The woman seated next to Osmer Locklear at Jimmy's Restaurant seemed genuinely touched by the plight of a $400-a-week East Baltimore painter with a wife, two kids and no health insurance.
"What can you do besides pay a lot?" the woman asked the 40-year-old Mr. Locklear.
"When it gets bad, I take my kids to the hospital emergency room," he confided. "And then I make an agreement to pay a little at a time."
"That," replied the visiting woman, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, "means two things. You go to the health care system at the most expensive place, and then the hospital . . . has to charge the people with insurance more money.
"If you weren't working every day and you went on welfare, you'd be better off. We need to make insurance affordable to you -- and we need to remove the incentive for people to stay on welfare [in order to] have medical coverage."
The dialogue with Mr. Locklear was typical of an hourlong visit Mrs. Clinton paid a dozen patrons at a Fells Point eatery yesterday morning. It was as much an impromptu lecture as question-and-answer session on the topic of America's ailing health care system.
Jimmy's is a favorite haunt of Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who invited the first lady there last February only to have the event canceled by snow. With yesterday's temperatures in the mid-60s, the weather proved considerably more accommodating for a visit from Mrs. Clinton, who arrived in Baltimore by train shortly before 11:30 a.m.
As head of President Clinton's task force on health-care reform, Mrs. Clinton said she has tried to solicit opinions and ideas from ordinary people.
"Senator Mikulski told me about this place and that if I needed to know what was going on in the country I should come here," she told the crowd that included the senator, as well as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his wife, Patricia, an ophthalmologist.
And although she didn't partake of the morning's breakfast special -- two pancakes, two eggs and coffee for $2.25 (no substitutions) -- the first lady did get an earful.
Whether they were small business owners or self-employed, doctors or retirees, everyone had a grievance over how the nation's health care system works -- and very often doesn't work -- for them.
"It's very difficult for a single woman with a child to survive," said Jimmy's owner Nicholas J. Filipidis, whose staff of 10 includes only "one or two" who are covered by health insurance.
"They've got rent and mortgage payments, and they can't afford it."
Terri Diener, a Pikesville management consultant, told Mrs. Clinton that she hoped a national health-care program would cover preventive care and not just emergencies. Molly Bourne, a Fells Point graphic arts designer, said she couldn't even qualify for health coverage because she already had a thyroid problem.
No free health care
The first lady agreed that pre-existing conditions should not disqualify anyone from proper health care. Reacting to medical emergencies and not preventing them costs Americans more money in the long run, she told Ms. Diener.
"What if this young woman were in a car accident?" Mrs. Clinton said, motioning to Ms. Bourne. "She'll get care because hospitals don't turn people away, but we'll all pay for that. There is no free health care. We need a system where it's affordable for you to take care of your family and it's affordable if the unforeseen happens."
Dr. Schmoke pointed out that very often her patients don't get prescriptions filled because they can't pay for them. Mrs. Clinton said she frequently heard that complaint from doctors at the Little Rock (Ark.) hospital where her father died last month.
"You're right," the first lady said. "If we don't provide support for people to buy prescription medicines, they'll be right back in the hospital."
Mrs. Clinton offered no specifics about the president's health-care package, promising only that it will be "fair" and that it will likely offend a lot of special interests. She denied reports that any decisions had yet been made by the White House about how comprehensive health care coverage will be.
One of the visit's most memorable moments came when hair salon owner Gia Blattermann of Little Italy insisted on giving the first lady her business card and asked her to pass a card on to her husband, too.
President Clinton made news this week when he held up air traffic in Los Angeles to get a $200 coiffure from a Beverly Hills stylist. Mrs. Clinton also raised eyebrows when she had her locks shorn last week in New York for $275.
"I'm available any time, anywhere," said Ms. Blattermann, whose haircuts cost $45-$50. "Please give this to your husband."
Ms. Blattermann later presented Mrs. Clinton a brooch she was wearing.
A business card was also offered by pediatrician Marianne E. Felice -- "if Chelsea needs a doctor." On a more serious note, Dr. Felice said she was worried that adolescents and teen-agers are the most ignored group within the health care system, but was pleasantly surprised to find out Mrs. Clinton agreed with her.
"You know how tough it is to talk to a 15- or 16-year-old," Mrs. Clinton said. "I'm learning."
More than 200 spectators gathered outside Jimmy's to get a peek at the first lady who wore a pink knit jacket and black skirt, a somewhat fancier than customary dress for the Fells Point breakfast and lunch spot. She was warmly received, with loud cheers on arrival.