The holiday tradition of second chances played out Baltimore-style yesterday as Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who earlier this year called AIDS patients "a danger," saying those with the disease "brought it on themselves," helped deliver meals to homebound HIV-positive people.
Schaefer set off a critical firestorm after he made the comments in October while explaining why he advocated establishing a public registry of Marylanders with HIV. The cantankerous politician, whose impolitic comments land him in hot water from time to time, had tripped the public outcry trigger just a few months earlier by complaining about a McDonald's restaurant employee's English skills.
But yesterday, blinking before the glare of television cameras, Schaefer wanted to let people know that they had him wrong.
"They misunderstood me," he said. "People jump all over the comptroller and say he's a mean man and all that sort of stuff."
As volunteers rushed about the Highlandtown headquarters for Moveable Feast, a local organization that gets meals and groceries to AIDS patients, Schaefer stood among them, offering this correction: "I have great sympathy for people with AIDS."
Although that wasn't exactly an apology, Moveable Feast activists didn't exactly mind. They appreciated Schaefer's gesture for what it was, and also because they know that without it, media organizations wouldn't have tripped over themselves, as they did yesterday, to spotlight AIDS on Christmas Eve.
Moveable Feast Executive Director Vic Basile valued the chance to show Schaefer and others the true face of AIDS.
"Had he not been, as he says, 'misunderstood,'" Basile said, "we would not have had the opportunity to engage him like this.
"He's a compassionate guy, and I don't think he said anything to be mean-spirited. But his comments reflected what some people believe: that blame is associated with this."
While cameras whirred and reporters jockeyed for position, Schaefer, in a woolen cap and coat, held forth on his feelings about AIDS at the organization's office before heading off, entourage in tow, to deliver two meals.
He wanted people to understand that "nice" people can get AIDS - like children and those infected intravenously through tainted blood transfusions - and that, like him, AIDS is misunderstood. "There are people who don't understand it; they're afraid of it," Schaefer said. "I guess there's reason to be."
Motioning with his hands to illustrate how attention given to the AIDS issue fluctuates, Schaefer explained that sometimes it's "up there," though other times it's "down there." He wants to help it be "up there" again. "AIDS," he told the cameras, "doesn't only happen at Christmastime."
Standing in a corner and watching Schaefer hold court, Moveable Feast chef Bill Antonio, said, "Maybe he's taking a turn for the good. ... The holidays can change people."
As Schaefer, his driver and his assistant piled into their car, and the media into their respective vehicles, Basile explained that Moveable Feast serves 600 HIV-positive people in the city, the surrounding counties and the Eastern Shore. Most of them have dangerously low white blood cell counts, meaning their immune systems are vulnerable. Many of them suffer from "wasting syndrome," slowly starving to death because their bodies cannot accept nutrition.
Maryland has the fourth-highest rate of new HIV infection in the country, Basile said.
The Schaefer caravan wound across town, into Westport and up to a red-painted rowhouse. Sparkly blue and white garland twisted up the front railing. Velvety red bows brightened the porch.
Schaefer shuffled up the porch steps while his assistant fumbled back on the sidewalk with the heavy food bags. As the front door opened, the comptroller gamely bellowed, "Hello there, son! What's your name? My name's Schaefer."
Reporters followed him in, stuffing themselves into a diminutive living room where family photos hung crookedly on the walls. An elderly couple hovered in the kitchen, where Schaefer began to chat them up.
Samuel and Marion Grant are both 68. She's retired from making coats at a factory. He used to work at LaGuardia Airport in New York and now delivers phonebooks for Verizon. Their 24-year-old granddaughter, who wasn't home, is HIV-positive.
"How are you doing?" Schaefer asked the couple. "I'm above ground, so that's a blessing," Marion Grant said, before her husband added, "I have no pains."
Schaefer asked Marion Grant, who speaks through a mechanized voice box, whether she goes to a doctor regularly. She told him of her cancer doctor, her bone doctor, her throat doctor. "You name it," she intoned, "I've got a doctor for it."
At the next home, a few blocks away, Schaefer and company entered to find a TV blaring and kids shrieking. A woman with a cell phone in hand seemed confused by the parade working its way into her home.
"How are things this Christmastime?" Schaefer asked.
The woman said they were "hanging in there."
The comptroller picked a carton of puffed meringue cookies from the bags of food he had just brought in, asking one of the children whether she likes that kind. The girl stared at him. The woman prodded her, "Mr. Schaefer is talking to you!"
"Yes," the girl said softly and shyly, she likes those cookies.
The woman finally told the crowd that she doesn't want it broadcast on TV that she has AIDS. "Letting him come, I was fine with that," she said of Schaefer. "But putting it on TV, my health stuff, that's personal."
So everyone left.
Although the morning wasn't holiday-special perfect, Basile said it was enough.
Sick people got their food. Moveable Feast got a few moments in the limelight. And Schaefer possibly made strides in getting his name from this year's naughty list to the nice.
"He gave us a chance to talk to him about this disease and help him understand," Basile said. "And I think it was sincere."