Lusting for Elvis

April 4, 2012

By Jo-Ann Pilardi

It’s 1957. A guy holding a newspaper goes into his favorite bar.  It’s my Uncle Lando, an ex-boxer in his mid-40s, but still full of vigor and still a performer.  As reported to me later, he’s excited about what he found in the paper:  a letter by one of his favorite nieces—me. “Hey, guys, my niece is in the paper!” He then proceeds to read my letter, a solid right jab in defense of Elvis against the sucker punch that was landed the week before by Spike Wallace, the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph’s music critic.

(Click images for larger views.)

Reading my letter across 50+ years, I concede that its logic is a little shaky, but its passion for Elvis is solid:  “When did you make your first million, Spike?  How many times have thousands of people screamed and yelled with joy over you? You are condemning a boy who is probably less than half your age, yet who has made in approximately one year more money than you could ever hope to see if you lived to be a hundred.”

So what began as an outbreak of teen-aged girls’ lust and hysterics, first infecting myself and my best friend Monica as we watched Elvis on TV that famous Sunday night in 1956, now had a public life.  I was officially an Elvis Fan (though my Elvis Complimentary Fan Club Membership Card was in my wallet long before this).  My printed defense of Elvis would become my first encounter with printer’s ink, something I love now as much as I loved Elvis then.  Elvis + Publication:  a match made in heaven.

But it was only Early Elvis I loved. Not Vegas Elvis. Vegas Elvis (1969 – 1976) was a pathetic nightclub singer, sweating in black leather or squeezed into bejeweled white jumpsuits.   By the time Vegas Elvis emerged, this Elvis Fan had spent the latter half of the 1960s and all of the 1970s as, first, an anti-Vietnam-war protester, then a Women’s Liberation activist and Philosophy teacher—Area of Specialty:  Existentialism.  Among the literati, politicati, and philosophicati, Elvis was gauche.  My lust for Elvis would have been embarrassing if it hadn’t already disappeared, thanks to Vegas Elvis.  (I still love that tender, tremulous voice when I hear it, though; it embodied all that I hoped for in a man. That and his pout.)

Yet an astonishing truth has emerged.  While my own Elvis lust vanished long ago, I’ve encountered another Elvis lust, an odd lusting for my Elvis lust: the passion of my family and friends for my legendary (if now non-existent) Elvis lust.  And that has not only survived but thrived.  Though I beg them to stop, they persist in depositing gaudy Elvis gifts on my English Tudor doorstep.

Herewith an incomplete catalogue of my Elvis gifts: a resin plastic Elvis brooch; a large Elvis neon-blue-light bar clock; Graceland: An Interactive Pop-up Tour (the most remarkable in my extensive collection of Elvis gift books); Elvis birthday cards and note cards; a cartoonist friend’s self-portrait as a guitar-playing Elvis; paper and painted tin posters of Elvis (always with plans of how-to-frame & where-to-hang); The Night of 100 Elvises Live! cd; a bottle of “The King” wine; an Elvis clutch bag and an Elvis umbrella; a framed collage of Elvis-related items ingeniously bordered in red glass lozenges to resemble a theater marquee; and of course, that famous “Elvis with Nixon” photo.  Someone also gave me expensive tickets for the 100 Elvises concert in Baltimore’s Lithuanian Hall last year—unfortunately held on a night when I had “another engagement.” There’s more, but merciful age does bring a level of forgetfulness.

I deduce, then, that by some as yet unnamed law of the physical or psychological universe, my own Elvis lust has morphed into a troubling addiction to Elvis products by people whom I love and about whose mental health I care deeply (along with my own).  So once more I’m sending out a “Stop!” plea—this time with some help from The King: “Don’t be cruel—Love me tender.  If not, you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.  And I swear on Old Shep’s grave, if it continues I’m gonna . . . Return to sender.

Copyright © 2012 Jo-Ann Pilardi.

Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years.  A working class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano (with a few segues into old Elvis tunes).


Photo Quote

May 21, 2010

“The subject matter is so much more

important than the photographer.”

Gordon Parks, 1912-2006


Photo Quote

April 24, 2010


“News photography teaches you to think fast.”
Weegee  (Arthur H. Fellig), 1899 – 1968

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.


Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 7, 2009

Final Part

Mike and me watched Blind John alone at his table across the cafeteria. He somehow found the ketchup bottle by feel — the square shape, Mike said — and checked the edge of his plate with the first finger of his other hand, then slid the finger in towards the middle until it touched his hamburger. He undid the lid and poured some ketchup on his burger. He only spilled a little. “You know, Andy, Blind John likes you,” Mike said.

