Arabbin’ and Other Childhood Jobs

September 14, 2009

A Brief Memoir
By Jake Jakubuwski

Wagon2

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.


Wild Child

February 26, 2009

On a bright early-spring day in March 1973, I was scouting the streets and parks of South Baltimore—something I often did in those days—looking for things to photograph. dickens-21Everything in that part of the city had (still has) an emotional pull for me. I love it all—area ways (covered passages between the row homes, aka “sallie ports”), alleys, damaged garbage cans, old and new buildings, and the tiny fenced-in concrete back yards. I also love the urban animals—pigeons lined up military style on telephone wires or strolling the side walks as if they owned them, packs of free running dogs that seemed to lope along at an angle, like John Wayne looking for action (these days you only see dogs on leashes), and curious cats, always alone, exploring their neighborhood. The people, too, of course, I love seeing them—vegetable and fruit vendors working door-to-door from horse-drawn wagons (still to be seen, though rarer every year), neighborhood characters on the streets of the shopping district of Charles and Light Streets, shoppers and stall operators in and around Cross Street Market, and, of course, street kids everywhere. (They often run in packs, too.)

On that particular day in 1973 I happened upon a group of four kids, one boy and three girls, playing what appeared to be a game of “King of the Hill” on a large mound of raw dirt.16wildboy_1 This was in Federal Hill Park, a massive mound of grass covered dirt itself, rising in two tiers above the Southern rim of Baltimore Harbor. Federal Hill, the highest natural location in downtown Baltimore, provides a spot from which many photographers—pros and snap shooters alike—frame our favorite city skyline. The girls were a cute stair-step trio (sisters or cousins of the boy, or his neighbors?). But the boy, striking in looks, clothing and behavior, was the one that caught my eye. He was a character straight out of a novel by Charles Dickens, what with his shaggy hair, snaggle teeth, his tattered second- or third-hand coat, dirty horizontal stripped shirt, and equally filthy pants tucked into too-large engineer boots. But it was his behavior that truly impressed me. He was sprite-like, a free spirit, a dirt-mound dancer of total abandon—absolutely zero inhibitions in front of my camera—the incarnation of joyful Id. It was easy to see that all four kids loved the attention I gave them, loved being photographed, but the boy especially so. dickensHe pranced and strutted and at one point even began to sing for me. When I discovered those kids, I was very near the end of a long day of shooting and was down to the last few frames of my last 36-exposure roll. After grabbing the three shots you see here, I pretended I had more unexposed film in the camera. I kept clicking away, changing my position, setting up different “angles,” moving around the dirt mound in my own little dance, responding to and in perfect time with the boy’s movements. Never mind that I was out of film—I couldn’t stop, wouldn’t dare stop—we were both having too much fun.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


City Kids

September 9, 2008

December 3, 1972

The winter of ’72 was a busy time for me as a street photographer in South Baltimore. In the Mid-Atlantic region we have fairly mild winters, some warm days even through December, January and February, and of which city kids can be counted upon to take full advantage. We certainly did when I was growing up in the neighborhood during the ‘40s and ‘50s. (Judging from my ‘70s photos it was still true then.) City streets and sidewalks absorb and retain heat from the sun, and when you add to that windblocking buildings, urban areas are usually at least ten degrees warmer in winter than otherwise would be the case, which of course means that we kids had that much more outdoor play time. On any warm sunshiny day—even some pretty cold ones—we spent as much time as possible exploiting the vast concrete and tar-paved playgrounds that began a few steps outside our doors.

I spotted these ’70s kids on South Hanover Street in my old neighborhood and was attracted to their play-acting antics, which reminded me of my own “pretend” exploits twenty-five or thirty-five years earlier. (For some of us, at least some of the time, nostalgia can drive creativity.) After giving me permission to shoot, and while I snapped a few frames, they “shot” back at me with their toy guns. Throughout the session we exchanged tough guy military movie dialogue; and we stayed “in character” the whole time. What I find interesting these days is the startled reaction of some (actually most) adults viewing these images for the first time. I guess the fact that the boys are brandishing toy guns makes them uneasy; but it’s understandable since they weren’t there to witness the playful context. Understandable, but somewhat sad. And usually, until I point it out, these same adults fail to notice that the lad on the right is wearing a boy scout patch on his shoulder. (Click images for larger views.)

