Chapter 2: Getting to know you

They stood on the steps of the Basilica of the Assumption in the fall twilight. They worked together across the street at Baltimore’s Catholic newspaper but had gone to Mass separately, then bumped into each other on the way out. She had a friend with her. They chatted a bit, then she asked him, “Would you like to go to dinner with two pretty women?”

“Sure,” he said, returning her smile. “Do you know any?”

Looking back over the years, he catches his breath and marvels at his foolishness.What if his juvenile wisecrack had hurt her feelings and she walked out of his life? He could have lost her forever just as he was about to find her. But she was no fragile flower. She just laughed and the three of them headed down the block to a little restaurant.

A week later, they went on their first real date, to a Baltimore landmark called Sy Bloom’s Place in the Alley. It was, for reasons he has never understood in a real alley, behind The Block, a stretch of Baltimore Street that was crammed with strip joints. Inside, Sy Bloom’s was a world away from The Block or the alley – dark, plush, tables covered with white tablecloths, waiters in black jackets. Too rich for his taste. He had been fooled by the location he guessed.

It was too late to back out now, and he didn’t want to back out. She was fun to be with it. So they shared chateaubriand. He had no idea what it was until the waiter carefully described it. They sat and talked and had a great time. Then the check came — $35, a huge sum in 1968, and he had no credit card.

She noticed the surprised look on his face. “How much is it?” she asked. “I can help out.”

“That’s OK,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “I always keep a $50 bill in the back of my wallet in case I do anything stupid.” Not the best way to put it but they both laughed. She was growing accustomed to him. A few minutes later they were strolling down the alley, past the garbage cans, happy to be together. It had been a very good night.

He came to work in one morning with a bandage on a finger.

“What happened?” she said.

“I was trying to cut an onion,” he said, “and it rolled on me.”

He had never before lived on his own, never cooked anything more complicated than toast. Now he was slowly but surely killing himself with his own cooking. One night he had looked down and realized he was boiling beef stew meat in bacon fat. He had no idea why. He turned off the burner and went out to eat.

“How do you stop them from rolling?” he asked her. “I really like fried onions but I can’t fry them whole.”

“It’s easy” she said. “All you have to do is cut it once all the way across to start. Then put the flat side on the counter and it won’t roll.”

He thought for a few seconds, wondering how that little piece of wisdom had escaped him and said, “Thanks.” He was beginning to believe this was a match made in heaven.

She showed him around Baltimore. They went to the Peabody Bookshop, a place known as a favorite haunt of H.L. Mencken, a brilliant satirist and the best known American newspaperman of the first half of the 20th century. Mencken is largely unknown now, but back then just about every drinking establishment in the city claimed the Sage of Baltimore as a longtime patron.

On the first floor, the Peabody was a used bookstore crowded with dusty old hardcover books – paperbacks were beneath its timeworn dignity. The place looked vaguely like a shop in a 1930s movie set in Prague. In the basement was a bar with 20 wooden tables jammed together, a nondescript place except for as slightly disheveled old man in a threadbare black suit – the Great Dantini. It was a grandiose name for a magician who had seen better days and now was passing the hat Friday and Saturday nights at the Peabody Bookshop.

Dantini was surprisingly charming and quite skillful, but he was working so close to the audience, his sleight of hand was visible to almost everyone. Put him on a stage 20 or 30 feet away and three feet off the ground and he might have been a Houdini. They watched and clapped and laughed with the rest of the crowd and threw a few extra dollars in the hat at the end of each show.

They had a very good time at the Peabody. They were having a very good time wherever they went together.

She took him to a crab house in East Baltimore. Long wooden picnic tables were covered with newspaper and the newspapers covered with crab, freshly pulled from steaming pots and seasoned with a potent concoction called Old Bay. The place was alive with the sound of little wooden mallets as the diners broke open the crab.

She showed him how to “crack” crabs with a mallet and “pick” crabs, pulling out the meat, piece by little piece. “Don’t eat that,” she said, pointing to an ugly gray mess in the middle of the crab. “It’s the dead man. They say it can kill you.”

Over the years he would always carefully avoid the dead man but he never mastered the art of cracking and picking crab. It was too much work for too little food. He’d get little cuts in his fingers from the crab shell, and the Old Bay seasoning would sting. When they went out for crab, she would do most of the hard work while he did the eating. He later learned that crab was best when she sautéed lumps of it with salty Smithfield ham.

She took him “downdaocean,” as they say in East Baltimore. He had to hear it several times before he understood that meant “down to the ocean” – a three hour drive to Ocean City, Maryland. They went on a cold, overcast day in late fall. The town was deserted. They walked on the beach, and for the first time, he saw the ocean. He was not impressed. He had gone to college in Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan. He couldn’t see much difference.

They went into a big restaurant and ate hamburgers. They had the place to themselves but they didn’t need anyone else. They drove back to Baltimore, had dinner in the basement of the Penn Hotel, and shared a bottle of sweet Sauterne.

He flew back home to Chicago at Christmas. It would be the only Christmas they were apart. When he got back to Baltimore, she gave him a present she had made while he was gone – a four foot square piece of burlap with colorful felt letters glued to it. They formed the words of his favorite quote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears however measured or far away.”

Often over the years, they had seemed to step to a different drummer. They didn’t yearn to be different. They just had their own priorities – their children and their Catholic faith. They had no interest in keeping pace with the world around them.

Seven or eight hundred miles apart – she in Baltimore, he in Chicago – they had grown up thinking they would one day get married and have children, that the family would be the center of their lives. He would go out and earn a living. She would stay home and care for the kids with a mother’s love, keeping them safe from harm. So they did.