“We’re sort of friends, yeah.”

“No, I mean he really really likes you.”

“Sort of buddies, sure.”

“Blind John is a fairy nice guy,” Mike said, and laughed.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?” I said.

“Ha!” Mike said. “He’s a flat-out fag.”

“Don’t be stupid, being blind is all that’s wrong with him!”

“Watch his walk,” she said. “It’s girl steps. Listen how he talks.”

After school Blind John was on the corner with a crowd of kids who could see — he didn’t spend time with blind kids if he could help it. I went by and bumped him just for meanness’ sake. “Hello, Andy,” he said.

In a different voice I said, “’Scuse me,” still trying to fool him.

He touched my face and smiled. “Nice to see you, Andy.”

How did he know? My footsteps? What else? How I smelled? I stuck my nose in my armpit and got the answer.

Wilson said I had to see that movie so that’s why, when Blind John asked me to go with him, I went. Wilson claimed that The Day the Earth Stood Still was another bombshell movie to hit Baltimore. He said after I saw it I’d understand why we had to duck-and-cover under our school desks once a month for atomic bomb practice. “Also, Billy Gray is your twin brother,” he said, “right down to the freckles and messy red hair.”

In the picture a flying saucer from space lands in Washington across from the Capitol Building. It comes down with crazy music and gets surrounded by Army guys with guns. I put my mouth close to Blind John’s ear and whispered, “It’s night. Beautiful shadows. The flying saucer is silver and — ” Blind John cut me off with a little grunt. Next thing in the movie is when a nervous soldier shoots the alien guy in the shoulder, and his robot, Gort, disintegrates all their rifles. The tall alien tells a government man, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” His name is “Klaatu” and he sounds like a radio news guy from England. “I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.” He also says, kind of snotty, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Later, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and goes to live in a rooming house with Patricia Neal and Billy Gray so he can learn humans better. Klaatu tells her his name is Mr. Carpenter and for some reason she believes him. I whispered to Blind John, “You can tell she likes him.”

“It’s that background music,” Blind John said, “plus the music in his voice — she lets him seduce her with his accent.”

Seduce her?”

“She’s unhappy — a widow — she’s lonely.”

“But he’s an alien from outer space!”

“So what?”

Pretty soon Klaatu — Mr. Carpenter — he stops the electricity in the whole world for thirty minutes to teach us a lesson. The crazy music comes back. I told Blind John how the pictures showed everything on the planet screeched to a halt, but he just sighed. “Patricia Neal looks worried,” I whispered. Blind John squirmed in his seat. We both stayed quiet until the part where Klaatu gets shot again. “Patricia Neal looks sad,” I said. Right then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, Blind John threw a handful of popcorn in my face — popcorn I had paid for out of my newspaper money. “Hey,” I yelled, “why’d you do that?

“I ain’t deaf! I can tell from her voice and the music how she looks.”

Klaatu tells Patricia Neal to run to the spaceship and say to the robot, “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” She asks Mr. Carpenter what it means but he says to just never mind and dies. Later, Gort brings Mr. Carpenter back to life on the spaceship. At the end of the movie Klaatu makes a big speech to warn us to be good before it’s too late. That movie had real good shadows but didn’t make much sense. If we were about to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, why would Klaatu want to burn us up to save us? But when it was all over Blind John was on the edge of his seat, had a tight grip on my arm, and a fist jammed in his mouth. “Beautiful!” he said. “Patricia Neal was transformed!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Her guy gets back on his spaceship and leaves.”

“Yeah, but now she feels loved.

I shrugged. “Didn’t get that part.”

Wilson claimed there were five white boys in South Baltimore named Andy, all of them weird, and all but two were either ugly or stupid or both. He didn’t say where I fit in, but he did say I wouldn’t know a good movie if it hit me in the back of my head. Which kind of turned out to be sort of funny in a strange sort of way. I never did see that truck that came down Charles Street when I ran between parked cars, rushing to get Daddy out of Lombardi’s bar before he spent his pay. When I woke up in the hospital Miss Flower, the night nurse, was holding my hand. She was big-boned but not fat, with coal-black hair, pale skin, and she wore huge rings and laughed real big. From my eyebrows up was mostly bandages, and under that were scalp stitches front and back. I tried to picture how the doctors worked the needle and thread, like Momma sewing on a sock hole. I was “in traction,” Miss Flower said — my legs tied in ropes with counterweights to keep them up. She claimed I was lucky, that I only had a concussion and some cuts, but no cracked skull. “But you’ll live,” Miss Flower said, “mean as you are.”

