In the age of social media, celebrity sightings are instantaneously reported to the world. Thanks to its location in the middle of the Interstate 95 Northeast corridor, Harford County gets its fair share of them.
The latest occurred early on the morning of June 26, when a tour bus pulled into the parking lot of the Waffle House, just off the I-95/Route 24 interchange in Edgewood, and out popped Donnie Wahlberg, a member of the News Kids on the Block band and one of the stars of the television series Blue Bloods.
En route from a concert in Washington, D.C., to another scheduled in New York, Wahlberg and his crew were hungry and promised a good tip to the astonished night crew at the Waffle House. True to his word, Wahlberg left a $500 tip for the three employees on duty. If you've ever worked in a job where most of your income comes from tips, $500, even split three ways, is a big deal, no matter who it comes from.
"I thought, 'Oh wow, he tipped me more than I ever did in a week's pay,'" Waffle House grill operator Nick Funk, of Abingdon, told Aegis staff member Erika Butler.
Wahlberg took a selfie with Funk and server Angi Silenand posted it to his Twitter account, which has some 1.4 million followers. The story was in turn picked up on the People Magazine website, ensuring the three Waffle House employees their personal minutes of worldwide fame.
Harford County celebrity sightings have long made for good stories, thanks mainly to their spontaneity and what the people involved in the encounters have to say afterward – or not say in some instances.
Hip-hop and entertainment mogul Queen Latifah got food from The Olive Tree in Aberdeen and Baldwin's Crab House in Joppatowne on successive nights in May 2015, although ownership and staff at both restaurants wouldn't talk about it for the record. There were, however, plenty of posts about her visits on Twitter and Instagram. Queen Latifah has family ties to Harford County and was a frequent visitor at Baldwin's, the owners acknowledged, while declining to say any more out of respect for her privacy. They obviously wanted her to keep coming back, and who could blame them?
All the stars and other cast members from "House of Cards" have been in and out of the county and seen at many locations on numerous occasions since the Netflix political drama began shooting locally five years ago.
One of the best "House of Cards" stories concerns Kevin Spacey's October 2015 trip to Angel Hill Cemetery in Havre de Grace to shoot an iconic scene for Season 3 that if you've seen it we don't have to tell you about it and if you haven't we won't spoil it for you. According to workers at the cemetery, the mega-international movie star drove up in a somewhat battered Nissan Pathfinder with New Jersey license tags (Spacey's home state), parking it on the back of the cemetery's access road before going to work.
Like Donnie Wahlberg, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame member Aretha Franklin drove off I-95 at Exit 74 in June 2003, only to shop – at the Abingdon Walmart. Employees and shoppers alike were astonished to see the legendary "Queen of Soul" looking for clothes and asking one employee for a soft drink.
Upon leaving the store, Franklin obliged a group of autograph seekers who had gathered outside. Her visit also produced one of the all-time quips from the Walmart employee who said she had seen a few celebrities up close, but none as high profile as Franklin. "I mean, she's big. She's really big."
Alas, the Bridge Diner in Havre de Grace is no more, replaced a few years ago by a Royal Farms. One night in 2000, however, employees and regulars at the diner, on Route 40 near the foot of the Hatem Bridge, saw a limousine drive up and a man get out and come inside, asking if he could use the bathroom.
Soon, in walked music legend, Stevie Wonder, on the arm of his bodyguard. Wonder's stop was brief, to use the bathroom and pick up a carryout meal of chicken dumplings and banana pudding. The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who is blind, also posed for a few photos with the diner's owner and staff, even though he is notoriously shy about such things. The photos were eventually framed and adorned the diner's wall until it closed and the building was demolished.
Many U.S. presidents have come through Harford, both for scheduled visits and unscheduled. In 1958, during what was still the the heyday of Route 40, former President Harry Truman, his wife, Bess, their daughter, Margaret, and her husband, New York Times assistant managing editor Clifton Daniel, stopped at the Howard Johnson's restaurant in Havre de Grace for a what a fellow patron described as "a quiet lunch," while motoring between Washington and New York.
There was no social media back then, of course, but the stopover was duly reported in Harford County's three newspapers, which learned about it from the county's clerk of the Circuit Court, who was sitting in the booth next to the Truman party.
The forms of media may indeed change, but those celebrity sighting stories will always command plenty of attention.