Taking a ride into the past with a nonagenarian

DAN RODRICKS

July 08, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

I owe Frank Centineo. Yesterday, the eve of his 90th birthday, he treated me to the past. He gave me a ride to the bygone Baltimore he knew as a boy -- before World War I, before electricity, even before bathtubs.

"We lived at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave.; there was a saloon across the street," Frank said. "We didn't have a bath tub. We used to have a big galvanized tub.

"I used to sit in that damn thing, my knees would be hitting my chin . . . When we got the first bathtub, we looked at that thing like it was a big diamond or something. Man, we idolized it."

Who took the first bath?

"That I don't remember . . . We didn't have no electricity. In the kitchen we had a trap door in the floor, and that's where we kept our coal. The door had a ring, a metal ring, and it went in flush in the floor when you didn't use it, and we'd pull it up and jump down in there and fill a bucket with coal and hand it up to somebody, and they'd use it in the stove . . . I'd say I was about 15 years old when we got electricity."

This was the age before rush-hour traffic, too.

"We'd see one car, I'd say, every three to four hours. I remember a tinsmith down the street, he had a two-cylinder Cadillac with a crank on the side."

At the risk of sounding easily awed, I find it remarkable that a man who is 90 can remember the distant details of his life.

That's why I took advantage of the invitation to sit with Frank Centineo and to listen to this happy old man's stories.

There's magic in memory. It opens doors. It takes us places we've never been -- such as the basement of the Centineo house.

"My father would give me his boots and we'd scrub them all up real good," Frank said. "Then he'd fill a tub with crates of grapes and I'd put on the boots and trample those grapes to make wine. He used to have at least 10 barrels of wine.

"My poor mother. She cooked, she cleaned. We had a fruit store in the front of the house and she used to run it . . . She used to bake 6, 7, I think sometimes 8 loaves of bread a week."

His parents were immigrants from Sicily. They had 12 children. Frank was born in 1903.

Ninety years later, he can recall wonderful scenes from his life in Baltimore -- his father selling fruit from a basket he carried on his shoulders; the raucous produce auction at Sharp and Lee streets; his marriage to the former Agatha Fusco, the birth of their one daughter, Ann; the time he sold radios for the Hecht Co. -- "Televisions weren't out yet" -- and his years as a motorcycle cop with the Baltimore Police Department.

But I asked Frank to go back. I wanted his most vivid memory from childhood.

He sat quietly, a warm breeze blowing from a fan across the living room of his house in Catonsville.

"The most happy memory," he said. "It was in the summer . . ."

It was the night his father, the fruit peddler Salvatore Centineo, hTC threw a bale of straw into a horse-drawn wagon in front of his rowhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue.

He did this as midnight approached and the neighborhood slept in the summer heat. When the straw had been spread to form a blanket in the wagon, Salvatore called for his wife and his children.

Out from the house they came -- Anna Centineo, with kettles of food, and her daughters and sons, including Frank. They filled the wagon.

Then Salvatore gave his reins a shake and the horse, his hooves-on-pavement the only sound at that hour, began the long haul to a place called Sunrise Shore for the Centineo family's annual summer outing. It would take the horse nearly three hours to make the trip, far across town, out in the country really, near the long-gone Riverview Park, where Colgate Creek met the Patapsco.

Camp fires were burning by the time the Centineos reached the shore. Other Italian families had already arrived.

The women would devote their day to cooking a huge feast of spaghetti and meatballs in big pots on the fires. Men would enjoy the day and listen to mandolin and guitar players. The children would swim and play along the shore. "The water was muddy as hell down there," Frank said.

After eating and socializing, Salvatore Centineo would load his children back in the wagon an hour before sunset and start the long trip back to Pennsylvania Avenue.

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