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


The Encampment

July 9, 2008

Family, Friends, and Neighbors

In March, 1973, I spent a week of great weather photographing kids and streetscapes in the southernmost part of South Baltimore, where Light Street ends and a complex of old warehouses and railroad yards begin. Or at least that was the scene then. These days the area has been gentrified somewhat and many of the warehouses are now apartments and condos. (The railroad yards are still there, now owned by CSX.) I saw the group of kids pictured here on several occasions. It was always the same girls and boy; and the boy, to quote from an unpublished story of mine about city kids, seemed to be the “leader in charge.” The girls, meanwhile, usually appeared distracted, or—perhaps a better way to put it—self-absorbed in the classic “tween” girl group manner. They laughed and chatted while paying scant attention to me, if that. The boy stood off to one side, serious (he never smiled at me, just stared), hyper-alert, protective, as if he were on sentry duty. I came to think of the group in dramatic terms, as a family, a tribe, or perhaps an encampment of gorilla fighters hiding out in the mountains. Romantic ideas aside, I composed the image with the boy foregrounded, as dominate in the frame as he appeared to me to be in his relationship with the girls, and I was careful to include enough of the background buildings to give a feeling for the industrial character of the area. To provide more context to this layout I’ve added two other images of the “campsite,” made on the same day. I don’t know what those huge metal cylinders are, but since the neighborhood is only blocks from the harbor, I figure they may be buoys. (Click on any of the images for larger views.)

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


The Last Dog

June 27, 2008

Short Fiction/Final Part

Ted bought me a sketchbook at Murphy’s five and ten cents store on Light Street, but who knows why? I turned thirteen in October, so maybe that was it. Maybe not. Anyway, I loved it, ’cause it made me feel like a real artist. In the front I drew things I wasn’t good enough yet to draw—like that big cannon on top of Federal Hill Park that points dead center at the city—and in the back of the sketchbook I wrote stuff I didn’t understand. I’d go back and back to those mystery items, trying to dope them out. There was a bunch of crap in there that Ronnie told me Alice said about me. He said his momma called me “One sick snake,” so I wrote it down. And she claimed I had too many opinions—that I could find fault with a sunset—and I was lazy and sat on my laurels, whatever they are. He also said Alice said she made allowances for me, but I never saw a penny of it. I wrote it all down. One time Alice hollered right to my own face that I needed to learn a lesson, that one day I’d be taught a hard lesson and she’d do the teaching of it and she couldn’t wait to see the day—all that and she never took a breath. None of it made zero sense, so I wrote it down to study on later.

Most times I followed art rules when I drew in the sketchbook, but when I didn’t it was because I rushed too fast to see how the picture would turn out. Once, during recess at school, I did a naked woman for Tiny for five cents. Naked pictures were dangerous to draw on school property, but a nickel was a nickel. For some unknown reason that fat doofus Tiny liked his women skinny, and skinny is hard to draw. Fat people have big rolls of flesh—clouds of meat—so it’s easy to get a pencil line around that, but with skinny folks you’re desperate for something to make a decent shape out of. The fingers on my woman looked like spiders. Hands are hard, period, but skinny ones, well, you can just forget it. I had to erase one of her hands five times and do it over and it still came out dumb.

That night Ronnie said I was a lousy drawer again, but that wasn’t why I ambushed him from behind his bedroom door and twisted his arm up his back and shoved him face-first into the wall—SMACK! The sound was beautiful, like in a gangster movie. I did it again—SMACK! Ronnie didn’t try to escape but let me keep him pinned, almost like he liked it. Again I did it, even harder, SMACK! Ronnie went limp, zero resistance. It was perfect but no good, ’cause he gave up too easy. “You know what’s up, Ronnie. Admit it.” Not a word from him. “Say it!” He kept on quiet. I slammed him again—SMACK! Ronnie started to whimper. I yelled, “Say it! Say it! SAY it!” He started to cry. I cried some too. See, Ronnie knew what was up with his folks but he wouldn’t admit it. Ted was on the way out the door—maybe for good—and Ronnie could stop him. Maybe. At least maybe. Anyway, it was worth a try. It was worth that much. I leaned into Ronnie harder, maximum body pressure, shoved his arm up to just before the bone broke. “Damn you, Ronnie!” Not a word from him. Nothing. Nothing.

That next day Ted used a pitchfork to make the back yard dirt loose. Me and Ronnie shoveled it off to one side, careful to keep it away from Alice’s flower bed, away from her tulips that would come up again next spring. Meanwhile, Ted’s old dog was laid up in the shade by the tree trunk looking peaceful, like he was asleep. Ted forked over the last clump of dirt. “She’ll never know,” he said, meaning Alice.

Ronnie did his usual suck-up. “Never, Daddy. Momma will never know. Never, never, NEVER!”

Ted smiled. “We’ll tell your momma some of it, but not all of it, but what we do tell we’ll tell at an angle.” He picked the dog’s body up by its ears and held it over the hole. “Feel him, Andy,” he said.

At first I didn’t want to, but then I did, so I touched it. The dog’s belly was cold and just a little soft, like a school eraser.

Ted swung the body over so Ronnie could feel it, too. “Nice,” Ronnie said, and grinned real big.

