Former Charm City Writer Tom D’Antoni Has More Than 10 Things He Hates About Baltimore
In 1997, Tom D’Antoni sold an essay to City Paper titled “I Was a Scandal-Rag Whore!” (May 14) The first-person piece documented the former WJZ-TV news producer’s stint in the mid-1980s with the Sun supermarket tabloid (no relation to Baltimore’s Sun), to which he contributed fake news stories with headlines such as “Woman Goes on High Fiber Diet, Eats Her Clothes” and “New Genetic Discovery Can Make Your Dog Smell Like a Pizza.”
D’Antoni had just moved from Baltimore to Portland, Ore., where he peddled the same story to The Oregonian newspaper. Last year, D’Antoni sold an expanded version of the CP essay to Random House imprint Villard, a book that includes revised texts of 20 of his tabloid stories. The narrative thread stringing together the fake articles is largely a retelling of D’Antoni telling the story to Oprah Winfrey on television in 1988.
“This story’s got legs,” D’Antoni says by phone from Portland, where he works as a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker—when he’s not hustling for ever more publicity on his book, Rabid Nun Infects Entire Convent: And Other Sensational Stories From a Tabloid Writer.
D’Antoni, 59, is unrepentant about mining as much mileage as possible from his one-year career as a Sun hack. The way he sees it, it’s just desserts from the “mean, dirty little city” that nearly sucked the humanity from this former hippie, and which is responsible for the extreme financial and psychological degradation that forced him to scrape the very bottom of the journalistic barrel.
In a post-Onion era where people get real news from the Daily Show’s fake news, D’Antoni’s 1980s tabloid trash is more quaint than shocking, but strewn throughout this 128-page volume is a poison-pen valentine to Baltimore that is remarkable in its unremitting, undisguised revulsion.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he writes in the first chapter, after blaming Baltimore for breeding the mind that would dream up stories about the sale of chemical-disaster corpses as prepared meals for starving Ethiopians. “I have a spot inside me that holds feelings for Baltimore. That place might not be my heart, but it’s in there someplace. Maybe my urologist found it the last time I visited him.” Lest you presume this ribbing is good-natured, D’Antoni goes on to theorize that people in Baltimore really are “dumber, meaner, more miserable and perverse” than anywhere else in the country.
And he’s holding back in print. In conversation, D’Antoni gladly waxes rhapsodic about Mobtown’s eternal evils. When told about a recently announced $500,000 branding campaign designed to rehabilitate Harm City’s tourist allure, D’Antoni literally can’t stop laughing for at least 20 seconds. “Baltimore’s greatest claim to fame is that Divine ate shit on Read Street,” he says after catching his breath, referring to John Waters’ 1972 movie, Pink Flamingos. “Great cities are not known for having somebody eat dog shit. Baltimore will never be great. It’s just not going to happen.”
Of course, mining Baltimore’s
ugliness for fun and profit is a venerable local tradition, but unlike Waters or H.L. Mencken or David Simon, D’Antoni doesn’t hit because he loves. He just hates—which, for a guy who devoted much of his career to celebrating Baltimore, is a testament to how cruel a mistress this city can be.
D’Antoni was born in 1946 in the same Northwest Baltimore neighborhood that filmmaker Barry Levinson has cinematically sentimentalized, though D’Antoni’s sepia-toned days weren’t so halcyon. “I knew the Diner Guys,” he says of Levinson’s childhood friends who inspired the nostalgic Diner. “I hated them.” He recalls being tormented by the older teenagers while he was a student at Garrison Junior High School. “They threw me down the fucking steps and spit on me.”
Already acculturated to outsider status by coming of age in a largely Jewish neighborhood—“When there was a Jewish holiday it was me and two black kids in school”—D’Antoni enrolled at the majority-black Morgan State University in 1966, on a minority scholarship. It wasn’t a particularly happy experiment, or an academically enriching one, he says, on a campus then naturally preoccupied with the civil-rights movement. “I learned that prejudice is a bad thing,” he quips, when asked about his studies in English literature.
D’Antoni wasn’t yet entirely given over to cynicism back then, however, and dropped out of Morgan in 1968 to supervise a federal program for poor children in East Baltimore. One day, while reading Henry Miller’s Nexus on Howard Street, the young do-gooder was inspired by Miller’s 1920s decision to quit his day job and pursue the writing life. “I stopped on Howard Street and closed the book,” D’Antoni recalls. “I quit the poverty program and walked into Harry, the underground newspaper of record.”
