Middle Man

By Peter Perl
Sunday, September 29, 1996; 5:00 AM

Through sheer force of will, Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry stands about six feet away from the governor of Maryland and pretends convincingly not to see him.

Curry and Gov. Parris Glendening, his predecessor as Prince George's executive, don't much like each other. So it is awkward when they arrive almost simultaneously outside this scruffy abandoned storefront in Bladensburg. Curry goes about smiling, shaking many hands, hugging old friends and manfully ignoring the governor.

But he has to sit and listen as Glendening opens this groundbreaking for a neighborhood pharmacy with one of those warm, homey and overlong anecdotes politicians love to tell. An anecdote about his youthful days as a drugstore soda jerk.

"It was a good, old-fashioned soda fountain," Glendening says. ". . . You knew one another. You talked."

As Curry listens, his expression ranges from attentive to bored to slightly mischievous, a twinkling look that his mother and his schoolteachers would remember well from a young man known for his sharp tongue and his tendency to tweak those in authority.

When the governor finishes his rhapsody about his boyhood Rexall drugstore and sits down to polite applause, Curry rises. He and Glendening barely acknowledge each other. The two men stand divided over issues ranging from a county budget deficit to state aid for education to the new Redskins stadium going up in Prince George's. Beneath the current events, too, lies a much deeper conflict: Each man symbolizes a different stage in the development of a place whose singular history has cast issues of race and class in sharp relief.

"This is my home town," Curry says to the crowd of civic leaders, and then takes pains to remind everybody that while Wayne Curry is a genuine Prince George's County homeboy, Parris Glendening spent his childhood somewhere in Florida. "I don't know if his memory of a soda fountain was in Tallahassee or wherever that was," Curry says. "Well, I grew up right here."

He talks about how he went to Bladensburg Junior High, which used to be right up the street, and worked in the pet shop that used to be just next door. Then he spins an anecdote to top the governor's: During Curry's youth, on this very spot here on Annapolis Road, there used to be a pool hall named the Golden Cue, where a 13-year-old hustler called Geese used to skip school to shoot pool. There was a duckpin bowling alley out back and a roller rink here, too, and the community was vibrant and lively, before it went into decline and delinquents like Geese started getting into serious trouble. Curry concludes by saying how devoted he is to "recapturing" neighborhoods like this, and making Prince George's County better for everyone.

The applause for Curry is decidedly louder. The governor has a fixed smile on his face as he claps.

Outside, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a hearty session of hugging and hand-shaking, Curry is cornered by a cameraman and a TV reporter in the narrow front parking lot of the strip shopping center. Curry quickly delivers a clean sound bite about "the human side of these neighborhoods we have neglected," but in mid-sentence he is interrupted by the blaring horn of a dark limousine. It is Glendening's limousine. Curry is blocking the governor's quick exit, and rather than wait, Glendening's driver chooses to honk the county executive out of the way as he inches the governor's car forward.

Curry has no choice but to stop. The TV crew will have to shoot the whole interview over. Curry scowls as he is forced to step aside, up onto the curb, to let the governor pass.

Wayne Curry does not get pushed aside very often these days. Not anymore.

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© 1996 The Washington Post Company