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.)


The Last Dog

June 23, 2008

Short Fiction/Part One

Ronnie claimed he learned to lie good from crime movies. “The best way, Andy,” he said, “is fast and furious with a straight face. Do it speedy so they believe you believe it.” He was perfect at it. When Ronnie said bats were just short fat snakes with wings, I bought it. Later, he got me again saying bats were night birds grownups don’t like ’cause they don’t sing. Yeah, Ronnie loved bats. He had stacks of bat books all over his bedroom. “I worship the god Zotzilaha,” he said, “human body and the head of a bat.” That was pure bullshit of course, but I let it roll off me like it would a duck’s back. I had to sleep in the same room with the jerk. See, Momma sent me to live with Ronnie’s mother, my half-sister Alice, while Momma ran off someplace else. And since she had kicked Daddy out—I didn’t know where he went, or why—I was sort of an orphan. Anyway, after supper Alice was mad about who knows what and made us come up to Ronnie’s room. He was on his bed with a book about zoos, Fred Waring music on the radio. I sat on the edge of the army cot Alice put in for me and used the seat of a wood chair to draw on, trying to make the picture I’d promised Ronnie. Now and then I heard snatches of Alice and her husband Ted come up from down stairs, all hollow and bent out of shape. Ronnie made out he didn’t hear his folks fighting and kept at me with, “Andy, you can’t fool an animal.” That statement was just to hear himself talk. I went on about my business. “Now you take Tarzan.” Right there Ronnie made a big pause for me to say something back, like I was fool enough to bite. He knew Tarzan was my all-time favorite, but I stayed quiet. “All the animals,” Ronnie said, “they love Tarzan. So you know he’s a good guy. A chimp like Cheetah, or an elephant—a man can’t bullshit ’em.”

More talk from downstairs. “Yeah, and then what?” That was Alice, her voice soft, mostly mumbles.

“If Tarzan wasn’t a good guy,” Ronnie kept on, “animals wouldn’t rescue him from quicksand.”

“More gratitude!” Alice again, loud and sarcastic to beat the band. Ted said something back I couldn’t make out, then Alice said, “Easy for you, you don’t have to put up with—” something, something, “—or wash his stinky socks, or—” then she said something else I couldn’t make out, talking about me, I figured. Ted came back at Alice with something.

“Now, you take a baboon,” Ronnie said. “Big exception. Ain’t seen one yet gives a damn about any human.”

“Yeah, Ronnie, you’re the expert.” I said it just to be mean so a normal person would notice, but not him.

“My house always looks nice!” Alice again, hollering. Ted came right back at her, but real low—some stuff about money, I think.

Alice yelled, “Not if I can help it!”

“A baboon’ll screw his girlfriend in public,” Ronnie said. “Then he’ll throw shit-balls at you, then turn right around and play with his food. Then he’ll look you in the eye—no blinks—like he’s saying, ‘I’m having a good time!'” He laughed. “Man, baboons don’t give a damn!

Ted’s voice came upstairs strong but not loud. “Yeah, well, I’ll be here ’til the last dog dies.”

“Can’t have it both ways, Mr. Man,” Alice said.

“Gorillas are almost human.” Ronnie still ignored his momma and daddy. “Same family arrangements we got. Apes use eyesight for identification, like us. Four-legged animals, they use scent markers.”

“What?”

Ronnie tapped his book. “What it says. Apes tell different individuals by eyeball, not like a dog who looks for assholes to sniff.”

“Go ahead!” Alice hollered. “Get gone!”

“How long’s my leash?” That was Ted.

Then something slammed downstairs and Ronnie cut his eyes at the bedroom door, but he didn’t say a word, didn’t lift his head, just eyed that door like he had Superman’s x-ray vision. Then he went back to his animal book, quiet for a change.

Meanwhile, the naked fat people I was drawing for him, they were giving me stagger-fits. Some parts didn’t look right—legs, mostly. Pretty soon I got disgusted and tore the picture into five hundred pieces. More like five thousand pieces. Ronnie looked up, surprised. I just shrugged at him. “Didn’t look natural.”

Shit, Andy!”

“Lousy pose,” I said. “They just stood there all stiff.”

“You had ’em holding hands!

At first I thought he was going to bust out crying. “I’ll start over, Ronnie. Make ’em move. Maybe have ’em dance around some kind of way.”

“Shit, shit, SHIT!

“You’ll get your picture before school starts tomorrow. I’ll come up with some kind of idea.”

Ronnie hollered “SHIT!” one more time.

