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Home away from home offers truckers refuge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Country fried steak is the hottest item on the menu, and the motors of 18-wheelers hum all night long. T. A. Baltimore South -- long known as the Truckers Inn and one of the largest truck

stops on the East Coast -- is a refuge for hundreds of long-distance drivers a day.

The lights never go out on these 26 paved acres at the intersection of Interstate 95, U.S. 1 and Maryland Route 175 in Jessup -- a round-the-clock pit stop luring all manner of travelers. Magicians. Prostitutes. Ministers. Hustlers. Salesmen. Runaways. Con artists.

With a 200-seat restaurant, 110-room motel, 25 showers for rent, video game rooms, a gift shop, a barbershop, a medical clinic, a masseuse, group therapy sessions for alcohol and drug abusers, a laundry room, a truck wash and parking space for 650 big rigs, Baltimore South is the truckers' equivalent of a theme park.

"We provide everything a driver needs," says owner Baldev Singh, who bought the Truckers Inn in September 1991 and renamed it Baltimore South.

For many truckers -- such as Stephan Hubbs, 29, of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia -- it's home on the road. Having just finished an 852-mile trip to drop off 1,400 cases of beer in Landover, he sampled the truck stop's delights before a run to Gaithersburg ++ to pick up National Geographic magazines bound for Toronto.

"This is one of the best ones I've been to," says Mr. Hubbs, who started riding with his father as a boy and has been driving by himself for 10 years.

Baltimore South does about $1.5 million in business monthly, Mr. Singh says, playing host to more than 800 tractor-trailer drivers each day. "There's never a dull moment," says Doug Barham, one of a handful of guards providing 24-hour security.

The officers discourage the salesmen, hustlers and prostitutes who advertise their wares over CB radios. They chase off "lumpers," who linger on the borders of Baltimore South and bang on cab doors to beg for work unloading trucks for as much as $150 a day.

Although Howard County police say they respond to very little serious crime at the property, security guards say there's plenty of action. As Carl E. C. Covington, a guard on the truck stop's overnight shift, puts it, "You can see all types of stuff out here."

At Baltimore South, FBI agents have conducted sting operations aimed at interstate theft rings. But mostly the crimes are small: a robber parking a getaway car there while hitting nearby businesses; a father trying to pimp his daughter for quick cash; a driver seeking to sell an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle for $400; a lumper who grabs $100 from the hand of a hotel customer and bolts.

Mr. Covington, 26, doesn't carry a gun, but says that "if you show you're weak around here these guys will eat you up."

With Baltimore South's constant traffic, however, most of the guards' time is spent just keeping track of things. "I call it traffic control," Mr. Barham says, leaning against a wall during a short break from the hot afternoon sun. In the vast parking lot, tired truckers weave their rigs in and out.

Lynn Fletcher, the afternoon front desk clerk at Baltimore South's motel, sees the truckers when they're sleepy and when they're rested -- and says they're a good deal more affable after a good night's sleep. Many have become like family to her.

"They'll tell you about the kids, the wives -- they just want to talk," she says. "I guess it's because they've been shut up in the truck so long."

But after hours at the wheel, some drivers aren't so talkative. Past midnight one recent night, many drivers inside the truck stop's Country Pride restaurant just stare blankly into cups of coffee.

"I just go with the flow," says "Sugar Bear," Jose A. Ortiz Jr. of Weslaco, Texas, playing a Solitaire video game near the restaurant while waiting to pick up a load of frozen Chinese food and complete a 4,400-mile journey back to Houston. A weather-beaten cap atop his head and steel-tipped boots on his feet, he marches over to a nearby change machine to feed his video play.

In the parking lot, Walton Williams, a 23-year-old rookie driver from Virginia, strolls around. After eight months on the road, he's surprised at what he already has seen that was never mentioned in the ad he answered for free truck-driving lessons -- such as street crimes and on-the-road sex.

Now he and another driver, Anthony Perry of Baltimore, are searching for Mr. Perry's co-driver. "Look," Mr. Perry says, pointing to a tractor-trailer paused in a corner of the truck stop's lot. "There he is."

The driver, who had been drinking, had abandoned Mr. Perry in search of prostitutes.

For truckers with more mundane needs, the truck stop's convenience store offers a bit of everything needed for life on the road: shavers, boots, shoe polish, gloves, simple truck parts, "Star Wars" videotapes, compact discs and a $17 two-cassette book on tape: "Kato Kaelin -- The Whole Truth."

Some veteran drivers say they miss the truck stop's popular country music bar, which Mr. Singh closed in February 1993 because of rowdiness. Live music and alcohol led to drunkenness and fights.

Trouble still comes to Baltimore South, but the bar's closing and renovations have altered the atmosphere. "Five years ago we had a bad reputation," says Mr. Covington. "It's cleaned up a lot around here."

One new feature is God's Trucking Ministry, a 40-foot-long trailer parked on a back lot.

Complete with school desks, copies of the New Testament and a wooden pulpit, the trailer provides a kind of solace not offered elsewhere at the truck stop. Truckers can pick up free tapes, study the Bible or just sit and meditate.

Truck drivers are out on the road all the time away from home," says Charles "Hoppy" Hopkins, a former trucker who ministers at the on-site church. "This is the place where they can seek guidance and counseling."

Mr. Hopkins, from Yadon, Pa., drove tractor-trailers for 40 years before "the Lord called me to be out here with the drivers." He says some drivers complain that the ministry doesn't fit in there. "I say, 'It sounds like you need it.' "

Truck stop employees say most drivers -- religious or not -- need an open ear.

One recent morning, Phillip Brownlee, a St. Louis driver known by his CB handle "Doctor Feel Good," leaned on the hotel counter and chatted for hours with Cindy Costley and Essie Williams, desk clerks. He had come to get a towel but was still there hours later.

"You've got to be their mother, father, brother, sister, everything to them," says Ms. Costley.

They're interrupted by a gruff man looking for a ride to Baltimore -- to get home "to my family." In a lobby full of truckers, there are no takers. "It's too dangerous these days," Mr. Brownlee whispers to himself.

Down the hall and across the hotel lobby, waitresses Teresa Deluka and Pat Cotton were mustering their strength as they counted down to the 6 a.m. rush into the Country Pride.

"If there are five flies in the kitchen, how do you know which one is the cowboy?" asks Ms. Deluka, recalling a joke a driver had told. "It's the one sitting on the range."

Her co-workers roll their eyes and shake their heads. "You've got to have a sense of humor," she says.

Driver Rebecca Sue Ladd walks in, straddles a chair at her own table and lights a smoke. She's come to eat, chat and think. Nicknamed "Little Semi," she has been driving for 13 years after leaving behind a string of factory jobs in Nashville.

"This is the only kind of occupation that's steady," she says. "There's always going to be a load to haul."

"Little Semi" knows the romance and the pain of the open road as well as any who stop by Baltimore South. She was in love with another trucker, and the two had marriage plans. But he was killed in 1991 in a hazardous-materials spill, she says.

Life on the road "can be tough," she says, nodding her head slowly and puffing on her cigarette. Her next load didn't have to be picked up for three hours.

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