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.

Arabbin’ and Other Childhood Jobs

September 14, 2009

A Brief Memoir
By Jake Jakubuwski


In the early 1950s I was living with my parents, grandparents and youngest aunt on Battery Avenue, in South Baltimore. Money was not exactly tight in our house, but there was nothing to squander on movies and other stuff that kids our age were convinced we couldn’t live without.

If you were not a pre-teen or teen in the early ‘50’s, you probably have no concept how far a half dollar could take you in the pursuit of peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, soda and, of course, movies. The trick was to find ways to earn the money. Aunt Pat, who was four years older than me, had it easy. (Well, I thought so at the time.) She was in demand as a baby sitter, laundress, or house cleaner. Being male meant that I had to scrounge for other work, usually outside the house. If I wanted to hear change jingle in my pockets for the Saturday shows I had to take it to the streets.

Being the clever lad I was in those days, I constructed a wagon from a beer crate (long necks), a couple of two-by-fours and four baby carriage wheels. On Friday evenings and all day on Saturdays, I pulled the wagon by its rope “harness” to the A & P on Fort Avenue and hauled groceries home for shoppers. My efforts would generally get me a nickel or dime per trip. On a good Saturday I could earn as much as fifty cents. The problem was if I worked all day Saturday, I would miss the movies. That was when the theaters showed double features with “selected short subjects,” ten minute films such as cartoons, newsreels and at least one serial, perhaps Rocket Man, Jungle Queen, or Captain America — all this for a dime.

I also used my wagon to scavenge for old newspapers, magazines, scrap metal and rags that folks would put out for the trash man. But I had to get up early on trash days to beat the Rag Man to the good stuff. The Rag Man was a guy who wandered through the back streets and alleys, usually with a horse and wagon, collecting the same stuff I was trying to gather up to sell at the junk yard on Cross Street.

To the best of my recollection iron was worth about two cents a pound, newspaper would bring half a cent, and magazines were worth a penny a pound. It took a fair amount of scavenging to come up with fifty cents or so for a week’s effort. Most of that work had to be done on school days, which meant I had to get up around five in the morning if I wanted to put in a couple of hours of “Gar-BAHGE-ing” before it was time to go to school.

At one time or another, I also sold newspapers on the Northeast corner of Cross Street at Light Street, between a bank and a movie theater. The newspaper vendor hired boys like me (no girls allowed) to help him increase his sales. We would walk the streets and ride the trolley cars hustling the product. We were allowed on the trolleys free but could only ride a block or two, and then had to get off and catch one going in the opposite direction. The daily papers sold for a nickel each and I earned a half-cent. The Sunday editions cost a quarter and my share was a nickel. Again, on a good week, I could earn as much as seventy-five cents, but if I only sold dailies it was usually closer to fifty.

My all-around favorite way to make money was to work for the “Arabbers”. These were the guys that sold fresh produce from horse-drawn wagons. They would make their rounds through the neighborhoods chanting: ‘Watermelluun! Can’elope! Nice fresh corn, pic’d this very morn. Watermelluun!” The chant would vary depending on what he was pushing on a given day. The Arrabber would usually ride on the wagon seat, or walk at the horse’s head as he went up one street and down another, singing the song of his farm-fresh stock.

The Arabber would stop in the middle or the end of the block so that the housewives could come out and poke, prod and look over his offerings. I would bag the selections, keep the produce looking good, straighten the wagon and occasionally run produce up to Mrs. Rosen’s when she called down an order from her apartment window on the second or third floor.

For instance, the Arabber might be chanting: ‘I got ‘taters, I got corn, I got Anne ‘rundels pic’d this very morn! Anne ‘rundels a nickel a piece or three for a dime!” (“Anne ‘rundels” were tomatoes grown in nearby Anne Arundel County.) Mrs. Rosen might yell down: “Hon, I only need two. Send ’em up and make sure they’s firm, now.” Of course it was my job to run the tomatoes up to Mrs. Rosen’s apartment, collect the money and run back down to the wagon to give it to the boss. If Mrs. Rosen gave me a quarter, I had to make another trip up the steps with her change.

Usually, a day’s work on the wagon was worth a quarter. With the occasional nickel tip, I could pull down half a buck on a good Saturday. I remember one Saturday the boss paid me and the other helper in oranges. It had been a bad week for orange sales and these were beginning to get a bit soft. We each got a dozen oranges and had to carry them home in our shirts because, the Arabber said, ” . . . bags is expensive.” If I didn’t learn anything else from my Arabber days, I discovered that it was better to be the guy that owned or rented the wagon than the kid who did the running.

