Today’s Gag

May 23, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

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A South Baltimore Christmas

December 1, 2010

Jealousy-Free Memories

By Jake Jakubuwski

For some reason I have no childhood recollection of the aromas of holiday cakes, cookies and pies filling our house with mouth-watering scents that drew me to the kitchen to sneak a taste of the latest treat from the oven. That was the sort of Christmas scene they showed in the movies and on that new thing called television. Nor do I recall a fir tree standing in our “front” room decorated with tinsel and strung with lights. I’m pretty sure that from time-to-time there must have been a tree and tinsel at our house — and perhaps even twinkling lights — but I just can’t remember them. In general, my personal recollections of Christmases in South Baltimore are, at best, sparse. Yet, on the other hand, for some reason I do recall “gifts” that I received at Christmas: a scarf to keep my throat warm; a pair of mittens to keep my hands toasty; a woolen cap that I could pull down over my ears on icy days while I walked to school or played outside. But there were no bicycles, roller skates, wagons or board games in the offing. Whatever I received was something I needed — practical, everyday stuff that was, as I recall, very much appreciated.

I don’t remember how old I was when I stopped believing in Santa Claus, but I do remember one year when, as winter set in, I told my mother that I wanted a pair of galoshes and she said: “We can’t afford them. Maybe Santa will bring you a pair.” I don’t remember what I got instead, if I got anything at all, but I do remember feeling disappointed with Santa, and perhaps that’s when I began to at least doubt his existence. A friend, who has followed some of my other childhood adventures on this blog, has encouraged me write about what Christmas meant to a young boy in a South Baltimore family of limited means, so here you have it. So, what do I remember about those early, materially scant Christmases? Well, snow, for one thing. I remember the streets covered in white and kids whooping and hollering as they belly-flopped on their new sleds. I remember them shooting their cap guns and never running out of ammunition. I recall other kids trudging around in the deepest snow banks to show off their new galoshes — gloating because their shoes didn’t get wet. All Christmas gifts, as I remember.

My most vivid memories of Christmas in South Baltimore are of the week or two leading up to the holiday: Grownups hurrying from one store to another in the shopping area around Cross and Light Streets, all of them carrying huge bags filled with gifts and gaudy decorations for their homes; I remember Salvation Army bands playing Christmas carols and other charity workers standing by their red kettles ringing bells to entice donations from passersby; mostly I remember the various Santa’s (who knew there was more than one?) standing on street corners with their own bells and buckets, soliciting pocket change to help feed and dress the poor. I remember buying a hot dog with all the “fixin’s” for a dime in Cross Street Market, and a vendor who gave me a hard pretzel and said “Happy holidays!” I also remember selling newspapers and every so often someone giving me a nickel or dime tip, and wishing me a Merry Christmas.

On more than one Christmas Eve I remember marveling at how many people were scurrying for streetcars, hurrying home for the holiday. I remember passing the local bars as revelers came out shouting greetings to their friends. Peering inside, I saw the Christmas decorations supplied by the beer companies (Mostly American, National and Arrow beers) glittering on the walls and over the bars. I remember the smell of beer and wine and cigarettes wafting out of the doors, along with the sound of Christmas music from the juke boxes, and how, when the doors closed the cacophony of carols and the vociferous celebration of the bar’s patrons was muted to a dull buzz.

And, finally, after more than sixty years, I can still remember the silence in the streets the day before The Big One, as snow fell (as it always does in my black and white soft-focus memory), covering South Baltimore in a crisp blanket that seemed to give all it sheltered an alabaster sheen to purify us each and everyone for Christmas day in the morning.

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. To locate more of Jake’s short blog pieces about growing up in the South Baltimore area, copy and paste—or type—his name into the sidebar search window and tap “search.”)

Copyright © 2010 Jake Jakubuwski.

Smooching the Mooch

October 13, 2010

By Jake Jakubuwski


Frankie was a gigolo. Mamie was the lady who supported Frankie. Frankie was twenty years younger than Mamie and Mamie was my mother’s aunt. Being just a kid, I didn’t know that Frankie was a gigolo. In fact, at the time, I didn’t know what a gigolo was. I only knew that he and Aunt Mamie were “together” and that Frankie spent a lot of time “stepping-and-fetching” for Mamie.

Frankie also had a lot of time (and Mamie’s money) to spend at the corner bar, and to buy supplies so he could do his “work”—fancy brushes, expensive oil paint, rolls of canvas to cut to size and attach to wooden rectangles. According to her, Frankie was an “artiste,” and she was going to make him famous. All Frankie needed was encouragement and the right break—and zero worry about where his art materials, meals and booze came from. What I don’t recall in those early years were pictures that Frankie actually painted—never mind the number of  dusty stretched canvas’ in their bedroom smeared with random colors. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing noteworthy about any of them—but what does a 13-year old boy know about art, right?

