Canton's 'crazy ladies' Enduring: Every Tuesday for 30 years, these high-spirited women have held court at an Eastside saloon.

February 02, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The Chitter Chatters save their retirement nickels for bus trips to Wildwood, N.J., but they don't get in the water. As 77-year-old Dolores Rogers puts it: "Nobody's seeing my body but the undertaker."

The group gets together once a week to gossip (but not in an ugly way), and every so often, between bingo and a nice ham and cheese sandwich with a deviled egg on the side, they'll lock a lifelong friend in the bathroom just for the hoot of seeing the door handle jiggle in vain.

"Crazy ladies," says a woman who has watched this crew in action for years. "They're all going back to the nut house tonight."

Wild women, these Chitter Chatters.

For the past 30 years, in the long Baltimore tradition of neighborhood pleasure clubs, a group of women in Canton has been getting together every Tuesday night in a century-old saloon at the corner of Decker and Fait avenues.

"Just to have something to do," says Dolly Fuchs, who founded the club with Bessie Sibiski in 1965 and is known for her crude gags, like the blow-up doll she often hangs out of the window on bus trips to moon passing motorists.

"Chitter-chattering," explains Mrs. Sibiski.

Dues are $2 a week, an extra 25 cents each goes into a "sick fund" to buy flowers or a fruit basket when someone is on the mend, a 50-50 raffle keeps petty cash flush, and getting in is as easy as having a current member vouch for you.

At its peak in the 1970s, the club had 23 members, but is now down to 10. They can't remember turning anyone down, and the record shows that once you become a Chitter Chatter, you'll most likely die before you quit.

"When we had the bigger group, there were a lot more widows," said Mrs. Fuchs, who has been president of the club for 19 years, even after moving to Parkville with her husband when their children were growing up.

The only member who doesn't live within walking distance of the bar, Mrs. Fuchs says of East Baltimore: "Highlandtown is most in my heart. I never got real close to my neighbors out here. My closest friends are still in Highlandtown."

How have they lasted so long?

"No men in the club to give us aggravation," says Janet Biedronski, who at 53 is one of the youngest members.

This week, they got together to celebrate the 80th birthday of their oldest member, a charter Chitter named Frances Rohlfing, who packed hominy into tin cans at a neighborhood factory until it shut down when she was 79.

"I'm hanging in there," says Mrs. Rohlfing, who received "a working apron" and bubble bath from the club as birthday presents.

Crowded around a row of small red saloon tables pushed together, the ladies rave about how moist Renee Bollack's mandarin orange cake is -- "Ain't that good cake?" -- and remind each other that they're not as young as they used to be.

"We used to close the bar at 2 o'clock, now we're home in bed by 10," says Mrs. Rogers. "In the old days we'd have a few drinks and do the chicken dance around the pole in the middle of the bar."

The club meets in a side cubbyhole off the main barroom, and the whole place is not much bigger than the parlor of a Patterson Park rowhouse. A buffet lines the wall at the once-a-month "social," and on the other weeks, a tumbler of bingo numbers stands at the end of the row of tables.

"It's their life, what they look forward to. Once they get in the club, the only way they get out is die," says Gary Sibiski, the oldest of the Sibiski children at 52. "We've talked about getting a pool table, but it ain't going in there. It's got to be that lineup of little tables."

An offshoot of the neighborhood's old Mother Seton Club, the Chatters began in November 1965 when Mrs. Sibiski and Mrs. Fuchs began knocking on doors to see if any women wanted to get together on a regular basis.

Then, as now, the headquarters was Hen's, the unmarked bar at Decker and Fait where Bess and Henry Sibiski raised five kids on the second floor. Legend has it that Wild Bill Hickok drank there when his Wild West Show pitched a tent on a vacant lot, back in the days before the east side of Canton was part of the city.

Hen's still looks as if Wild Bill would be comfortable throwing back a shot of liquor there, with a beautiful wooden bar adorned with a pair of steer horns 6 feet wide, a round kitchen table under the window, simple stools and a tin ceiling.

In the old days, you could take home a half-gallon of beer in your own bucket for 60 cents. Now, a can of Budweiser goes for $1.40.

"The man who told me the Wild Bill story said he stood on our steps and watched the Baltimore fire in 1904," says Mr. Sibiski. "I don't know if the tin ceiling was here when they built the place, but it was up when I bought the bar in 1957. I think it's been washed twice since then."

About the same time the Chitter Chatters got rolling, a bunch of guys who liked to quench their thirst at Hen's started the Potomac Pleasure Club.

"Some of them said our club would never last because women couldn't stay together," remembers Dolly Fuchs. "Well, we're still here after 30 years and they folded after two."

"They wanted to merge with us," says Mrs. Rohlfing. "But we wouldn't have it."

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