All of a sudden, it's carnival time

Jacques Kelly

August 15, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

One of Baltimore's unexpected summer sights is the overnight apparition of a street carnival ablaze with Ferris

wheels, games of chance and cotton candy booths.

All over the city, from the asphalt courts of the housing projects to the ball fields of Locust Point, the garish colored lights never stop burning at the evening-hour midways during our warm-weather nights. And, to make them all the more remarkable, what was once just a vacant lot becomes an Ocean City boardwalk full of people in the time it takes to switch on a portable generator.

The other evening the "street closed" signs went up in the first block of N. Lakewood Avenue facing Patterson Park. St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church was having its annual summer carnival. It was a classic variety of the species. The pastor, the Rev. James Dowdy, was running around with his clipboard and assignment sheet, making sure everything was in its place. Some of his vigilant church men and women were in a slight dither because their booths had been moved five feet from last year's location, upholding the ancient and esteemed neighborhood right to alter nothing.

The heart -- and pocketbook -- of any worthwhile summer carnival are the spinning wheels of numbers. A quarter gets you a chance on an apple cake, cherry crumb pie, doll with multiple petticoats, potted begonia, pound of Esskay bacon or plastic wash bucket full of groceries. People willingly empty their pockets for the chance to play a 17 or 23.

Each booth, painted Baltimore's patriotic black and yellow colors, is attached to its own prize category. You can't win a pound of bacon at the pie wheel, for example.

And there is no sound at the carnival as distinctive as the whirling-clicking noise each turn of this wooden circle emits.

The Vanna Whites of these wheels of fortune are the ladies of the neighborhood who have probably made the lemon pudding cake somebody's just won, first try, for 25 cents.

The St. Elizabeth's carnival, which keeps the rides and the flashier attractions supplied by a local carnival vendor on the street, has an inner court that seems to be the center of attention. This nicely secluded, open-air rectangle is created by the parochial school, hall and church sacristy, along with a block of Formstone houses on Belnord Avenue. The background is the gray of the Port Deposit granite masonry blocks so locally associated with branch bank buildings and East Baltimore churches. Even the Formstone is gray. And, if any immediate resident had an idea of turning in early -- forget it. These carnivals are evening events.

The food is also classic Baltimore -- fried dough, crab cakes, snow balls, lemon peppermint sticks, coddies (the cod fish cakes devoured by people around here but which never get the press enjoyed by their crustacean cousins) and Italian sausage. Prices are as old-fashioned as the event. A hot dog is 60 cents.

One dollar gets you 14 pingpong balls to toss at the goldfish bowls.

According to one theory of carnival design, there should never be too many tables and chairs to encourage long spells of sitting. That dictum doesn't seem to work here. Often there are three generations present, including the offspring who left East Baltimore Street and Lakewood Avenue for White Marsh or Joppatown or Rosedale years ago, but still like to return to the old neighborhood.

It makes for a great evening on the town. St. Elizabeth's runs until Saturday, when this chunk of East Baltimore returns to normal. In the meantime, if you see children with plastic bags of goldfish, or grandmothers carrying home angel food cakes, or the reflected glow of purple-tinted electric light, it's August carnival season.

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