October 8, 2010
By Jim Sizemore
(Click images for larger views.)
The “Hip Shots” series of Doodlemeister.com photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise being to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting—a related series that can be arranged as a three-image post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own pictures, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. Meanwhile, click on these images for a larger view, and click the “Hip Shots” tag above for more examples. For another post in the series, tune in next Friday.
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.
Leave a Comment » | photography | Tagged: Baltimore, Baltimore harbor, exercise, fog, Fort McHenry, harbor, hip shots, historic site, images, Maryland, national monument, National Park Service, photographs, photography, runners, shoot-from-the-hip, technique, tips, U. S. Department of the Interior, War of 1812, weather | Permalink
Posted by Jim
October 17, 2009
Bats, Bugs and Drunks
Miss Rita, the middle-aged woman at the desk next to mine, is asking personal questions. That’s something she does every night. I’m 22 years old and this is my first serious job since being discharged from the U. S. Army, two years ago. The inquiring Miss Rita and I are clerks in the Social Security Administration — I’m a new hire and she’s my trainer. We are working the 4:00 P. M. to 12:30 A. M. shift on the seventh floor of the Falconer Building at 414 Water Street in downtown Baltimore, two blocks from the harbor. The year is 1959, deep summer, and I’ve made a new friend.
The windows are open, three huge floor fans blowing at full power. If the temperature in the Falconer Building rises above 90 degrees, we’ll be sent home. This happens often during the day shift, less so after the sun goes down. Miss Rita and I sit in the cross-ventilation and flip SS-5 cards and scribble name and date-of-birth changes into huge metal-covered ledgers, delighted with each other’s company. (This photo of an actual Form SS-5 shows a Miss Apgar requesting that her name be changed to Mrs. Lake. Click images for larger views.)
The evening passes to the rhythm of turning pages: flip, flip, scribble, flip, flip, scribble, scribble, flip. Against the background of dirty brick walls scores of other clerks’ bend to the identical task. The oily aroma of Baltimore harbor wafts in the windows and, when the wind shifts, more pungent odors come from the nearby wholesale fish market. The whirring fans cool our necks and blow the occasional card from desk to floor — or out a window. The strange sound of bat wings flutter in one window and out another. There is a gentle rustling noise as rat’s forage for sandwich crumbs in waste baskets, and the buzzing of blood-sucking insects foraging for us.
At the moment, Miss Rita’s job is to introduce me to the mysteries of entry-level clerking in the Numerical Register Section of SSA — and, it seems, to trade work information for personal tidbits. With anyone else her intimate prying might be offensive, but, somehow — I guess because of her odd sense of humor — it’s just harmless fun. Miss Rita’s constant stream of chatter, spiced with sexy double meanings, makes the long evenings of repetitive work bearable. In fact, they are downright entertaining. Anyway, there is not much of a private life to expose — I ‘m still in the process of trying to develop one. Somehow I manage to keep Miss Rita interested by making up outrageous but plausible tales about my exploits. She seems to especially enjoy the lies (these days we might call them “creative non-fictions”) that I tell about the erotic adventures of my mother, a born-again Christian, who would have been shocked if she knew that her son used her straight-arrow life for creative inspiration. Perhaps Miss Rita identifies with my fictions because she and my mother are about the same age.
On my first night in the Falconer Building — one of several rental properties which comprise the original SSA headquarters — Miss Rita gives me the grand tour. She points out the freight elevator which, she says, I can use at peak load times during shift changes, when the passenger elevator is often overwhelmed. She shows me the stairs and mentions in passing that they are handy because the freight elevator only goes to the 5th floor. She doesn’t comment on the empty booze bottles in the stairwell, nor does she explain the sleeping drunk. Our “cafeteria” is located by the elevator door on the 4th floor, Miss Rita says. That is, at 9 o’clock each evening an old man gets off the elevator and stands there selling cold sandwiches out of a large cardboard box. Finally, Miss Rita gives me a booklet explaining what is expected in terms of production and conduct. The publication also has a small map showing the location of the men’s room and fire exits. I can use the restroom anytime, Miss Rita says, provided it isn’t too often. “Two often” and it will reflect in my “rating,” whatever that is.
