It was only on a whim that Andy Mihok sent a letter to Pope John Paul II. The Forest Hill retiree, who has written his share of letters to the editor about every issue under the sun, doesn't ordinarily write to heads of state or church.
But after one early-morning visit with his friends at the Bel Air Bakery was dominated by talk of the pontiff's impending visit, Mr. Mihok said he couldn't help himself. He went home and penned a short invitation to the pope, asking him to drop by Jim Hamilton's bakery on his way to Baltimore in October.
"Bel Air is just a stone's throw from Baltimore," he wrote, explaining that if the pope really wanted to experience "American life and thought" he should stop and see the Bel Air Bakery Boys.
The Bel Air Bakery Boys is a mixed group of lawyers and laborers, bankers and barbers, teachers and technicians, clerks and construction workers who gather every morning in the back room of the Bel Air Bakery. Many are retired; others stop by on their way to work.
There's a counter and a half-dozen small tables, and a continuous supply of coffee and doughnuts. Mostly there's chatter.
On any given day, the subject might range from O.J. Simpson to a national health plan to baseball to bureaucrats. There are usually a few insults hurled from one end of the room to another, and there are plenty of jokes -- at everyone's expense.
"If they say something kind about you, they don't like you," said Mr. Mihok of the morning crowd.
If Jim Hamilton is behind the counter, the talk can become decidedly political. Mr. Hamilton, who's owned the bakery since 1955, is not afraid to say which candidates he supports and which, in kinder moments, he calls Democrats.
The "boys" begin arriving about 6:30 a.m. and imbibe the old-time country-store atmosphere for a few minutes to an hour before wandering onto Bond Street, to be replaced by a later shift. It's a men-only environment, the Bakery Boys say, although Peg Lucas has been allowed to sit in the corner and observe for a couple years now.
"For the longest time I wouldn't cross these portals," she said. "I still don't say much. I just sit back and watch."
"She's one of us," said Tom Wimbrow, a regular for the past decade.
A retired principal of Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, Mr. Wimbrow lamented, "There's no sense of community anymore." He said that people don't socialize and interrelate enough, which is why he hangs out at the bakery.
"A lot of times it's the best thing to happen to me all day," he said.
That's why Mr. Mihok, a former Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. manager, thought the bakery was a place the pope ought to see.
He sent his letter in April.
A few months later an answer arrived from the Vatican.
It was brief, but polite.
"The sentiments which prompted you to write are very much appreciated," Monsignor L. Sandri wrote on the pope's behalf, "but I regret that it is not possible for him to accept your kind invitation."
The monsignor added: "His holiness will remember you and your friends in his prayers."
"The pope is a smart man," quipped Jackie Henderson, one of the few females to venture into the back room before 8 a.m.
"I really didn't expect anything to come of it," said Mr. Mihok, after receiving the official letter from the Vatican's Secretariat of State, First Section, General Affairs. "But I think that it was really nice of him to respond."
Mr. Mihok said he plans to frame the letter -- after all, it has the official Vatican seal on it -- and hang it up with other personal mementos in his home.