With street a-rabs, the scissors man and others, alleys offered an entertaining whirl of activity

July 14, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

ALLEYS SEEM TO BE the correct thing to install these days in new subdivisions or communities. City planners have gone back to the tried and true. They have rediscovered what a child reared in an old city knows. Back alleys are the place to be on a summer day.

The back alleys I knew as a child really came to life this time of the year. At least once an afternoon you heard the jingle of the horse bells and the clip-clop of the hoofs.

The alley street a-rabs aren't as numerous these days as they once were. But there are still enough horse-powered vegetable and fruit vendors around to remind us this is Baltimore, not Bethesda.

As a child, I never ceased to be entertained by the alley commotion. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, these backdoor tradesmen walked the broken pavements of these byways, announcing their services as they passed. You could ignore them. Or you could rush out from back porches or basement doors to get their attention.

It could be a sleepy July afternoon. About the only thing happening was the black-and-white flickering picture on "Art Linkletter's House Party," "The Secret Storm" or "My Little Margie."

Then, in the distance, came the peal of a bell. It was not a fire bell, and burglar alarms in residential neighborhoods were years away. No, it was a clear-sounding, hand-held brass bell, a noise that rocketed off the back brick walls of the rowhouses, garages and corner stores. That noise heralded the scissors man.

The scissors man, as I recall, dressed in ragged clothes and had a grinding wheel strapped to his back. He walked the alleys in search of housewives needing a knife or pair of scissors sharpened or repaired. For 10 cents, he'd put a new edge on a carving blade.

His services were not in great demand. We'd beg my grandmother or great-aunt to have something sharpened so we, the assembled 6-year-olds, could see that stone wheel spin. The adults were not at all impressed by his work. They preferred to wrap and carry their sharp-weaponry arsenal (dressmaking shears, embroidery scissors and the best kitchen knives) downtown to the Martin Kesmodel emporium of surgical steel and fine cutlery on Park Avenue.

On rare occasions -- I guess to quiet our curiosity -- Aunt Cora would allow her worst, rusted pair of gardening scissors to be sharpened at the curb side. She'd grudgingly give the scissors man a dime.

I believe the scissors man also had a sideline fixing umbrellas. This was still the era when people bought expensive umbrellas with fancy handles and silk coverings. They kept them in good repair. A broken rib could be fixed; there was no need to discard an umbrella when the back alley was traversed by this necessary service consultant.

Sometimes there would be a truck in the alley filled with topsoil. There would be a fellow to scoop a couple shovels into your backyard garden for a quarter. I'm told there was an entrepreneur who sold little bunches of chickweed to people who kept birds in cages. Canaries and parakeets were supposed to munch on this delicacy. He, too, traveled the alley way.

There was another alley man known for his distinctive bellowing. Any rags, bones, bottles today?" he intoned, employing a set of lungs worthy of a Metropolitan Opera bass.

The ragman, who actually paid you a few cents for old newspapers, pushed a vehicle assembled from boards, roller skates, tricycle wheels and orange crates. He was a sight lifted from the pages of a Dickens novel.

One morning, my grandmother was finishing stewing a chicken. She heard the distant call and ran out to the back yard with a hot kettle of old chicken bones. The bone man was delighted.

In that era, there were numerous passing street a-rabs. Their wagons groaned with boxes of strawberries, cantaloupe, corn, beans, tomatoes and bananas. In high summer, they'd also carry wooden boxes of soft crabs, packed in shaved ice and brown seaweed.

If we neighborhood kids got wind there were live crabs on the wagon, we'd climb the wire backyard fences for a more intimate view of sea life.

Some neighborhoods even had full-fledged seafood dealers, who made the rounds in refrigerated (or at least iced) trucks.

We had an electric refrigerator, and the ice man didn't need to call. But his truck was a beauty -- bright orange, lettered in fancy type: "American Ice."

The horses that plied the alleys frequently deposited calling cards. This manure was not considered an insult to the householder on whose alley it was dropped, however.

After all, the warm weather months are the rose months. And what better way to fertilize a garden? Out came the shovels for the stuff that put the blazing color in the American Beauties.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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