Munchkin the ferret slinks onto the porch and begins climbing up the guest's trouser leg. Alan Robert Kaufman perceives signs of alarm. He plucks the critter from his guest's leg and tucks him under his own sweat shirt. The guest relaxes, the interview continues, despite the ferret's struggles to emerge again into the light.
Kaufman gazes serenely from the high porch. The sun filters into the grassy yards of his properties, three apartment houses in West Baltimore's Walbrook Junction, chocked full of renters. His own house brims with stuff bought at yard sales: TV sets, window fans, air conditioners.
That's his only vice. He doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs. Yard sales do it for him.
His eyes are big and droopy, his nose the promontory of his face. His short beard curves smoothly around his chin like the blade of a spade. He is wide and Buddha-like, monkish in his flip-flops, calmed by his certainty that he can distinguish right from wrong and knows the correct path to follow.
You might see Kaufman anywhere trying to follow that path: hoisting a protest sign outside the courthouse on Calvert Street, leafleting at Harborplace, denouncing that small coterie of capitalists he believes owns this country. He is a paladin of the poor, or tries to be; especially the black poor. He wants to incite them to political action. Too many people are asleep. Kaufman has made it his life's work to wake them up.
Considering all this, it is at least unexpected to find him in a spat with Morgan State University. Why? He wants one of their nonpaying job as a public affairs talk show host on the university-owned public radio station, WEAA. The university doesn't want to give him one. Kaufman, rejected, is outraged. Kaufman has mobilized.
He often mobilizes. He is a socialist. He is a Trotskyite. He is a democrat. He believes he can reconcile the three. He has a dossier as long as his leg in the FBI's files; he has been investigated time and again. He has run for office, maybe eight times, once for president; he lost every time. He has been arrested about a dozen times by his own count, and has occasionally spent a night in jail. He may be the only landlord in history to favor rent control.
"He's legendary," says Edgar L. Feingold, a former head of the Baltimore Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He's been around for 40 years but hasn't changed one bit. I'd see him everywhere: during civil rights days, during Vietnam. On every issue of controversy, he's there, doing the right thing but maybe doing it the wrong way."
Some people won't talk about Kaufman at all; it's as if they are choked by their own animosity toward him. Others will -- but dismissively. Wiley Hall, the spokesman for Morgan State, said he thinks of Kaufman as "the world's last communist." But he concedes a certain respect.
Kaufman has been called a self-hating Jew because he criticized Israel. He was arrested on the steps of Beth Tfiloh synagogue for protesting Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He has also landed on the wrong side of some of his co-religionists by emphasizing that not only Jews were consumed by Hitler's Holocaust, but homosexuals and Gypsies as well.
His rabbi called him unpatriotic -- "and something else implying that I got to be nuts" -- because he declared himself a "political conscientious objector" to the Korean War.
Some people -- fine and upstanding people such as the Rev. Chester Wickwire, the civil rights activist, and former Circuit Judge Robert Watts -- admire him. Others do, too, but don't like to admit it.
Why? Perhaps he makes them feel guilty.
How? By doing the kinds of things they feel, deep down, they should be doing themselves.
"There's a class war going on," says Kaufman, "and these people are going AWOL."
To many people in Baltimore, Kaufman has been, and remains, something different: more than a gadfly, less than a revolutionary. What, then?
A friend puts it into words. These words are conveyed to Bob Kaufman as he drifts on his back-porch swing.
"Yes," Kaufman smiles approvingly. "I am. And I will be a pain in the ass until I die."
'Fun on the air'
Kaufman thinks he has things to say to the people of Baltimore, which is why he wants to go on the radio. Some people agree. Hall does, even though it is his job to convey to the public WEAA's decision to reject Kaufman's application.
"I think he would be a lot of fun on the air," says Hall. "He's got a lot of wit."
It is like Kaufman to put people at odds with themselves like this.
Kaufman brought a complaint against Morgan State and WEAA before the Maryland Human Relations Commission. He was refused, he alleges, because he is white and just about everybody else at WEAA is black. The commission ruled against him. Kaufman appealed; he lost the appeal, then declared the commission's procedures "a sham and a hoax."
He is considering other options: a discrimination complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, charges before federal human rights authorities, a lawsuit.
Kaufman is discouraged, but not easily deflected. He feels a deep resentment over these rulings. It has two sources. First, Kaufman believes he has the credentials for the job: He has been a civil rights activist since he was 16. He's 67 now.
"The whole history of my life is fighting for racial equality," he says. "They are treating me in the proverbial way that blacks seeking housing and employment were treated. The impression
I'm getting is they think I'm uppity and don't know my place."
Second, Bob Kaufman actually considers himself black. He'll tell you that. So will others. "It's in his genes," says Watts. "He's always lived in the black community. He's always trying to help the black community. He's white on the outside, but black on the inside."
All this, of course, is metaphorical, Kaufman's way of aligning himself with the perennial grievances of black people.
Kaufman was born white, Jewish and well off, but he didn't stay that way. He remains Jewish, at least culturally. Probably his true religion is Marxism. His heroes -- their pictures are on the walls of his cluttered study -- include Che Guevara, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Malcolm X and Jane Fonda, in her nude period.
He's still white, literally speaking. But he's not well off. He owns three buildings on Hilton Street, two apartments and the rundown house he lives in, which also has apartments. The three were owned by his father, a businessman who disinherited him for his radical politics. Kaufman managed to break the will after his father died and gained the properties.