“Ice cube cold,” Ted said. “See where old age gets you?”

I said to Ted, kind of sharp, “You plan to tell Alice he died, though, right?”

“Sure I will, but she don’t have to know where we planted him.”

“She don’t like you to fool her,” I said. “Might chase you off.”

Ted laughed. “Ain’t likely, Andy. No sir. Right now I plan to still be around here when the next dog dies, and the next one after that. Why, I already got me the replacement for this guy on order.” He dropped the dog in the grave hole. Ted pointed at me and Ronnie, then at the shovels. That was our signal to go to work. “This ol’ boy don’t ever plan to not have him a dog,” Ted said. “Yes sir. And, somehow, I plan to keep me a woman close at hand as well.”

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


The Last Dog

June 26, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Four

Ted used heavy string to tie a little hangman’s noose around the rotten chicken neck, then he dropped the bait off the pier into the harbor. “Crabs are so dumb,” he said. “Once ol’ Mr. Crustacean grabs onto his smelly treat he forgets how to let loose, and that’s his undoing.” In no time flat a crab took the bait and Ted pulled it to the surface slow, hand over hand. I scooped it up in the net Alice made for us out of cheesecloth and an old broomstick. When I dropped the crab in the basket, Ted said, “Big one. That’ll eat good.” Alice did her crabs in a huge pot with water and beer and secret spices. The trick of cooking crabs, Ted claimed, was to let the liquid come to a boil and drop them in fast and slap the lid on. They never knew what hit them, he said. They went in blue and lively and came out red and dead—steamed to death.

Daddy had promised to take me crabbing but never showed up. Didn’t call, nothing, so Ted volunteered. Me and him and Ronnie went to Wagner’s Point. We got up at five and left the house at six. Alice was invited, but she said no. She claimed anyone who got up that early and didn’t have to was a damn fool. Ted picked a pretty spot on a falling-down pier by a refinery, close enough to smell the oil. We watched the dark outline of the city across the harbor get lighter in the warming air. The sky was clear except for a smear of orange smoke from Sparrows Point steel mill. A blue heron flew over with a fish all a-squirm in its beak. Ted knew it was a heron by the general shape, the long crooked neck, and how its legs hung out behind in the air. Judging the direction, Ted figured the bird was headed to the marsh grass in behind Fort McHenry. We crabbed and crabbed and the sun got hotter and hotter. Pretty soon me and Ronnie got bored and went to explore the rubble of an old pier shack. We climbed inside—at least it was shady cool in there—and scrambled over piles of boards and tar paper and other trash. At first I didn’t feel the plank piece stuck to my foot, and then I did. It hugged the the bottom of my sneaker like an extra sole, held there with a rusty ten-penny nail in my foot. After five minutes it got to hurt pretty bad but I didn’t cry. Ted left the wood where it was until we got back to the house, then he yanked it off and cleaned the nail hole with peroxide, like when he used to be a medic in the Army. Ted put a bandage on to stop the blood and took me to the hospital for a tetanus shot, cussing Daddy all the way there and back.

That evening Ted hollered at the radio in the living room, “Stupid, stupid, STUPID!” From where I was in the hall I could hear him but I couldn’t see him. He hated it if our team made a mistake. When our shortstop missed an easy grounder, Ted yelled, “JERK!” Meanwhile, I was watching Alice framed in the kitchen doorway, her back to me, how she took a bottle from behind the cleaning stuff under the sink and poured some in a glass and gulped it. Ted kept on at the radio, but I turned him off. The silent movie of Alice in the warm light from the bare kitchen bulb kept me mesmerized, how she emptied the glass and poured and poured. She gulped a last one, then rinsed and set the glass in the sink. Then Alice leaned on the counter top with both hands, shoulders pushed up so her neck disappeared. That caught my attention. I was focused on the round shape of her shoulders, the sad way they shook.

Most nights after supper Alice would sit with Ted on the sofa. Other times she wouldn’t, but when she didn’t he made it a point to sit with her. Ted would go at her all in a good mood and cuddle her. Other times she went at him, but when Alice went at Ted it could be a good mood or bad mood, either one. He never knew what to expect. There were days when Alice started at Ted in a bad mood but it ended with her happy and laughing a little, at least for awhile. But soon enough Ted would get tired of how hard it was most times to even get her to smile. Alice, though, once she got going, she kept at him. When it was her at him like that, after a while he would move her off him, off to one side—but gentle—and he would go on about his business. So even if they were at it only a minute ago—she at him or him at her—they were not anymore because he had decided not to play anymore. Ted would just go off somewhere and Alice was left to think about what next—dinner, maybe, or bedtime—something else altogether.

