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Street Talk

Uli Loskot
Dan Rodricks

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 6/15/2005

Dan Rodricks rests his head in his hands. He leans toward the middle-aged black man seated on the other side of the desk and says, “You’re one of those guys who are tired, aren’t you?”

Theodore Anderson nods. He looks tired. So does the Sun columnist. They’ve been talking for half an hour about Anderson’s hard-knock life, covering all the usual Baltimore bases—multiple felony convictions, drug dealing, drug addiction, drug treatment, low-paying jobs and the difficulty of getting them—and both men look pretty well worn out.

Outside, the cavernous Sun newsroom buzzes with an efficient, corporate hum, but in Office 2036 the air is heavy.

“You’re in a rough spot,” Rodricks says. “I don’t know what to do about that, but I’m gonna write a story about this, OK?” He squints at Anderson. “How do you feel about having your picture in the paper?”

A few days ago it was Rodricks who was one of those tired guys. Which is why, he says, he styled his June 9 column as an open letter to the city’s drug dealers, alternately begging them for a cease-fire and berating them for not finding a way to ply their trade without killing each other.

It is, for the veteran news columnist and former police reporter, an unusual piece, aimed squarely at the city’s young black dealers, and employing at times a street vernacular. “Brothers, we are so tired of this,” writes the 51-year-old white columnist, later adding, “Let’s get some do-the-right-thing among you.”

What prompted this colloquial outburst, Rodricks says, was an unhappy confluence of bad news last week about Baltimore. He had been on his way to observe jury selection in a triple-child murder case, when he got news of five more shooting incidents in the city—including three deaths—in the previous 24 hours.

All that against the backdrop of an FBI study released last week reporting an increase in violent crime in Baltimore—a finding that bucked national trends and contradicted rosier claims recently made by City Hall.

The prospect of writing another sober column about the scourge of drug-related violence was suddenly untenable to Rodricks, who has been a Sun columnist for nearly two decades. “When I went to work [Wednesday],” he says, “I was really fed up with all of this, and writing another piece like that, it wasn’t for me.”

Instead, he printed his office phone number in his column, with an offer to help augment the income of nonviolent drug dealers. “If you’re not making enough money,” Rodricks wrote, “call me at 410 332-6166 and I’ll find some way to set you up with a part-time job.”

The calls started coming in at 4:30 in the morning on Thursday. Among them was a message from Theodore Anderson, who says he usually reads only the police blotter but happened to notice Rodricks’ contribution that day.

“The whole column just spoke out to me,” says Anderson, whose profile was one of four featured in Rodricks’ follow-up Sunday column.

As of 2 p.m. Thursday, Rodricks says he had 17 phone calls, eight from people wanting to take him up on his job-placement services, the remainder comments from readers, some who praised the column and others who didn’t. One reader wrote in, “Your article/plea should be the headlines on the front page. I read your column every day and this ‘plea’ brought tears to my eyes.” Another sang “Kumbaya” into Rodricks’ voice mail and called him a “stupid motherfucker.”

That last sentiment was the general feeling expressed toward Rodricks Thursday on talk-radio host Chip Franklin’s morning program on WBAL (1090 AM). “Most [callers] agreed that Rodricks’ column ran the full gamut, from naive to pandering to disingenuous,” Franklin says.

Franklin says Rodricks’ column has generated as much controversy among his listeners as any Sun column in recent memory. “He’s certainly given [Michael] Olesker a run for his money,” he says.

Franklin singles out for criticism Rodricks’ use of the epithet “brothers".

“Calling them brothers, that’s what I mean by disingenuous,” Franklin says. “Come on, how much time does Dan spend down in the ’hood with the guys in the long white shirts? . . . If they’re his brothers, then somebody needs to talk to Mommy and Daddy.”

Rodricks dismisses Franklin’s criticism as unworthy of comment, but makes no apologies for his use of the brotherly appellation. “I’m actually sincere about it,” he says. “I do think of them as my brothers. And if that’s altruistic and corny, I don’t give a shit.”

Rodricks acknowledges he wrote the column in an impassioned moment, and actually expected his editors to cut some of the “vernacular” language in it, but says he’s happy they didn’t.

“I don’t find the language objectionable,” writes Phillip Dixon, chair of the Howard University journalism department, in an e-mail to City Paper. Dixon says the column reminded him of those written by legendary Philadelphia Daily News columnist Chuck Stone, famous for successfully encouraging dozens of murder suspects to “surrender” themselves to him, so that Stone might personally ensure the suspects would avoid brutality at the hands of Philadelphia police.

Rodricks says his June 9 column was actually inspired by another legendary columnist, Depression-era journalist Heywood Broun, whose populist column in the New York World, “It Seems to Me,” periodically included profiles of desperate job seekers.

“There’s a long tradition in American journalism of columnists intervening and trying to do good,” University of Maryland journalism professor Christopher Henson says. While he lauded Rodricks’ idea of appealing directly to street-level dealers, Henson says he worries that a white columnist’s imitation of black argot might be read by some as condescending.

Rodricks doesn’t have time to concern himself with the politics of interpretation. While Theodore Anderson waits outside for a Sun photographer, Rodricks meets with the second respondent to the “Dear Baltimore drug dealers” letter. For an hour, this 26-year-old former heroin dealer from East Baltimore delivers a feverish, articulate, and almost nonstop monologue about life on the streets, punctuated with a familiar refrain: “I’m just tired of it!”

The columnist shakes his head in wonder. “I could write a book about this guy,” he says in an aside. Then he turns back to the young black man and says to him, almost smiling, “Sean, you got so much to tell.”

Rodricks doesn’t look at all tired anymore.

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