BALTIMORE — Sorry, sir, there are no plans for an underwater shopping mall in the Inner Harbor. No, ma'am, a highway is not coming through your living room. And no, pull tabs from soda cans and empty cigarette packs do not pay for kidney dialysis.
For 22 years, operators at the city's rumor control center have been handing out facts and dispelling rumors for confused or curious citizens.
"The rumor was it would be an underwater mall and they would have a restaurant and you could pick out your dinner from behind the glass," said Tom Saunders, who has worked for the hot line for 10 years. "We had contractors calling up wanting to build it."
Rumor control hot lines were opened in several major cities in the 1960s to ease tension in the wake of race riots. Although the violence of that era has passed, Baltimore still operates its hot line, and some cities that dropped theirs are reviving the idea, Saunders said.
Philadelphia recently opened a rumor control hot line after a black man was shot to death by a Korean shopkeeper, he said.
Besides handling frivolous rumors, Baltimore officials said, the hot line keeps the public informed about topics that could affect health or safety--and helps the city to keep in touch with its residents.
"It's a place people can call to get good information, but also cast a straw vote, in effect, for things the city should be doing to enhance the community," City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said.
"We don't try to appease people. We give them the facts from a creditable source," said Lillian Jones, head of the community division of the city's community relations commission, which operates the hot line.
Calls from people expressing a desire to heal race relations helped lead to a scheduled meeting of community leaders in November. The calls were received after several apparently racially motivated incidents this summer.
Each day, one of the six workers in Baltimore's community relations office takes a turn staffing the hot line, answering questions and collecting rumors.
"Most of the rumors are in reference to news events. People receive misinformation or bits and pieces, and they call rumor control," Saunders said.
Workers try to keep abreast of current events, he said. A bulletin board in the small downtown office is littered with news articles, flyers and information about events that have been brought to the staff's attention.
Rumors called in by the public range from the far-fetched to the mundane. Health, safety and neighborhood issues make up the majority of calls.
One of the most unusual rumors called in recently involved the Ku Klux Klan's purported ownership of a popular line of sweat suits.
"The rumor was the guy who owned it was on a television show and he said blacks will overpay for anything," Saunders said. "He said he was a member of the klan and decided to put out an expensive sweat suit.
"We found out a Jewish person owned the company, therefore he wouldn't be a member of the Ku Klux Klan."
The hot line still gets calls from people wondering where to send empty cigarette packs and pull tabs from soda cans to help pay for kidney dialysis.
"People have trash bags of cigarette packs. I run into people myself at the barbershop who ask for cigarette packages and pull tabs," Saunders said. "They swear to me they know what they are talking about."