The City BAZAAR Bustling: A walk through Lexington Mall in the heart of Baltimore finds accessories for everything from the ankle to the soul.

June 15, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

It is the heat of a Saturday -- the mercury is pushing 90 -- and the mall across from Lexington Market is a sea of sound.

"Final Call. Final Call. Socks, y'all. Socks. Ankle socks. Ankle socks. Ankle socks, y'all. All have sinned. All have sinned. White, black, brown, red and yellow, all have sinned."

With its discount shops and free-lance entrepreneurs, the mall between Eutaw and Liberty streets has the loose, unstructured feel of an outdoor flea market. You want structure, go to the Gallery and Harborplace. You want air conditioning and order, catch the subway to Mondawmin or Owings Mills.

But if you want to sweat, press the flesh and be seen; if you want a taste of the hurly-burly of city living, stroll the pedestrian mall across from Lexington Market.

Everyone is here: the double-breasted, bow-tied men from the Nation of Islam's Mosque No. 6 on Garrison Boulevard; the Hebrew Israelites; the AT&T guys from Philadelphia. And they are here for one reason -- the crowd. On Saturdays, the Lexington Market Metro stop is the busiest on the line, with about 4,800 people passing through the turnstiles. Many wander the mall, checking out the vendors, checking out each other.

"You see it all," says Akasha Wildy, 21. "Nothing will surprise you down here."

A while back, Wildy stopped shopping here. A disrespectful, young crowd had taken over. There were two shootings in 1994. The area seemed out of control.

Last year the police put a mini-station at the corner of West Lexington and North Howard streets, which is staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Then they hung video cameras overhead.

Those changes were enough to restore Wildy's sense of security. "It's cool to shop here again," she says.

Robert Walters watches the passing theater as he sits on a plastic milk crate. He says he is 61, but his wonderfully weathered and creased brown face makes him look much older. His voice is rich and deep, cured by a lifetime working the farms and tobacco fields in the countryside of his hometown, Sumter, S.C.

"Anything you can name, I done did it, break corn, pick cotton," he says, puffing on the frayed half of a nonfiltered Pall Mall.

Today he is selling the Afro-American. The papers lay neatly folded on two milk crates set before him. On a good day, he says he'll sell 100 to 150 copies.

"I ain't doing so good today. It's slow. It's kind of got hot," he says, before making a request that is part serious and part jest. "Now, when you go, bring me back a soda, hot dog. Got to get something out of this."

His great laugh evokes a rural world far removed from urban Baltimore. It is a grandfather's laugh, slow and measured. It is overwhelmed by a hawker's monotonous cry.

"Ankle socks, y'all. Ankle socks. Ankle socks. Ankle socks. Ankle socks, y'all. Yeah. Ankle socks."

"What you have is a cross section of people from all walks of life," says Herbert Muhammad of Mosque No. 6. "They come here. Some signify. Some are concerned. Now, from a Nation of (( Islam point of view, we come down here because our people are here."

That's the same reason the Hebrew Israelites are here. Some of the members wear blue fringed tunics and turbans that make them look like desert warriors, armed with the Bible.

"What we teach is the truth concerning the so-called Negroes of Indian and Negroid descent throughout South, Central and North America. They are the real, physical, ethical Israelites, according to the Bible," says Priest Rapayaahla, standing beside a wall near the Metro entrance. His orange T-shirt reads: Jesus was dark like me.

"We don't teach religion. We teach nationality."

Passers-by cannot resist trading Biblical interpretations with these men who say the overwhelmingly black crowd is not of African descent. The Hebrew Israelites, based on 125th Street in Harlem, say they are descended from the tribe of Judah.

"When you bring out the truth, you're going to have heat," explains Rapayaahla, shrugging off the doubters. "Our job is just to come out and teach. We're not trying to get anybody to join us."

In the midst of all this is Vanessa Barlow, 41, enjoying life, the freedom to eat lunch beneath a shade tree. It's going to be a good day. She'll even get to visit her son.

NTC "This is what you call wealth. I have my health and my strength. I am wealthy," she says, and offers her own view on the raging Biblical debate. "They always talk about the white man and hate. But still we all have to live together, everybody, you know. We have to live together. That's the bottom line."

"Socks. Socks. Socks. Ankle socks. Socks, y'all. Socks. Ankle socks."

That's Donald Barnes, small-time entrepreneur. He squats on a milk crate, occasionally stands, lifts his shirt to mop the rivulets of sweat streaming from his shaved head. The mercury is still flirting with 90. Barnes' wares, which go for $3 to $5 a pair, are carefully displayed on a concrete post at the edge of the walking path. He interrupts his cry for a brief conversation.

"It's a living, take care of the bills, keep me from stealing, robbing and doing everything else," says Barnes, 34, before resuming his chant. "Hey, socks, y'all. Socks."

During the day he'll make two or three runs around the corner to resupply. He says the mall has the best traffic in town. People are looking to buy. He turns an honest dollar better here than anywhere else.

"I come out at 10 in the morning and leave at five," he says, careful not to let too much time pass between sales pitches.

"Socks, y'all. Socks. Ankle socks. Ankle socks. Great deal today. Great deal today. The house of bondage, out of the house of bondage. Do you see that? That the white man is your enemy is not in the Bible."

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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