A tradition fading away

October 03, 1995|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Down at the old stables on Whatcoat Street, "Fatback" and "Moses" and the other old-timers who sell produce from horse-drawn carts are watching their way of life slip away.

Within a year, the stables will give way to low-income housing in the Sandtown-Winchester area, forcing the men -- known as a-rabs -- to make choices about whether to move or give up on their decades-old form of livelihood that has put them as close to the essence of Baltimore as painted screens and steamed hard crabs.

A-rabs have always had plenty of Charm City ruggedness about them, but they also have a certain intrigue, a certain flair, a certain get-what-you-pay-for charm.

They lead a seemingly rural lifestyle replete with an innocent down-home allure -- watermelon and trout traveling salesmen, if you may, whose mode of transportation happens to be rickety horse-drawn carts.

Once frequent in low-income areas of East Coast cities, a-rabbers have dwindled. At last count, only 15 a-rabs in Baltimore are licensed to sell from horse-drawn carts, down from 60 in 1991.

Once loyal a-rab customers now buy produce from the back of pick-up trucks parked curbside on neighborhood streets or at the ever-increasing number of low-price supermarkets.

Middle-aged men who once led a horse with cart-loads of fruit and fish to support their families have given way to boys and teen-agers who a-rab to earn money for fancy basketball shoes.

Basketball shoes?

"I do it for stuff that I need. This ain't what it used to be, and there surely ain't as many of us as there used to be," says John "Lint" Collins, who has a-rabbed off and on for of 30 years.

"We ain't trying to buy nothing to show off like jewelry and shoes, just trying what it takes to get along."

Hustling the streets as an a-rab for nonessentials doesn't sit right with Lint and some of the other older a-rabs who gather at the stables on Carrollton Street near Hollins Market.

"It's like saying what we do doesn't matter if all you want to buy is sneakers," Lint says. "Sneakers. We talking about food and a roof. Not sneakers."

Lint lifts pants to reveal work shoes at least a decade old. "It's honest work by people who want to work hard and maybe have a little fun doing it," he says. Wedged in worn garages in an alley behind the houses in the 1100 blocks of Calhoun and Whatcoat streets, the Whatcoat Street stables may be the city's most popular a-rab hangout.

As many as two dozen older men swap stories there, playfully chastise each other and recall the glory days.

When the stables are leveled as part of the Sandtown 600 development plan, the demolition will reduce the a-rab stables to four.

Leonard Jackson Jr., deputy director of policy for the community building and partnership of Sandtown-Winchester, said he hopes to relocate the a-rab stables somewhere within the community, perhaps near the Lafayette Market.

There are many theories of the origin "a-rab." Some say Arabs started the practice in the U.S. in the late 1800s, and recent a-rab vendors changed the spelling to give the name their own identity; others say "rab" was a slang term for fruit and the "a" was added.

Among the a-rabs are characters like "Snake," "Nubby," "Man-Boy" and "Lassie" who hustle fruit, fish and produce. Few people -- even longtime friends -- know their real names.

There are men like William "Pops" Dennis, who with all due respect to Cal, has a Streak of his own: He claims not to have missed a day in the 50-plus years at the stables on Whatcoat Street.

"Ask them horses who's up here everyday -- ice, snow, rain," Pops says. "They know who shows up."

And there's Eugene "Fatback" Allen, who has a-rabbed for 55 years, part of that time as the "muscle" on the carriage with his mother and sister, the only female a-rabs in memory.

Fatback used his a-rabbing profits to put a "slew" of his 16 children through college.

"I ain't never said you could make a lot money doing it, but you could make more than just enough," Fatback says.

Slender and graying, Fatback belies his name and at 69 is only a part-time a-rabber now.

"But it's just something that you enjoy, the people, the horses, stables, the everything else," Fatback says. "It's what I've been doing for a very long time."

Although only 15 vendors are licensed to sell from horse drawn carts, scores of a-rabs work the streets without licenses, said Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the city housing authority. Licenses must be renewed every year by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The stables, all in residential areas, are inspected at least twice a year by health inspectors. The horses are monitored by city animal control officers.

"It's a wonderful tradition as long as they treat the animals right," said City Councilman Anthony Ambridge of the 2nd District, who noted that he saw few a-rabs this summer.

"There are not just a lot of them left, though. It's a proud tradition we have in Baltimore, but it's going to happen sooner or later. They'll be gone."

But the stables' demolition is merely another sign of the inevitable for a-rabs.

"It seems that a-rabs are something that used to be," says Ronald "Ninny" Upshaw, 45, an a-rab for 15 years. "We providing a service for a lot people who can't always get to the store themselves. We bring it to them. A lot of people who buy what I've got depend on me."

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