"Why good morning, Jim! What can I do for you?" said Melvin Stickler cheerily as an old man entered his election-day storefront yesterday.
"Nuttin,'" said Jim, propping his elbows on the counter.
"Didyja vote?" pressed Stickler.
Stickler rewarded him with a frosty can of beer, and another transaction in the old ritual of American city machine politics was complete. For Stickler, it was one of a thousand tiny transactions that made up election day in his blue collar section of east Baltimore.
Stickler does not think of himself as a political boss. A jovial man of 65 with a voice like gravel and thinning gray hair that he keeps slicked back, he became enchanted during the 1940s with a U.S. congressman named Edward A. Garmatz.
Stickler ran a precinct for Garmatz for two decades and never lost it once. Then Garmatz retired from politics, and so did Stickler.
"Then I met this fellow Sen. (Joseph S.) Bonvegna (D-Baltimore City)," he said. "I don't think you could meet a better gentleman than that." Again, enchantment. And again, a precinct assignment.
To Stickler, politics seems to grow out of th tenderness of the human heart. Both Garmatz and Bonvegna are "gentlement" to him. They are available, warm politians - according to Stickler - who do small and large favors when people are really in need.
As Stickler rushed about yesterday to organize his workers, providing them with literature, coffee, soft drinks and advice, he maintained the same air of zest and gentle helpfulness that he attributes to his political heroes.
He scurried between his home among the stark, almost treeless streets of neat brick row houses and his tiny storefront office, plastered with stickers supporting Blair Lee III and his slate for governor.
Then he would rush up to the corner of N. Linwood Avenue and McElderry Street to confer with his workers who were passing out sample ballots to passesby.
"Ain't hardly nobody," said a worker at noon. "It's dull, dull."
"I hope they get out," said Stickler of the voters.
"It looks like we'll have to go door-to-door," said the man.
"Well, I'll see youse later," said Stickler. "In case any of youse feel like a beer or a soda, we have them down in the office."
However, there was a backbone of hard cash underlying Stickler's efforts yesterday: Baltimore's famous election-day "walk around" money.
When Stickler allied himself with Bonvegna, he became part of the political machine that Bonvegna himself is part of and that is run by Dominic (Mimi) DiPietro. DiPietro, a City Council member, is known in town as "The Boss" and before election days he hands out thousands of dollars in "walk around" money to pay the precinct workers.
This year DiPietro's money came from Lee's campaign treasury. Stickler, like many other "precinct lieutenants," had made a trip to DiPietro's headquarters before election day to get his share - about $315 for 21 workers.
"My time is all (given) free," explained Stickler. "These people (workers), for their cooperation in this we give 'em $15. It's all legal."
Stickler took no chances. "Nobody don't get paid 'til they stand on that corner (all day)," he said. "(Then) I just fold it up and walk by and hand it to 'em." He made a knuckles-up covert motion with his right hand, as if passing something unobtrusively. "Or, when they get done, they come in here (the storefront) and their money will be waiting for them."
Most of the workers on the corner, whether belongings to Stickler or some other rival organization, said they expected to receive their pay. In fact, they seemed to express a certain cynicism.
"Nobody works for nothin' anymore," said one worker. "There aren't any volunteers out there. You wouldn't stand out here in the hot sun all day for nothing." Other workers nearby agreed with her.
While $15 may not seem like a great deal of money, the collection of mostly retired or crippled persons and housewives who made up the corps of workers seemed very happy to be getting that much for what amounted to a day of arduous socializing with friends and neighborhood acquaintances.
While Theodore Venteoulis, one of the four contenders in the primary, has said the practice of handing out this money amounts to "bossism," he certainly benefited from it yesterday. Several workers for various candidates who were handing out literature supporting their candidates as part of a slate headed by Ventoulis said that they would receive $15 each for their efforts.
A spokesman for Venetoulis said last night that the campaign had "absolutely not" paid walk around money to any workers. He said the only sample ballots passed out in the campaign named Venetoulis and his running mate, Ann Stockett, and no other candidates.
A good deal of Stickler's day was taken up in philosophizing with friends about their favorite subject - politics.
"Charlie, politics was different (in the old days)," said Stickler to a friend. "If you knew someone, you could get a job somewhere in government."
"Maryland politics is shot to bell in my book," put in another friend. Andy Hagan, who had dropped by Stickler's storefront for a beer. "It's nothing but machine work now. It used to be you could go out and hustle a vote. But now everybody tells everybody else what to do. You've seen it here (in Stickler's storefront). They're all doing what they're told. So am I."