IN THE ORNATE City Hall chambers where a packed crowd gathered yesterday evening to hear Martin O'Malley's annual State of the City speech, the mayor of Baltimore got about 14 words into his formal address when an audio man, crawling along the floor at O'Malley's feet, started fiddling with microphone wires and plugs.
The mayor, somewhere between thanking his City Council and rallying the troops for the tough year ahead, paused and looked down. A Kennedyesque "ask not what your country can do for you" moment, this was not.
"You messing with my sound?" the mayor inquired gently.
The audio man glanced up but said nothing. A few nearby cops wondered if they should collar the guy. The sound system seemed to have been working pretty well, but now it was making strange, out-of-control hissing noises.
The mayor got another three words out, and realized something had happened. The hissing was gone and there was no sound at all in the microphone now.
"This was the low bid," the mayor declared, rolling his eyes as the big crowd chuckled. Then he tried talking again. Nothing could be heard. "Isn't this great?" he said.
The audio man, now pulling plugs here and putting them back in over there, got something going for a moment: an audio shriek high enough to drive dogs rabid.
"Who do you work for?" the mayor asked. Before the sound man could respond, and before anyone could question if the city had paid its gas and electric bill on time, the mayor led the way out of the general silence. In a gesture of leadership possessed only by the great ones, he switched microphones.
When he got his voice back, he took his listeners to places of dreams -- and possible despair.
He envisioned the city in 2010, in which the 20 blocks north of Johns Hopkins Hospital, spurred by a new biotech industrial splurge, would be "transformed into one of the most successful neighborhood redevelopment stories of the decade.
He envisioned the new city police commissioner, Kevin Clark, in his second term by 2010, who would be lauded for "his leadership of a Police Department that ... achieved the most dramatic crime reduction of any major city in this decade."
(Clark, questioned afterward, said he'd been on the street every day since the mayor introduced him at City Hall a week ago, and was "genuinely impressed what a beautiful city it is. There are pockets of real estate that present problems. But we know how to attack those problems.")
And, in that city of 2010, O'Malley said, the west-side renaissance will have drawn a new generation of those who believe in downtown.
Arts districts will be flourishing. The city's Latino population will rival Washington's, as Baltimore offers "a more welcoming environment for immigrants." And he saw "a growing and ever more affluent black business community" becoming a symbol to the whole country in a time when "our children will no longer be a farm system for the drug trade."
As O'Malley spoke, the big City Council chambers were utterly silent but for his rat-a-tat delivery. The mood seemed like that in a house of worship. He was saying nice things that so many want fervently to believe in, and sometimes have had to fall back on faith alone.
It's been a rough era, O'Malley said to no one's surprise -- and it might get rougher.
He said the city might be facing "the greatest challenge since the War of 1812." This depends on international terrorists, and "the likelihood of retaliatory strikes on [America's] population and economic centers becomes more probable."
He bemoaned federal and state tax cuts -- "trickle-down fiscal irresponsibility" and "the politics of greed" that are "bleeding the city dry."
And he warned against "determined foreign chemical attacks -- of cocaine and heroin ... a scourge so terrible that it has destroyed more Baltimore lives and property than two world wars and the fire of 1904 combined."
But it's a hopeful time, too. Drug-related emergency room visits are down 18 percent the last two years. Violent crime is down 30 percent over the last three years. Housing prices are up 50 percent over the last three years, as "streets and neighborhoods are becoming noticeably cleaner."
To make sure this continued, the mayor, in what he called his "dramatic moment," unveiled -- a trash can.
Ten thousand of these free "Believe" trash cans will be distributed in four neighborhoods around town.
"They'll be swiping 'em and selling 'em before you know it," Councilman Nick D'Adamo muttered.
In a town where the mayor has to fight his own audio man for sound, and unveils a trash can as his "dramatic moment," what else is new?