The mayor of Maryland's capital is behind the wheel of his baby-blue Buick, jouncing cheerily across a playing field at St. John's College. I must look either alarmed or puzzled, because he tells me not to worry; he does this all the time. "They won't say anything," he says, with a dismissive wave toward McDowell Hall.
Al Hopkins is giving The Official Al Hopkins Tour of Annapolis, and that means getting off the beaten path -- or, in this case, off the road and onto the beaten path. When you tour with Al, you get more than the Paca House and John Paul Jones' tomb. You learn things you'd never learn on any ordinary tour of the state capital. Because nobody knows Annapolis like Al Hopkins.
Right now, for instance, we're stopped in the middle of the playing field, on our way back from a little-known monument to French soldiers who fought in the American Revolution, which the mayor used as a fort when, as a boy, he played cowboys and Indians. He considers this the most important site in Annapolis. The monument sits at the far end of the St. John's campus along College Creek, and it irritates him no end that nobody pays attention to it.
If the French hadn't pitched in, he says, we wouldn't have won the war, there wouldn't be a State House, there wouldn't be a Naval Academy. "How many people in this town are aware of these French, who should never be forgotten?"
Anyway, we've seen the monument and are headed back across the field when the mayor hits the brakes. "St. John's used to
have its own dump right here, in the middle of the athletic field. We used to come here with our BB-guns and kill rats. I'd come with a kid named Bill Nutt; he was best man at my wedding, and his father would come and supervise us. We'd learn how to shoot, and at the same time get to kill some rats."
The mayor looks wistful; he's savoring the memory. "Oh yeah, it was fun. Any time you kill a rat it's fun."
You won't get this kind of detail, this personal touch, on anything but a Hopkins tour. And don't think that because he's the mayor, he'll be too busy to show you around, or that you have to be some kind of Big Cheese to get an Official Al Tour. Al Hopkins lives to give tours.
"I love the city, and I think I should let people know what about the city there is to be loved." Many times, he's been in his office when he's seen someone on the street looking at City Hall. "I go out and say, 'Would you like a tour?' If I see them out there, I bring them in."
When his second term as mayor ends in 1997, he says, he doesn't want a job. (Why should he? He'll be 72). "But I will give free tours."
Al's tour starts in City Hall chambers, a beautiful room that dates to 1764, where Gen. George Washington danced after resigning his commission in 1783. The mayor's office sits beneath this room, and sometimes he thinks he hears old George doing the two-step. "I say, 'George, stop dancing.' But it's always the wood cracking. It's not really him."
Al can spend a long time talking in City Hall chambers. Once he's got you in front of that plaque with the names of every Annapolis mayor, you may as well sit down; you're not going anywhere for a while.
You'll hear about the first elected mayor (Nicholas Brewer, in 1818); the first Roman Catholic mayor (James Boyle, 1823); Al's favorite mayor (Roger "Pip" Moyer); mayors who ended up with more notoriety than they deserved (Roscoe Rowe, who has Rowe Boulevard named after him even though, Al says, "there was nothing noteworthy about him.")
At the State House, Al stands on the porch overlooking Lawyer's Mall and describes how this area hummed with trains and buses and business 30, 40 years ago. He reminisces about "bellywumping" down the knoll where Roger Taney's statue now stands. He asks what Roger Taney ever did to rate a statue.
He walks you through the museum at the Naval Academy, which he still dreams of attending. "I could come every day for the rest of my life," he says, "and I wouldn't get to see it all."
Today, for instance, he notices a big bust of George Washington in the museum foyer. I wonder why it's there, since Washington )) wasn't a Navy man. "Yeah," Al agrees, "what the hell is he doing here?" (The bust is a ship's figurehead.)
The mayor has taken his licks these past six years from critics who say he spends too much time remembering and walking around town waving to people than doing anything; that he's too hokey to be mayor of a state capital.
Well, he is hokey. A woman we meet on the street asks, "Hot enough, mayor?" And Al answers, "You believe in God, don't you? Then you better behave. 'Cause if you believe in God, and you're bad, you know where you're going. Then this will be cool."
Now that's hokey.
But it doesn't matter. The most important thing you learn on Al's Official Tour may be this: Nobody cares if Al Hopkins would rather show visitors where the last colonial governor is buried and have his picture taken with a Chinese delegation to the Naval Academy, than spend his days running the government.
People love him. The lady who laughed over his goofy joke about the heat. The head Naval Academy barber who grew up with him in Hell's Point. The folks at St. John's who don't care if he runs his car all over their lawn.
Take his tour, and you'll see: Al Hopkins loves his city. And it loves him back.
Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.