The next day Ted took me and Ronnie for a walk at Fort McHenry and I could tell it was because Alice had been at him that morning in a bad way and drove him crazy. But Ronnie didn’t let on like there was anything wrong between his parents. Anyway, who knows for sure what Ronnie ever thought? When it came to his folks, Ronnie’s mouth mostly stayed zipped. That time Alice was on Ted’s case because of the back yard, the mess his old dog made back there. When she went at Ted like that it usually rubbed off on Ronnie, too, so he had to know that something was up between them. The yard was Alice’s pride. Ted kept his old animal chained to a dog house back there that looked like a seaside cottage in some movie. The dog walked the ground smooth as far as the chain would let him, back and forth, just short of Alice’s flower bed. Alice claimed Ted never picked up the dog turds. The big problem, though, was when the dog dug a trench under the shade tree and flopped in it to stay cool. When he was in it, with his chin on the edge, all you saw was his wet nose, his brown eyes that followed you back and forth, and long ears twitching off flies. It was early fall, still real warm out, and Ted hadn’t filled in the trench like he promised Alice.

Meanwhile, at Fort McHenry, people were clumped together on the big lawn that went from the cannon walls down to the seawall. One family had a humongous picnic spread out on a tablecloth. Some teenage boys played football catch. A fat guy napped on the grass with a bath towel over his eyes. There were five kites high in the breeze over the harbor. The barn swallows that worked the grass were long gone, but some neighborhood chimney swifts still swooped low for what bugs there were left. Before long, Ted claimed, the bugs would disappear and the swifts would fly off to South America. In the harbor tugboats moved huge steamers into the main channel, or helped them dock at piers across the way. Sailboats went by. We walked the path that ran next to the seawall and Ronnie held tight to Ted’s hand, used his other hand to grip his daddy’s forearm like he was afraid he’d lose him. Ronnie was acting real pussy for a guy almost thirteen. Ted put up with Ronnie’s arm lock but when he had something to say he said it to me. He pointed at the sidewalk. “Duck shit looks like cat shit, Andy—small perfect turds in a pile. And gull shit, that whitish-greenish splatter? That looks like it could be from a fat man who just cleared his throat and spit.”

Ronnie didn’t laugh at that but I did. Most likely, Ronnie didn’t even know it was supposed to be funny. Alice hated when Ted used such words, but what he said about the different kinds of shit was true. I never would have thought of gull poop that way—how it looked and all—if he hadn’t said it. It got on toward sunset and me and Ted sat on the seawall to watch the light change and change while Ronnie went off to intimidate ducks. In no time flat the light on the pier buildings went from red-purple to the best gold I ever saw. I guess it reminded Ted of something, because that’s when he told me a pretty lie. “Andy,” he said, “this time of day if you climb up to our roof real quick—really, really fast—you get to see the sun set twice.”

The fifth and final part of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.


The Last Dog

June 25, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Three

We listened to “Sky King” together on the big floor model radio in the living room, almost like a real family. Afterwards, Ronnie whined at Ted about when he planned to buy a television. He kept on and kept on. Pretty soon Alice and Ted got sick of him and sent us both to bed. No fair. To say goodnight, Alice kissed Ronnie on his cheek and patted me on the shoulder. No fair again, but I didn’t care. She made us swear we’d do our homework until lights out at ten o’clock. Before we were even out of the room Alice made Ted put his paper off to one side, so they could talk. That was a bad news for him. Up in Ronnie’s room I could tell he was in a mood, too, because the first thing out of his mouth was, “Know who’s a better artist than you, Andy?” When I didn’t say anything, he answered himself. “Betsy the chimpanzee.”

“Who says?”

“Ever’body.”

I stayed quiet and took my shoes and socks off. Ronnie already had his off and was spreading and un-spreading his toes for exercise. We always did our homework barefoot. Ronnie said, “Just because you’re the best favorite in Miss Laura’s art class, that don’t make you—”

“Am not.”

“Well,” Ronnie said, “anyway, that monkey is twice as better than you. Three times as better.” I could care less what Ronnie thought since I knew he didn’t know anything about art. Anyway, Betsy couldn’t draw, she just smeared finger paints around to make a mess. Ate more paint than she painted with. “Betsy’s the real genius,” Ronnie said.

“You read that in the News Post—same as me.” I could tell something else was on Ronnie’s brain. When he got bothered by whatever, Ronnie liked to fight me and he had to win, to show who was the boss. It was pitiful.

“Betsy had her pictures printed in Life magazine,” Ronnie said. “And where was yours?

I came back at him with a low blow: “Yeah, and how come your daddy don’t come home from work most nights anymore—huh, Ronnie?” Give back better than you get, that’s my motto. Why not? “Ain’t seen Ted at the dinner table with food in his mouth for days.

Ronnie gave out a puny, “Don’t care,” then he cried some. He used first one sleeve and then the other to wipe off tears and snot, then he shut down and stayed quiet for a long time.

