Eighty-year-old Stelios Spiliadis, proud Greek-American and civic-minded Baltimorean, philosopher, acclaimed restaurateur and congenial raconteur, was angry. “Of course, my first response was a degree of anger,” he says. “I am a human being.”
But after looking at the gray-and-grainy videos of the skinny young man who broke into his Fells Point establishment Monday morning, Spiliadis had a moment of reflection. Such moments come easily to a man who grew up in Greece, who quotes ancient wisdom, who studied the philosophers at Columbia, and who served as a social worker for 30 years before opening his Black Olive restaurant in 1997.
Spiliadis had a thought about the thieving, foolish man-child who opened the Black Olive’s rear door, pulled the cash register from a counter, damaged a $1,500 video screen and dashed off with a minor amount of cash:
Find him, and give him a chance to change his life.
“I don’t want him to go to jail,” Spiliadis says. “I want to see if there is an alternative for him, in the form of a decent job, and would he take it? I will start him in a very structured way, in a very structured job like [busing tables], and he will be on probation like everyone else.
“I will tell him, ‘Look at all the trouble you went through for a small amount of cash. We never have much cash here. Look at the time wasted, the damage to my business, the time of the police. ... Get together with me and work. I will give you a job, and you will pay me back — I am a Greek businessman, you will pay me back — and then you will have a job, and a career.’”
Since 2005, when I started writing about unemployment among ex-offenders in Baltimore, I have received thousands of messages from adults with criminal records who have had trouble finding jobs. (I’m a little behind on returning calls, but the line is still open: 410-332-6166.)
A few owners of small businesses contacted me about giving second chances. They said they were willing, under certain conditions, to hire men or women who have committed crimes and served time in jail or prison.
But Stelios Spiliadis is the first victim of a crime to say he would give a second chance to the specific offender — and one still at large.
Spiliadis is a savvy businessman and an idealist, an admirable combination in a world so jaded, snarky and cynical.
Still, what he wants to accomplish is complicated.
First of all, the skinny young man in the video would have to get the message. Then he would have to decide to come forward, then chance the consequences. Spiliadis might be the victim here, but he’s not the police and he’s not a prosecutor, parties with some say in what might happen.
But Spiliadis has his eye on something bigger, something different, and, if it comes to that, he thinks he could sell his proposition to the judge who would determine the young man’s fate.
“I am not motivated by the Christian ethic of ‘turn the other cheek,’” he says. Getting a young criminal off the streets of Baltimore is the aim, and that is bound to be good for business.
Business in recent years has been down, Spiliadis says, noting a particular loss of customers from the suburbs, a common concern and regret expressed by other city restaurateurs during the last three years. Baltimore’s civic and business leadership, he says, needs to think bigger and more creatively about getting young men, in particular, off the criminal track and on a career path.
“One kid, one owner, one act can get me a place in paradise, but that’s not what the city needs,” he says.
Spiliadis stood by the monitor connected to the Black Olive’s many security cameras, watching the video of the skinny young man from Monday morning.
“Look at that,” he says. “We are both losers, that guy and I. My business has been reduced to a significant level as a result of the perception that the county has of safety in Baltimore.
“And he’s a loser — he has no future doing what he’s doing. To take the amount of time he did, the kind of risk he did, and for what? He is a loser.”
Spiliadis would like to meet the young man and see what he needs, and offer him a chance to train for a culinary career in a white-linen Greek restaurant that frequently wins the high praise of critics.
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So, there it is, kid. The rest is up to you.