Editor's Note: Charles Riemer died on Sunday, May 19, just as this story was going to press.
Frank Riemer, an employee of Baltimore's Department of Public Works, is getting married on the beach in Ocean City this August. And he wants his father, Charles, City Hall worker-extraordinaire with 40 years of service, to be his best man.
Between the 70 years of life and the cancer that began in the heavy smoker's lungs and spread throughout his body, getting to the wedding will be the race of Charlie's life.
"He's taking it like a champ," says Frank, 42, a water department worker who took his father in after the diagnosis. "What he's thinking on the inside I don't know, but we had our talk, and he said he's happy with the life he had."
That life was one of work and more work. He kept a cool-beans collection of 45 RPMs in a jukebox and taught a parrot named Alf to say "Hon," but the bulk of Charlie's life has been work, from his childhood in old Canton until sickness forced him off the job last month.
He hates when people call him "Charlie," but just about everyone does. He enjoyed a cold beer after quitting time. And in the way of certain hard-headed Baltimoreans from the city's factory days, the ones who used to squirt down the gutter and pay a bill not the day it was due but the day it arrived, Charlie has saved most of the nickels he's made.
The change started trickling in when he was a kid running neighborhood errands and shoveling snow near the corner of Fait and Kenwood avenues. From there, his paydays were measured in dollars as Charlie jumped from supermarket to supermarket and bakery to bakery in search of a better wage.
"Most of my jobs sucked until I got to City Hall," he says.
His municipal career was spent shampooing carpets and waxing floors. He helped pull off events like the Ravens' Super Bowl celebration and making sure the City Hall flags were put up and taken down the right way. All of this and more, from the administration of William Donald Schaefer on through Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's, never missing more than a day or two of work.
(He says he never took a sick day. A supervisor said there may have been one or two about 20 years ago.)
Now, Charlie finds himself laid up, "shutting down," according to Frank.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake was a child of 5 when Charlie left the old Koester's Bakery to work for the city in 1975.
"Charlie knew how to keep City Hall running at all times. . . . [He] could probably tell you where every pipe, wire, and vent begins and ends-and even when they were installed," says the mayor, who remembers Charlie as a genuinely happy civil servant, something of a rare bird these days.
Rawlings-Blake and her predecessors were lucky to have had a guy like Charlie: humble and loyal, though human and given to the occasional gripe; entrusted with keys to every office, shed, and storage closet at City Hall.
Asked if he ever stumbled upon any after-hours hanky-panky while shampooing carpets on the night shift, his eyes twinkled.
"You don't rat out City Hall. You do your job and go home," says Charlie, who liked taking special guests on the catwalk to the City Hall bell tower. "It's just like Vegas. What happens at City Hall stays at City Hall. "
At least that's the way the people in the hot seats at 100 N. Holliday St. would like it.
It's good ole' Charlie who's on the hot seat now, losing weight and taking medicine for the pain. But his son has decided to play a trick on an unjust reaper, to fix the race between now and his Aug. 24 wedding to Michelle Martin.
"We're gonna have a pretend wedding at the house [next] weekend with a priest and everything, and Dad's gonna be the best man," says Frank of a make-believe ceremony.
Frank, who resembles his father in looks and determination, cooked up another idea to make sure his father is part of the big day.
"I'm getting a life-sized photo of Dad and I'm going to plant it in the sand right next to me," Frank says. "And I'm going to put my ring at the bottom of the photo. When they ask for the rings, I'm gonna reach down and get it and thank Dad. He'll give me my ring."
Who knows? Maybe Charlie will be there in person. As City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said last week after visiting Charlie at home, "miracles happen."
Whenever Charlie's time comes, the flags-of the United States, the State of Maryland, and the City of Baltimore-that he has cared for since the days of the City Fair and the dollar houses and the tall ships will fly at half-mast.