Overall, though, I have no complaints. During that productive period of my childhood I learned how to work hard and earn spending money — and how to depend on myself to get those things I wanted that my folks, for whatever reason, couldn’t afford to provide for me.

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.

The Trestle

January 7, 2009

When one of my blog posts inspires a friend, a relative—or even a stranger—to write a detailed comment about one of their experiences, it gives me great pleasure. Some I like to share. This most recent example came as a result of my “Trains” post of 12/10/08. The writer, a friend of more than 35 years, is a glamorous woman who, it turns out—and much to my surprise—was once a tomboy. It is always fascinating when someone you thought that you knew well reveals a new (to you) character layer, especially when she can express it so well in the prose voice of a small child.

By Alvera (McClain) Winkler

The sound of a train transports me back in time. It is 1943 and our tiny clapboard house is a coal lump toss from the railroad tracks. The locomotive lulls me to sleep like a mother’s lullaby. Shhh, shhh, shhh, shhh, the steam engine cajoles, as the whistle blows in sweet harmony. The train’s clackity clack rhythm as it makes its way down the tracks sooths me like a mother’s heartbeat. The trembling earth gently rocks my cradle as the mighty engine passes.

When my brother Robert is four and I am almost three, we play outside all day. Today, we are making mud pies with the black soot from the train. Robert is mixing worms in his. He likes to squish the worms up good with his hands first. 54We load the fresh mud pies in our red wooden wagon. The train whistle blows and we are so excited we forget about the mud pies and run as fast as we can to the end of the sidewalk, where a black and white striped gate comes down to block our path. Red lights flash. We wait. Sure enough, here comes the giant black engine, screeching and belching big puffs of steam and black smoke, its huge wheels going around as it does its job, pulling a string of freight cars and a red caboose. The engineer, wearing a blue and white striped cap and bandana, waves to us, as he always does. We rush to be the first to grab a lump of coal that bounces from the coal car. Robert got there first, as usual, but that’s all right because we’ll both play catch with it later. There must be a hundred freight cars, and bringing up the rear is the red wooden caboose. The conductor, watching from the window in a tiny room on top of the caboose, waves to us and we wave back. By the end of the day, we are covered with soot and must be a funny sight, because grownups, heading home from work, laugh at us. At bath time Mommy screams when she finds leftover squished worms in Robert’s pockets. Mommy has a surprise for us, too. She says we are moving to a new house, which at first makes Robert and me sad, because we will miss the trains. But when we arrive at our new house, we are happy to see it’s even closer to the tracks than the old house, and better yet, backs right up to them. And best of all, a river runs along the side of our house and the trains have to go over a trestle to cross the river.

In the five years since we moved into this neighborhood, Robert and me have had lots of fun playing on the train tracks. Mommy walks the tracks, too, but not for fun. She uses them and the trestle as a shortcut to get to the next town where she works at Jarrett’s Beauty Bazaar. At the trestle she always stops and listens for the train’s whistle. If it’s not blowing, she figures it’s safe to cross and she quickly walks on the railroad ties to the other side. She has to be fast because the only place to stand if a train comes is a small platform that hangs over the river halfway across the trestle. On this one day, Robert has an idea. He says it would be real fun to be on the platform while a train is going by, so that we can see it real close up. So we wait and listen, and when we hear the whistle blow far off in the distance, we run across the trestle as fast as we can, stepping on the ties. I can see the ripples of the river far below, between the ties. The tarry smell of the ties baking in the sun hits my nose. Then we hear the whistle again, louder this time. We jump onto the platform, and look back down the tracks just in time to see the train rounding the bend. The train is speeding straight for us, it seems. As it passes, the platform shakes so much I can feel my brains rattle. We cling to the platform railing for dear life. I grip the railing so tight my knuckles are white. I look down at the river below, so far away. The train’s giant wheels roar past us so fast, its whirlwind feels like a tornado. I’m afraid we are going to get sucked right under those wheels. This is the longest train I have ever seen. There must be a gazillion freight cars, but at last I am so happy to see the caboose. I hope Robert doesn’t have any other great ideas today.

Well, during our childhood Robert did have many more ideas, some great ones and some not so great. This was one of many adventures I experienced as I tagged behind him, exploring the tracks and the trestle. Those memories all return to me whenever I hear the sound of a train.

Copyright © 2009 Alvera (McClain) Winkler.