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.”)


A Memory

September 1, 2010

Cousin Raymond’s Schwinn

By Jake Jakubuwski

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I learned to tie my shoelaces—probably five or six—but it was my paternal grandfather who taught me how to do it. I do remember that training my fingers to perform the intricate contortions necessary to accomplish the task was stressful. Intellectually, I could envision what my fingers had to do, but making them do it was a whole ‘nother matter. My grandfather—not the most patient person—exhibited enough restraint to spare me bruises and bumps when at first I was unable to make my fingers obey. Then, suddenly (or so it seemed to me), I sat on the floor by Pop’s chair and flawlessly did the job from beginning to end. Pop reached down and, with a gentle tug, untied them. Then I tied them again!

I ran to the stove, where my grandmother was fixing breakfast, plopped down on the floor, and demonstrated my new skill for her approval. As I recall, she grunted something neutral and then, her attention still on her cooking, said: “Where in the world did I put the lard can?” Later, when she sat the plate in front of me, I wolfed down the eggs and toast and jelly, gulped a large glass of milk, and bolted out the door, on the way to my cousin Raymond’s house to show him my new trick. I had eaten so fast that as I ran up the street I burped and snorted at the same time, and had to return to the yard and wash off the front of my shirt at the water pump. In those days (1943-44), I was living with my father’s parents in Glen Burnie, Maryland. We did not have running water. Instead, there were two water pumps and an outhouse. One pump was under the grape arbor behind the house, and the other was upstairs in the “Summer Kitchen.” I used the one under the grape arbor.

Cousin Raymond was four years older than me and had an electric train; he had an air rifle; he could ride a two-wheel bike—God, I envied him! He was so cool. Raymond rode his bike like a pro. He would pedal his Schwinn full-tilt into my yard and throw it down into a sliding stop that would scatter dirt and gravel all over. He also had a real wristwatch with numbers that glowed in the dark. As I said earlier: I was about five then—maybe six. Raymond would have been nine or ten.

On that day, I ran up the back steps at Raymond’s and pushed through the door and into the kitchen where Raymond and my uncle and aunt were having breakfast. I blurted out the news of my recently acquired skill. Raymond was unimpressed. Aunt Sadie told me I did a good job and Uncle Pete gave me a fifty-cent piece. When Raymond was finished eating we went outside and into the wooded lot behind the house where he had his “fort.” Raymond wanted to know if I thought I could learn to ride his bike. Could I? Full of shoelace-tying confidence, I said, “Go get it and I’ll show you!” Raymond wheeled his bike out of the garage and told me that my lesson would cost twenty-five cents. Being fifty-cents flush, I didn’t hesitate—I gave Raymond the half-dollar. He promised to make change later.

Raymond held the bike steady while I got on it. I settled myself on the “saddle” and grasped the handlebars with a death grip. Raymond told me that when he pushed I was to start pedaling. We started down the driveway, Raymond running as he pushed the bike. He yelled: “Pedal! Pedal!” I tried—but I was on a 26” bike with legs that were not yet long enough. So, I had to stand up to pedal. Then pedal I did—frantically. Raymond let go of the bike and I zipped completely across Fourth Avenue, a busy Glen Burnie street. Cousin Raymond was now yelling: “Steer it! Steer it! Pedal! Pedal! Watch out for the curb!” Too late—I bounced over the curb, ran up a slight grassy incline and into Mrs. Sauers’ flower bed, then tilted over in what seemed like slow motion and nose-dived into the lower branches of a fir tree. At that moment Mrs. Sauers chose to come around the corner of the house. She was pretty calm about the flowerbed and seemed more concerned over the scrapes I picked up when I dove into her tree.

Once Raymond and I retrieved the undamaged bike, I was ready for another lesson. He said it would cost me another quarter, so I told him to keep the change from the fifty-cent piece. This time, Raymond decided it would be better if I rode the bike down the street towards our grandfather’s house. Before I know it I’m back on the bike. Raymond pushes me off to a rolling start. I pedal like a madman. The bike begins to fly down the street. I’m going too fast to turn into the yard! Raymond’s yelling: “Hit the brakes! Hit the brakes! Steer! Steer! Hit the brakes!” Unfortunately, Raymond had neglected to tell me where the brakes were or how they worked. The bike picked up speed and began to wobble out of control as I bounced over another curb. Raymond was further behind me now, but I managed to turn a blind corner, only to run into the back of my Uncle Joe’s 1934 Plymouth. No contest. The Plymouth won.

