(Click photograph to enlarge.)
On May 19, 1951, most of the Cross Street Market in South Baltimore burned to the ground, and the one third or so of the structure left standing was gutted. The fast moving blaze left Cross Street between Light and Charles Streets a pit of smoldering rubble. To my young eyes (I was 13 at the time), the aftermath looked like what I’d seen in movie newsreels of bombed-out European cities during World War II. The above newspaper photo shows the area on the morning after the fire. Firemen’s ladders are at the roof of the community hall, top right.
In 1951 I sold newspapers near the east entrances to the market, on the corner of Light and Cross Streets. The newsstand was in front of a bank, the roof of which can be glimpsed jutting into the bottom right corner of the photo. (There’s still a bank on that corner, which I use.) I often took my supper at one of the snack counters in the market, and my family, like most who lived in South Baltimore in those days, did their shopping there and in area stores. Then, as now, the commercial district in South Baltimore was arranged in the shape of a capital “I,” with Light Street being the top (east) horizontal bar, and Charles Street the bottom (west) and the market itself forming the long vertical down the middle of Cross Street. Then, unlike now, the market was constructed of wood and was anchored on the Charles Street end by a two-story brick community hall. On Saturdays police blocked traffic from Cross Street on either side of the market so merchants could set up temporary outside stalls. The market doubled in size on those days and there was as much activity outside the long, low shed as within. First light found sellers unloading trucks of fruits and vegetables and piling crates of fish, baked goods and poultry on the sidewalks. They posted signs, arranged displays, shouted orders to their employees and greetings to their competitors. Soon the shoppers began gathering from every direction, funneled into the market area by the narrow neighborhood streets. It was beautiful scene—teeming and festive—like a huge block party.
Early that Saturday morning in 1951—around 1:30 A.M.—the market night watchman discovered the fire. The flames had already consumed most of a wall just above a row of overflowing refuse cans in the fish market end of the building. The watchman ran to the fire firebox at the corner of Charles and Wyler Streets and sounded the alarm. “By the time I got back,” he was quoted in a newspaper interview as saying, “almost the whole thing was gone.”
When the fire started I was at home asleep. My older brother woke me and we ran the four blocks from our rented home at 807 William Street to the spectacle. We watched as the flames raced along the recently tarred roof of the block-long market building like an enormous fuse. The tar bubbled and popped as it heated and turned first to liquid, then to acrid black smoke, which blanketed the area and reduced visibility to less that 20 feet at times, depending on the breeze. I noticed that the blaze cast an eerie orange glow against the smoke and low clouds. Soon we heard a loud explosion on the south side of the market and all the electrical and telephone lines in the area went dead. My brother said it was a transformer blowing up in the intense heat. Sparks and small pieces of burning material flew through the air and landed on residential and commercial buildings south of the market. Homeowners were on their roofs pouring water on small fires. By 3 A. M., the flames had dropped down into the market building and within minutes the roof caved in, the walls collapsed, and Cross Street became an avenue of fire.
Flames from the upper floor of the community hall, a large 1871 Italianate Revival-style building, with arched windows and fancy brickwork, shot halfway across Charles Street toward the Garden Theater. Salvage Corps members entered the hall to drag out sleeping men who used the building as a flophouse. (In those pre-politically-correct days we called men who drank too much and slept wherever “winos” and smoke hounds.”) Rats, also occupants of the burning structure, deserted their nests and scampered through police lines and disappeared up dark alleys and into sidewalk crevices.