After awhile I said, “Look, Ronnie, I didn’t mean to say that, what I said.” He kept on real quiet and pretty soon I caught on that he was staring at my bare feet. That was so creepy I quick pulled them up under me. “You shithead, Ronnie!”

“Your feet are so little,” he said, like it was the most natural thing in the world to say that. “I’ve got ’em memorized.”

“You know, Ronnie, you’re really one dumb fucker.”

“In case you come up hurt or dead, see?” Ronnie did a laughing snort. “Say one foot gets cut off and mixed in with a bunch of other feet, in a war, say—or a train crash? You’re laid up in the hospital delirious from pain. They go to sew your foot on and there’s a whole pile to choose from, but you’re in no condition to say which one? I’d know the one to point to.”

“They don’t sew stuff back on people that’s been cut off.”

“How about Frankenstein?” Ronnie waited to see if I saw some sense in that dumb statement, but I kept quiet. Ronnie kept at me. “Say you come up dead in the harbor, your head cut off. Hands and arms gone. What’s left for identification?”

“Feet and legs and—”

“Forget legs,” Ronnie said. “Legs are no good for identification—but feet, especially if someone swears they know them particular feet, that would work. You’d be easy, Andy, ’cause your feet are perfect and tiny.”

It took all I had to keep calm and not tell him where to shove his dumb idea. I just said, “Millions of people have little feet.”

“Not in South Baltimore.” Ronnie smiled. “One hundred, tops.”

“At least five hundred.”

“Not perfect-shaped like yours!” Ronnie gave me an oily grin that flipped my stomach. “Don’t worry, Andy, if something happens to you I’ve got ’em in my brain.”

“Ronnie, you best quit with that feet shit.”

“Even better—how about if your feet were a special color? Think about it. Blue, maybe! Blue is lucky. Yeah! If your feet were the only perfect blue feet in South Baltimore, why, anybody could identify ’em, assuming they knew Andy Givens had perfect tiny blue—”

“Screw you, Ronnie!”

“Let me paint ’em Andy!”

When he begged like that I first wanted to gag, but instead I just yelled, “Go to hell!” That was part fake, though, ’cause I was really mad and happy all at once. Ronnie was crazy—yeah—but in a good-bad way. He made it be really strange fun sometimes, us two living in that room.

Some nights Ronnie couldn’t go to sleep if he knew Alice’s tall glasses were mixed in with her short glasses. He’d wait until his folks were conked out and sneak downstairs and go through the kitchen cabinets. We whispered about stuff until we heard their snores. Ted was easy to spot because he snored big. Alice did tiny grunt sounds. When Ronnie got back from his kitchen raid he always saluted me like John Wayne and said, “Mission accomplished.” The next morning Alice would find her glasses in neat rows, arranged by height and color. She must have wondered how they got that way, but as far as I know she never let on. Ronnie did other crazy stuff, too. Like, that one night when he came in and went straight to his bed like he didn’t see me. He turned around five times and sat down. I kept my mouth shut. After awhile he got up and went to his closet and stood there, just faced the closet door, didn’t open it. It was like he sleepwalked over there. He waited awhile, then went back to his bed and turned around five times and sat down.

Finally I couldn’t help myself. “You must be crazy,” I said.

“Uh, uh—Huh?” Ronnie said it like I had just woke him up out of a dream.

“You’re nuts, Ronnie.”

“What?”

“Another thing is, you’re also a big pussy.”

“Take it back,” Ronnie said.

“Make me.”

“I will, Andy, I will.

“Yeah? You and who’s army?”

“The three of us,” He said. And of course I knew what came next. Sure enough Ronnie said, “Me, myself, and I.”

That was so lame. Sometimes Ronnie disgusted me too much to even bother with. “O. K.,” I said, “you win.”

“No, Andy—first take back what you said.”

“I do, Ronnie. I truly do take it back.”

“No, say, ‘You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.’”

“O. K., you’re not a pussy.”

“Say my name, too.”

“You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.

“Good thing, too,” he said. “That was just in time.”

Yeah, right, like what if I didn’t take it back? Ronnie was hopeless, so I gave up and shut up. The next morning, as per usual, I felt his sheets. So far the average for his sheets being soaked was five days out of seven. By the time Alice changed the beds each week all Ronnie’s piss had dried into yellow stains that overlapped and made rusty patterns—kind of pretty designs—light to dark and back again. Alice never let on and neither did Ronnie. Neither did I. That would have been just too mean.

