Characters on parade in Charm City


I SPOTTED the Moped Man today on Fayette Street. I'm sure he has a name, but I don't know it. I gave him the monicker because of his mode of transportation, which is covered with flags and baubles, and has a super-soaker tied to the back

carrying rack.

Another regular downtown is the Gas Man, except he is no longer the Gas Man. I dubbed him that because of a rather inventive schtick that he apparently no longer employs. He used to run up to customers in gas stations, always out of breath, with gas can in hand. "My wife is in labor up at Fallston General Hospital," he'd almost scream. "I'm out of gas. Can you spot me a couple of bucks?"

I always pitied the poor wife, in labor night after night, but she seems to have been retired. In recent months, the Gas Man has developed different personas; probably the most intriguing was the homeless Vietnam veteran. Wearing camouflage pants, dog

tags, a starched campaign hat and shined combat boots, his expression was downcast but proud. He was the very essence of a man who had served his country well, but had since been cast aside by an ungrateful citizenry. As I watched, no donations were made. Perhaps the citizenry really is ungrateful. Or maybe they suspect fraud?

Of late, the Gas Man has assumed the palsied helpless look of someone broken by disease or a mental illness. He's adopted the grunge look for this one. In a way, I was disappointed to see him switch to such a pathetic role, but sometimes commercial concerns must override art. The latest guise proved profitable on a recent weekday afternoon at the corner of Light and Conway streets.

Some of Baltimore's colorful street-corner personalities beg, but most don't, based on my unofficial canvass of area streets from behind the steering wheel of my cab.

The Highlandtown Phone lady is one who doesn't ask for a penny. But she adds life (and volume) to any corner she inhabits. All she needs is a pay phone.

I first spotted the Phone Lady, about six years ago, in front of the 7-11 convenience store at Eastern Avenue and Clinton Street, near Haussner's Restaurant. She was carrying on a spirited conversation on a pay phone outside of the store -- at about 100 decibels.

"You should check her out," said a 7-11 clerk who knew of my fascination with Baltimore oddities. "She's always out there, on one phone or the other. But she never puts a quarter in. She's talking to the dial tone."

Careful observation proved the store clerk correct; I watched the Phone Lady complete one conversation, hang up, take a brief break, pick up the receiver again, and go right back into her act in which she appears to be talking to a relative who has disappeared without paying a big debt.

I've spotted the Phone Lady throughout Fells Point and Highlandtown. I always wave when I see her, but she ignores me. The one time I tried to speak to her, she gave me a snooty "sniff" and went back to her phantom conversation. I was a bit hurt, to tell you the truth.

Phil A. Minion (like the steak) is a Baltimore character of a different stripe. A prime volunteer at the annual SoWeBo Arts Festival, Phil is constantly upset by the failure of the Weekly World News (his favorite newspaper) to acknowledge that he has created the world's largest black velvet Elvis painting. But Phil can take consolation in the fact that, besides his Elvis feat, he also made the only Formstone-covered car on record.

Speaking of cars, there is the wood-fleshed "Batmobile" that is often spotted in and around Charles Village, driven by a slim gentleman with white hair. This is not the more ornate (but apparently inoperative) Batmobile that sits at Vic's Used Cars, at the corner of Fulton and Wilkens avenues. This Batmobile is seen regularly on the road.

Baltimore is a marvelous haven for people who aren't firing on all eight cylinders, if you know what I mean. I like it here, which probably tells you something about me. If you like it here, it probably tells us something about you.

New York has plenty of beggars, but how many play their roles as well as the Gas Man? Washington has Marion Barry and several other tourist attractions, but we have a black velvet Elvis painting so large it covers most of an end-of-group rowhouse's side wall when displayed.

Even in sports, we make room for the wacky; if they have money, we call them eccentric. No one knows (or cares) about team owner Peter Angelos; he's just a lawyer. Those Robinson guys, or the Ripkens? Pretty good. But for true fame, we turn to . . . Bill Hagy! A distinctly ordinary guy, Mr. Hagy wouldn't even be noticed anywhere else in the world. Here, he's a hero whose lack of a cameo role in at least one John Waters movie is, surely, an oversight.

Baltimore isn't the Inner Harbor, or a ballpark with ticket prices only tourists can afford. It's the people who live here, a breed so strange that a newspaper columnist can get thousands of words out of a guy who adds the word "Hon" to a "Welcome to Baltimore" sign, and the matter ends up being debated by the city council.

Sometimes I forget why I love this town so much. It takes the Moped Man, and the Phone Lady and the Gas Man -- and hundreds of others -- to remind me. And I'd like to thank all of you for enlightening my life and enriching the days I spend on the streets of Baltimore.

Robin Miller writes from -- where else -- Baltimore.

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