By dawn the fire was extinguished. According to the news reports, it had taken 12 alarms and hundreds of firefighters manning 70 pieces of equipment over six hours of furious activity to do the job. There were no deaths, but six firemen, one policeman and at least three volunteers were injured. An estimated 100 people who lived on Cross Street between Marshal and Patapsco Streets were now among the homeless. Two hundred and forty-seven stall owners or operators were put out of business. The market was a complete loss, as were 13 buildings on the south side of Cross Street, and many others in the area were damaged by the intense heat, flames and water. Inspecting the rubble, the Food Control Department found and condemned 6,500 pounds of meat and dairy products spoiled by the fire. The fire actually destroyed tons more. Less than one ton of foodstuffs was saved—including a box of fish found under the debris. By some strange quirk, the ice preserving the fish had not melted. In an interview, Benjamin Taylor, who operated four meat stalls in the market, claimed to have lost all his Saturday stock plus $700 in cash. Only pennies remained, he said, and estimated his total losses at about $10,000. J. L. Harvey, operator of a butter-and-egg stall in the market for 69 of his 81 years without a vacation (“Now I’ve got a vacation,” he said, “and I don’t want it”), had about $60 in a wooden box in his stall. All he recovered was a handful of pennies, nickels and quarters, and a bunch of hard-cooked eggs still warm to the touch.
About half of the stall keepers found temporary business locations nearby, others set up curbside stands along Cross Street, and still others went out of business for the duration. The “duration” turned out to be 18 months to the day. On Saturday, November 19, 1952, Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Sr. (now better known as the father of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House), witnessed by 20,000 celebrants—including my brother and me—dedicated the new steel and cinder block Cross Street Market. Eventually a 10-year-old boy was found guilty of setting the multi-million-dollar blaze. In court the boy, a chronic delinquent who was later sent to the Maryland Training School for Boys, explained his behavior by saying, “Something just tells me to do it.”
“An Avenue of Fire” was originally published in a slightly different form, and under a slightly different title, in the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine on May 11, 1980.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
A Dialogue Doodle
The scene: A park bench, late afternoon. A very young couple (she with a serious expression, he looking distressed) are deep in conversation and oblivious to a man (me) passing by.
He: What can I say? I don’t know how to respond when you—
She (interrupting): Look, rather than have you guessing about what I’m thinking, I’d rather be up front and honest and tell you straight out what I’m observing about your behavior.
He: What? What did I do that was so—
She (interrupting): You know what I’m talking about. You do it all the time. Constantly. Constantly.
The above text is a recreation of a snippet of conversation overheard on the fly. I find it intriguing because it suggests what may have gone before and what may follow. This slice of time has been slightly edited and/or expanded and put in script form for (I hope) your reading pleasure. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Based On Real People
Six in a series of “talking heads” done quickly—perhaps 30 to 60 seconds each— from the television screen on a Sunday afternoon. These folks most likely appeared on CSPAN2 Book TV, my source for people who hold still, more-or-less. Speed was the point here, not the likeness (although that would have been nice), nor was the “who,” “what,” “where” or “when” the point of the exercise. . . So a reasonable question then becomes: What was the point? Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Over a beer the other evening, my friend Mort said that football players are the third most boring people in the U. S. of A. He awarded the second slot to sportscasters, then went on to say that the fans are the biggest bores of all. Mort tends to make silly lists like that when he’s drinking. Give the man a few brews and he’ll go off the deep end every time.
We were in our favorite neighborhood bar just around the corner from his house, enjoying a cold one and playing darts. Mort, like always, was winning. The funny thing is the more he drinks the better he shoots, and the more he wins the more outrageous his opinions become. Most of his conversational bombshells don’t bother me because I know how he is. I know he likes to drop them just to see what sort of reaction he’ll get—to see me flinch—so I usually let his outlandish statements just lie there. But this time I got upset; the crack about football fans was downright mean. So I came back at him with, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
Mort took the time to score his first bull’s eye before he turned to me and said, “Have you ever listened to one of those pests talk once the pre-season games begin—or even during the draft?”
“Mort, I’m a fan myself.”
“But you’re the exception that proves the rule. You’re intelligent—more-or less—but ninety-nine percent of football fans have never had an original thought in their heads. Everything they have to say about their favorite game is warmed-over sportscaster prattle they’ve gleaned from guys like John Madden. And the worst part is they can’t wait to inflict their secondhand insights on anyone within earshot.”
“It’s a free country, Mort. You don’t have to listen.” I tossed my first dart, which missed the board and stuck in the men’s room door.