One night I watched Ronnie with one of my eyes, the other one blocked by my pillow. I had been in the middle of a good dream about earwax when some kind of noise woke me up. Ronnie was on his bed by the window, moonlight behind him that made him look like a cutout. At first I didn’t move, kept my head down, half-stuck in the pillow. Ronnie sat still on his bed except when he swayed. He’d be still for five seconds—listening for who knows what?—then he’d do small rocking moves side to side. The sways were so tiny you could hardly tell. He’d rock side to side some and then sit like a statue, then do more moves. The house was quiet. I think I saw a bat go by the window, but maybe not—they’re so fast. Ronnie claimed bats were nighttime swallows that wouldn’t suck your blood. No matter what I heard about bats, I shouldn’t believe that, Ronnie said. “Trust me,” he said, “no bat will every drink a drop of your blood.”

Another night, Alice screamed from down the hallway and Ronnie glanced up from his jigsaw puzzle at the bedroom door, then back down. It was so split-second I almost didn’t catch him—one smooth action—just his eyes moving. That jigsaw was humongous. It had all the animals in some African jungle, plus grass and trees and bugs, and huge-beaked birds. Ronnie had the edges done on three sides and some on the last side. It was a big jaggie rectangle, empty in the middle. He pretended to work at it for five minutes—zero talk, just tiny whimpers—the same puzzle piece in his hand the whole time. Ronnie’s hand didn’t move. More time. Then Alice screamed again and grunted real big—then a bunch of grunts that went from high-pitched to low and then back up again real high. In the nighttime quiet her grunts came down the hall like a church bell. Ronnie still kept still. Then Alice laughed a big screeching laugh and Ronnie smiled but didn’t look up. Then his hand moved over the jigsaw like a helicopter and dropped the puzzle piece in exactly the right spot.

Part four of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.


The Last Dog

June 24, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Two

At Fort McHenry it was so hot I could rub inside my elbow and roll up little balls of sweat and dirt. A black fly bit my left ankle right through the sock. The flies came in late August, like it was their vacation. I was on the grass near the sea wall, where I loved to be, alone. Tug boats made big waves in the harbor that splashed against the wall. Gulls swooped. Ted told me about the swallows, the littler faster birds with split tails, how they never landed and ate bugs that jumped up from the grass. They made sharp turns, low to the ground, fast as bullets and even drank harbor water without stopping. I wondered, Did swallows ever sweat? It was hot but it wasn’t the heat, it was the “hume-a-diddy-tee.” That was Ted trying to be funny. He claimed water in the air made it all sticky. “You can breath water like fish do, Andy” he said, “did you know that?” One thing sure, I knew summer was over. “Done and done,” as Ted would say. No more back and forth under water at Riverside Pool for me, just to see how long I could hold my breath.

That night alone in Ronnie’s room I slid the radio dial across the stations looking for The Lone Ranger. I loved that show. When Alice sent me up there for punishment it was pure pleasure in disguise, like Brer Rabbit in the brier patch. I had saved a bunch of Sunday comics just for punishment situations, so I’d have something I liked to do. I drew Little Audrey without tracing, just by looking back and forth from the comics. She was easy—circles mostly—but I wasn’t good enough yet to draw Ozark Ike, who looked almost like he was real-life.

The Lone Ranger music came on at seven-thirty and I tried to draw him from memory. Got his face and hat and mask almost perfect, but Silver’s back legs gave me a big-time fit. That horse came out looking like a giant muskrat. Meanwhile, my stomach growled from being sent off to bed without supper. What happened next I don’t know, must have gone to sleep. Then morning came and my stomach hollering woke me up. I loved breakfast, especially at Alice’s—eggs and bacon and white milk gravy over biscuits—she was five times the cook Momma was, even on a bad day.

On one of Ted’s Saturday Evening Post magazine covers—he kept piles and piles of them—bright sunlight comes in the huge living room window. The family is dressed for church, and most of them head out the door, except the daddy—who looks like Ted. That daddy, he’s slunk down in his chair with the Sunday funnies, and you can tell by his face he’s in big trouble. Mr. Norman Rockwell, the best drawer in the world, drew that. There was always a story in one of his pictures because of how he made the faces, the expressions on the faces, and the way people sat and stood and dressed. Just by looking you knew exactly how it was all going to turn out. His pictures were funny, too—but not just funny.

Ted’s ugliest pigeon was his best one and for some reason he was the only one I wanted to draw. Ted called him Mister de Leon, after a Spanish guy who discovered the world. Mister de Leon was the biggest pigeon I ever saw, and he had two shades of brown feathers and one white spot just under his beak. I tried to draw him like Mr. Rockwell would, but he moved around too much. Waddled when he walked. But that thing could fly. No matter how far Ted took him on race days, he’d find his way back to the roof coop faster than real. Forty, fifty miles sometimes. Won all the races. Beautiful in the air, but—like I say—not much to brag on on the ground.