There D’Antoni found “drugs, loose women, revolutionaries, and fun,” he says of his years at the radical newspaper, which was edited by future right-wing funnyman P.J. O’Rourke. “It was a very interesting time for Baltimore. John Waters was coming up, and I wrote either the first or one of the first reviews of Pink Flamingos.”
After Harry folded in 1971, D’Antoni joined Maryland Public Television as a jazz and pop-music critic. In 1977, he left Baltimore for the first time, for a one-year stint as a producer at Los Angeles public television station KCET. “I hated L.A.,” he says. So when Baltimore’s Channel 13 was hiring story producers for a new program called Evening Magazine D’Antoni returned.
“Everybody leaves Baltimore,” D’Antoni says. “All the creative people leave. So when I came back I made the commitment, and it was a serious one, that I would be the one to stay and document Baltimore. It was important for me to show the people of Baltimore themselves, and not just be someone coming through on the way to a bigger station.”
It was a decision he would bitterly regret years later. But, for a time, D’Antoni was successful doing what he felt was meaningful work. His specialty was ferreting out local color vignettes, such as a night in a Pigtown bar. “It was just drunks sitting around singing ‘Pigtown will shine tonight’ and playing shufflebowl,” he says. “That story was important to me because no TV person stepped foot in a bar in Pigtown. They didn’t then and they don’t now, I guarantee you.”
In 1983, D’Antoni left television and tried to translate his TV experience into a radio program. That was the beginning of the end of his fondness for the city. He had a short-lived Orioles pregame show on WFBR, but financial pressures forced him to take odd jobs to pay the rent on his Mount Vernon apartment. He penned tabloid articles, created screaming car dealership TV ads, produced features stories for a failed “Trucker TV” network, and worked as a children’s party DJ.
The “big crash,” as he calls it, came in 1991. D’Antoni tried and failed to revive Harry. Then several other promising job opportunities fell threw. In his 40s, childless, thrice divorced, and broke, D’Antoni fell into a serious depression.
“I went and drove a cab,” he says. “I played this sort of suicide game every night. I’d get in a cab and I would try to pick up criminals, so that they would kill me. It’s true. Black people were astounded that I picked them up. Absolutely astounded. But nobody killed me.”
D’Antoni had a front-row view of Baltimore during a major period of civil degeneration. “Every night was scary,” he says. “Every single night. I was beaten by a bunch of people on Park Heights Avenue. Spit on. I was nuts. I was really nuts. I would do anything. If people ran out of the cab [without paying], I would run after them. And I would get beaten up.”
He remembers one scene in particular. “I pick up this black woman and her daughter,” he says. “And for some reason the little girl looks through the sliding glass shield and she says, ‘I love you.’ And I busted out crying right there in the cab. It was such a contrast to what I had to face every day.”
His conclusion: “People in Baltimore are angry and mean.”
That’s D’Antoni’s conviction, and he’s sticking to it. He credits his escape from suicidal tendencies—along with anti-depressants and “a lot of therapy”—to breaking his self-imposed commitment to Baltimore. In 1997, he followed a woman to Portland and has only visited his hometown once, very briefly, six years ago.
In a 1997 op-ed in The Sun (the Baltimore daily, not the supermarket tab) titled “Goodbye, Baltimore—happy to be outta here,” D’Antoni reflected on the moment he realized he wasn’t in Charm City anymore. “I sat in a coffee shop last night,” he wrote. “A black woman sat at the table next to me. In the friendly atmosphere of conversation and caffeine, we exchanged a few jokes. Nothing much. Just like you’d do with anybody. She didn’t seem to blame me, as a white guy, for her problems. She talked to me, as another human being. I did the same. It was such a relief.”
Soon after arriving in Portland, D’Antoni landed a job as a television producer/reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting, where he worked for six years. Now he’s a freelance writer and is happily married to his fourth wife. Portland reminds D’Antoni of Baltimore in the 1950s, he says, and though it took him two years to shake off the paranoia, he no longer walks around in fear of getting got. “I love Portland,” he says with obvious enthusiasm. “Nobody gets shot, nobody gets killed. There’s a few gangbangers, that’s it. What do we have, like, 12 murders a year? That’s a good weekend in Baltimore.”
(Actually, there were 26 murders in Portland in 2005, which is still less than a 10th of Baltimore’s 269. Baltimore has about a 20 percent larger population.)
D’Antoni says he’s planning another book about the odd jobs he held during his dog days in Baltimore. And though his hometown has given him plenty of material, he’s more resentful than grateful for it. “Fuck yeah, I’m angry,” he says. “I’ve had a whole lot of success here [in Portland]. I wonder if I actually had moved out earlier and stayed out, how much more success I could have had. Of course I’m angry.” H
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