South Baltimore Tunnels

August 4, 2010

A few years back I adapted a photo and text essay, originally published in the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine in the early 1980s, as a full-page feature for a contemporary publication. The editors liked the content and my layout, but—because we couldn’t agree on a fee—the piece was not used. So I’ve decided to publish it myself as a blog post. The house on the right in the large image is 807 William Street, in South Baltimore, as seen from the back. My family lived there from 1950 to 1952. (This larger image did not appear in the Baltimore Sunday Sun version, only the smaller shots of “tunnels” viewed from the front sidewalk.) The brick-paved walkway between the two houses often served as my playground, hence the idea for the narrative. The two boys at the end of what I then called my “tunnel,” and what I have since learned is officially known as a “sally port,” are my sons, Shawn and Vincent. What drew my interest as a child, and still does, are the attractive vertical shapes and the backyard scenes they framed. The larger photograph was made in the 70s, when Shawn and Vincent were around my age at the time the alley, areaway, sallyport—whatever— served as my playground. My short elegiac memory of those days appears below the photo layout.

The younger boy called it his “alley,” but the older boy next door, with whom he shared it, said the covered walkway between their row homes was an “areaway.” The difference, he said, was that an areaway has a roof and an alley is open to the sky. To the younger boy it was much more than either alley or areaway. On days when he was punished and told by his mother to play there, it became a bridge from the hot desert of the summer streets to the cool oasis of his backyard. It was a refuge from savages (neighborhood bullies), and a tunnel to the center of the earth. When it rained he was warm and dry—on scorching days he was cool. It was the best of both worlds and a world unto itself, a city canyon wherein he became Little Beaver in a Saturday Red Ryder cowboy movie. By placing his feet on one wall and his back on the other, and applying cross pressure (imaginary tomahawk clinched in his teeth), he would inch his way to the top of the passage and wait in ambush for his brother, one of General Custer’s men delivering supplies to his mother’s pantry in the fort. When the younger boy was not a happy comic book or movie character, he was Brer Rabbit, and his alley—areaway—the perfect briar patch.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.


The Ice Man

November 23, 2009

A Brief Memoir
By Jake Jakubuwski

Today it is hard to imagine horses on the streets of Baltimore, but when I was a kid they were so common that no one took any real notice. It was not unusual to hear a horse plodding up our alley with its harness bells tinkling, and the steel banded wagon wheels making a metallic racket all their own on the Belgian block pavement stones. Most often, the fellow driving the wagon was the “Junk Man,” looking for old newspapers, magazines, scrap metal, used clothes — anything that he could turn into cash. Also, of course, there were the “Arabbers” — hucksters that sold produce from their colorful (bright reds, yellows and blues) horse-drawn wagons. Like many kids in Baltimore, I used to work for the Arabbers. The pay wasn’t the greatest, but it was usually enough for a movie and a candy bar, and, perhaps, a Coke.

When we were living on Light Street, in South Baltimore, even the ice man delivered his ice from a horse-drawn wagon. Ice man? Yeah, ice man. In the late 1940s there were still lots of folks that didn’t have electric “Frigidaires,” but they did have thick-walled ice boxes, and the ice in them needed to be replaced on a regular basis. The ice man would come every other day or so, driving his wagon loaded with huge blocks of crystal-clear frozen water, a heavy canvas tarpaulin thrown over it to slow the melt. And you could hear him coming because, besides the clangor of his wagon wheels, he had his own chant to alert his customers. Slowly moving down the street or up the alley (with a dozen kids following behind, trying to snatch a piece of ice out of the wagon’s bed, the shards being viewed by them as a cool summer treat) he’d yell: “EyeEESE-mannnnnn! EyeEESE-mannnnnn!”

Many residents had signs with changeable numbers on them in their front window, so the ice man could tell how much the customer wanted. If you needed ice and didn’t have a sign, you could just holler and tell him how much. A dime’s worth? A quarter’s worth? Or, maybe a fifty cent block, if you thought that would be enough to make it through the weekend. The ice man would stop his wagon (shooing the kids away from the back ) and begin using an icepick to hack at one of the larger blocks to give the customer whatever amount they were willing to pay for — 25, 50, 75, even 100 pounds. After chopping the larger block to the proper size, the ice man, or his helper, would grab it with a large pair of black tongs and, using a burlap bag on his shoulder to help protect him form the cold, he’d leverage it onto his shoulder and carry it into the house and put it in the icebox.

During the winter months, we didn’t need to buy ice because our family had a window box. That was a box with a wire bottom to allow for drainage that hung outside of a window on the shady side of the house, in which we stored our eggs, butter, milk and other perishables. The window closed down on the top of the box and had a door in the front so you could easily get to the stored items. Folks that didn’t have a window box often had an open back porch where they would keep perishables in a crate, or other container. On top of the container would be a piece of wood with a brick or stone or piece of scrap iron holding the “lid” down so that stray cats and dogs — and any other free-roaming urban creatures — could not get at the goodies.

Our ice man came around even in the winter, too, with the difference being that he now delivered coal. If you had a coal stove or furnace, as we did, he’d back up to the basement window (or coal chute if you had one) and shovel the coal into the coal bin. Then, suddenly it seemed, when I was about eight or so, the ice man showed up driving a truck — the end of an era! The ice/coal truck had a large wooden body, and when delivering coal in the winter it backed up to the coal chute, the man raised the bed of the truck with a crank and the black lumps of energy ran out of the truck like a noisy, dusty river.

It was only a couple of summers until we had a Frigidaire and didn’t need the ice anymore. I guess a lot of folks in the neighborhood bought Frigidaires as well, because I have no memory of the ice man making his rounds after that.

Copyright © 2009 Jake Jakubuwski.

Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label. (And to read about Jake’s adventures as an “Arabber’s” assistant, see a short piece on the subject posted September 14, 2009 on this blog.)