As usual Ted’s pigeons were every which way all over the roof. He had the coop doors open and used a long handled scraper to clean out the mess. Birds were perched on Ted’s shoulders and one on his head. You could tell they were glad to see him. “A pigeon is lazy,” he said. “Won’t take the time to clean up after itself.” Ted had carried feed up in a fifty-pound sack and sat it off to one side. He took the garden hose and washed out the coop, then filled the drinking troughs. “Serious, Andy,” he said. “It’s a fact. Watch ’em in the park. A pigeon won’t fly if it has a choice. A pigeon’d rather stroll anytime than lift a wing.”

Ted did a special wave and his pigeons took off and flew huge oval patterns over the rooftops, all together, in perfect time. The sky was a deep blue with three clouds out over the harbor. A skipjack slid by on the water. Some guy five roofs down the block used a towel to wave his birds off, then he whistled once and they mixed in with Ted’s flock. Ted laughed and watched them all circle together. He said, “Gotta remind coop pigeons to exercise, otherwise—like some women—they get fat fast.”

Ted put shallow birth nest cups in the coop for the momma pigeons about to have babies. He filled their feed boxes. “Yeah, you gotta keep ’em happy,” he said, pigeons and women.” Ted looked at me but I didn’t say nothing, so he kept on. “I learned about pigeons from pigeons,” he said, “but women—well, I learned about women from pigeons, too.” Ted did a big sigh. “Be careful when you marry, Andy. If you marry. Impossible to take an unhappy woman and make her happy. No man can do that.” He smiled. “Best a man can do is find a happy woman and keep her busy.”

Ted held up a handful of feed and let the grains fall through his fingers. Even as high as his birds were you could tell from how their wings dipped they heard the grain hit the roof. Beautiful. The guy down the block whistled three times, two long and one short. Ted quick did a code whistle, too—five short and one long—and the mixed flock split up and swooped back to their roosts. Somehow Ted got five of the other guy’s birds mixed in with his. He had won a pigeon war and I didn’t even know there had been one going on. “The main rule of pigeon raids,” Ted said, “is you have to return captives to their rightful owner.” He shooed the prisoner birds off the roof and sent them home. Ted was no schnocker, the name he called the guys who’d cheat and keep a bird that wasn’t his. Damn right. Ted was no mutt.

When it came to girls Ted was just like my Daddy, and according to Momma that was the problem, or at least one of the problems. She claimed other women were the main reason she chased him off—that and the drinking. Ted was no drunk, but more than once I spotted him at Cross Street Market messing with some girl. That one day I was watching a guy hose off the concrete floor down at the fish end and Ted was with Rhonda Duffington working in her daddy’s fish stall. He didn’t see me. All five Duffington sisters worked at in family business, but Rhonda was the best looking one. She was married to some Polack guy, but everybody still thought of her as a Duffington anyway. “All them girl’s,” Daddy said once, “now there’s wall-to-wall beautiful.”

I had ducked behind the fish stalls and snuck up the aisle where they keep the trash and worked my way close enough to the Duffington stall to try and find out exactly what was what with Ted and Rhonda. First thing I heard was her saying, “My marriage ain’t no business of yours, Ted.” But meanwhile Rhonda smiled at him like he was Clark Gable.

Ted laughed. “Girl, do you know the Italian way to keep a man happy?”

She said, “Mister, you here after seafood or what?”

“Sort of,” he said, and pointed to Rhonda’s fish display laid out on crushed ice. “Your creatures look awful puny, though. Cloudy eyes.”

Rhonda looked at him like her brain was thinking about anything but fish, maybe some kind of delicious dessert. She batted her eyelids and said, “You gonna be at Lombardi’s tonight, Hon?”

“Maybe.”

“I can get out,” was all she said back.

Ted did his silly grin. “Then who knows, I might just show up for a drink or three.” He winked at her. “Now let me explain about pasta.”

“You ain’t I-talian!”

Ted put his hand on Rhonda’s arm and looked in her eyes. “Damn straight I am, girl!” That was a lie. Ted was no Wop—he was pure Bohunk—but you could tell by the way she ate him up with her eyes that Rhonda believed his every word.

Part three of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.


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.


