Driving habits of the genteel

Jacques Kelly

September 09, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

When I was a child, the cars Baltimoreans drove fascinated me. There was the woman who lived on East 29th Street and who looked like her Studebaker. And why did the virtuous maiden ladies prefer dull Fords?

During the early years of the Eisenhower era, I observed that many households had a car but seemed to drive them only on state occasions. And in the 2800 block of Guilford Ave., many of the older, more conservative people steadfastly called them "machines."

These Michigan-made chariots were generally black, solemn and beautifully maintained. Interiors were gray and plush. Typical of the reverence attached to the automobiles of that era was the unbroken routine of J. Raymond Hutson, a dignified man who resided with his wife, Ethel, and her sister, a schoolteacher named Rose Vavrina.

This household vied for the block's title of the most sedate. Even back then, the long-suffering Raymond was required to smoke only on the front porch. He was never allowed to flick any ashes on its wood decking.

Raymond's Buick rested in a brick garage with massive, hand-opened and closed doors. Bank vaults were more easily operated than this 1915 garage. And given the tight clearances of city back alleys, it was easier to moor the dirigible Hindenberg than it was to berth these metal leviathans. No automatic door openers then.

Ethel and Rose required that Raymond keep the Buick in flawless condition. Dressed in a white shirt and tie, he gingerly twirled an ostrich feather duster to spiff up its chrome and paint job. Forty years later, his car dusting is neighborhood legend that will not die.

Ethel and Rose, always seen together, never took the car shopping. Primly coiffed and powdered, they preferred to alight from a morning's shopping at O'Neill's department store in a Diamond cab.

Automobile travel was for more grand purposes, such as church attendance or the annual July trek to the Marlborough Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City.

Louise Carpenter, who lived a few doors away, had a sporty midget, a Nash Metropolitan. This car broke with neighborhood tradition. It was white and turquoise and looked like a rolling bathtub. She used it to drive to work -- the old WBAL radio and television studio at 26th and Charles where she was a receptionist. She also drove it to Sunday services at Second Presbyterian Church. The car lasted for years.

Everybody in the neighborhood knew when Dr. James Etheridge was around. The dentist piloted an emerald space ship known universally as the Green Hornet. It could be seen almost daily outside the Guilford Pharmacy, at Guilford Avenue and 28th Street. The old neighborhood drugstore was a fabled gathering spot for Union Memorial physicians and Medical Arts dentists. Hence, you could spot many a long, expensive Cadillac here.

People were quite serious about car upkeep. Some people actually rented spare garages. Widows who owned these buildings made a few extra dollars on the monthly rent.

At the time I was born, my father was driving a used car, a 1940 Buick. It gave away to line of Dodges with fins, troublesome Ramblers and a 1964 Checker Marathon, our last great car. The boxy blue Checker inherited the by-now vanished Green Hornet's place in neighborhood automobile history.

My grandfather lived with us, but I never knew him to drive. He'd given up the steering wheel years before, probably because he never bothered with the formality of obtaining a driver's license.

In his driving days, he liked big Packards for the annual motor trip to Ocean City. On one of these jaunts, he lost a tire in a cornfield. On another, he was hauled into some magistrate's office for an infringement of the law. He got flustered by his brush with Eastern Shore justice and sat on flypaper in the judge's chambers. He loved to tell the story.

But his favorite driving yarn was the morning he chauffeured my mother to the Notre Dame Preparatory School, then in the 4700 block of N. Charles St. As he deposited his scholar daughter, a nun emerged from the building and requested a ride downtown for two of the sisters.

He gulped, got the words out "Yes, Sister," and opened the door. But to verbalize this, he had to swallow a large mouthful of chewing tobacco.

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