Preserving the a-rab way Vendors: A society of volunteers plans a benefit art auction and hollering contest tomorrow for the traditional Baltimore street merchants.

July 06, 1996|By Alex Gordon | Alex Gordon,SUN STAFF

Fred "Hot Dog" Parker recalls warmly the days of more than a half-century ago when -- as an a-rab selling fresh produce from his horse-drawn wagon on the streets of Baltimore -- he "would holler, 'Watermelon red to the rind,' 'til I couldn't holler no more."

The spectacle of the a-rab (pronounced AY-rab) has been a trademark of Baltimore for two centuries and for many Baltimoreans, the a-rab's market on wheels has an appeal that is lost in the aisles of the local Safeway or Giant. Time and modern convenience have caught up with the a-rabs, though, and only three stables and 25 working a-rabs remain in the city.

To help ensure their survival, the Arabber Preservation Society -- a 2-year-old volunteer organization -- will hold a benefit art auction and a-rab hollering contest at 3 p.m. tomorrow at Gypsy's Cafe, 1101 Hollins St., a block from the Carlton Street stable.

The group hopes to raise $2,000 from the auction, treasurer Dan Van Allen says. The money will go wherever it is needed -- toward horseshoes; new roofs for the three stables (the others are on Retreat Street in West Baltimore and in Harlem Park); and beginning work on a Mullin Street site in Sandtown-Winchester to replace a stable recently closed nearby.

The city also has promised to help the a-rab cause with relocation money, said Steve Blake, president of APS. His organization is meeting with officials from the mayor's office.

For Parker, now 62, a-rabbing has been his life since he was 6 years old, when he mounted his first horse to help peddle

fruits and vegetables -- fresh from the boats -- in the city's neighborhoods.

"Growing up, a-rabbing was something good to do and a way to keep money in your pocket," said Parker, relishing a ripe tomato from a wagon at the Carlton Street stable. "The a-rabbers have made a better man out of me. It's like a family; everybody understands everybody."

When the Retreat Street stable was condemned by the city for building code violations in March 1994, Blake, a Baltimore native who grew up eating a-rab produce, took action.

He helped organize efforts to repair the stable and, after a year of work, it reopened. The project gave birth to the Arabber Preservation Society.

The organization -- with 100 members from all over the country and a 14-member board of directors (of active and retired a-rabs) -- is dedicated to maintaining a-rabbing as a livelihood in Baltimore and promoting an awareness of its heritage, Blake says.

A-rabs earn $100 to $150 a day after expenses, which include horse and wagon maintenance, a city license and the produce, Blake said.

"We have a unique opportunity to preserve a truly living history," he said. "A-rabbing is a wonderful lifestyle, and Baltimore is the last city with a-rabbers. It needs to preserve the a-rabbers.

"One of my earliest childhood memories is on summer days, hearing the jingle of the horse bells, the clip-clop of the horses, the creak of the wagons, the call of the a-rabbers, seeing the produce display, listening to my mother tell the a-rabber that his strawberries were the sweetest in the city that day and proving so that night over cream," he recounted.

Van Allen says he co-founded the organization with Blake to help the a-rabs, who have given so much to residents and to Baltimore.

"A-rabbing is a very beautiful thing that can't be replaced," said Van Allen, who lives behind the Carlton Street stable and buys his produce there. "The a-rabbers love their horses and their work; they're not in it for the money. A-rabbing is one of the main things that makes Baltimore unique."

At the stable, Butch Burrell remembered his a-rab beginnings. "A-rabbing is all I done all my life -- I got horse crazy and fell in love," he said, with an unmistakably proud grin.

Then he paused, pondering his future in the trade he has practiced for 45 years.

"I can see me going for as long as I can -- I always hope there's a horse around," he said. "The times are changing, so we'll have to change with them."

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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