Family, Friends, and Neighbors

May 11, 2008

Sisters Four

From roughly 1970 to 1990 I “doodled” around Baltimore, Maryland making photographs. (These two black and white images were part of an exhibit called “Family, Friends and Neighbors” at Fells Point Corner Theater sometime in 1998 or 99.) For the most part I focused on the streets of South Baltimore, near the harbor, where I had lived for five years, age seven to twelve. When I was twelve my parents “broke up housekeeping,” as my mother put it, and I was farmed-out to my three half-sisters, one in another Baltimore neighborhood, and the other two in Virginia and Kentucky. At age seventeen I enlisted in the U. S. Army, but that’s another story. So, back to my main point. With hindsight, I now see that by making images of “free range” street kids in my old South Baltimore neighborhood, I was revisiting the happier time of my youth before my folks split up. The image above is one of my favorite shots, a group of girls I encountered on November 18, 1972, near Cross Street Market in South Baltimore. I call them sisters, but have no idea if they were related. More about them later

Brothers Four

On November 21, 1976, almost four years to the day after I photographed the girls, I caught this group of boys in Hamilton, a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood. You can see what I didn’t notice at the time, which is there are huge similarities between the two images. In this case, though, I knew the kids very well. The two boys on the right are my sons, Shawn and Vince, ages fifteen and thirteen. The taller of the two boys on the left is their stepbrother, Johnny, and the little guy in between, with the scrunched up smile, is their half brother Tony. The house in the background is the one they shared for many years with their mother, stepfather and siblings, including another stepbrother named Joey. I take full credit (or blame) for the composition in this image. I allowed the boys to group themselves, then moved a few steps to the left in order to frame them against the station wagon and the house. I could have stayed where I was, or moved to the right, or in closer, but when I have the time I like to arrange two background shapes in the frame, one large and one small (in this case the car and the wall) to provide a strong design foundation for the image. The idea is that a large shape next to a smaller shape creates a more attractive overall abstract design than would two big or two small shapes side by side. “Visual contrast” is the fancy term artists use for this device to structure images, but during the fifteen years I taught cartooning to kids in schools and libraries I called it, simply, my “rule of big and small.”

The kids in both photographs had arranged themselves without prompting by me. When that happens and it turns out well—as it often does—it’s pure serendipity. Over the years serendipity became a favorite photography “technique” of mine. I found that if I gave my young subjects little or no direction they usually came up with a pose better than any I could have conjured.

When I first spotted the “sisters” they were moving away from me, but as serendipity would have it they noticed my camera and turned. Free range street kids, I knew, love to be photographed. Sisters Four was a grab shot, but I had good luck with their pose and the rushed composition turned out pretty well. (Well enough, actually, to be published in the old Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine as part of a contest. Which, by the way, I didn’t win.) I like the overall pyramid shape the grouping forms with the apex, the head of the tallest girl, framed between the two windows. (Also note the little girl between the larger girls, similar to the small boy in the Brothers Four image.)

I’m also a fan of dynamic blur in photographs, another result of serendipity. Blur often happens when you have to snap kids on the fly, which is most of the time, and you’ve set a too slow shutter speed. Street kids seem always to be in motion, totally uninhibited, expressing either positive or negative emotion, and these elements combine to make them wonderfully spontaneous collaborators. The little boy in the foreground of Sisters Four with the sucker in his mouth (the brother?) is an example of my serendipitous doodle-like blur technique. (The method is copyright-free, so if you like the result feel free to use it in your own photography.)

My favorite example of a happy-accident-masquerading-as-technique is this totally blurred image of boys playing in shadowed Churchill Street, near Federal Hill Park in South Baltimore. The blur happened because I didn’t have time to set the proper shutter speed; I was lucky just to grab the action. This is a picture I love because of its dynamic flaws, even the composition is the result of pure serendipity. (Churchill Street, by the way, is a grand name for what is really an alley lined with tiny row homes, all of them long since rehabbed and gentrified. But at the time I made the image, in the 1970s, it was still very much the mostly transit neighborhood of my 1950s youth.)

Flashback to December, 1967
I’m living in a rented room in a tiny blue house in a nondescript suburb on the western edge of Baltimore. I’ve left my marriage of seven years and my two sons, ages four and six. I’ve signed the deed of our modest brick semi-detached house over to my wife. Our separation settlement provides for child care, of course, and a she gets all our community property, including the furniture and car. The only things I take are my clothes, my drawing table (a Christmas or birthday gift form my generous in-laws), a few art supplies and the outstanding bills: Montgomery Ward, the car loan, a few other small debts, all of which I agree to pay off.

These days when I look at my old photographs I see stories. The big story, the overarching tale that accounts for my life from about 1967 to 1982—five years of intense emotional struggle after my divorce, then ten more of transitional economic struggle just to return to financial stability—is this: Learning to compose, develop and print photos played a large part in my rehabilitation. It gave me the motivation to take the first step back into the real world. That hobby—if that’s all it was—along with the help of friends and various forms of therapy, were the devices I used to get myself out of the apartment door and out of my self-imposed solitude. Photography reintroduced me—by its nature forced me—back into the wider world of people and relationships. You can’t make photographs while sitting alone in dim light, reading and watching television. The purposeful social actions required for street photography—mixing with people, asking strangers if I might take their picture, etc.—was just what I needed to get back into the rhythm of a normal life. These days I like to think of those days as my time of therapeutic serendipity. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.