There must have been a lot of hollering. Raymond now yelling: “My bike! My Bike! Look what you did to my bike!” Me screaming in pain as I slid off the hood (Yeah, I went completely over the car) and into the loose gravel that covered the driveway. My Uncle Joe yelled something I couldn’t make out as he ran away from the Plymouth, which he had been washing when I dropped in—unannounced.

After he realized what he thought had happened, Uncle Joe carried me into the house and laid me on the old mohair sofa. Grandma brought a pan of warm water and some clean cloths. She cleaned my cuts and abrasions. Pop came in and demanded to know what was going on. Raymond was still hollering about his bike. Uncle Joe explained that I must have fallen out of a tree.

Grandma tried to shush us all and shoo us out. And, even though I hurt in places that I didn’t even know I had, I was smiling. In the space of only an hour or two I had learned to tie my shoes; ruined a flower bed; nearly destroyed a bike; dented the hood of my Uncle’s car—and lived to tell about it; had been gifted fifty-cents and had spent it on bike-riding lessons. (How well I rode the Schwinn doesn’t matter—I did ride it.) I figure it was worth every penny.

Text Copyright © 2010 Jake Jakubuwski. “Bikers” Photo Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

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 photo at right is Jake at age 12 or thereabouts. To access all of Jake’s adventures as a Baltimore boy growing up back in the 1940s and 1950s, type his name in the sidebar search window and press the button.)



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 Ice Man

November 23, 2009

A Brief Memoir
By Jake Jakubuwski

Today it is hard to imagine horses on the streets of Baltimore, but when I was a kid they were so common that no one took any real notice. It was not unusual to hear a horse plodding up our alley with its harness bells tinkling, and the steel banded wagon wheels making a metallic racket all their own on the Belgian block pavement stones. Most often, the fellow driving the wagon was the “Junk Man,” looking for old newspapers, magazines, scrap metal, used clothes — anything that he could turn into cash. Also, of course, there were the “Arabbers” — hucksters that sold produce from their colorful (bright reds, yellows and blues) horse-drawn wagons. Like many kids in Baltimore, I used to work for the Arabbers. The pay wasn’t the greatest, but it was usually enough for a movie and a candy bar, and, perhaps, a Coke.

When we were living on Light Street, in South Baltimore, even the ice man delivered his ice from a horse-drawn wagon. Ice man? Yeah, ice man. In the late 1940s there were still lots of folks that didn’t have electric “Frigidaires,” but they did have thick-walled ice boxes, and the ice in them needed to be replaced on a regular basis. The ice man would come every other day or so, driving his wagon loaded with huge blocks of crystal-clear frozen water, a heavy canvas tarpaulin thrown over it to slow the melt. And you could hear him coming because, besides the clangor of his wagon wheels, he had his own chant to alert his customers. Slowly moving down the street or up the alley (with a dozen kids following behind, trying to snatch a piece of ice out of the wagon’s bed, the shards being viewed by them as a cool summer treat) he’d yell: “EyeEESE-mannnnnn! EyeEESE-mannnnnn!”

Many residents had signs with changeable numbers on them in their front window, so the ice man could tell how much the customer wanted. If you needed ice and didn’t have a sign, you could just holler and tell him how much. A dime’s worth? A quarter’s worth? Or, maybe a fifty cent block, if you thought that would be enough to make it through the weekend. The ice man would stop his wagon (shooing the kids away from the back ) and begin using an icepick to hack at one of the larger blocks to give the customer whatever amount they were willing to pay for — 25, 50, 75, even 100 pounds. After chopping the larger block to the proper size, the ice man, or his helper, would grab it with a large pair of black tongs and, using a burlap bag on his shoulder to help protect him form the cold, he’d leverage it onto his shoulder and carry it into the house and put it in the icebox.

During the winter months, we didn’t need to buy ice because our family had a window box. That was a box with a wire bottom to allow for drainage that hung outside of a window on the shady side of the house, in which we stored our eggs, butter, milk and other perishables. The window closed down on the top of the box and had a door in the front so you could easily get to the stored items. Folks that didn’t have a window box often had an open back porch where they would keep perishables in a crate, or other container. On top of the container would be a piece of wood with a brick or stone or piece of scrap iron holding the “lid” down so that stray cats and dogs — and any other free-roaming urban creatures — could not get at the goodies.

