This colorful slice of old Baltimore hangs on despite urban development,licensing requirements and the economy


July 01, 1991|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

EDWARD "Sonny" Thurman slowly walks through southwest Baltimore alongside a gray mare named Ginger who is pulling a wagon that is now, in the late afternoon, only lightly laden with vegetables and fruit.

Attached to her bridle, Ginger has a purple plume that feathers and bobs as she walks. The wagon is freshly painted red, green and yellow, and the whole colorful outfit rumbles and creaks and jingles as it approaches the intersection of Baltimore and Stricker streets.

Sonny's an arab, one of Baltimore's street vendors who sell fruit, vegetables and fish from horse-drawn wagons. In a city that once teemed with arabs, their numbers are steadily dwindling, like the pile of red-skinned potatoes Sonny spent the day bagging for his customers.

Sixty to 65 people are licensed to arab (pronounced ay-rab) in the city, but most estimates claim anywhere between 75 and 150 arabs in Baltimore. When Sonny, 54, started 30 years ago, the city had more than 500 arabs. Before then, historians estimate, nearly 1,000 roamed the streets and on most weekends the racket of horses and carts rivaled car engines on city streets and alleys.

"Arabs is not something in the World Book," says Sonny, a burly man with thick hands. "Arabbing has been around for a long time, a whole lot longer than you or me. It's something that describes business in the streets."

Sonny plucks a couple of red grapes from his cart. He's got only a few bunches of grapes left.

"Ask any of these people around here what [arabbing] is," Sonny says. He points to the crowded southwest Baltimore streets. "Arabs [are] businessmen working for himself. The old peoples who can't get out know what arabbing is. Ask them."

When Sonny began arabbing, men named "Bubbles," "Mo,"Shadow" and "Tooths" (no one knew their real names; few of today's arabs go by their given names) had already perfected arabbing.

"They made as much money as they wanted to," Sonny says.

One trick was never to walk the same route twice in the same week.

"It don't matter if you sold out in one area, the idea was to go somewhere else next time. It don't make a bit of sense if you think about it, but it worked."

Sonny first worked with Doc, who arabbed on the east side. Doc drove the wagon. Exclusively.

"I basically walked along next to the cart just like I do most of the time now, only thing is that I didn't have much choice then," he says. "Whenever we sold something, I had to get it off the truck,weigh it and bag it.That was my job .Doc collected the money."

Elderly residents in high-rise buildings would stand on balconies and summon Sonny and Doc." My job was also to run the product up to them," Sonny says.The elevators in the buildings often would not work.doc usually waited for him to return.

" but that's the way it was."


Now, even on a warm, summer Saturday when customers are mostly likely to buy a couple boxes of strawberries or a few heads of cabbage, only a handful of arabbers hawk wares on the streets.

Arabbing was once a way for unskilled workers to bring produce into low-income neighborhoods. But produce prices arabs pay are no longer a good deal, they say. And the trip to Jessup -- where most arabs go daily to buy their produce -- is inconvenient.

Gilbert "Shorty" Hall, 61, has been arabbing "on and off" for more than 40 years. He doesn't do it full time because, he says, "Either people don't have any money or the big supermarkets beat you out. You'll always find arabs, but the business is just not like it used to be."

"It's as though they don't want us to do business anymore," another arab says. "It's like you have to pay $100 for your produce and cart, but only make $75. I can honestly understand the economy, but no one is in this business not to make money or to break even."

Many teen-agers now see arabbing as a way to earn a few extra quick dollars. But most say they have no desire to do it long term.

Baltimore now is the final stop for arabs. Longtime a-rabs have weathered the the introduction of licensing and allegations of animal abuse.Now they face a more imposing dilemmma: urban development,which threatens to replace their longtime stables.

Still, many a-rabs remain,horsemen drawn into the business not for financial rewards but more for outdoor work and an attraction for horses.

Dennis "Pops" Williams ambles up a narrow alley in West Baltimore and stops in front of the arab stable. He rattles a can of grain.

"Watch what happens when I start to talking," Pops says in a low, almost whisper-like, voice. "The sound of this don't mean nothing as much as my voice. My voice . . . "

Five horses and an aging mule hear Pops and push excitedly against their stall doors. Pops turns and smiles. "It don't matter if it's feeding time or not. They know me."

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