People came and went. Momma came to visit on a Sunday — but no Daddy, Daddy never did come, being off drunk someplace. Kids from school did. Blind John did, found his way to the hospital by himself somehow. Mike came a bunch of times but never stayed long. She acted funny though, more like a girl. I noticed she was starting to get titties and it seemed like the little bumps made her nervous. “When you get better,” she said, “we’ll go to the movies,” and she batted her eyes like Kathryn Grayson in a musical. All I did was nod. When you get hit by a truck, people take notice. You are an automatic hero.

Wilson came to see me once and stayed just long enough to mystify me. Claimed he didn’t like how the nurses looked at him. No surprise there, he had a chip on his shoulder for white people in general. Told me he wouldn’t trust most of them farther than he could throw one over Cross Street Market. At first Wilson stayed on his side of the room and stared at me. There was a chair over there but he leaned on the wall, casual-like. Then, after a while, he said, “My blood commanded I come, Andy.”

“Huh?”

“My blood talks to me, tells me what to do.”

“Yeah, right.

“Tells me right from wrong. I hear the voices and know what the African gods expect from me.” He smiled. “This time they wanted me to visit a banged-up white boy.” I kept quiet. “When Africa speaks,” Wilson said, “I listen.” I started to laugh but caught myself because I wasn’t sure it was a joke. Then Wilson laughed big and said, “Don’t you get it, white boy?”

“’Fraid not.”

“Think about it,” Wilson said. I just shrugged. “Africa Speaks? The movie?” Wilson moved closer to my bed, his eyes shifting from my face to my head bandages. He reached out his hand and smoothed down what messy hair there was sticking out.

“What do you say, Billy Gray?” he said.

“What?” I said.

Wilson rubbed my head softly, and said, “Klaatu barada nikto?”

I said it back. “Klaatu barada nikto.” Then we said it together three times — “Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto!” — and banged fists.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 5, 2009

Part Two

At nighttime Wilson had it easy. After the evening editions came in, all he did was sit on his stacks of newspapers under the restaurant awning and customers came to him. Shipyard workers like Daddy came. So did bookies, businessmen, politicians, judges and lawyers — strippers from the burlesque clubs up on Baltimore Street. They all came for the late papers and the big deli sandwiches and kosher pickles, or the prime rib dinner for $3.25. Wilson was on another big-time movie rant. It was my fault because I said Africa Screams was the best Abbott and Costello movie ever made. Wilson came right back at me with, “That’s just a jerky takeoff on a 1930 documentary called Africa Speaks.”

“So?”

“Since they got popular, Abbott and Costello mix in old stuff with new stuff. It’s a trick to confuse the American movie public. Tell me I’m wrong.”

My ears got hot and my brain went mushy — that lasted five seconds, then I got mad. Who did he think he was to dispute my word?

“Nobody with five brain cells would call it a comedy,” Wilson said, and smiled like he knew he had it all over some hillbilly kid up from Virginia. “It’s just delayed reaction and overreaction — predictable, predictable and predictable.” Right then some guy he knew came by and Wilson got more big in his moves, talked different. “How you doin’, Slick!”

“Ain’t nothin’ to it!” the other guy went. “You makin’ it?”

“Hey, man, gettin’ there!” Wilson slapped his leg. “Gettin’ there!”

The other guy said, “Down on it!”

“Yeah,” Wilson laughed. “Down on the end of it!”

They jabbered in African for what seemed like five minutes, until the other guy went off. Then Wilson turned back at me, but before he could say a word I got in my two cents’ worth. “Paper says Africa Screams is number one box office. Why, the fat guy does—”

Wilson interrupted with, “Just stupid Abbott and Costello delayed reaction gags. For instance, in the lion cage it takes Costello —”

“Costello is the fat one, right?”

Wilson did a slow-motion double take at me. “Hey, if you can’t even tell them apart —”

“I know one’s fat and one’s thin, it’s only the names mix me up. Anyways, people laugh so hard they pee their pants!”

“Yeah, fans eat that shit up.” Wilson yawned again, then glanced around. “Look, Andy, check out The Boy With Green Hair, it’s playing at the Garden. That’s a movie!”

“Boy with what?