The Falconer Building is clean, at least compared to the steel mill in which I had worked prior to this job, and there is even a bit of external entertainment. As we young male clerks arrive early for the evening shift, we often gather to watch strippers sunbathing on the low roof of the nearby Gayety Show Bar, the keystone of Baltimore’s infamous “Block” of sleazy nightclubs clustered nearby. When the women are up there relaxing between shows we all go a little crazy. The younger clerks in the Numerical Register Section — male and female — are friendly, and I am quickly drawn into a sort of loose-knit social club. After our shift finishes at 12:30 A. M., few of us want to go home to bed — we’re still too primed with youthful energy — so most nights a meeting is called for a party or card game at someone’s home or apartment. Or we go out on a sort of group date, which usually involves bar-hopping, the only form of entertainment available at that hour. Some nights we simply cruise the city and talk until dawn at an all night diner. Often, I drop into bed at first light or later, sleep until two in the afternoon, then get up to start the work/play cycle again. Some of my new friends have been living this way for several years, but the fun will last only a few months for me. I have “EOD’d” (Entered On Duty) at the end of an era. The whole of SSA’s scattered downtown headquarters is scheduled to consolidate in a modern complex in the western suburbs of Baltimore in January of 1960, only a few months hence.
Well before we leave the city, though, it comes to pass that my social life is greatly enriched as a direct result of information provided by Miss Rita. She tells me that a particular young lady, another Numerical Register clerk, is interested in me beyond mere friendship, and before long I am involved in my first “adult” relationship. I reward Miss Rita by continuing my stories, now more fact than fiction, and much more titillating than ever. I even expand the scope of the tales to include many of my young and ever-horny (at least in my telling) coworkers. And I notice that Miss Rita’s interest in our escapades become more intense the closer I stick to real life, which I take as a literary lesson. So as I become a better clerk, I also sharpen my narratives. Miss Rita especially likes to hear my juiced-up versions of our nocturnal forays to various “hillbilly” bars and other hotspots around town, and the house parties that follow into the wee hours, many of them ending in sleep overs. These stories require scant embellishment.
All of this happened a half century ago, late summer until the end of 1959. I spent 29 years with the Social Security Administration, taking an early retirement in 1988. Not long after the SSA headquarters moved to the suburbs, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life flipping pages and scribbling in ledgers, so I took advantage of the Korean G. I. Bill and enrolled in evening art classes. That led to a temporary job in SSA’s drafting department, which in turn got me through what I called “the back door” of their large art department —where my first assignment was to help produce the original Medicare Handbook. Living and working in the suburbs was O. K., but I never again had an experience quite so rich in character or characters, or that made such an intense impression on me, as those early nights in downtown Baltimore, flipping SS-5 cards and trading punch lines with Miss Rita.
Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.
A much longer version of this personal essay was published in the October, 1978 issue of OASIS, a magazine distributed monthly to Social Security Administration employees nationwide.
2 Comments | essays, humor, non-fiction, relationships, writing | Tagged: adult relationship, art department, Baltimore, Baltimore harbor, bar-hopping, bats, bugs, clerks, coworkers, creative non-fiction, dating, employees, erotic adventures, fictions, Form SS-5, friends, harbor, job, literary lesson, love, Medicare Handbook, mother, new hire, non-fiction, Numerical Register Section, OASIS magazine, office, ratings, relationships, social club, social life, Social Security Administration, steel mill, stories, summer, tales, the Block, U. S. Army, Water Street, work | Permalink
Posted by Jim
February 26, 2009
On a bright early-spring day in March 1973, I was scouting the streets and parks of South Baltimore—something I often did in those days—looking for things to photograph. Everything in that part of the city had (still has) an emotional pull for me. I love it all—area ways (covered passages between the row homes, aka “sallie ports”), alleys, damaged garbage cans, old and new buildings, and the tiny fenced-in concrete back yards. I also love the urban animals—pigeons lined up military style on telephone wires or strolling the side walks as if they owned them, packs of free running dogs that seemed to lope along at an angle, like John Wayne looking for action (these days you only see dogs on leashes), and curious cats, always alone, exploring their neighborhood. The people, too, of course, I love seeing them—vegetable and fruit vendors working door-to-door from horse-drawn wagons (still to be seen, though rarer every year), neighborhood characters on the streets of the shopping district of Charles and Light Streets, shoppers and stall operators in and around Cross Street Market, and, of course, street kids everywhere. (They often run in packs, too.)