Our ice man came around even in the winter, too, with the difference being that he now delivered coal. If you had a coal stove or furnace, as we did, he’d back up to the basement window (or coal chute if you had one) and shovel the coal into the coal bin. Then, suddenly it seemed, when I was about eight or so, the ice man showed up driving a truck — the end of an era! The ice/coal truck had a large wooden body, and when delivering coal in the winter it backed up to the coal chute, the man raised the bed of the truck with a crank and the black lumps of energy ran out of the truck like a noisy, dusty river.

It was only a couple of summers until we had a Frigidaire and didn’t need the ice anymore. I guess a lot of folks in the neighborhood bought Frigidaires as well, because I have no memory of the ice man making his rounds after that.

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. (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.)


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.


The Lady in the Red Dress

May 27, 2009

By Jake Jakubuwski

Her name was Velma and she rented one of the apartments in the same building in which my family lived. Calling it an apartment is being generous. It was a kitchen, living room and bedroom all-in-one. Like the rest of us, Velma shared the bathroom facilities at the end of the second floor hallway. Each floor had two apartments like Velma’s and one like ours. Ours was a two-room apartment. No bathroom, but we did have a kitchen-style sink, stove and icebox. Note: I said icebox, not refrigerator. The landlord had his place on the first floor which was also two rooms, but he had his own bathroom. I remember seeing it one time and thought it quite marvelous to be able to walk to the toilet withoutRedDressBlur4 going down a dark, cluttered hallway to find that someone else was already in residence. I have no clear memories of the folks that lived on the third floor; or for that matter, those with whom the landlord shared the first floor.

Anyway, I seldom saw Velma—or, as I came to think of her, “The Lady in The Red Dress,” at least not during the day. But in the evenings, just about suppertime, Velma could be heard, her high heels clicking down the stairs. If I was real lucky, I might catch a glimpse of her shoulder-length blond hair and clinging red dress through the banister railing as she went out the front door. I only knew two things for certain about Velma. She was from West Virginia, and—this was important—she was a divorcée. According to the superior intellect of my eleven and twelve year old male friends, divorcées “did it” and they were “easy.” The fact that Velma was divorced and had her own place—and didn’t seem to have a day-job—made her an object of lust and lasciviousness for the guys in my small neighborhood. And not just the boys. Judging from the looks I’d see on the faces of some of the family men when they saw Velma walk down the street I knew—even at the tender age of ten—those men weren’t thinking about church socials and good deeds, either.

Few males were immune to Velma’s charms. I remember one time when my mother found my father and her lingering a bit too long at the bathroom door. That evening there was much shouting and door slamming in our apartment. The door slamming was a real feat since there was only one interior door and four or five cupboard doors in the entire apartment. The slamming doors were accented with shouted words like “slut”, “whore” and “no good tramp.”

On a rare occasion, I would run into Velma during the day. She might be coming home from shopping or the hairdressers or—from who knows where. She always smiled at me RedDressBlur3and called me by name. Velma knew my name! Once, when we ran into each other in the local drug store, she bought me an ice-cream soda. None of my buddies believed me when I told them about it. After that I knew for sure that I was in love with Velma. In my mind she was some sort of a goddess.

It was during my tenth summer that “doing it” took on a full new meaning and I somehow quickly figured out why boys and girls were anatomically different. The backyard gatherings and closed-shed sex education classes among peers had begun to make sense. At that point my goddess feelings about Velma didn’t change—but my imagery of her and I together certainly did. I now could envision us in situations that did not just include shared ice cream sodas or holding hands up on the roof in the moonlight. Beyond that, I still wasn’t completely clear about the exact activities involved, but speculating about various possibilities certainly spiced up my days. Lust and lasciviousness had come to roost in my soul and I only knew that I felt different—really different—about Velma. I was no longer satisfied just being an admirer, a dumb-struck recipient of Velma’s occasional smiles or winks. I wanted to take my place beside her as the one and only object of her affections.

And I was convinced that Velma felt the same about me. She had to. Fate decreed it—Cupid, after all, was not stupid. He was just doing his job to bring we two yearning souls together. RedDressBlur2Together, our souls were fated to fulfill a destiny that was determined before I was born. Don’t misunderstand, in 1948 I didn’t think about it exactly in those terms, but I knew with certainty that a seminal event was about to take place in my life, and Velma—my Velma—was going to be at the epicenter of that whatever it might be.

