It's something, ain't it, this American Dream thing? You start with a fellow named Isidore Paterakis leaving Chios, Greece, a long time ago, and you wind up Sunday in East Baltimore with his son John Paterakis, surrounded by maybe 3,000 of his closest friends and his family, his employees and customers, politicians and police officials, all gathered to say happy 50th anniversary to his H & S Bakery.
Precisely 50 years ago, the father and son Paterakis, plus daughter Liberty and son-in-law Harry Tsakalos, started baking bread here in a brick, flat-hearth oven at 201 South Fagley Street.
Today, the bakery has spread to seven states with distribution into 23 more. There are 2,000 employees, who produce 370,000 rolls. Every hour. This is about 2 billion rolls a year, including more than a mouthful to 3,300 different outlets of a national chain known as McDonald's. H & S is now a $450-million-a-year operation, still headquartered in Fells Point, and Paterakis is preparing to build his $300 million Harborplace East project.
"And what does it mean?" asked Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, standing in the sweltering afternoon sun on a crowded, makeshift carnival lot Sunday, where the faithful had gathered in abundance.
"It means a local boy makes good," declared Steinberg, waving one finger in the air forthrightly. "It means he's helped save an LTC area of the city that might have been in trouble. It means. . ." He paused for a moment, not wishing to get too serious on such a happy occasion.
"Listen," Steinberg said now, comic-conspiratorially. "This man was nothing until he started selling bagels. Nothing. It was bagels that did it for him."
"He sells bagels?" somebody asked.
"Wait," said the lieutenant governor of Maryland, rushing off to find Paterakis. "I don't know. I'll go check."
A moment later, he came rushing back, declaring loudly, "Hold it. No bagels. But he does make challah. Challah, bagels, it's all the same."
It's the American dream, that's all. It reached out to grip people like Isidore Paterakis, who left Chios 71 years ago with no money but an enduring vision of a better life for his family, who he couldn't even bring here for another seven, financially strapped years.
And, when they finally opened the bakery here, 14 years later, who could have imagined where it would lead?
"Nobody could imagine," John Paterakis was saying Sunday.
By the '50s, they'd picked up the legendary Harley's sandwich shops as their first major customer, then signed on with Food Fair and Acme, and Rice's and Bond bakeries. One hitch: A Saturday morning fire in the winter of '55, which destroyed the roof and electrical system and threatened to close the whole operation.
But Paterakis called Kirby and McGuire Construction, which worked through the weekend and repaired the building. Baking resumed Sunday night. Monday morning orders went out as though nothing had ever happened.
"It's the American dream, yeah: a stable life, a good job, and no layoffs," Paterakis said. He looked at the throng that had come to celebrate: not only his employees, but politicians like Steinberg and Joe Curran and Paul Sarbanes, police Commissioner Edward Woods and a few of his would-be successors, and judges and business people with their families. Paterakis shook his head.
"You just say to yourself, it is real?" he wondered aloud. "I mean, I'm still working out of the same office where it all started. Everybody talks about moving out of town, but we stay, we're paying taxes and we're not saying nothing about moving."
There was a time, maybe 20 years ago, when he'd thought about moving out of the city, taking the whole thing to Anne Arundel County. The mayor back then, named Schaefer, got wind of it and walked into Paterakis' office.
"You're not moving," he said. And that was that.
The American dream isn't merely about arriving here and striking it rich. It's about putting down roots, and it's about the various ethnic and racial groups forming one community.
That's what American cities are all about.
It's good that H & S Bakery has stayed. It's good that Isidore Paterakis had a vision once, and it became a marvelous reality.