On that particular day in 1973 I happened upon a group of four kids, one boy and three girls, playing what appeared to be a game of “King of the Hill” on a large mound of raw dirt. This was in Federal Hill Park, a massive mound of grass covered dirt itself, rising in two tiers above the Southern rim of Baltimore Harbor. Federal Hill, the highest natural location in downtown Baltimore, provides a spot from which many photographers—pros and snap shooters alike—frame our favorite city skyline. The girls were a cute stair-step trio (sisters or cousins of the boy, or his neighbors?). But the boy, striking in looks, clothing and behavior, was the one that caught my eye. He was a character straight out of a novel by Charles Dickens, what with his shaggy hair, snaggle teeth, his tattered second- or third-hand coat, dirty horizontal stripped shirt, and equally filthy pants tucked into too-large engineer boots. But it was his behavior that truly impressed me. He was sprite-like, a free spirit, a dirt-mound dancer of total abandon—absolutely zero inhibitions in front of my camera—the incarnation of joyful Id. It was easy to see that all four kids loved the attention I gave them, loved being photographed, but the boy especially so. He pranced and strutted and at one point even began to sing for me. When I discovered those kids, I was very near the end of a long day of shooting and was down to the last few frames of my last 36-exposure roll. After grabbing the three shots you see here, I pretended I had more unexposed film in the camera. I kept clicking away, changing my position, setting up different “angles,” moving around the dirt mound in my own little dance, responding to and in perfect time with the boy’s movements. Never mind that I was out of film—I couldn’t stop, wouldn’t dare stop—we were both having too much fun.
Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.
1 Comment | essays, kids, non-fiction | Tagged: 1973, action, alleys, animals, backyards, Baltimore harbor, buildings, camera, cats, characters, Charles Dickens, city, city kids, concrete, Cross Street Market, curious cats, dancer, dirt, dogs on leashes, downtown Baltimore, emotional, exploring, Federal Hill Park, fun, garbage cans, horse-drawn wagons, Id, inhibitions, kids, King of the Hill, love, neighborhood, packs of dogs, people, photograph, photographers, photography, pigeons, pros, running free, sallie ports, shoppers, sidewalks, skyline, snap shooters, South Baltimore, spirit, spring, sprite, stall operators, street kids, telephone wires, vegetable and fruit vendors, wild child | Permalink
Posted by Jim
December 31, 2008
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.
3 Comments | essays, non-fiction, writing | Tagged: 1951, Baltimore harbor, banana boats, bulkhead, clipper ships, cranes, deck, gangplank, heaving lines, labor, mooring lines, ocean, open water, piers, sailboats, sea, ships, South Baltimore, stanchions, steamers, tramp freighter, tugboats, twilight, United Fruit Company, wharves, work | Permalink
Posted by Jim
November 12, 2008
Drink Chilly Willee Now!
In 1940s South Baltimore there seemed to be a “mom and pop” grocery store on every other street corner—and many more in the middle of blocks—and the densely packed and populated neighborhood of shoulder to shoulder row homes meant their were plenty of people to keep them busy. (One friend of mine, a successful comic strip artist, grew up in a 1,500 square foot home with his parents and six siblings.) Those small commercial establishments were what today we’d call “convenience stores,” the “7-Elevens” of that era. (Among scores of items, they sold my favorite snack food, called “Coddies,” or codfish cakes, made daily and served on salty crackers with mustard; they cost five cents each.) The basic day-to-day supplies people needed were just steps away from their front doors, and everything else could be found at the end of a slightly longer walk to the full-service shopping areas on Light and Charles Streets, and in Cross Street Market; or a short street car ride uptown. Meanwhile, most of the booming wartime labor force walked to their jobs at the dry docks and factories lining the harbor. Few families could afford a car, and none that I knew of had more than one, so there were no parking problems. (That’s unlike today in South Baltimore where there are at least two cars to each home.) The photographs I’ve used to illustrate this post were taken in the late 1970s, but they give you some idea of what I saw as a boy growing up in South Baltimore in the 1940s and ’50s. My only regret is that I could have (should have) photographed more of the remaining corner stores—of which there were still many in the ’70s—and the unintentional beauty of their cluttered window displays.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
1 Comment | non-fiction, photography | Tagged: 7-Elevens, Baltimore harbor, cars, Chilly Willee, coddies, codfish cakes, convenience stores, corner stores, Cross Street Market, dry docks, factories, family, friends, grocery stores, harbor, illustrate, images, mom and pop, neighborhood, neighbors, photographs, photography, row homes, siblings, South Baltimore, street car, street corners, wartime, window displays | Permalink
Posted by Jim