When street a-rabs were big business

July 10, 1995|By James M. Merritt

DUE TO STRINGENT municipal regulations and other factors of the modern age, there are now few "street Arabs" or a-rabs -- those folks who take their colorfully decorated horses and wagons through city neighborhoods hawking fruits and vegetables. Seldom is their time-honored cries and the attendant jingle of harness bells heard in Baltimore neighborhoods. Lord, have mercy on us all.

Believe one who did business with them for 30 years at the old Marsh Market, located at Lombard Street and Market Place, the a-rabs were more than a distinctive Baltimore tradition. They were a strong link in the chain of produce distribution in the city for many years. Thanks to them the wholesale markets were regularly profitable to the benefit of all concerned.

For example, I used to regularly do business with an apple grower whose Harford County orchards overlooked the Susquehanna River. He dealt primarily with supermarket chains in Philadelphia, but when he got into trouble he knew where to call. One year his Philly outlets turned down his Jonathan apple crop because "the ripe condition of the fruit severely curtailed its shelf life." So he diverted two trailer loads to me.

The apples were U.S. No. 1 grade in 3-pound cellophane bags packed 12 to a carton. I had to find them a home. When the a-rabs clattered into the market from every direction about 6 a.m. one day, I told them they needn't look any farther for a good day's work. The apples were soon sold at a price that got the shipper off the hook and let the a-rabs profitably supply their customers with good fruit at half the store price.

Two generations ago, many sections of Baltimore had one or more a-rab stables run by bosses who did the buying for wagons that they rented out by the day. Handy Janey (the father of City Solicitor Neal M. Janey) operated a dozen or so teams out of his stable in the Sandtown section of northwest Baltimore for years.

I will never forget the summer I sold Handy Janey a trailer load of watermelons a few days before Independence Day. We had cut a couple of the melons before settling on a price and they looked fine. Later that same morning, Handy called to tell me that after the melons were unloaded and stacked, one of his drivers had plugged a couple more and did not like what he had found.

Now I knew that any hue short of crimson is white to a Baltimore a-rab. But a boss operator with 1,000 pale melons on his hands for the Fourth of July is in the same spot as a man in an oar-less rowboat drifting toward Niagara Falls.

So I told Handy to spread a lot of straw over the pile and then wet it down good and keep it soaked. That holds the heat in the stack and quickly ripens the melons. When Handy came down a few days later to pay his bill, he pressed an index finger against a thumb to signal an "OK," accompanied by a big smile, letting me know that the soaked straw did the trick and his customers were pleased with his crimson melons.

I also well remember the group of northeast Baltimore a-rabs who decided to try their wares in the streets of New York's Harlem years ago. They loaded two open trucks, one with melons and cantaloupes and the other with vegetables and small fruits. I feared that they were heading into hostile territory so, a couple of weeks later, I made sure to ask their leader, June Simon, how they were making out.

"Well, it took a day to learn the ropes," he replied. "The trick is not to stay in one place too long. The foot traffic there is terrific so a lot of Baltimore-style yelling is unnecessary. If you got nice stuff, a crowd soon gathers and starts buying. We sold out each trip without any trouble. But it's still best to find the beat cop once you have picked a good corner and ask him to stay in sight until you leave.

"Of course, you may have to make a satisfactory arrangement for this special service," he continued with a knowing wink.

The material benefits of those summer deals of years ago have long been dissipated but there is one personal recollection that I will always treasure. Early one morning I passed a group of a-rabs standing near their empty wagons. There must have been a couple of newcomers to the business among them because I heard one of the old-timers say: "Now if you wanna load 'lopes or melons see Mr. Miller [my middle name]. He'll treat you right."

James M. Merritt owned a wholesale produce business in Baltimore for 30 years before retiring in 1976. He writes from Baltimore.

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