Finding a cool balm for Baltimore hots

Wiley A. Hall 3rd.

July 21, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd.

Hot day yesterday.

Dog day hot. Molten lava hot.

Baltimore summer hot.

Young women don tank tops and flip-flop sandals and dust themselves with powder, just trying to stay cool.

Young men don tank tops, too, and baseball caps, and they drape a towel around their necks. Just trying to stay cool.

A hot day.

Too hot to complain about the heat.

On Franklin Street, shirtless squeegee kids dart in and out of traffic, offering their services in squeaky voices.

Drivers shout at them or wave them off with a flick of their wrists. When one of the kids finally gets a windshield to wash, the others pump their fists and cheer, like the rooting section on the Arsenio Hall Show.

In Lafayette Park, gray-haired men sit on benches in the shade, legs spread wide, mopping their foreheads with crinkled handkerchiefs and telling tall tales. They don't laugh out loud at the tales they tell -- too hot for that. They just grin and shake their shoulders or slap each other -- whap -- on the thigh.

Over on Dukeland Street, someone has turned on the fire hydrant and a foaming white fountain of water gushes out and washes down the block. Dozens of children have stripped down and are dancing in and out of the cascading water. Mothers, too. They're in bathing suits and they hold laughing toddlers under the armpits so that the water washes -- just so -- over their toes.

Hot day -- even the pigeons look listless. Alley cats crawl up under cars, looking for shade.

And up on West North Avenue, Johnny Jones sits, selling his snowballs.

"Yeah, I've been doing this for years," he says, chuckling and mopping his brow. "It's better than just sitting around looking stupid."

Johnny Jones is a big, cheery man, with gray hair and a gray mustache, and the rough-edged, gravel-toned voice associated with jazz musicians -- a Louis Armstrong kind of voice.

Jones sits on his front porch, shirt open, surrounded by children. In front of him is a long, wobbly table crowded with an ice machine and a dozen bottles of syrup in every color of the rainbow.

One of the children reads them off for me: "We've got egg custard and pineapple and orange and grape and strawberry and spearmint and pina colada. . . ."

"Thanks, honey," says Jones, cutting her off by raising a hand and chuckling.

A couple of doors down, two bare-chested men sit playing checkers. A couple of doors up, women in hair curlers sit chatting in front of the local laundromat.

Cars rush up and down West North Avenue, hissing like snakes.

Oh yeah, and it's hot. The sun hangs heavy in the air, dripping yellow heat.

"Yeah, we've got all the leading flavors here," says Jones. "I get the syrup over down there by the man -- you know, where is that place, can't think of it right now -- and I mix them up myself. When you buy them, they're too weak. So I mix them up myself."

Special recipe?

"Nah," says Jones, chuckling. "Nothing special. Just some sugar and some water."

While we talk, a young man in a sky blue BMW pulls out of the traffic and over to the curb. He's wearing the tank top, the Bermuda shorts. He takes out a handkerchief and mops his face.

"Let me have an orange," he says, walking up to Jones' porch.

One of the children rushes over to the snow machine, flips it on with a rattle and a roar, and makes the man a perfectly rounded orange snow cone. He gives her a dollar and tells her to keep the change.

A group of kids come up chattering and spend a lot of time fussing over the flavors, unable to make up their minds.

Make a lot of money doing this?

"Nah," says Jones, chuckling again and slapping his thighs. "Nah, you don't make anything doing this.

"I'm really just doing this for the children. They like to wait on people and all. Like yesterday, I had it up and I think I did only about $13 worth of business.

"Half the time, I give them away free. Children'll come up here looking all pathetic and sad. I tell the kids, 'Go ahead, give him one free, honey.' "

He chuckles and slaps his thighs again.

"My neighbors keep asking me, 'How're you gonna make any money giving those snowballs away for free?' But you know, I'm not trying to make a whole lot of money. This is just something to do."

Jones says he used to be a truck driver before arthritis and blood pressure forced him off the road. This snowball stand makes him one of the smallest of the city's small businessmen. Not an entrepreneur -- more like an entrepreneur-ette.

Still, it's a hot day. Pavement sticks to your feet like it's starting to melt.

Better give me a grape.

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