On a personal level (too personal, in my mind), Frankie insisted that I call him “Uncle Frankie” and he had a nasty habit of getting soused (most days by noon, sooner on Sunday) and when well-lit he’s say: “Come here and give Uncle Frankie a kiss.” Yuck! First off, I didn’t feel good about giving smooches to mooches—uncle, or not. Secondly, Frankie always smelled of last night’s beer, stale cigarette smoke, and some sort of embalming fluid he absolutely swore was an exotic, enticing cologne (attractive to Mamie at least). Finally, for me, just entering puberty, the idea of kissing a guy was simply revolting. Don’t misunderstand—except for his yucky compulsion to kiss the only other male in the house, Frankie never put a hand on me or made an improper advance. In fact, Frankie was a real part of our family. After all, he shared the bedroom of the lady who contributed the most to the rent and other expenses incurred by my grandmother, another aunt, and my mother—when my mother was around. So that gave him some stature in the pecking order. Unfortunately, I was at the tail end of the line, which made me fair game for Frankie’s boozy expression of affection.

I don’t know how Mamie and Frankie got together. One day Frankie was unknown to me and the next I had a new “uncle.” For some time it had not been uncommon for me go to bed on a Friday night and wake up Saturday morning with a stranger sleeping next to me. Just another barfly that came home with the crowd and spent the night. By way of explanation, and to make their presence more palatable, they were often introduced as “Your Uncle Fred from over near Laurel.” I had more Uncles and aunts then any kid for miles around (although I never woke up with an aunt in my bed!). But Uncle Frankie, it turned out, came to stay and become my smooching nemesis. And he was the mooch who (according to the family wisdom) was the cause of Mamie’s impending bankruptcy and future residency in the County Poor House.

I don’t remember the last time Uncle Frankie asked me for a kiss, or what finally happened to him. I had heard that as Mamie’s money began running out, he did too. Then, I heard he was in a detox unit. Six or eight years ago someone told me he had died. Mamie died nearly penniless in a two-room apartment in Eastport—just outside of Annapolis, Maryland. Over her bed hung a painting by Frankie—bold lines in primary colors and smears and splotches of the same tints. As an adult, I still couldn’t see the “art” in his work. But, as I say, what do I know? In any case, the painting wound up curbside awaiting a truck to take it to the dump. It seems to me that even the trash scavengers wouldn’t take the time to salvage the frame. I guess, when it came to art, they were as uninformed as me.

Several years later, My mother and two aunts were sitting around talking about Mamie and Frankie—those two had always been a favorite family topic—and the consensus was that it was Frankie’s fault Mamie died destitute, or nearly so. Translation: “There should have been some left for us!” My mother castigated that “damned gigolo” for taking everything Mamie had and giving her nothing in return.

I piped up and said: “But he did! He gave her hope. He gave her love and stability, at least for a while. He provided an older woman with whatever it was that she needed at the time. And in return Mamie gave Frankie a life-style he couldn’t manage on his own.” I wasn’t trying to defend Uncle Frankie so much as to just point out that it really does “take two to tango.” And Frankie and Mamie did—at least in the early years—really, truly do some fancy dancing!

So, finally, I’m now very happy to give him a little smooch for all that . . .

Copyright © 2010 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. (To locate more of Jake’s short pieces about growing up in the South Baltimore area, copy and paste—or type—his name into this blog’s sidebar window and tap “search.”)


Fifty Cents

April 2, 2010

By Jake Jakubuwski

“Readallaboutit! Readallaboutit! Gitch’er Sun an’ News Post papers here!” That was my shout-out in 1950s South Batimore as I sold daily newspapers for a nickel a piece. My cut was a half-cent each, which meant that if I unloaded twenty a day, five days a week, I’d earn fifty cents for the effort. Now, I know that weekly half-dollar doesn’t’ sound like much, but you have to put it into perspective. For a kid today, having a paltry fifty cents in his pocket is the same as being broke. But in those days a nickel would buy me a Coke. A dime would score a hotdog. Ten cents was the cost of admission to a Saturday movie matinee, and candy bars were only a nickel each. So, compared to most kids I knew, my weekly earnings actually put me in a relatively enviable financial position when Saturday rolled around and it was time to take in a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry show at the McHenry or Beacon theater on Light Street.

My family wasn’t exactly poor, but there was no such thing as “extra money” around the house—unless it was for a pitcher of beer or a pack of cigarettes for one of the adults. But there were Christmas cards and birthday cards with a quarter and, occasionally, a buck in them. However, a regular allowance was not possible, so I sold newspapers, collected and sold “junk”, shined shoes, worked on fruit and vegetable wagons (the men who sold from those colorful horse-drawn wagons were called “Arrabers”) and I hauled groceries from the local supermarket for nearby residents.

