The guy asked me if any famous people lived in Baltimore, and I told him of course they did.
Baltimore, I reminded him, was where the first refrigerator was invented in 1803, the first Ouija board in 1892 and the first revolving restaurant in 1964.
When you are on the cutting edge, I said, the celebrities beat a path to your door.
And then I named some literary and political figures who call Baltimore home.
The guy nodded at some and gave me blank stares at others. And it occurred to me that I had forgotten to name Baltimore's most famous resident.
Willie Horton, I told the guy. He lives here.
"You're kidding," he said. "Isn't he supposed to be in prison or something?"
He certainly is supposed to be in prison, I said, and that is where he is -- at the Maryland Penitentiary in the heart of Baltimore.
Other states put their prisons far out in the countryside, where, if the prisoners escape, all they can attack is cows and chickens.
But Maryland has its big prison just a couple of blocks from The Sun. "That's so if the prisoners take you guys hostage, they know we won't offer anything," a state official once explained to me.
Horton is there serving as a cook (Would you want a meal cooked by Willie Horton? Or would you rather just order out?) and fielding media requests.
One of his most recent media requests came from John Korpics, 27, the art director of Regardie's magazine in Washington, who wanted to take Horton's picture.
Korpics called me to ask how to arrange it.
Just call him, I said.
"You can get him on the phone?" Korpics said.
Oh sure, I said. People have the wrong idea about modern-day prisons. True, they are very unpleasant places, but there have been so many lawsuits over the years that prisoners have considerable access to the outside. It is hard to deny a prisoner anything except maybe a cake with a file in it.
So if Willie Horton wants his picture taken in prison, the state of Maryland is not going to stand in his way.
If, by the way, you have been on submarine duty for the last couple of years and don't know who Willie Horton is, he was the man who made George Bush famous.
On Oct. 26, 1974, Willie Horton and two accomplices murdered a 17-year-old gas station attendant in Massachusetts, stabbing him 19 times and stuffing him into a trash barrel. Horton was convicted of armed robbery and first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But Massachusetts law allowed weekend furloughs for such men, and 10 times Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, gave Willie Horton a furlough. (Dukakis didn't do it personally, of course, but if governors want to take credit for things like highways and bridges, they have to take responsibility for things like furloughs.)
Nine times, Horton returned to prison. But on June 7, 1986, on furlough in Lawrence, Mass., Horton went to a movie, to a church, to a few stores, and then took off. For Maryland.
Most people know what happened next. The best account of what took place was written by Sun reporter Susan Baer, whose interview with Horton's two victims is one of the most chilling things I have ever read.
I'll give you the short version: Horton broke into a home in Oxon Hill, raped and tortured a woman, stabbed and tortured a man, fled, had a shootout with police, was caught and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years in prison.
Prince George's County Circuit Judge Vincent Femia said to Horton upon sentencing: "You should never breathe a breath of fresh air again. You should be locked up until you die."
And yet to many, Willie Horton is an object of sympathy today. That is because his case was used by George Bush to sink the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. And Horton's race (he is black) became the not-too-subtle subtext of the media campaign launched by Bush and his supporters.
Murray Fishel, a political science professor at Kent State University, commented: "Who was the Willie Horton ad made for? It was made for the 68-year-old lifelong Democrat in Parma, Ohio, who saw it and said: 'If I vote for Mike Dukakis, Willie Horton will be my next-door neighbor.' "
And so Horton became famous. And still is. And people call all the time asking to take his picture or write about him. Like John Korpics of Regardie's. "I'm used to calling senators, congressmen, big businessmen, but Horton was definitely different," Korpics said.
How did he sound to you? I asked.
"Like a stone-cold killer," Korpics replied.
Before Horton would cooperate with Korpics on the picture, he wanted to see some samples of the magazine and Korpics' past work.
This is not common. Maybe two times in my career has anyone asked to see samples of my work. And none of them were killer/rapists.
But Korpics went along and sent Horton back issues of the magazine. Then he called Horton again.
"And Horton had just one little request before he would allow his picture to be taken," Korpics said. "He said his lawyer would have to write the article and explain how Horton was really innocent. I told him this was impossible."
(It was impossible because, among other things, the piece was already written. I wrote it. It is a chapter from my new book. Have I mentioned I have written a new book? I mean, have I mentioned it today?)
Korpics explained to Horton how he had arranged for a nationally famous photographer who specializes in prison pictures to take the photo. And you would think most felons would be flattered by this attention. But not Horton.
"If my lawyer can't write it," Horton said, "I can't help you."
So Korpics gave up and used Horton's mug shot, which makes him look evil and menacing and, well, pretty much like he really is.
"I've arranged to shoot a lot of photos in jail," Korpics said, "and the prisoners almost always say yes. They've got nothing better to do. But it became apparent to me that Horton has his own agenda. He wants sympathy and he is trying to control his public image. Willie Horton has discovered spin control."
Spin control was something that only politicians used to use. Now, the criminals have learned it, too.
That's progress for you.