GOP candidate's voice lost in din at Fells Point


On Thames Street, where you couldn't move from point A to point B without blockers in front of you at the Fells Point Festival, the old guy pointed east toward Boston Street and said he'd lived there for 45 years.

"Of course," he said, "the neighborhood's changing now."

"Changing?" somebody asked.

"Yeah," the old guy said thoughtfully. "The young people are coming here now, and they're all moving into these new condoms."

"Condominiums," a woman said softly. "You mean condominiums, don't you?"

"Yeah," somebody else said, "condominiums, too."

The old man drifted slowly west toward Broadway. At Baltimore's biggest street festival, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Parents pushed strollers over bumpy cobblestones. A blind man selling pencils bumped into a table covered with jewelry and was helped away, and immediately bumped into another table. A fellow whose teeth ran out halfway across his smile passed a beer to another guy who could have been arrested for disorderly hair.

"Come meet Bill Shepard," a political type cried at random. "He's running for governor."

The words seemed lost in the happy crush of people. On a glorious, Kodachrome weekend, in Baltimore's most idiosyncratic neighborhood, the city was celebrating itself in the last calm before summer vanishes altogether.

On Broadway, a young woman approached the filmmaker John Waters and told him how much she missed his scratch 'n' sniff movies. Waters thanked her graciously and then modestly allowed how he might be the only one in town with a home video collection of Mr. Ray's greatest hair weave commercials.

"Bill Shepard," came another voice now. "Come meet the Republican candidate for governor."

"I'm drinkin' a bleepin' beer," came the gruff response of a guy whose neck seemed to start at the top of his head.

On Thames Street, a guy handed whiskey to a friend and told him the price.

"That's 25 cents more than it used to be," the friend complained.

"Cost of alcohol's gone up," explained the first guy.

"Why should that affect me?" the friend inquired. He had white hair with faded yellow edges, as though it had once been singed by fire.

"It's only gone up 25 cents in 12 years," the first guy said.

"Well, 25 cents in 12 years is too much," the friend declared forthrightly, and might have marched right off to complain, if there was any place on Thames Street where you could march.

"Bill Shepard," came a familiar, insistent voice now. "Come meet the Republican candidate for governor."

On Ann Street at Thames, there was a little clearing where the Maryland Jaycees had set up a basketball net that happened, by coincidence, to sit next to a voter registration booth.

And there, as advertised, was Shepard, the Republican challenger to William Donald Schaefer. He was standing at a free throw line in a blazer and Polo dress shirt and necktie, and he had a basketball in his hand.

"Yay," a couple of his supporters yelled. "Sink it, Bill."

Shepard shot and missed. The world moved all about him, oblivious to his basketball aim and his campaign. He shot again, necktie flapping in the breeze, and this time he hit.

"Yay," an aide cheered wildly, as though trying to start a wave of congratulatory voices. But the rest of the world took no notice.

Shepard and his wife, Lois, who is also his running mate, find themselves in a ludicrous position and have to pretend they don't. They're up against the champion vote-getter of Maryland politics. They've got no money, and Schaefer's campaign is wealthy beyond counting. Here they were surrounded by tens of thousands of people, all of whom were paying them absolutely no attention.

"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people," said Bill Shepard.

"Anybody got a score on the Maryland game?" said a man standing behind him.

"Surprise?" Shepard was asked.

"Yes," he said, "there's a lot of disaffection across the land."

"A lot of disaffection," agreed Lois Shepard.

The two of them wore dark glasses, so it was impossible to see their eyes. Don't they have handlers who've told them voters like to look a politician in the eye?

"Come meet Bill Shepard," a campaign worker cried now.

Nobody came near the Republican candidate. You heard him mention various words -- surplus, deficit, teachers, competence -- but they seemed a sort of verbal reflexiveness, someone going through the motions of a politician out in public.

The Shepards have taken their share of lumps in this campaign. There have been the obvious jokes -- bedfellows make strange politics -- and the obvious humiliations: How do you take seriously any candidates almost nobody knew before the campaign started, who took the jobs only because almost nobody else seemed to want them?

And now, here was the embarrassment in the flesh: untold thousands of potential voters all around them, and nobody paying attention to them.

What's more, all these people did know Schaefer. Knew him over a lifetime, knew him for his temper and casual spending, yes, but also for days like this: for signs of happy life in a city once considered dead, for energy in some of its neighborhoods, for the city celebrating itself at summer's end, and even for condoms on Boston Street.

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