Hot merchandise is evidence of hard times

March 31, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Hanover Street, enjoying the first hint of local sunshine since maybe 1947, stands Eddie from South Baltimore, the semi-well-known bookmaker, who is looking for good things to come his way.

He figures he's due. The bookmaking business hasn't been the same since the state got full time into gambling some years back. The Recession That Dares Not Speak Its Own Name won't go away, meaning legitimate jobs are still scarce. The voice on the portable radio in Eddie's hand says there were 8.54 inches of rain in the month of March, a record, and that more rain is expected once this little sliver of sunlight beats a retreat.

In such times, everyone must grab the moment. Thus, on Tuesday afternoon in the brief sunshine, Eddie's leaning against a brick rowhouse when this car pulls up. Its engine is wheezing like an asthma victim. The guy behind the wheel, who has long hair parted in the middle like auditorium curtains, is in need of quick cash. Beside him is his girlfriend, who looks like Morticia from the Addams Family movies, only without Morticia's warmth, and in the back seat is a child, who looks to be maybe 4 years old and has a vocabulary consisting almost entirely of a screech.

"I got watches," says the guy.

"So?" Eddie says.

"Are you kidding?" says the guy. "It's Easter. Everybody wants a new watch for Easter."

He says they're brand-name watches taken from a warehouse watched over by a cooperative security man. Eddie can have them for one-third their retail value, and then sell them for whatever the economy will bear.

He means the underground economy, which is considerable. It consists of moving various pilferred items around, always at prices considerably less than suburban shopping malls.

Everyone says how terrible this is, but no one finds a way to stop it, which begins by creating jobs where currently there are none. A factory closes here, a department store there, and people who never dreamed of buying stolen property now listen for a deal while waiting out the bad times.

On Pratt Street, they're running people through U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 10-minute intervals all through the morning and afternoon. On York Road, Citibank announces the layoff of 300 employees. On Eastern Avenue, they still feel the chill from the closing of Esskay.

And now, in the brief sunlight on Hanover Street, this guy wishes to sell hot wrist watches as a holiday special, and in a hurry.

"How many you got?" says Eddie.

"Dozens," says the guy, opening his car trunk. Inside there are watches, pretty nice as these things go, but only six of them.

"You said dozens," Eddie says. "Whattaya got, a hole in your trunk?"

"It's 2 o'clock," Morticia cries now from the front seat. She looks to be in need of some chemical assistance. She's edgy; she's agitated; she's scratching herself in places where the itch runs too deep.

The long-haired guy looks confused. His girlfriend is hollering; his child is screaming. He says he'll be back in a while. In minutes, he's replaced on Hanover Street by a guy carrying a cardboard box with china plates inside. He says he'll take $30 for the whole thing. He goes away, and in a while he's replaced by a guy selling freshly stolen kosher chickens, who's followed by a guy selling three electronic calculators.

"These ain't your ordinary calculators," he says. He's got a voice that's all edges. Says the calculators sell for $90 each, but he'll take $30 apiece for them.

"What's so special about 'em?" says Eddie from South Baltimore.

"They do the work in English or in Spanish," the calculator man says.

"What do I want with a calculator that works in Spanish?" says Eddie.

"How do I know?" says the calculator man. "I'm just saying. If you want it, it's got Spanish."

So it goes. The traffic in Spanish calculators will slack off, but only for a while. They're moving people through Bankruptcy Court every 10 minutes on Pratt Street and killing people's jobs on York Road. A factory closes here, a department store there.

The sky above Hanover Street begins to darken. Rain arrives, but by yesterday, the sun was shining again. One day, maybe, this ruinous economy will also go away, and no one will have need of loose merchandise. But nobody is holding his breath.

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