The sky is battleship gray and it is almost time for "Mayor Dixon's Parade of Stars," though at 9:20 a.m. about half the booths on the War Memorial Plaza that are set up for the parade are empty. A woman stands forlornly in the center of one city agency's booth. When asked what's going on, she replies, "I don't know--I was recruited for this yesterday."
What is going on is a contest to see which city agency has the most spirit. According to a press release the Department of Public Works released late on Dec. 6, the parade and a display booth decorating contest "is for the Mayor to show her appreciation for the hard work of our city employees: the stars of Baltimore. It is also a chance for us to learn about our sister agencies: what they do, what are their goals, what resources they have available. This is also an opportunity to have fun. Be unique! If you have uniforms, proudly wear them and march in an eye-catching contingent."
The mayor promises a trophy for the best decorated booths. "Home-made soup, hot dogs, and soft drinks will be provided at this event to city employees ONLY," the release goes on, as if in warning to the legions of homeless who used to hang out here. "You must show your city ID to enjoy the refreshments."
The event reminded the Nose of high school pep rallies, which we did not enjoy. The lined-up personnel in "unique" "uniforms" and the vehicles--including the police tactical squad's urban assault vehicle--brought to mind post-coup Banana Republicans reviewing their troops.
But there isn't much dissent or dourness here this icy morning, despite the weather. The Department of Human Resources' booth is covered with copyright-infringing cartoon faces attached to paper plates--Bart Simpson, Fred Flintstone, Sesame Street's Ernie and Bert. The faces represent people working in the office, according to someone there, who wisely declines to name them for a reporter.
Public Works' booth is stuffed with neat gadgetry. There is a working diorama of the city's storm-sewer system, complete with rowhouses, cars, a bridge, a stream, and rain. Two water-quality workers built it a few years ago to display at festivals and help schoolchildren understand that anything they throw in the street ends up in the bay. Fleet services arrives at 9:30 or so with some burned pistons and a camshaft, which workers lay incongruously next to the storm water display. There's only so much room.
The Family League of Baltimore City, Inc., a quasi-public, nonprofit welfare agency, shows up with what amounts to an extra booth. The main booth features comfy chairs, hot chocolate, and a space heater. "Less is more," says Camille Burke, a senior contracts coordinator with the agency, her eye on the police department's booth, which right this minute has just a couple of cop lights and some recruitment brochures.
Everyone is talking about the Housing Department's booth, which features a parquet floor, plush furniture, lace curtains, and a chandelier. It is decorated with pictures of the mayor and wrapped in a brick-print paper. "They built a house," says a city worker standing in front of the police department's booth. "They were afraid some homeless person would move in. Had to guard it all night."
"Those are all foreclosure notices," quips DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher, pointing to the home's overfilled "mailbox."
Snow flurries fall as the parade is supposed to start. City workers--the "stars" the mayor is celebrating--hop with their hands in their pockets, bundled in caps and scarves. "I'm wearing three layers of thermal underwear," says one cop.
Another city worker, who will remain nameless, asks a pointed question: Why are hundreds of city employees taking half a day off to parade around and decorate booths on a freezing cold December day, all to worship the mayor?
"If you want to celebrate the employees, you do this six months from now" when it's warm, says the employee. Then, thinking it through he adds: "Actually, you want to show your appreciation of me, of city employees?" He holds his hand up and fingers imaginary bills. "That's the way to show your appreciation."
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