You can’t miss him.
From the PVC pipe and cinderblock contraption that displays bold-print messages such as “Shabbat Shalom,” “Happy Spring” or the occasional advertisement for Fox TV show “MasterChef Junior,” to the tangle of green mesh surrounding the area, to the array of string dolls and other homemade crafts that populate the lawn, and finally to the man himself, donning worn-out overalls, faded flannels, a beanie and a white beard resembling Gandalf’s (a comparison he himself drew) and standing front and center in his driveway on Park Heights Avenue waving to passers-by — needless to say, it is quite a spectacle.
The object of Pikesville urban legend, David Alt, 73, is affectionately known by the community as the Park Heights gnome or “that guy who waves to us on Park Heights Avenue” or the wizard of Park Heights, among other names. While most who encounter Alt would likely agree that seeing him in his driveway brightens their day or makes them smile, the entire community seems to shrug its shoulders with regard to who this guy is and why he stands there. The growing curiosity with Alt’s back-story has inspired much folklore and speculation.
“I have heard that he suffered a loss and because of this, he likes to watch people drive by, specifically the school bus that stops by his house,” said Adee Jakob, 18, a graduate of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and a freshman at Emory University.
Audrey Monroe, a senior at Beth Tfiloh, said that she has heard that “he waves to all that pass because he looks very similar to a character from the popular show “Duck Dynasty’ and he wants to mess with people.”
“Word is that [he] … waves at everyone who drives by, especially the buses from Bais Yaakov School for Girls. Apparently, he customizes his greeting signs just for them,” Monroe added.
So now, the real story behind this local celebrity.
Alt, an only child and a former draftsman, has lived on his property since he was 7 years old. One afternoon three years ago, after the death of his mother, Alt stood in his driveway waiting for the mail. After a few minutes, Alt experienced the first of many interactions with the community.
“[A] big white van drove by, and there was this one girl sitting in it, and she waved. So I waved back, didn’t think anything of it,” Alt said. “From there, it escalated to five or six vehicles, to 10 or 20 vehicles.”
Since then, his popularity has skyrocketed. Alt said that when it all started, he didn’t bother counting. “But after a while I thought, how daggone many of these kids are waving?” Alt said with a chuckle. Now, he said he counts anywhere between 50 to 60 vehicles that wave to him daily.
In addition to smiles, honks and waves, Alt has received all manner of gifts, including cookies, lollipops, Slurpees and various other snacks. Some of the most interesting treats he has received, however, have come from the Jewish community, he said, though he is not Jewish.
“One time, around Chanukah, I got this little bag tossed out at me with little chocolate gold coins,” he said, referring to gelt. “I got a small loaf of bread one time, and the next time it had three apples and about five little jars of honey.”
He has even received an entire eight-pack of pull-apart challahs — “Love those things!” he said with a smile.
“I have no idea what I’m going to get from these characters. I enjoy it, but I’m not asking for it. I’m not trying to be out there peddling, but they just do it, and it boggles my mind,” Alt said.
Alt supposes that this strong connection with the Jewish community in particular stems from the good wishes he expresses on Jewish holidays via the large PVC pipe signage that he assembles in his yard. He has put out signs for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Chanukah and Shabbat.
Along with the many edible gifts he has enjoyed, Alt has also received numerous letters in his mailbox, many of which he dates and carries with him in a small portfolio he stores in the back pocket of his overalls. The cards have messages such as: “When you wave to us, it cheers us up, and when we wave to you, we hope it cheers you too,” or simply, “You’re funny, have a great weekend!”
A few of the cards are even signed “from your friends at Bais Yaakov.”
Some include inquiries such as one that reads “I love [what] you do, but why do you stand outside like that every day?” — the same question that many others are asking.
At this point, Alt knows the schedules of when the local schools get out and the prime time to stand outside and wave. You can find Alt outside Monday through Friday in the afternoon, “when the weather is decent.”
“I mean, what the heck, I don’t have anything else to be doing. I figure that if they enjoy it, then what the heck,” Alt said.
Meital Abraham is a senior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and an intern at the Baltimore Jewish Times.