THE RECENT closing of Connolly's restaurant on Pier 5, Pratt Street, stirs vivid memories for me of its founder, Tom Connolly.
The building housing the restaurant was originally occupied by the R.J. McAllister Co., seafood dealers. In the 1920s Tom came down from West Camden Street, where he had been a produce jobber, to work for Bob McAllister. When Bob died in the early '30s, Tom took over the business and soon opened a lunchroom James M.Merrittin the eastern half of the building: a counter with a row of stools and a few tables. He hired a motherly lady to manage the restaurant while he took care of the seafood business.
From 1930 to 1960 I was in the wholesale produce commission business at the Marsh Market at Lombard Street and Market Place, a block north of Pier 5. Tom had bought an old skipjack that he moored at the head of the slip between Piers 4 and 5. In the summer he kept the boat loaded with watermelons and cantaloupes. He bought the produce at my market, but he did nothing to discourage anyone from thinking it had just arrived from the farm, shipped directly to him.
I've never done business with a shrewder buyer. Tom's secret was to create the impression that he did not need a thing, especially whatever it was that the vendor was trying to sell him.
I'll never forget the morning in 1936 when a load of melons came in from Pageland, S.C., home of the long, striped Garrison variety. The truck was several hours late, and the shipper was anxious to have it unloaded. These melons were a yard long, and none weighed less than 50 pounds. They were loaded in an upright position in a thick bed of hay. There were only 350 of these giants in the 40-foot trailer.
Even old-timers at the market marveled at their size and the way they were packed.
I immediately thought of what a beautiful picture they would make on Tom's boat. A cool spell had dampened the melon market, so I had to drag Tom up to take a look at the load.
There were no accolades from Tom. His only reaction was a curt, "Let's see one cut."
"You know these giants are red, Tom," I said. "Why waste one?"
"Let's see one cut," Tom repeated.
As soon as my knife pierced one end of the melon it split down the middle with a ripping sound. But it was red as a vixen's bottom.
"Just as I thought," said Tom disgustedly. "They're dead ripe and need a home. If I put them on the boat, every time a heavy truck goes by I'll lose a couple. I'll see you later." And he started back to Pratt street.
"So that'll save you the trouble of slicing them!" I called after him. "Aren't you going to make an offer?"
"For 40 cents I'll try to make room for them," Tom said without looking back.
The truck beat Tom to the wharf.
Whenever I go to one of those fancy restaurants with royal furnishings that now grace the Inner Harbor, I am reminded of the time I was having breakfast at Connolly's and Tom arrived with a truckload of those twisted wire chairs with the round veneered seats that used to be an integral part of every drug store that had a soda fountain. He was directing their unloading as I came out. It seems he had bought the chairs at the weekly auction up on Pier 2.
"What did you have to give for these, Tom, a buck apiece?" I asked.
"A buck?" Tom snorted. "Are you nuts? They were sold by the lot. I'm counting them now. Looks like they'll stand me about 35 cents each."
A lot of those chairs were still in use when Connolly's closed. I wonder where those princely trappings of the new ritzy establishments will be 60 years from now.
In 1960 Marsh Market was closed, and the dealers moved to a modern market on Pulaski Highway east of Erdman avenue. Tom's health had failed, so his son Sterling came out to buy melons and vegetables for the restaurant.
The following spring Sterling told me his father was bed-ridden but had reminded him a dozen times to get melons in for the Memorial Day weekend. My God, I thought, Tom must be delirious. A few weeks later word came that my old friend had gone.
Sterling guided the restaurant during the rapid development of the Inner Harbor. A footbridge had been built connecting Piers 4 and 5, thus making Tom's melon-ladened skipjack a pleasant memory. But Sterling sold melons out of the seafood house and never allowed the premises to cease being a reminder of how things used to be on the waterfront.
9- That is exactly what Tom would have done.
James M. Merritt writes from Baltimore.