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.)
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.
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.
Short Fiction/Part Two
When Bernie walked through the door, Helen straightaway asked him what he was doing home in the middle of the afternoon. He hemmed and hawed and came up with a nervous story about needing to retrieve some work stuff. Bernie’s jiggly behavior, plus a telephone call Helen had received only minutes before, put her on a Mean-Green Betty alert. She didn’t let on, though, just allowed him to think he had lied his way out of the situation. Bernie didn’t know it, of course, but he was pre-sunk—that phone call had alerted Helen to the younger woman’s resurrection. “Your buddy Fred called,” Helen said, telling part of the truth. “Wants you to drop by the police station tomorrow first thing. Some kind of special project.”
Fred, the town sheriff, was Bernie’s best friend from high school. At one time Fred had also been belly-bumping close to Helen, but she had kept that fact from Bernie, it being a bit of deception she allowed herself out of concern for his feelings—or so she liked to think. Without another word, Helen went back to work on a complicated tuna fish concoction she was whipping up for supper, her mayonnaise-covered hands deep in a big yellow mixing bowl. Bernie picked up some papers and walked out the door. Helen was whistling as she worked, but she had murder on her mind. She had confessed as much to Fred earlier when he called. Helen told him straight out that either Bernie or Betty had to die, and she was at the point where it didn’t matter which one. Fred laughed, of course, but he also felt a tad uneasy—not being sure if Helen was joking or what.
Monday was Helen’s bowling league and her mom kept the kids, so Bernie was free to do as he pleased—within reason, of course. He went out for a ride and stopped at Jigg’s Drive-In for a few beers, and it wasn’t long before he got to thinking about old times. The Jigg’s crowd provoked it, all them being real young these days—too young—and Bernie realized he didn’t really know anyone enough except to nod and say “Hi” to. On an impulse, feeling a tad lonely, he decided to cut out and visit his old friend Chuck. That turned out to be a first rank bad idea. He and Chuck were a duo that went back to the days of running with the booze-pill-and-sex bunch that featured Betty as the main attraction. The three of them were—well, let’s just say they got to be very close. Chuck is your basic small burg bachelor, a big rumpled guy with a small neat apartment over the pet shop on Main Street, and he has a small neat brain to match. He’s the sort of fellow who gets along by going along, satisfied to spend his days working part-time in an auto body shop, picking up the occasional house painting job and selling a bit of weed or a handful of pills to take up any financial slack. Chuck would never intentionally harm a living soul but he’s not above providing the means for folks to screw themselves over.
That evening found Chuck and Bernie in Chuck’s living room, shirts off, drinking beer, toking on a fat spliff they passed back and forth, and yelling at a two week old football game Chuck had recorded on his VCR. Three minutes into the fourth quarter there came a knock on the door. Chuck opened it and Betty glided in a foot off the floor, on what appeared to be air currents. Whatever it was that she had ingested also produced an aura of sensuality that glowed off her like yellow-green neon. Bernie and Chuck could tell she was there for one purpose only, to play big-time party tag and those two hapless dolts were “It.”
It being hot, the first thing Betty did was take off her blouse and bra and head for the fridge to, as she said, “cool her tits” and get a beer. Bernie somehow came to the conclusion that he was capable of resisting her charms and followed her into the kitchen. Betty was stationed in front of the open freezer door fanning cold air onto her chest with one hand and sipping from a Coors can with the other. As in times past, Bernie felt himself instantly attracted to the incredible muscle definition in her back. “Goddamn it, Betty,” he said, “one of us is gonna have to leave this town.”
She turned around, smiling, with one perfect breast cupped in her free hand. “Really, Bern? You mean that?”
“It’s good to see you, baby—been a long, long while—but I can’t afford to play them games no more.”
“Your choice, hon.” Betty slid past him and headed for the living room where the amiable Chuck waited in ecstatic anticipation.
Bernie stayed in the kitchen for a beat, feeling what resistance he may have had ebb from his body like brackish water from a swamp. By the time he got to the living room Betty was completely naked, astride Chuck in the classic lap dance position, him smiling over her bare shoulder like it was Christmas and he was more than willing to share this gift. Bernie watched those two go at it awhile, then shrugged. “What the hell,” he thought, moving toward them, “Helen thinks she’s dead.”
By evening’s end the threesome had done everything to each other they could think of, short of man-on-man, which Chuck and Bernie would have no part of even to please Betty. They were convinced, however, that they had invented several trio combinations heretofore undocumented in Chuck’s extensive porn collection. Bernie had never had so much fun or felt so low at the same time—especially later, on his way home, drained dry like a corn husk left in some farmer’s field during a ten year drought.
Part three of My Wife Thinks You’re Dead will post tomorrow.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.