“Wrong!” Mort said. “In my office after every game those dunderheads call a meeting near my desk to discuss its finer points. Loud. Over and over and over. I’m force-fed boring football stats and idiotic athletic clichés which have been lifted, word-for-word, from some sportscast, and delivered as Revealed Wisdom.”
“When that happens, Mort, just take a break. Go take a leak.”
“You kidding? It’s even worse in the bathroom. Football fans are stationed at every urinal and stall, ready to talk the ears off the trapped souls who at that moment have no choice in the matter. Others buttonhole innocent hand-washers at the sinks. It never occurs to those dimwits that just because you’re male, it doesn’t automatically follow that you’re interested in childish pro football drivel.”
“Really, Mort, you’re overstating the problem.” My second dart struck the target’s metal rim and fell to the floor. I ignored it. “What’s the harm of a little fan chatter? And anyway, it’s only—what, how many games are there in a complete season?” Right off I was sorry I had asked such a basic question and was glad when Mort didn’t notice, or just ignored me.
“Nothing’s wrong with it, if it were only once in a while. The fact is, though, football fans give equal weight to each game, and they discuss it all week long with an intensity usually reserved for an event like the Second Coming. Then the cycle starts again, from scratch. Same crap commentary week after week. The fan’s endless jock-jabber begins to wear really thin by the end of the season.”
Mort shot another bull’s eye. I could see where this game was going, but I got lucky and during my next series I scored a clean ten, which made me feel a little better; at least I wouldn’t be snookered. “Mort,” I said, “you just have a low boredom threshold.”
“Only when it comes to football talk. I get fed up starting with the first reports from training camp.” He fired a thirty-pointer, then said, “Look, buddy, I love the game of football—it’s just the boorish and boring fans I can’t stand. Most of ’em have the social graces of a chimpanzee and the I. Q. of a cucumber.”
“That’s a rash generalization, Mort. The fans I know are—”
He cut me off. “Just listen to ‘em. Like for instance that wild and crazy guy at every home game, the one who leads the team cheers. He’s there every Sunday, skunky-drunk, making a fool of himself and annoying everyone around him, and it’s not just because of his body odor.”
“Not everybody,” I said. “Some of us enjoy the way he really gets into the spirit of the game.” With my next series I managed to score 20 points on the first dart, but the other three somehow wound up in the wall. “Anyway,” I said, “that guy is a bad example of your average football fan.”
“Or a good one, depending on your point of view. The grown men are the worst, you know. They’re little boys in large bodies—with skulls as thick as a lineman’s thighs.”
By this point I was at a loss for words. I had to admit that a lot of Mort’s rant was spot on. The interminable discussion of obscure football facts, the endless repetition of certain trite phrases like “We can win it all if the team stays healthy,” and the childish bantering arguments that fans indulge in does get old fast, even for a dyed-in-the-wool fan like me. But I would never admit that to Mort. I pointed to the darts in his hand. “Your shot.”
Mort toed the line and leaned in toward the board. He slowly raised his right hand, a dart pinched between thumb and forefinger, squinted into the bar gloom, and said, “Wait. I’ve changed my mind. Football fans are really victims. They’re like those suckers that P. T. Barnum said are born every minute.” He flicked his wrist and let the dart fly straight for the bull’s eye—”thunk!” Mort took a deep breath, raised the second dart into firing position and said, “Their worst sin is allowing themselves to be manipulated by slick businessmen who, in order to stimulate ticket sales, regularly threaten to move the team to another city.” Flick—”thunk!”— another bull. Mort smiled, then took a sip of beer. “The team owner’s—those powerful rich guys scheming for more cash to feed their greed—they’re the real bores.”
Couldn’t argue with that. I decided to go to the men’s room rather than watch Mort throw his last dart. I had to, I couldn’t bear it any longer.
A version of this satirical fiction was originally published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on September 21, 1979. Back then it was about baseball fans; but now, since we’re into the football season, I decided to switch it for the blog rewrite. I’ve changed the game, but it doesn’t matter; rabid sports fans—the worst of them—exhibit the same extreme behavior anywhere there’s a ball to pitch, swat or punt. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.