Settlement would strip barkers' jobs from The Block


"Latin" paces back and forth in front of Crazy John's lounge, sizing up the midday throng that passes along East Baltimore Street on the way to jobs and business appointments. He's trying to pick out a mark.

"Step right in, sir," he said in a raspy voice. "Six beautiful girls inside. We've got the best show in Baltimore right here."

That's Latin's spiel. He's said the words so many times they come to him without thought. Latin, who won't give his full name, is a barker on The Block, one of about a dozen guys who lure customers into the adult lounges and peep shows.

The barkers -- or "doormen" as they prefer to be called -- have been in the news this week after the disclosure of a city proposal that would put them out of work.

But like most endangered species, the barkers, who converse in packs unless individually stalking their prey, show no obvious signs of their impending doom. And they say that enticing customers is only a small part of what they do.

"It's the least part of our job," said Latin, who looks like a fortysomething hippie, with stringy blond hair pulled into a ponytail, faded blue jeans and a scruffy jacket. "Truthfully, I don't know what these places would do without us. We keep drunks from coming in, we card kids so they don't get inside, we watch out for people's cars."

City officials and the owners of clubs on The Block have settled a lawsuit challenging restrictions the city tried to place on the strip joints. The settlement, which must be approved by the City Council, would ease those restrictions, including a proposal to limit the bars' hours of operation.

But the settlement still includes the provision affecting barkers -- prohibiting "any attempt to urge, invite or entice patrons to enter" the clubs.

"The genesis of this whole effort was business leaders and property owners who said the barkers chase potential tenants of their office buildings away," said 2nd District City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge.

But several women who work inside the nearby Charles L. Benton city office building said yesterday that the barkers aren't a problem. The women don't like walking along The Block to go to lunch, but the homeless bother them more than the clubs or their doormen.

"I may pass by one of the barkers and he may nod his head and I may nod mine, because we recognize each other's face, but I don't say anything to them and they don't say anything to me," said Mary Miller. "I guess we have a kind of mutual respect for each other."

The barker's life is not glamorous. Barkers don't make much money, about $25 to $35 for an eight-hour shift. To supplement their pay, they run errands for the dancers and receive tips from them.

That's why the barkers sometimes move from club to club. They want to work at the most popular bars, where the dancers are making a lot of money and can afford to pay the barkers better tips.

"You have to go with the money," Latin said.

But where the barkers seem to be going is out the door.

Tony, who works at the 2 O'Clock Club, is heavyset with dark, curly hair. He is dressed at noon in tuxedo shirt, bow tie and cummerbund. Nervously eyeing the crowd to see who might be listening, he said he just wants people to know the doormen are the good guys.

"You've got a lot of secretaries who work around here. When it starts to get dark early, we watch out for them, make sure they get to their cars all right," he said. "We're not the problem."

Down the street at the Crystal lounge, Mike -- who except for his red-rimmed eyes would look like a middle-age suburbanite who ought to be in a back yard barbecuing -- is sipping ice water and bumming cigarettes.

He eagerly puts on hold his hunt for customers to talk about The Block's barkers.

"Doormen are here to control some of the more undesirable elements that come into these clubs," Mike said. "You've got panhandlers, people who steal stuff in the Inner Harbor and come up here to sell it. We deal with them."

The barkers also protect the women who work in the clubs, he said.

"You get 40 guys who come in here together for a party, and after six or seven beers they want to grab a dancer or start a brawl," he said. "We have classy girls in here. . . . And the shows are class."

Mike said he didn't know why barkers were criticized as being pushy.

"We look for a guy who looks like he can afford to come in, then we establish eye contact and start talking to him. We let him know there's no cover charge; you don't have to pay to look."

Councilman Ambridge said the club owners didn't press to save the barkers' jobs. Owners were more concerned that their hours of operation be extended from the city ordinance's set times of 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. The settlement allows the businesses to be open between noon and 2 a.m.

"Some of the club owners said they get their best business at lunch time," he said.

Noon is when the businessmen are out, taking clients to lunch and occasionally dropping by for an after-meal drink and show at one of the clubs, Mike said. You don't see the same guys at night.

After dark, with the business crowd gone home, The Block is an entirely different environment. Fewer people are on the street, and those remaining are most likely hustling rather than being hustled.

There are also fewer barkers out at night. The men who visit the adult bars and peep shows don't have to be enticed.

Most know exactly where they want to go and what they want to see.

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