compared with the deals both men are accustomed to making, maybe that's pocket change.
Still, the indictments are eye-opening.
There's the blatant way that Holton, the on-again, off-again - depending on whether she's indicted or unindicted - chairwoman of the council's powerful taxation committee, simply asked the two developers who had business before her to pay for a political poll.
And, of course, there's the image of Dixon, then the council president and thus in a position to steer tax breaks to development projects, asking her then-paramour Lipscomb for spending money during an out-of-town trip, and then again when her AmEx bill came due. Not to mention her holiday wish lists, delivered in December not to Santa but Lipscomb and, one year, developer Pat Turner - for piles of gift cards.
It's not a pretty picture of city officials or, apparently, the cost of doing business in Baltimore.