Alonzo Bennett III won't discuss the wildest thing that has ever happened during the 20 years of his annual "Eat the Rich" picnic. He won't even discuss the second wildest thing.
"No, no, no," he says, smiling slyly and puffing on a slender Benson & Hedges. "That's not for publication."
It's just as well. This is, after all, a family newspaper. But, there's a chance the wildest scene is yet to happen. On Sunday, upward of 200 people will gather in Mr. Bennett's back yard in Glen Burnie for the last of his picnics.
Mr. Bennett, 62, has reluctantly declared there will be no more lazy summer days of blues and roast pig, people stumbling around blind drunk on his two-acre lot. His health is not up to the challenge of organizing such a huge event anymore.
A near 30-year career in research at the Johns Hopkins University ended in 1990 when he went on disability because of his diabetes. He has lost his right eye and left foot to the condition. He does his dialysis at home and has had his name added to the list of those needing kidney transplants.
The long nights in Fells Point are behind him now.
"I used to go out. I was a fun person," he says, unapologetic about any excess that might have occurred. "Now, I don't drive."
These days, the party comes to him. Looking back, his regrets are minor. He wishes he could have had blues queen Koko Taylor at one of the picnics. And, he says, the Allman Brothers would have been a good show.
"I think Gregg and I would get along," he smiles, nodding at the thought of sharing outrageous stories with the musician. "I understand."
Mr. Bennett says the picnics started as a way for him to get around having to send Christmas cards. Why not have a party instead, he decided. They were small affairs, a boom box or record player, a few friends, some crabs and beer. But people talk. A good time gets a name, a reputation. Soon, he was roasting a 30- to 40-pound piglet on a spit over fist-sized chunks of coal.
"It was always the hottest thing of the year," he says.
Somewhere along the line it became "Alonzo's Eat the Rich picnic." Why 'Eat the Rich'? Depends on which recollection you trust. It could have come about as an "in your face" snub of the type of folk who attend the triennial coaching party in Newport, R.I., or it might have been a 1980s slap at the Reagan Administration's social polices that included an attempt to call ketchup a vegetable.
Whatever the source, the name stuck. It gave the party a decidedly anti-establishment flavor. You could imagine the Dionysian scenes, the flagons of beer, the roast piglet with an apple in its mouth.
A few years ago the Baltimore Blues Society, of which Bennett is a charter member, adopted the party. Artists such as Duke Robillard, Rory Block and Marcia Ball signed on to play the picnic. Unlike the first live acts, who were paid by passing around a hat, these "name" artists had contracts.
The crowds continued to grow. Mr. Bennett bought bigger and bigger pigs. The hog roasted Sunday will weigh in at about 200 pounds.
"You would not believe how they get in line for that pig," says Dale Patton, president of the blues society. "At one time it was given away for free. Then someone came up with the idea of
charging $1 a sandwich, which really defrayed the cost. You can get a lot of sandwiches out of a pig."
Mr. Bennett buys the porker at a Manchester butcher shop, trucks it home and keeps it on ice. He stuffs it with sauerkraut and pineapple chunks, then hands it over to a blues society member for the six to eight hours needed to cook the meat over a propane-fed flame.
The pigs have became party symbols, props. One T-shirt featured a pig holding a bottle of Mr. Bennett's old favorite, tequila. One pig's head ended up on a stick that was then carried through the throng.
Mr. Bennett loves such printable stories. When he tells them, his voice lowers to a near whisper. He becomes a slightly reformed bad boy reveling in a tidbit about the good old days.
"When [the pig] was smaller. I had an apple in my mouth and a jay in the pig's mouth when it was on the table to be carved. I said, 'There's a switch,'" he says. "I don't know who has that picture now. Oh, it has been some crazy times."
Patton was there for those days, but his reflections don't carry the fondness of Bennett's. There was too much excess. Patton ended up having to fight his way out of a $100-a-day heroin habit fed by regular trips to pushers on North Avenue. He is 19 months into a sober, spiritual life. A plaque on a shelf in his Monkton apartment reads, "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."
"I've lost a lot of interest in the blues," says Patton, 46. "Before, I was so screwed up I didn't know what was going on. I don't know how to describe it but, spiritually, it's not the same for me."
It remains a fine way to say good-bye to summer. Patton will be there for one last chance to "Eat the Rich" and listen to the blues under the shade of the elderberry and pine. Perhaps the party won't be the bacchanal of days past but, like the others, it will be the sort of time people look back on and say, 'Remember the time when ?
"I've had bars to close up because they say everybody is going to be at Alonzo's," says Mr. Bennett, breaking into a deep laugh that ends in a hacking, throat-clearing, smoker's cough. Then he settles back in his chair and smiles. "Ah, yes, Lord."
What: Alonzo's "Eat the Rich" Picnic, faeturing performances by Kenny Neal and Mark Hummel
When: 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday
Where: 366 Gaylor Road, Glen Burnie
Call: (410) 329-5825 for more information
Pub Date: 8/30/96