When I was busy selling newspapers I worked from the corner of Light and Cross Streets in South Baltimore and “hawked” the papers from a bundle I carried under my arm. It was pure hustle. I’d walk the streets around Cross Street Market and hop buses, moving from the front to the rear exit, calling out “Gitch’er papers here!” flipping them from the bundle as requested, my palm up to receive payment, then making change from my jeans pocket, being careful to return small coins—nickels and dimes—hoping to encourage a tip. I’d get off the bus several blocks from where I got on and catch another one in the opposite direction. I had learned early on that if I wanted spending money, I could only depend on “me, myself, and I” to get it.

The old Cross Street Market, a wooden shed that burned down in 1951 and was replaced by the current concrete block building in ’52, is about six blocks south of the trendy tourist attraction that it is today called the “Inner Harbor.” Heading north from the market on Light Street today’s spiffy harbor area was not even a figment of anyone’s imagination in the early 50’s. On the left (west side) of Light Street towards Pratt Street, was the McCormick Tea and Spice Company, makers of Old Bay Seasoning®. No self-respecting Baltimore steamed crab eater would think of using anything but Old Bay on their crabs. Or, they’d sprinkle it on their shrimp and fish. It was—and still is, as we say in Baltimore—a “Balmer” thing.

On the east (harbor) side of Light Street were decrepit, abandoned and rotting warehouses and piers. I can remember stories about the terrible things that could happen to kids in those old buildings. Whenever I passed through that section at night, I always made sure that I was on the “safe” side of the Light Street. Even so, I recall the trepidation I felt being alone there at night with few streetlights and deep shadows, sinister shadows that reminded me of the nefarious doings of Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney in the horror movies I’d spent my earnings to see.

Going south from Cross Street Market on Light Street was the old South Baltimore General Hospital, a jewelry store, a clothier, one or two shoe stores, a hardware store, two drug stores, a second five and dime store within the space of three blocks, and a restaurant or two. It was a great little shopping area that attracted tons of foot traffic and was an excellent place to peddle newspapers. So, long after the Federal Hill area had become decrepit, and long before the area was gentrified, I spent my money where it was appreciated—with the Cross Street Market area vendors—at the lunch counters and candy counters of Murphy’s five and dime—and, of course, at the movie theatres.

Meanwhile, at home occasions sometimes arose when an adult in the family would find it necessary to appropriate the money that I had worked so hard to earn. Once I remember being in the University Hospital for a hernia operation when my father (who at the time had been divorced from my mother for several years) came to visit. After about ten minutes he was ready to leave and only paused to ask if I had any money. I told him I had a couple of dollars and he asked to borrow it. He promised to pay me back on Friday, after he got paid. It was nearly three years before I saw him again.

Yep! Things sure were different for an ambitious boy back then. Not to go too “old school” on you, but if you weren’t a kid in those days, I doubt if you can appreciate how far half a buck could take you.

Copyright © 2010 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.)


Rendezvous

January 4, 2010

It’s a safe bet that few men my age can recall exactly where he was and what he was doing—and with whom—on a specific date sixty-two years ago. I’m one of the lucky ones, or at least I think I am. On June 25, 1948, I was ten years old and sitting on a bar stool in Milt’s Rendezvous, a low-end tavern not far from the shipyards in Curtis Bay. Curtis Bay was, and still is, a working-class neighborhood of tiny homes on the southern edge of the Baltimore waterfront. My father worked as a carpenter in the shipyards during World War II, and by this time the conflict had been over for three years. With the shipyards closed, daddy was out of work except for odd jobs here and there, but he still enjoyed visiting area bars. They were, he said, his “old drinking grounds.” It seemed that at each bar he took me the barmaids and many of the drinkers knew his name.

That day at Milt’s, I was sipping my usual orange “Nehi” soda and my father, on the stool next to me, was making wet circles on the bar top with the bottom of his beer bottle. “Arrow” was his favorite brand—no glass, he always drank it straight from the long neck. And he used his thumbnail to scratch the damp labels off the bottle as he sipped (a habit I picked up and still do on the rare occasions when I’m drinking a beer with a paste-on label). As he removed the labels he also seemed to remove himself, sort of go off someplace else in his mind. In those days I didn’t have the words to describe it that way, but I do remember being aware of his dreamy look as he deconstructed the labels. Meanwhile, my contribution to the overlapping art he created on the bar top was to smear the circles into an abstraction with my fingers. He didn’t seem to mind, at least not while he was on the early side of drunk and still in a good mood. My father could be a mean sot. Sober, he was often a fun-loving man who laughed and joked and did silly things, like singing country songs and accompanying himself with one of his tools. Often his “instrument” of choice was a hand saw, which he gripped handle-down between his knees and bowed with a stick strung with a wire nailed to it. As he stroked, he changed the angle of the saw-tooth blade which produced a wavering, eerie, high-lonesome sound.

