Cross Street smorgasbord

Dan Rodricks

September 27, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"A little bit of everything. Always something new."

-- motto of Cross Street variety store

By mid-morning, as I make my way to join the second shift of regular customers for coffee and breakfast at Muhly's, a foggy-eyed man in a clean white cowboy hat plucks three sour notes on his previously owned guitar. He's sitting on a wall by a fence. Weeds are thick about him. Morning Glories have struggled through the weeds and up the fence, and they are in bloom. It's a beautiful picture.

As I stop to appreciate this still-life-with-guitar, I feel poetry coming on: Old cat in a cowboy hat/pickin' guitar in the weeds/and from them weeds/bobbing in the breeze/Morning Glories in the sun.

I like the whole concept. As the sign above Job Lots Closeouts says: "Always something new." And you can take that as an advisory to tourists, if you wish. A visit to Cross Street is never without discovery. You can't miss.

Despite many trips there, I had never seen the mysterious sidewalk guitarist before. But they tell me he's a regular part of the eclectic crowd that gathers daily in and around Cross Street Market.

Tom Gregory, Baltimore photographer, says the people you see along Cross Street -- South Baltimore neighbors, urban pioneers of Federal Hill, winos, visiting yuppies, cops on foot patrol, blue-collar workers feeding on fish and beer, professional women buying fresh flowers, an occasional District Court judge, older folks having a morning muffin at Muhly's -- make up "the fabric of the community."

"Yeah," Gregory says. "It's kind of a loose weave."

We're doing Danish in Muhly's now with Tom Chagouris, proprietor of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood. Muhly's is a crowded, happy place with pleasant waitresses. People know each other by name. The waitresses know their regulars by the way they like their eggs.

I tell the two Toms I've been to Cross Street so many times -- to buy fish, produce and cheese, to eat raw oysters and sushi, to have an antique lamp repaired by Charlie the Lamp Man, to buy chicken parts from Eddie the Chicken Man -- that I think I've finally seen everything.

"You haven't been to Tubby's, have you?" Tom Gregory says.

"Tubby's?" I say. "What's that?'

"A bar up the street, right across from the market," Gregory says.

"Yeah," I say, "I think I've seen the sign."

"There's no sign," Gregory says. "Tubby's this old guy, and he's had the bar for years. He doesn't have a bartender. The bottles behind the bar all have prices on them so you know how much a shot costs from each. You just put your money on the bar when you leave. Tubby just sits there."

I pay for three Danish and three cups of coffee -- $3.44 -- and then Gregory, Chagouris and I head up to Tubby's.

We walk past the Jobs Lots sidewalk sale -- plastic bird feeders, sponges, fly swatters and lots of tape -- and arrive at Tubby's.

Turns out I've walked past this place a hundred times and never really noticed that it was a bar. No sign. Just a Formstone front with a large display window. In the window are 12 miniature American flags. Some American Legionnaires spotted this window display once and went inside, thinking Tubby's was an American Legion hall. What they found was what I found -- about as modest a bar as you can find in Baltimore, with a booth, a Hi-Fi with some Jackie Gleason records, and an old man sitting in a tattered chair pulled from the old McHenry Theater.

"That's Tubby," Tom Gregory says.

Tubby, who is reportedly 80 years old, sits in the theater chair with a plastic fork in his hand. It appears that he is getting ready for lunch, and that the last thing he expected to see this morning was a customer.

"Hello, Tubby," Tom Gregory says. "How ya doin'?'

"Hand me that fruit salad, willya?" is all Tubby says.

"Tubby doesn't like to do interviews," says Bob Phoebus, who runs a deli with his dad in the market. "He's got a million stories. I told him I wanted to tape him, put him on camera. And he said, You ain't gonna make a Clark Gable outta me!"

I finish my visit by ordering a ham sandwich from Phoebus. It's fresh-baked ham. Delicious. I stop by Cross Street Seafood to admire the fish in the aquarium. Then I make one last swing past Tubby's. The door to the bar is still open and Tubby is eating his fruit salad. I call that bliss.

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