On Saturday’s I was up early to take my week’s “pickin’s” to the junk yard. I could sell old newspapers, magazines, metal and other junk I’d scavenged during the week. I never made much, usually just enough for movies and candy. As I turned up the alley where we lived, I saw Velma sitting on the front steps, still dressed in her red dress. When I got close enough, I mumbled a “Hi, Velma” and she looked up at me. “Hey, sweetie,” she said. She was smiling but I could tell she’d been crying. The very thought of Velma crying over anything made me want to cry too. I stood at the bottom of the steps trying not to look up to where her dress sort of drooped down and I could see one the garters that held her nylons up. I looked higher still and saw soft white flesh tinted rose from sunlight burning through the red fabric of her dress. I wanted to see more, see whatever there was to see, but felt guilty each time my eyes strayed to the roll of nylon wrapped around her garter. Finally I moved up a step, RedDressBlur1where I could no longer see Velma’s half-hidden treasures. Instead, I looked at her puffy eyes and red-splotched face—and somehow stammered out a query about what was so terribly wrong that it made her cry.

The tears began to roll down her cheeks again. She told me her mother was sick and needed her at home. My heart broke—Velma was going to leave me! She went on to say that the night before she told her date about the problem and asked him for money—money that he owed her—and he got mad and took what little she had in her purse and ran off. Now, she had nothing to buy a train ticket home. I quickly realized that this was my opportunity to impress Velma and win her gratitude—perhaps even her undying love. I asked Velma how much she needed for the ticket. “Ten dollars, sweetie.” A fortune! So I reached in my pocket and gave her all of my junk earnings. I told her maybe my dad would loan her the rest. She said no, because if he did and my mother found out, it would only cause problems. I told her to wait, I’d be right back.

My mother was sleeping (she usually got home from her bar tending job around three in the morning and slept until noon). I went to the jelly jar where she kept her tip money and removed almost two dollars and fifty cents in change, not too much so it would look like anything had been taken. My father’s “junk” drawer yielded a dollar and forty-eight cents. My personal piggy bank gave up thirty-nine cents. In the kitchen Momma’s “butter money” yielded a dollar thirty-five. Along with what I had already given Velma, she was now up to a grand total of six dollars and ninety-two cents. I ran back to Velma and gave her the money, RedDressBlur0and cried over the fact that it wasn’t enough—just the best I could do. She told me “not to worry,” that maybe she could get her brother to send the rest.

Then Velma did the most amazing thing. She reached out, gently clasped my cheeks in her soft hands and kissed me right on the lips! Not like some adult kissing a kid, but like an adult kissing an adult. I could feel the tip of her tongue against my teeth and her lips covered mine in a soft but urgent manner that made me dizzy. Before I could figure out that I should respond in kind, the moment was over. She still held my cheeks in her hands, but now she was looking into my eyes and promising that as soon as she “got settled” she’d let me know where she was and maybe I could come visit her. Visit? All she had to do was tell me where and when. I would swim deep oceans and climb high mountains to get another kiss from Velma! And I would gladly wait for her to reach out to me and tell me she was ready to fulfill our destiny—the fate determined for us by deities unknown, or long forgotten—to consummate a love the likes of which had never been experienced before by mere mortals!

I was thinking all of that (on a ten year-old level of course) as Velma told me she had to go or she’d miss her train. As I watched her stand, smooth the red dress over her voluptuous body, and begin walking down the alley toward the corner where the streetcar stopped, I thought of our future bliss together. I watched her board the streetcar. I watched some tall stranger take her valise and Velma show her appreciation by smiling brightly at him. Then she turned and looked my way. She puckered her lips and blew me a kiss and gave a sad little wave and turned away. I watched as The Lady In The Red Dress left my life forever. She left with six-dollars and ninety-two cents that I would never see again. I watched as the streetcar carried my first love away forever—off into my bitter-sweet long-term memory.

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.

Jake contacted me after reading some of my growing-up-in- South-Baltimore-in-the-1950s posts. It turns out that we have a lot in common—some of our experiences eerily similar but at the same time different in the details. For instance, my first lustful crush—when I was fifteen—was on a woman old enough to be my mother. (In fact, she was a friend of my mother’s and the same age. I know, I know—what would Freud say?!) But I never saw my mother’s friend in a sexy red dress. As far as I could tell she only wore cheap print house dresses—and, like a certain movie star named Marilyn—whom she resembled—my mother’s friend disliked wearing underwear. Ah, memory!