“Green hair.” Wilson smiled. “It’s a symbol.” Wilson took a big pause. “The Boy With Green Hair has an important message for American citizens—it’s a bombshell that’s hit Baltimore City — a total bombshell!” I kept my peace and he kept on. “See, it’s a fable — which is sort of like a fairy tale. See, this kid’s a social outcast because he’s different — green hair, but it could be anything.” Wilson cut his eyes at me, sort of squinted to see if I followed what he said. “Like wrong color skin for instance?” Another dumb pause, then nicer. “No bad jokes and half-naked savages, like in Abbott and Costello. Take my word, Andy, The Boy With Green Hair is an A-Number-One bombshell that has hit this town.”

The number six bus pulled over at our corner. Mike, this girl who dressed like a boy so the state law would let her sell newspapers, she was across the way with an armful and must have figured it was her turn, her bus. While she waited for the light to change, I quick grabbed my stack of papers and jumped up for the bus and yelled back over my shoulder. “How about when Abbott and Costello join the French Foreign Legion? In the desert they see a mirage, a kid selling newspapers. They ask how come he’s there and the kid says, ‘Can I help it if they gave me a bad corner?’” Wilson didn’t laugh, and I told that joke good. I jumped on the bus and flipped newspapers out to sell. Out the back window I saw Mike run across Light Street after the bus, yelling, mad as hell.

After school me and Mike watched Blind John tap, tap, tap, across the street, trip on the curb and go splat on his face. Mike laughed. At first I didn’t, then I did. But not as much as she did. Blind John got up but didn’t know which way he was. He turned left and left and left again. He paused, spun right, and paused again, then he went off toward his house on Barney Street.

“Now how did he know which way?” I said.

Mike said, “Blind people got radar we don’t, Andy.”

That night I went everywhere in our house with my eyes closed, upstairs and down, even in the dark basement, which didn’t make a difference because I was being blind. Nobody home but me. I felt everything. It took forever but I didn’t care. I put my hands on every stick of furniture and everything else, even food in the icebox — and Momma’s underwear, which was thin and slippery and snagged on my fingernail. It was all too beautiful, too beautiful. I loved being blind. I felt everything.

The next day on the corner I asked Wilson had he seen the movie Where the Sidewalk Ends? Wilson being Wilson, he said, “Yes, but the real question is, Was it any good?” He took a pause, smiled. “And should I apologize if I didn’t like it?” He didn’t know a thing about that movie and proved it when he went into a fake know-it-all speech about not-important details, using fancy show-off words like “directorial intent,” for God’s sake — which I bet he didn’t know what it was any more than me. But he left out how they’d made the city look at night, wet streets, lampposts, three kinds of beautiful shadows — light, dark, and darker. Four if you count pitch-black.

Wilson must have seen my smirky face, so he changed off the subject and stuck his fist straight at my head. He hollered, “Klaatu barada nikto!” I froze, couldn’t figure him out.

“Say it, Andy,” he said. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’” Wilson jumped on his stacks of papers, one foot on the News Post pile and the other on the Sun. He was off-kilter because the stacks were uneven, but he did a bunch of bounce-squats like Cheetah anyway. “Say it, Andy! Say it!”

“Tell me what it means.”

“Trust me, white boy.” Wilson’s fist was still in my face. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!,’ then we bang fists. It’s a greeting.”

“From Africa?”

“From outer space.”

“What?”

“Just do it, goddammit!”

I did like he said, we banged fists and yelled it together, “Klaatu barada nikto!” Wilson laughed and fell on his newspapers, sprawled flat out, his eyes all wet, tears down his cheeks from laughter. My knees went soft and I slunk to the sidewalk next to him. We laughed for five minutes with no idea why, like hyenas in a Tarzan movie.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The third and final part of Klaatu Brada Nikto! will post Friday.


An Avenue of Fire

September 29, 2008

The Great Cross Street Market Conflagration

(Click photograph to enlarge.)

On May 19, 1951, most of the Cross Street Market in South Baltimore burned to the ground, and the one third or so of the structure left standing was gutted. The fast moving blaze left Cross Street between Light and Charles Streets a pit of smoldering rubble. To my young eyes (I was 13 at the time), the aftermath looked like what I’d seen in movie newsreels of bombed-out European cities during World War II. The above newspaper photo shows the area on the morning after the fire. Firemen’s ladders are at the roof of the community hall, top right.

