“I’m so used to working all my life; it’s all I know …”
- Charles Reimer
Charles "Don’t call me Charlie" Reimer grew up doing odd jobs around the neighborhood like a lot of kids, shoveling snow and running errands for small change.
The East Baltimorean left grade school to help bring money into a house of seven boys and a widowed mother. His first real job was in 1960. Reimer was about 17 years old and worked for a long-gone supermarket in Highlandtown called Brill’s.
Reimer remembers the pay more than the work: less than a dollar an hour in the first years of the New Frontier.
"Screw that," said Reimer.
Adios Brills, hello H&S Bakery in Fells Point.
"I was feeding the number one oven on the day JFK was assassinated," he said.
From H&S it was over to Manning’s hominy packing house at 2425 Foster Avenue, not far from where Reimer grew up near the corner of Fait and Kenwood avenues. He didn’t stay there long either. The money wasn’t good enough. He moved to Koester’s Bakery near Lexington Market (where he was on duty when Martin Luther King was shot) and then Schmidt’s Bakery at Carey and Lawrence Streets.
"Still getting paid under a dollar!" said Reimer of the jobs. "They all sucked."
In March of 1975, Charles hit the big-time: good wages, benefits and job security with the City of Baltimore.
His wife at the time had a cleaning job with the city school board. An eastside Italian-American, she also had connections to legendary southeast Baltimore councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, a native of Abruzzi for whom an ice skating rink in Patterson Park is named.
Mimi took good care of his Highlandtown taxpayers, keeping rats at bay long before it was cool to have the image of a rodent on your bumper as a symbol of home; fixing potholes and finding jobs for friends, neighbors and relatives who were sure to vote the Democrat ticket come November.
Mimi made a call, Reimer was in and all of a sudden the eastside hustler was shampooing carpets. Lots and lots of carpets. And not for nickels either, up to $18.50 an hour after several decades of service.
"I’ve [shampooed] all nine police districts, City Hall, the temporary City Hall on Redwood Street when [councilman Dominic] Leone was shot, the courthouse – east and west – the housing department and Transit and Traffic across from the Sunpapers on Calvert Street."
"I worked alone, never had any help," he said and he liked it that way. "Four offices every morning, four offices every evening."
He’s the skinny guy with the hard-earned image hipsters strive to emulate: well-worn navy blue pants and navy work shirt with his name on a patch over the breast pocket and a sleigh ride’s worth of keys jangling from his belt.
Reimer laughs: "I call ’em city hall jewelry."
Sometimes, said Reimer, he’d overhear a boss exchanging some kind of favor with another ranking bureaucrat with the words: "I’ll send my man out to shampoo your carpets."
Reimer was that man through the mayoral administrations of William Donald Schaefer, Clarence "Du" Burns, Kurt L. Schmoke, Martin O’Malley, Sheila Dixon and now, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Asked to name his favorite, Reimer’s eyes twinkle. Ever the streetwise diplomat, he says, "All of ‘em."
He’s also the ceiling tile fixer, light-bulb changer, officer furniture mover and the flag guy.
Reimer makes sure the Stars and Stripes, along with the Lord Baltimore-themed flag of the Old Line State and the yellow and black of the City of Baltimore are up when they’re supposed to be up, half-mast after prominent deaths and replaced when needed.
"I changed the flag on the Shot Tower a couple of weeks ago," he said. "No elevator – 303 steps."
[Today’s flags are made of durable fabric, "storm" worthy pennants that stay on the pole until they begin to tatter. "You put’em up and leave’em up," said Reimer. "Used to be they’d go up in the morning and come down at night.]
"I put up the War of 1812 flag at City Hall earlier this year," he said of commemorations honoring the 200th anniversary of struggle in which the patriots of North Point were essential in vanquishing the British.
Now, formally retired from the city since 2007 and doing his old chores part-time, Reimer has had enough, confident that after this December 31st he won’t be taking the No. 20 bus from the corner of Gusryan and Boston street to Holliday street downtown anymore. At least not to change light bulbs.
"I never missed a day," he said with pride. "You know how you last on any job? You don’t go around saying, 'he said, she said.' You don’t go into a [gossip] huddle and run your mouth. You do your damn job and go home."
"Nothing," said Reimer.
A man has got to do something.
"I hope it’s nothing. No more 99 bosses telling me to clean 99 buildings. I’m 70. I’m winding down."
On this Labor Day, in a nation riddled with unemployment, Reimer was asked a simple question, one so obvious many people fail to ask it of themselves or others.
What is the meaning of work?
"I love doing things for people, I mean that," he said. "I just don’t want to be stepped on or used. If you go to work every day and save your money, you can have some nice things in this world."