Tales Of Old Fells Point

March 05, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Gilbert Lukowski wants to read his obituary before he dies.

As the tough old stevedore nears 70 -- having stood by as friends and family took tales of Baltimore to their graves -- he has become anxious for his own stories.

"When I was growing up, the foot of Broadway was the greatest place in the world," he says, riding through cobbled streets transformed in a lifetime from one of the city's roughest neighborhoods to some of its most expensive real estate.

Mr. Lukowski stares through a gray rain at his old neighborhood, and everything he sees is dead. He sighs: "They say nobody remembers, but I think about it every day."

The Daily Grind coffee house and the Orpheum Cinema above it used to be Mooney's rope shop. BOP Pizza at Broadway and Lancaster Street was a pool room and boarding house. The recently installed fortune-telling parlor at 1716 Thames St. was a barbershop fronting a bookmaking operation.

Across Durham Street from old School No. 6 (now the Lemko House for seniors), a farrier shod horses. At the corner of Aliceanna and Ann streets, a woman in the habit of dressing like a nun made a living turning worn shirt collars inside out and sewing them up for another year or two of wear.

The building that houses the Cat's Eye Pub once served as headquarters for a private "pleasure club" for drinking and gambling, where carnal recreation could be obtained for half-a-buck, a dollar for something special.

And at the end of Fell Street, where warehouses have been converted into condominiums, stood a "car float" -- railroad tracks on pilings that were used to move rail cars onto barges. At night, drunken drivers tended to mistake it for a bridge. Savvier street urchins used the float to launch their naked bodies into the Patapsco for summertime dips.

Gilbert Joseph Lukowski was born into all of this on Feb. 17, 1925, at his maternal grandmother's house at 807 South Ann St., spitting distance from the harbor waters that have washed over his entire life.

Roman Catholicism dominated the neighborhood of immigrants and, when the priests a few doors away at Saint Stanislaus would not recognize the unsaintly name of Gilbert, he was baptized Gabriel.

"My mother liked the name Gilbert," he says of his legal name. "But they called me a lot worse than Gilbert on the docks."

The middle of three sons born to first-generation Americans Edward and Veronica Lukowski, Gilbert spoke only Polish until he was "about 4 years old and started to run the streets."

In the 1930s, those streets jumped with working people, animals pulling wagons or waiting to be slaughtered, businesses catering to seafarers, and characters who landed on Thames Street from ports around the world.

"This was the most diverse neighborhood in the city -- Greeks, Poles, Irish, Jews, Spaniards, blacks, Turks," says Mr. Lukowski, remembering a community of rag shops, stag bars, chandleries, vinegar works and rowhouses with white wooden steps that residents turned upside down when they didn't want anyone to sit on them.

Known as "Harrigan," his father was a coppersmith's helper and a longshoreman until he fell into the hold of a ship. He then became a bootlegger, selling illegal booze until Prohibition was repealed and he opened the Seamen's Cafe in a former soda fountain at 1718 Thames St. The family lived above the bar. Harrigan Lukowski died in 1967.

Mr. Lukowski's mother, known to locals as "Miss Fronie," worked for pennies in neighborhood tomato and strawberry factories. At home, she pickled green tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and pig feet in the basement. Live pigs were butchered in the backyard; coal was conserved in summer by warming tubs of bathwater in the sun.

Horse manure, coveted as fertilizer for vegetable gardens, was plucked from the street.

"We were all poor, only we didn't know we were poor because your house was spotless and you always had something to eat," he says, remembering the thrill of stealing empty 5-gallon cans ,, from the local tin can warehouse and selling them to bootleggers.

Such thievery and mischief often caught the attention of the neighborhood constable.

"The police never bothered to chase you back in them days," laughs Mr. Lukowski. "They'd yell after you: 'I'm going to your house to tell your mother and father.' You stopped running because no matter what that cop did to you, it was better than getting it from your mother and your father."

At 16, Gilbert Lukowski began working on vessels of questionable seaworthiness -- "bum boats," which picked up work that fell through the cracks and carried last-minute items to departing ships. These were the days when a nickel-a-ride ferry between Fells Point and Locust Point made sister villages of the cross-harbor neighborhoods.

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