In 1951 I sold newspapers near the east entrances to the market, on the corner of Light and Cross Streets. The newsstand was in front of a bank, the roof of which can be glimpsed jutting into the bottom right corner of the photo. (There’s still a bank on that corner, which I use.) I often took my supper at one of the snack counters in the market, and my family, like most who lived in South Baltimore in those days, did their shopping there and in area stores. Then, as now, the commercial district in South Baltimore was arranged in the shape of a capital “I,” with Light Street being the top (east) horizontal bar, and Charles Street the bottom (west) and the market itself forming the long vertical down the middle of Cross Street. Then, unlike now, the market was constructed of wood and was anchored on the Charles Street end by a two-story brick community hall. On Saturdays police blocked traffic from Cross Street on either side of the market so merchants could set up temporary outside stalls. The market doubled in size on those days and there was as much activity outside the long, low shed as within. First light found sellers unloading trucks of fruits and vegetables and piling crates of fish, baked goods and poultry on the sidewalks. They posted signs, arranged displays, shouted orders to their employees and greetings to their competitors. Soon the shoppers began gathering from every direction, funneled into the market area by the narrow neighborhood streets. It was beautiful scene—teeming and festive—like a huge block party.

Early that Saturday morning in 1951—around 1:30 A.M.—the market night watchman discovered the fire. The flames had already consumed most of a wall just above a row of overflowing refuse cans in the fish market end of the building. The watchman ran to the fire firebox at the corner of Charles and Wyler Streets and sounded the alarm. “By the time I got back,” he was quoted in a newspaper interview as saying, “almost the whole thing was gone.”

When the fire started I was at home asleep. My older brother woke me and we ran the four blocks from our rented home at 807 William Street to the spectacle. We watched as the flames raced along the recently tarred roof of the block-long market building like an enormous fuse. The tar bubbled and popped as it heated and turned first to liquid, then to acrid black smoke, which blanketed the area and reduced visibility to less that 20 feet at times, depending on the breeze. I noticed that the blaze cast an eerie orange glow against the smoke and low clouds. Soon we heard a loud explosion on the south side of the market and all the electrical and telephone lines in the area went dead. My brother said it was a transformer blowing up in the intense heat. Sparks and small pieces of burning material flew through the air and landed on residential and commercial buildings south of the market. Homeowners were on their roofs pouring water on small fires. By 3 A. M., the flames had dropped down into the market building and within minutes the roof caved in, the walls collapsed, and Cross Street became an avenue of fire.

Flames from the upper floor of the community hall, a large 1871 Italianate Revival-style building, with arched windows and fancy brickwork, shot halfway across Charles Street toward the Garden Theater. Salvage Corps members entered the hall to drag out sleeping men who used the building as a flophouse. (In those pre-politically-correct days we called men who drank too much and slept wherever “winos” and smoke hounds.”) Rats, also occupants of the burning structure, deserted their nests and scampered through police lines and disappeared up dark alleys and into sidewalk crevices.

By dawn the fire was extinguished. According to the news reports, it had taken 12 alarms and hundreds of firefighters manning 70 pieces of equipment over six hours of furious activity to do the job. There were no deaths, but six firemen, one policeman and at least three volunteers were injured. An estimated 100 people who lived on Cross Street between Marshal and Patapsco Streets were now among the homeless. Two hundred and forty-seven stall owners or operators were put out of business. The market was a complete loss, as were 13 buildings on the south side of Cross Street, and many others in the area were damaged by the intense heat, flames and water. Inspecting the rubble, the Food Control Department found and condemned 6,500 pounds of meat and dairy products spoiled by the fire. The fire actually destroyed tons more. Less than one ton of foodstuffs was saved—including a box of fish found under the debris. By some strange quirk, the ice preserving the fish had not melted. In an interview, Benjamin Taylor, who operated four meat stalls in the market, claimed to have lost all his Saturday stock plus $700 in cash. Only pennies remained, he said, and estimated his total losses at about $10,000. J. L. Harvey, operator of a butter-and-egg stall in the market for 69 of his 81 years without a vacation (“Now I’ve got a vacation,” he said, “and I don’t want it”), had about $60 in a wooden box in his stall. All he recovered was a handful of pennies, nickels and quarters, and a bunch of hard-cooked eggs still warm to the touch.

About half of the stall keepers found temporary business locations nearby, others set up curbside stands along Cross Street, and still others went out of business for the duration. The “duration” turned out to be 18 months to the day. On Saturday, November 19, 1952, Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Sr. (now better known as the father of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House), witnessed by 20,000 celebrants—including my brother and me—dedicated the new steel and cinder block  Cross Street Market. Eventually a 10-year-old boy was found guilty of setting the multi-million-dollar blaze. In court the boy, a chronic delinquent who was later sent to the Maryland Training School for Boys, explained his behavior by saying, “Something just tells me to do it.”

An Avenue of Fire” was originally published in a slightly different form, and under a slightly different title, in the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine on May 11, 1980.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.