The twelve-year-old boy says goodbye to his mother and leaves their rented South Baltimore row house, at 807 William Street, by the side door. He passes through the covered areaway (or “sallie port”) which separates his house from the one next door, emerges onto the sidewalk and turns right, toward the harbor. The water begins one block from his front stoop and runs along Key Highway for a mile or two, and from there it goes on to Antwerp, Bombay, Darkar, Jeddah, Keelung, Liverpool, Malta, Port Sudan, Rangoon, and Zanzibar, and ends—for all the boy knows—in some dark jungle pond where jaguars come to drink.
The boy walks on rectangular Belgian blocks paving the surface of Key Highway. The stones once served as ballast in the holds of clipper ships which, two centuries before, sailed regularly from Europe and the Far East bringing tools, dry goods and foodstuffs to the colonies. The street reverberates with a cacophony of cart and truck wheels on rough pavement. The life of the city huddles close to the water’s edge. The workers’ homes—small shoulder-to-shoulder structures with low, slanted roofs, combine with the narrow streets to create an intricate pattern of late afternoon light and shadow. Sailboat spars gracefully dissect rooftops; the lines of a five-masted sailboat, lovely, etches itself against the background of a coal pier. Sunlight tints the oil-slick harbor water and illuminates two bright white excursion steamers—the Bay Belle and the City of Richmond—waiting for dusk and sailing time. Nearby, banana boats are unloaded at the United Fruit Company pier.
Huge cranes, black against the sky, tend ocean-going ships. The boy notes the origin of each vessel; There is a clean Norwegian loaded with tractor parts bound for Cape Town; a rusty Frenchman packed with wheat for Rotterdam; a Panamanian tanker gurgling rich back oil below-decks; a Russian, the name illegible on her dirty bow, holding only the residue of iron ore; and a British tramp freighter, emptied of a cargo of firecrackers from Hong-Kong, chests of tea from Shanghai, rubber from the Malacca Straits, glass from Genoa and seeds and ochre from Marseilles. Swarms of tiny welders work in the hull-rigging of each ship, making hot repairs to steel bellies, their torches creating a fireworks display of sparks. The harbor is smoky and dirty and filled with the clangor of steel on steel. Smoke stacks, grain elevators, factories, freight terminals and ramshackle wooden buildings line the innumerable wharves. Piers separate and define every twist and turn of the water’s edge. There is salt in the air, the odor of fish and clams, the scent of Oriental spices, the acrid smell of chemical fumes. From the shadowy depths of the low pier buildings the boy hears a musical chant. Black men in greasy overalls, their singsong blending with the noise of labor, rush from boat to truck and back again in ceaseless procession, dragging their livelihood out of ships’ holds. Lumber, sand and gravel, oysters, fish and crabs, cantaloupes and watermelons, tomatoes and potatoes; the men handle ponderous boxes and barrels and crates. Backs bend and straighten. Muscles expand and contract. Sweat glistens and salt collects in white lines on dark skin. The men are power made visible—made human—and as they stretch and lift, their graceful movements achieve the effect of great dancers.
The sun dips toward the western horizon and the mood of the harbor changes with the light. Smoke no longer clouds from the stacks, but spreads in an even, violet haze. The boy is aware of an unaccountable mystery that takes possession of the place. Monsters—towering chimneys and grain elevators, huge buildings of steel and concrete—are no longer black or red or harsh yellow, but are alike draped in a blue-gray mantle, infinitely soft, dusky, dreamy. Outlines soften into shadows. It is impossible now to distinguish the ugliness of the garbage scows and the lumber barges. At the steel mill, away in the distance, flames lick the twilight. Suddenly, three shrill blasts on a ship’s whistle startle the boy. He hears the sound of a gangplank scraping a pier, the scratch of heavy mooring lines being lifted from dock stanchions, tossed overboard and drawn through the water by thin ropes. Officers shout orders to seamen on the after deck. Fussy tugboats close in on the enormous sea-stained hull, nudging, pushing. From the bridge the captain watches. The engines are given full-forward power and the ship slides past a bulkhead, swings out into the channel stream and heads for open water. The boy feels—or imagines he feels—the deck shift and pitch under his feet. He waves . . .
Baltimore Harbor, 1951 was originally published in a slightly different form and under a very different title in the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1979 or the early 1980s. I’m usually pretty good when it comes to dating clippings—especially my own—but in this case, as Jon Stewart might say, not so much. My idea for this rather poetical mood piece was to attempt to convey the romance of the harbor as viewed by a young boy who very recently moved to the city from a small town in Virginia.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.