The apartments are filled now, and returning rents, but this only recently. He lost money on them for a long time, almost lost one entirely, and wound up deep in debt. His main source of income, he says, is his Social Security checks, which come from a lifetime of short-term employments -- driving taxis, electrical contracting, and one job at Johns Hopkins taking care of the cats used in experiments. (He said he got fired because the doctors feared they would lose their federal funding if it got out that a socialist was taking care of the cats.)
Affluent he's not.
"I didn't even make enough money to file an income tax return last year," he says.
Kaufman insists his radical turn of mind came at age 4, when he learned that his family's black maid was poor. "It upset me. I began to be opinionated. I began to be outspoken about segregation."
He went to Park School, then on Liberty Heights Avenue. Always a liberal place, the atmosphere there nudged him further leftward. He was impressionable, sophomoric. When one of his teachers confessed that her husband had been a socialist, Robert Kaufman became a socialist, or at least "began to mouth off about Socialism," he recalls.
Someone suggested he visit Fellowship House at Preston and Maryland, where blacks and whites could meet socially during the years of segregation in the 1940s. "There was no other place in the city like it," he recalled.
There a change came over Bob Kaufman. He didn't stop talking about Socialism, denouncing segregation and capitalism. But he began to act.
Birth of activism
He was 16 when he went out on his first picket line. The target was Ford's Theater on Fayette Street, which refused to admit black people. The year was 1947. He picketed every play until he was 19, when he went off to Goddard College in Vermont.
The following year the theater integrated. Shortly afterward, Kaufman was in the audience for a musical, "The Merry Widow," with the woman he refers to as his mentor, Adah K. Jenkins, the late music critic of the Afro-American.
Kaufman dropped out of Goddard after one semester, having drunk his fill of Karl Marx. He then went to Morgan State for three semesters, but never got a degree. There was too much to do. He began his life as a professional activist in earnest.
He sat in at Woolworth's and Kresge's. He was among those who showed up every Labor Day starting in 1955 to picket Gwynn Oak amusement park in West Baltimore. He was a founding member of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He was a Freedom Rider on the Eastern Shore -- "I integrated the Jim Crow jail with my Caucasian body at Easton."
He opposed the Korean and Vietnam wars. He endorsed gay rights legislation. He worked for rent control in Baltimore. He supports medicalizing the drug problem. But most of his efforts these days are within the City-Wide Coalition, comprising some 180 community groups.
"I've been perennially at it for three decades," Kaufman says. "The only revolution I missed was the sexual one."
Kaufman never married, though he says he came close a couple of times.
"I don't think I had the best role models. My parents didn't have a happy marriage."
Also: "I wasn't economically secure. I was always interested in doing my political thing. There aren't many people who tell their daughters to find a good penniless radical to marry."
But he's not given up. A couple of weeks ago this personal ad appeared in The Sun:
NOT QUITE OVER THE HILL LEFTY ACTIVIST ISO slimmer, younger prettier intellectually honest sense of humor & more concerned w/social injustice than socializing SF. #82474
Guess who #82474 is?
On the front lines
Many people who know Bob Kaufman remark on one salient quality: his persistence, his determination to be out on the line year in, year out, with few like-minded souls for company.
"He is a singular person," says Feingold. "Seems to me that people with a cause ordinarily have cohorts that support that cause. It has never seemed to me that Bob was surrounded by or cultivated allies. He always seemed to be by himself."
Kaufman concedes he does not have many close friends, but he's not completely without them. Nor does he appear to worry much about it.
"Emotionally it was difficult," he concedes. "Everybody wants to be liked. Nobody wants to be considered a nut. Most people acknowledge my honesty and sincerity. But I find that if I challenge people the way I was challenged, their response is to distance themselves from me.
"I'm proud of the enemies I have made," he adds. "You can't do what I do and be the most popular boy on campus. But that's a pretty empty thing to want to be."
A triumphant look flashes across his face. He recalls a reunion some years back with his classmates from the Park School. He was 61.
"Many of my classmates there had become millionaires," he says. "But you know, I wouldn't want to trade places with any of them."
You know he's not kidding.
Kaufman works hard. He writes dozens of letters a year to newspapers on this issue or that. He is always at meetings, lining up support for his causes. And he is perpetually frustrated by what he perceives as the failure of ordinary people to act in their own interests.
Take the insurance issue. City car owners have complained for years that it's unfair for their rates to be so much higher than those in the counties. Kaufman got the idea to create a fund, with help from the city government, to sell insurance at cost to city residents.
"It's the most popular issue I've ever worked on," says the man so often dismissed as a kook. "It was very nice. But with all that nice feeling we couldn't get the trade unions, community organizations or ministerial alliance to hold politicians' feet to the fire."
He gives his porch swing a little push, and drifts back and forth. He is, he insists, aware of things larger than himself, of his purposes.
"Why else am I doing these things?" he asks rhetorically, and then provides a self-serving response. (No one ever said he was modest.) "How about, let's see how much good I can do before I die. How can I help the good guys and hurt the bad guys."
Munchkin finally re-emerges from under the sweat shirt somewhere south of Kaufman's kidney. He smiles his small curved teeth. Enough for today.
Pub Date: 6/16/98