Right there I got my idea, it popped into my brain like it was hiding in there the whole time and too shy to come out. The picture was going to be three fat women and two fat men, a whole bowling team, and ever one of them naked. The picture wasn’t just for Ronnie anymore, but more for my own sake. It was something I just had to try and see if I could draw it. But not right then. Right then I was tired, so I put the pencil down and pitched back on the cot. My eyes went out like one of those movies where the person’s in a daze. I saw pictures in behind my eyelids—balloons and clouds and Army trucks—big faces of girls came and went—voices, too—all of it in my brain somehow. At first I couldn’t tell who was talking, but pretty soon it came clear, like when you tune a radio around the dial. Those voices got to be my own Momma and Daddy somehow—and those sounds?—they were ghost sounds.

Did I mention that Ronnie was some kind of crazy and stupid at the same time? Like, he collected yo-yos and empty cigarette packs and special rings. He’d wear two rings on the same finger and change them every week, to show off. His main ring was the Green Hornet one that his daddy gave him when Ronnie was still tiny. It was Ted’s from when he was little, and it had a secret compartment for magic codes. Also, it glowed in the dark. You couldn’t get them no more. The Lone Ranger atom-bomb ring was Ronnie’s favorite that he sent away for off a corn flakes box. It cost him ten cents plus five box tops and he stole the money from Alice’s purse. I had Ronnie in my brain ‘way too much. See, he was this momma’s boy who couldn’t do any wrong and he knew it and took advantage of it. Meanwhile, Alice was my half-sister but old enough to be my momma and liked to remind me of it ever chance she got. Sometimes I’d tell lies on Ronnie to get back at the both of them, but Alice, she’d never bite. She’d just smile and shake her head and move on. What Ronnie got away with was no fair. Alice trusted Ronnie just because he was her precious son, without any sense to it, and him lying with every other breath.

When we were done our homework and such, Ronnie got his cigarette’s from under the mattress. Had them stuck up in the springs so Alice couldn’t find them. He brought the “Lucky Strike” pack to me cupped in his hands like it was pure gold. Right, like I never saw Luckies before. I just nodded. “Try one?” he asked. I shook my head. Ronnie went to the window and pushed it up as far as it would go. “C’mere,” he said. I didn’t move a muscle. Ronnie tapped the pack on his hand and a cigarette popped out. He tilted the table lamp on his night stand and reached up under it, undid the bottom and pulled out his Zippo. He held the lighter and cigarette up and smiled his evil smile. Then Ronnie motioned at me with both hands to come on, like Dracula in the movie where he meets the Wolf Man. Another dumb temptation. I shook my head again. “Don’t know what you’re missing, kid.” That last word was a sneer like I was pure pussy. Ronnie tossed the Luckie in the air and caught it in his mouth. He looked to see if I watched— which I did, couldn’t help myself. He flipped the Zippo lid and stuck sparks against the night sky out the window. The flame flared up yellow-orange five inches high, seemed like, and he had to come at it sideways or burn his face off. Ronnie pulled the first drag real big, then let part of the smoke come out and go up his nose. His tongue sucked the trail of smoke back in like a frog catching a fly, and his head jerked back with such pleasure I never saw before or since. He made a click-noise too, just like a frog. Beautiful. Ronnie kept at it—pulled big drags, inhaled, smiled. He blew the smoke out the window and watched me out the corner of his eye. He knew he had me hooked. After a while Ronnie said, “Andy, you seen any Alan Ladd movies?”

“Nope.” That was a lie. Alan Ladd wasn’t no favorite of mine—too sissified—but I did know his stuff.

“Best smoker there is,” Ronnie said. “Watch this.” He hit the Zippo with the back of his hand, which somehow flipped the lid and struck a spark to light it, all in one slick move. He smiled and closed the lid over the flame. “Alan Ladd,” he said. I kept quiet. “How about Dark City,” Ronnie said. “Seen that, with Lizabeth Scott?”

“Nope, ain’t seen it.”

“She’s good too, great smoker for a woman. Stupid mouth, but she’s special. The best smokers are movie stars and sluts.” Ronnie took another fancy drag on his Luckie and blew perfect smoke rings that floated out the window. The warm breeze bent and smeared them in with the dark. He flicked the cigarette outside. “See how I did that?” Ronnie smiled. “Pure Alan Ladd.”

He tapped another Luckie out of the pack and offered it to me. I felt how crinkly and stale it was, but when he went to light it I said, “Later,” and stuck it in my shirt pocket. There was a loud bang downstairs. The front door? A ghost? Whatever it was, the sound made me jump. Baby Elizabeth started to cry. Ted’s old dog barked. Ronnie kept quiet. Finally I said, “What was that?

“What was what?”

“You know damn well, Ronnie.” He just shrugged. Right. He knew it wasn’t Baby Elizabeth or the dog did that. Ronnie knew a noise that loud had to be Alice or Ted.

Part two of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.