I confess that, covering my first election for the Sunpapers of Baltimore, I broke a rule: I accepted a free meal. It was Nov. 2, 1976. An editor assigned me to write a story about Election Day politics in East Baltimore. I ended up in front of a giant bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, my journalistic integrity in shambles, overpowered by Highlandtown hospitality.
Here’s what happened.
At the corner of Claremont and Eaton, a hooting Democratic ward heeler named Freddie Graziaplena walked from door to door to make sure his neighbors voted. He wore a goofy hat with a sign that said, “I Need U Now,” and he hooted, “Hoo hoo!” to beckon pedestrians to the polls. He handed out flyers of the Democratic ticket: Jimmy Carter for president, Paul Sarbanes for Senate, Barbara Mikulski for House of Representatives.
In the afternoon, Freddie broke for lunch and invited me to his rowhouse just a few doors from the corner.
Reporters were told never to take freebies — meals, drinks, tickets to the Stones, anything like that. But I was still new to the world of Highlandtown (pronounced “Hollandtown” by everyone I met that day), so I followed Freddie home.
I got inside and there it was on the dining room table — the biggest bowl of spaghetti I had ever seen, nearly three feet in diameter, with a mound of pasta coated in steaming tomato sauce and topped with meatballs and Parmesan.
Freddie’s wife had spent the morning making “homemades,” as she called the long strands of pasta, and now it was time to eat. Two horses would have had room to feed in that bowl.
“Sit down, Sunpapers man, and eat,” Freddie said. “Hoo, hoo!”
And what was I going to do? As a lad of Italian ancestry, I was incapable of saying no. Besides, this was Baltimore, and if there’s one thing I had discovered in my short time here, starting with an Evening Sun internship the previous winter, Baltimoreans are as friendly as they are peculiar, and I found that to be the case all over the city.
I call up this story from — holy meatballs! — 46 years ago, because it’s similar to countless experiences I’ve had as a reporter and columnist for the bygone Evening Sun and The Sun. For the most part, Baltimoreans have been welcoming and open to a guy who asks questions.
I’ve encountered grouches and hostiles, too. I’ve taken plenty of criticism for my columns, most of it by mail, some of it while waiting for the No. 51 bus or having a cocktail.
But, when it comes to the amiability of people, I believe I landed in a good place. There’s little pretension and lots of blunt honesty among the inhabitants of the Greater Patapsco Drainage Basin — maybe so much that Baltimoreans underestimate themselves, a condition seen as an inferiority complex. After all these years, I’ve decided that the famous Baltimore quirkiness is in perfect balance with a practical side of low expectations. We gripe about the Orioles, but still believe, way down inside, that a World Series will one day come to Camden Yards.
I’m rambling, which is something that happens in this job. As Peter Jay, former columnist for The Sun, put it: “Occasionally the column, like a wise old pony, seems to find its own way out of the woods after the person who is supposed to be directing it has concluded that they’re both hopelessly lost.”
Been there, done that, and I’m amazed at how much readers seem to appreciate the occasional meander.
With the 185th Baltimore Sun anniversary upon us, I want to thank the Graziaplenas of Highlandtown for the spaghetti and meatballs, But, far more than that, I want to thank the readers of this newspaper for supporting us through the years.
Our industry has been through seismic changes; that’s an old story now. Things are not as they were when I landed here in the 200th year of the nation, with the fantastic tall ships in the harbor and rats eating Baltimore’s rain-ruined Bicentennial birthday cake. The days of The Sun as a national newspaper with foreign correspondents around the world are long gone. We are an intensely local news source, still the most enterprising in our region, and while I wish we had a larger staff, I remain, as a reader of my own paper, impressed at how quickly and how well Sun reporters, editors and photographers get the news in front of us.
Watch for the new bylines; they reflect a lot of fresh talent and fresh eyes on our news territory. I hope readers will appreciate and support our young reporters, as they appreciated and supported my generation through the years.
I still get plenty of mail, plenty of challenging comments and lots of leads on stories. Readers care deeply about local issues.
I also note, as you might suspect, that a lot of Marylanders turn to us with their problems — sometimes as a last resort, but often as the first call for help. As much criticism as we take for bias, for missing stories or making mistakes, a lot of our readers see The Sun as an independent institution that can expose large problems and help solve small ones. To be thought of that way is very gratifying and comforting, like a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.