HERE'S A Baltimore trivia question for you, circa 1999:
Baltimore Glimpses last appeared in The Evening Sun on what date?
If on some future day you were to answer Sept. 12, 1995, you would be among those who knew something about Baltimore's history.
Recalling bits of Baltimore's history is what this column has been about for 20 years: every Tuesday since Sept. 16, 1975. (Since the last Evening Sun is to be published on Friday, this is my last column.) According to Harold Williams, Sun historian, Baltimore Glimpses is one of the longest continuously running local column in the history of The Evening Sun. H. L. Mencken scholar Vincent Fitzpatrick says Baltimore Glimpses has run two years longer than Mencken's "Monday Articles" column; it ran in the Evening Sun from 1920 to 1938.
In sum, I've written more than 1,000 columns and more than a million words -- plenty of opportunity to get to know Baltimore.
In a column about the life and times of the Alcazar Hotel (now home to the Baltimore School for the Arts), I wrote about a young couple who, while dancing away the old year there on New Year's Eve 1943, decided to announce their engagement amid the festivities. A few days after the column appeared recalling the 50-year-old story, I got a call from the couple to tell me that they remembered the night and that they had gotten married a month later in 1944. At that time they were still married and living in Baltimore!
Then, there was the column I wrote about a famous former Block stripper and nightclub owner who had said she was in the business only to keep her daughter in one of Baltimore's most prestigious private schools -- keeping her real name (and profession) secret from almost all but the school's administration. Just days after the article appeared, a woman called me claiming to be the stripper. I thought, "Yeah, sure, they all say that." Then, a few days later, the daughter called! She confirmed her mother's version of the story and added that her mother's earnings from the Block also paid the daughter's tuition at a prestigious women's college. At the time of the call -- some 10 years ago -- the daughter had a prominent position in Baltimore's health care system.
Over the past 20 years, I got most of my facts right. But I've had some errors, too.
For example, I cannot get straight what number streetcar(s) took what routes out to old Bay Shore Park.
Nor will I ever clarify for myself or anybody else all the flavors of Baltimore's famous Hendler's ice cream -- though I've tried.
Certain columns seemed to put many people back in touch with cherished, half-remembered moments in their lives, buried and long forgotten, and they responded to these particular stories with warmth and enthusiasm: stories about the excursion cruises out of the harbor and down the river and some over the Chesapeake Bay to Tolchester; stories of the separate black world in Baltimore so hidden from the white world; and the giants, white and black, who walked among us, leaving their legends behind -- political bosses Willie Curran, Jack Pollack and Tom Smith (said to be the most powerful black political boss in the history of Baltimore), former Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro Jr. and former governor and mayor Theodore R. McKeldin; stories about the Colts in Memorial Stadium, the International League Orioles in the old Oriole Park on Greenmount Avenue. Gwynn Oak Park, Carlin's, Ford's, the Hippodrome, the Century, the Stanley.
My favorite? I have always been enamored of the story of Luciano Ippolito and his monkey, Julia -- a story of children, love, music and springtime. Ippolito was a type long gone from Baltimore's streets. But for years -- until the 1950s -- aftera harsh Baltimore winter, you would see him (or one of his colleagues) on a street corner downtown. With one hand he would crank out music from his organ grinder; with his other, he would hold the long leash of his prancing monkey.
Julia's job was to entertain the children and to collect money tossed by passers-by. She would clash cymbals, smoke a pipe, don spectacles, comb her hair, salute men in uniform, preen before a mirror. All the while she would be collecting coins and stuffing them into the deep pockets of her red jacket.
The coming of spring in Baltimore has always been a tease; every time you think spring is here it turns out that it isn't. But when you saw Ippolito and Julia on a sun-drenched afternoon in April, a gossamer scene of music and children and sunlight, you knew it was at last spring in Baltimore. I miss that lovely confirmation.
Writing this column has taught me that Baltimoreans care very deeply about their memories -- the way (and where) they worked and played, the characters who passed through their lives. They have clear and vivid recollections of the way things were, and he who inaccurately recalls these recollections does so at his own peril. Ask me.
Why do we so cherish Baltimore nostalgia? Of course, the essence of nostalgia is that what has been can never be again; Baltimore is moving so fast that there is so much that will never be again. Is it the speed of change in the city that lends currency to its yesterdays?
If you've enjoyed reading the columns as much as I've enjoyed writing them, then thank, along with me, Brad Jacobs, former Evening Sun editorial page editor (who conceived the column) and all of the successive and long-suffering editors who followed: Dudley Digges, James H. Bready, Gwinn Owens, Mike Bowler (Mike's hair turned gray while, and because of, editing my copy) and, for the past 15 months, the skillful and patient Marilyn McCraven. And my illustrators: John Stees, Irv Yaniger, Mike Lane, Bill Wilson.
In saying goodbye to the column, I'm reminded of a call I got from an irate reader late one night just a few weeks ago about an item in my column that was incorrect. He patiently explained how I had it wrong and then, with a weary sigh I hear to this day, asked, "Mr. Sandler, when are you going to learn something about Baltimore?"
When indeed? After 20 years and a million words, I promise this: I'm going to work on it.
Gilbert Sandler is a free-lance writer.