The Sunday sky is deepening into dark blue; the breeze is turning bitter. A crowd a dozen thick and growing is huddled around the eastern corner of Thames and Broadway. In the middle is a man in drooping corduroys, black Reeboks and a tattered sweater. Herman Heyn is in his glory.
The self-named Street Corner Astronomer, a neighborhood fixture in Fells Point since he first set up his 8-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope a decade ago, is basking in the hype of Hale-Bopp, one of the brightest comets to streak through the sky in recent history. On this particular evening, it is a mere 123 million miles from Earth -- the closest it will come. And it's coinciding with a separate celestial phenomenon, a lunar eclipse.
But Hale-Bopp is the star of the night: a tight bright ball with a fan-shaped tail, looking exactly as one imagines a comet to look. It has become a media darling, receiving saturation coverage in newspapers and on television.
"It's like my own billion-dollar publicity campaign," says Heyn, who suggests a contribution of $1 for a look through his prized possession.
Sometimes he and his telescope stand outside, idle for hours, usually he has to sell himself by calling out his trademark "Have a look!" But tonight Heyn barely has time to assemble his telescope before potential stargazers form a line, fishing for singles in their wallets. Public interest in Hale-Bopp is translating to a boom in business.
Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the heavens.
"It's something I can tell friends at parties or like playing trivia. I saw the comet," says Alex McNamee, a Fells Point reveler waiting for his peek through the telescope.
In the two hours that the sky is dark and clear, scores of strollers, conventioneers, partyers and many Heyn devotees glimpse the decade's most talked about comet. And with every stargazer come questions: "What's the tail made of?" (gas and dust) "Why's it wavy?" (the rippling is caused by the rotation of the nucleus) "How fast is it going?" (40,000 mph) "Isn't there supposed to be some comet or something out tonight?" (yes, come have a look!)
Heyn repeats the answers over and over.
"I think of it like Broadway. Those actors have to get on stage every night and say the same things over and over. I'm like that, I don't get tired of it. I like it," Heyn says, his voice a bit raspy from hours of chatter.
His own passion for the sky is undeniable. Early in the evening he stops mid-sentence and points eastward toward a pink glob, "Ohhh look at that beautiful moon." Later he takes every chance he can to steal looks at the comet himself. That love of the stars was first inspired by an assignment to find the Big Dipper in Ms. Wicker's 8th-grade science class at Garrison Junior High. As the Street Corner Astronomer, he not only earns a little cash, but gets to introduce others to the marvels of Ms. Wicker's science class.
"I'd say I do it 50-50. Half for the money, and half to share the stars. But if somebody were to come up to me and say they got their Ph.D or went to college for astronomy because they first got interested in the stars and planets here, well, that would make this really worthwhile."
Heyn himself had a difficult time in school, struggling through with what he now believes were learning disabilities. He liked science, but left college before earning a degree. By his own account, the Baltimore native has had every kind of job, from T-shirt salesman to substitute teacher. Now, between his Social Security checks and income from his home photography business, he depends on his street-corner contributions for about half his income.
In that sense, Hale-Bopp has been a godsend. Physically, however, the comet's mass following is taking its toll on Heyn.
"To tell you the truth, I was excited about last year's comet, Hyakutake. I came out every night for that, really pushed myself. I didn't need another comet so soon. I could have waited a couple of years."
At 66, the demands of a night on the street are getting increasingly difficult to endure. Heyn's long, curly, gray hair and weathered skin suggest his age, but his energy and physique do not. At 5-foot-10 and about 165 pounds, he credits a high school and college swimming career for his sturdy frame. His stamina, he says, comes from biking around town every day and a semi-vegetarian diet.
But a night of work often means standing outside during the coldest hours of the day, constantly cheerful, constantly talking. On Saturday, he decided to stay home when he heard the temperature would plummet. That decision disappointed more than a few of his regulars. "Where were you last night?" was as frequently asked the next evening as any other question.
He says he'll stick with his gig as long as he can lift his 42-pound telescope, but admits that he is slowing down.
"When I started I was really pushing it, out every night it was clear. This year I've been slow, I've only been out about a dozen times since the first of the year. I'll push it while Hale-Bopp is here, but I think I'll go easy after that."
He's at Fells Point most frequently, but it's not his only venue. Occasionally he sets up outside the Rotunda in Roland Park and, in 1992, after a four-year battle, won the right to set up at Harborplace. He makes much more money there -- on a good night $200. But the crowds are too overwhelming, he says. He sticks to Fells Point during the spring and summer, preferring the sparser traffic flow. And because he feels a responsibility to his "old lookers" -- people like Frank, "the best Irish tenor in Baltimore," or Edward Hodges, the short order cook at Jimmy's.
There are other regulars, too.
"I heard about this great celestial event, and I knew where to come," says Susan Hall, who drove with her husband from Reisterstown to peek through Heyn's telescope.
She's been making pilgrimages to Heyn since she first came across him at Harborplace a few years back. "I've always liked the stars, but he's made them accessible to us," she says.
Same with Richard Chisolm, a Roland Park resident who has been stopping by to see Heyn for 10 years. Tonight he's brought his 4-year-old son Jasper to get a closer look at the comet. "I've seen [Heyn] out here in bitter cold when there's no one around. Man, you can tell he just loves it. He's kind of a kook, but he's an incredibly important kook."
By 9 p.m. clouds and a few raindrops sweep across the dark sky. Heyn packs up earlier than usual, complaining of dizziness. He heads to the Whistling Oyster to drop a few of the 85 bucks he's collected in his straw hat. He's already planning for the week ahead, vowing to get out as many nights as the weather allows.
"Knowing people come out just for my telescope makes me feel pretty good. I know this is what I'm best at, and it kind of affirms that. It also makes me feel responsible, like I can't stay home, I have to be out here because people will be waiting."
Pub Date: 3/28/97