It is afternoon in small-town America, and with batons in hand, the tiny Freedom Firestars are huddling against the January cold. Down the street, the midday sun gives the chrome and paint on the line of classic cars from a small auto body shop an extra dress-up shine. And in the median between Oregon and Carville avenues, a fella from the Washington Scottish Pipe Band waits for the rest of his group, his kilt blowing around his knees.
It's cold enough that your hands don't work right, but Paul Berilla is tickled to be at this parade honoring Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Arbutus's native son. He voted for Ehrlich and his running mate, Michael S. Steele, and he promises that for the parade "we're gonna give them a good blast on the pipes."
Ehrlich, his wife, Kendel, and Steele and his wife, Andrea, bring up the parade rear. They are young, attractive, telegenic people, and the crowd feeds off their optimism and promise.
Atta boy, Bobby!
It's a homecoming for Erhlich, although he says, "I've never left in a lot of ways. Of all the places I've gone in the world, college and law school, I always come back" to this town of Little Leagues and Rotary clubs and neighborhoods and friends.
Last March, in announcing his candidacy for governor on the steps of his parents' modest three-bedroom home, the Republican congressman bet his blue-collar roots he could strike a chord with voters.
Last November, he won that bet -- his regular-guyness eclipsing Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's celebrity and spanning the psychic distance from rowhouse to governor's mansion. Yesterday, Ehrlich paraded through the streets of his home town, off I-695 and Route 1, 15 minutes southwest of Baltimore, waving and kissing and dancing with the ones that brought him.
A morning mass at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Landover Hills, the Prince George's County home town of Steele, began the second day of festivities leading to Wednesday's inauguration of Ehrlich as Maryland's 60th governor and first Republican governor elected since 1966.
The parade theme was "Hometown Boy Makes Good," and it sounded all the high notes in the Americana medley: family and work and neighborhood and country. Flags and hankies and hugs and values. It's "Our Town." It's Mayberry in Maryland -- that's what the governor-elect's handlers will tell you.
And shucks if they aren't at least partway right. Arbutus, Md., is not a place that's up-and-coming. (The unincorporated town had 20,116 folks in 2000, and about the same in 1980 and 1960 as well). What it is is the same thing as it used to be. This is not to say that people haven't come and gone or that the times haven't changed or that the area didn't get that new clock right on the corner of Oregon Avenue that makes all the difference when you're heading home.
But spend some time there and Arbutus starts to feel like something you think you know. Something you've seen before and sometimes wish could be again. It's not the details of the place, it's the proportions: family to community, neighbor to neighbor, father to son.
Bob Ehrlich Sr. makes modesty seem like effusiveness. There is the look of the son in the father, and he seems youthful, easy in his skin, comfortable with his proportions. One wife, one son, three bedrooms, one small town. (Plus a coupla beers a coupla times a week.)
"Come on in, can I get you anything, hon?" the retired car salesman says to a total stranger, a reporter, one of half a dozen who have dropped in on him in the weeks leading to his son's inauguration.
He "was tickled" when Bob won, when Arbutus got so much attention, when the first reporters called, but admits he's "come back down to earth." Still, he good-naturedly shows off the scrapbook, one of more than 14 he meticulously maintains.
There's the governor-elect as a Little Leaguer, pictured in the Arbutus Times; as a football captain at Baltimore's Gilman School; at Princeton. Never did get into any trouble, says the father of the son. "When he wasn't on the field, he was upstairs studying." Then, as if to prove the governor-elect's longtime seriousness of purpose, he offers that Bob was "dry at a year."
Dry? As in potty-trained? He calls his wife, Nancy, a legal secretary for a Baltimore law firm, to confirm. "Yep, walking at 7 months, dry at a year."
In our town we like to know the facts about everybody.
At least three times a week, Ehrlich the elder and his wife drop by Leon's Triple L Restaurant & Lounge, located on East Drive since it opened in 1959. On Tuesdays and Saturdays during the campaign, Ehrlich volunteers would pass out literature there. Yesterday it was the final stop on the parade route.
Leon Leroy Lineburg, 71, is one of those archetypal small-town characters. A lifelong resident. Plain-spoken. Knows everybody's name. Calls all the ladies "hon." Had to kick a drunk out of his bar a couple of Saturdays ago because he doesn't tolerate "all that common language."
"We're a small town, we're laid back until something gets the ear of everybody," he says. Like now, there's the matter of all this traffic flying down East Drive. "We used to be two lanes; you could park and get out of your car without having to look in the mirror." And of course all this fuss over Bob. Lineburg went to Catonsville High School with Nancy Ehrlich. He points across East Drive to where she used to be a soda jerk when the poodle salon used to be a drugstore. He says a lot more strangers have come in the restaurant lately. Some folks have tried to sidle up to him, thinking he might have the ear of the governor. But he wants no part of being any kind of go-between or spokesman.