My father said that our mission that day at Milt’s was to watch the world heavyweight title fight between the champ, Joe Louis, and his challenger, Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott was a nobody, pretty much, at least in big-time boxing—until, that is, their first bout in 1947, when he had come very close to beating Louis. We watched the rematch on a small black and white television set mounted on a shelf over one end of the bar. In 1948, few poor people had TV’s in their homes (our family was securely in that category), but every bar in town had a set to lure the drinkers out of their living rooms. (Kids like me, and some adults, watched variety shows like “Texaco Star Theater” with Milton Berle at night, while standing on the sidewalk outside appliance stores. They kept their display window sets on all the time to entice customers. And it worked. By the mid-1950s most families, even some on welfare, had a TV in the house.)

Jersey Joe Walcott was a veteran fighter. His real name, which my father said sounded kind of “sissy,” was “Arnold Cream.” Walcott had learned to box starting when he was just 16, but daddy claimed Joe Louis was by far the better fighter. As it turned out, the rematch was another close one. In the final rounds, Louis was again behind Jersey Joe on points. Daddy was keeping score and said the champ needed to come up with a knockout punch to win. Everyone in the bar thought Louis was going to lose until very near the end of the match, when a single punch to Walcott’s jaw knocked him flat on the canvas for the count of ten. “Happy ending,” daddy said. When I finished my Nehi, and daddy took the last sip of his (fourth or fifth?) Arrow beer, he said “Jimmy, I’ve got to go see a man about a horse.” He had a lot of “saying’s” like that, things he’d drop into the conversation that made little or no sense to me at the time. What he said next I did understand. “You go on home and tell your momma I’m right behind you.”

Alone, I walked the narrow two-lane road from Milt’s Rendezvous to our house at 1011 Mast Court, in the nearby government-built housing project. All the streets in our development were named after parts of ships and boats, and the houses looked like army barracks. Dad claimed they were, in fact, converted barracks stuck up on a hill overlooking Baltimore City and the harbor, put there in a hurry to house the thousands of workers and their families that had moved into town for war work in the shipyards. (Beautiful view, actually, but ugly buildings.) There were no sidewalks on the road home. I walked on the black top facing traffic, like my father had taught me. He said that way, if you see a car coming, you have a good chance to get out of the way. Daddy was right, several times I had to scrunch up against hedges and bushes to let a fast car go by.

Daddy still wasn’t home when I went to bed that night. All evening my mother had looked at the clock and shook her head and tut-tutted, like she always did when Daddy was off somewhere. That was her regular life, but it always seemed to make her mad—or at least sad. When I checked the next morning daddy was splayed out on his back on their bed, fully dressed, sleeping off what my mother said was just another “toot.” At breakfast momma told me he had “come in at some ungodly hour” after the bars closed. She also said that on the way home he must have “skipped into the road and got his-self sideswiped.” Daddy wasn’t hurt, just a scratch here and there, and the upper plate of his false teeth was missing. Momma said she was going to trust me to retrace his steps and find it. She told me the best place to look was in clumps of bushes near the roadside.

All of this crazy business seemed perfectly normal at the time. It was all I knew. Another brief example to illustrate. When I was four or five, while we were still living in Virginia, my mother had taken my younger brother and me with her to a neighbor’s for a “house meeting”—bible thumping revival stuff, singing and testifying, that sort of thing. When we came home we noticed that the window next to the front door had been broken and there was blood on the jagged glass shards left in the frame. Daddy had lost or misplaced his key and smashed his fist through the window so he could reach inside and unlock the door. We found him peacefully asleep on the living room couch, fresh blood still oozing from several small cuts on his arm.

Eventually I found daddy’s upper plate in a hedge by the side of the road, not far from another of his favorite bars, one that happened to be roughly halfway between Milt’s Rendezvous and home. Two years after what I had come to think of as the “False Teeth Fiasco,” I returned home from school one day to discover that my mother had disappeared—she just ran off and left me, daddy and my younger brother. No note, nothing. Later I learned from a neighbor what had happened but, no matter the explanation, in those days I couldn’t understand how she could do such a thing. For a long time I couldn’t forgive her. By the time I was a grown man I had figured it out for myself. It wasn’t something I had done or said that drove her away. She had finally, after more than twenty years, simply got fed up with living her life with what she called a “flat-out drinking fool” for a husband.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.


Today’s Gag

March 14, 2009

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Today’s Gag

March 6, 2009
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