"I like to get in the beer sometimes, and that can make you say things that get you in trouble. I don't want to be no trouble for Bob," Lineburg says. "I just wish him well and support him any way I can."
Which is how lots of folks in Arbutus feel. Except the ones who don't know Ehrlich. Who've never seen him in person and never met his family. Which doesn't mean Arbutus is too good to be true. It's more like: Life can be complicated and layered. In that way, Arbutus is like small towns across the country.
Bankshot Billiards is just across the street from Leon's, but last week, the owners didn't know the parade was coming to town. Rob Long, 25, opened the pool hall in November and hired buddy Mike "Big Sexy" Warden, 22, to run it. The pool hall is one of two businesses that Long, who has lived in Arbutus for six years, opened in the area (the other being a cleaning service). The married father of three, who has shot pool since he was 15, wants to give young people an alternative to hanging out at the old Hollywood Theater. Wants to raise his kids here and pass something down.
That's why the pool hall has daily specials, special lighting effects, a lounge feel, a hip-hop bent. Long and Warden, in sweats and baggy pants and flashing a few diamonds, are anchored to the community in a different way than Lineburg. Warden didn't vote for Ehrlich and neither man says he is into politics. Or feels any particular attachment to the governor-elect's victory.
But now, if he comes in, they'll be happy to rack them. If you've got a business that brings something valuable and positive, "that's something a politician should love," says Warden. "You don't have to have political connections to help a community."
For young white residents of Arbutus, the disconnect with Erhlich can be stylistic; for black residents of Arbutus, it can be more profound.
Catherine Hall, 61, has been a cook at Leon's for more than 40 years. She's heard of the governor-elect -- "He's the Republican, right?" -- and she knows there's been a heck of a fuss, but none of it is really her business.
Black Arbutus can feel a world apart from Ehrlich's success and the folks near the center of town. Hall has good things to say about Lineburg. But about Arbutus, "all I can really say is, it's changed. What's the good in looking back, right? It's better."
There are parts of Arbutus that have never been on the parade route. If East Drive is Arbutus, then so is Cowdensville, a small, historic neighborhood of blacks that predates the Civil War. It is a place with the same connection of neighbor to neighbor, same memory for history and place, but separate from the downtown folks in all the ways of people who can live close, but separate and, after 150 years, remain lost in each other's peripheral vision. Arbutus lands differently on these townsfolks' ears, makes them wary of embracing its native son. Makes them think there'll be trouble if they say so.
There's the senior citizen who left Arbutus after getting married but remembers growing up with whites who yelled slurs and threw rocks at blacks. There's the middle-aged cab driver who says it was all right for blacks to visit the graves at Arbutus Memorial Park, but they knew not to shop or eat in town. Even Myron Williams, a boyhood buddy of Ehrlich's from Cowdensville, says, "Arbutus is Arbutus, but Bob's a great guy."
Dorothy Briscoe, 70, a retired Baltimore high school teacher, has lived in Cowdensville all her life. She's voted Republican and she's voted Democrat, but she couldn't vote for Ehrlich because hearing the governor-elect is from her hometown filled her with more trepidation than delight. "I just felt that if he grew up in a time where there was so much prejudice in this area, then how could he be open-minded?"
Not that she had problems. Not that she doesn't belong to the Greater Arbutus Community Alliance or that the people in that group could be any nicer. It's just that Arbutus is a small town and it has struggled and maybe it has changed, but black to white, much of the distance has remained the same.
Black Arbutans distrust the same place the governor-elect heralds, and it's a fundamental difference in lived history and reality and perceptions of reality. A disagreement about the town's meaning and symbols.
It is a distrust not allayed by Erhlich's choice of Steele, who will be the state's first African American lieutenant governor. Evelyn Revels, who's lived in Arbutus since 1972 and is president of the inactive Cowdensville Improvement Association, says she knows she's supposed to say she's delighted that good Arbutan values are going to fill the governor's mansion, but she points out that the parade isn't likely to pass her way. "It's not bitter, it's just true," Revels says. "I can't say that's a beautiful red suit you have on when your suit isn't even red."
It is true that Arbutus, Md., is blue-collar, unpretentious and full of life, humor and small-town values. And it is also true that residents of small towns can sometimes lose one another in their peripheral vision. That sometimes there's a reason the rest of the country has left some small-town values alone.
On a platform in front of Leon's Triple L Restaurant yesterday, someone from the crowd shouts, "We love you, Bob!" at the governor-elect of Maryland, and he loves them right back. Flanked by the people closest to him -- his family; Williams, his childhood best friend from Cowdensville; and others -- Ehrlich says, "To understand me, you have to understand Arbutus and friendships that are thicker than anything. I'll take that label 'son of Arbutus' and wear it proudly."
Some delighted residents wave and clap and cheer him on wildly. And in another part of town, some have their doors closed, just figuring it's not their parade.