Tagging along downtown with Aunt Dorothy

November 17, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

DOROTHY Margaret Croswell was a woman of precise, predictable habits. Until the Baltimore department stores she patronized folded, she had her hair washed and set downtown every Saturday morning from Labor Day to the onset of hot

weather. This meant a trip to the Howard and Lexington shopping district, a neighborhood she crisscrossed with the the kind of vigilance and purpose unknown to the shoppers we see today.

I can well remember a fall day when Dorothy suggested that I accompany her on one of her Lexington Street pilgrimages. She set the hour of departure at 6: 55 a.m. Saturday.

"Hmmm," I thought to myself. "The department stores don't open until 9: 30. This will be interesting."

Dorothy had met my mother when they were both beginning their careers at the old city Department of Public Welfare, the social-work agency she served for decades. For 20 years she lived alone in the adjoining Guilford Avenue rowhouse. She was so much a part of the family that my grandmother, Lily Rose Monaghan, entrusted Dorothy with a rare honor, one of the front-door keys.

By 1962, Dorothy had moved to a more spacious apartment at the Homewood, the 1912 building that is being renovated this fall by the Johns Hopkins University to upgrade its student housing. Back then, the Homewood was a polite and stately Charles and 31st address, a rather fusty institution with a telephone switchboard (Belmont 5-2500) and an unseen house operator known to me only as Miss Hicks. It was rumored that Miss Hicks was the Homewood's Central Intelligence Agency.

Not too many were up on that chilly Saturday morning. Armed with the schedule of the old Baltimore Transit Co.'s No. 11 bus, she directed our crossing of Charles Street to await the arrival of that green coach bound ultimately for Morrell Park.

Dorothy ordered me to pull the buzzer cord as the 11 lurched down the steep Liberty Street hill just past the Central Pratt Library and "Old Cathedral." We slipped out the back door and walked past dozens of lifeless stores to a side entrance of Read's at Howard and Lexington, then probably the best-known drug store in Baltimore.

I am not sure if the entire store was ready for customers, but its soda fountain and balcony restaurant were serving breakfast. Dorothy always ordered black coffee and a grilled nut stick, a Baltimore favorite. She said it would be tasty, and she didn't lie. It turned out to be a multilayered hunk of baking perfection, a gooey delight laced with small nuts, cinnamon, raisins and butter.

The cook split it open, lathered on yet more butter and placed it on the grill for a minute or so. I made it disappear fast.

Dorothy carried a shopping bag. The way she swung it along the street, usually while humming a tune like the "Summer Somba," was one of her her signature gestures. She was one happy soul on these Saturday mornings.

She had a passion for hand lotion and usually went through a pint a week. I think she stopped long enough to buy her Saturday fix, the first purchase in the bag that would be weighted down by the end of the day.

I thought I was generally familiar with the layout of Baltimore's downtown department stores, but Dorothy entered Hochschild Kohn & Co. through an entrance that stumped me.

Hochschild's buildings were cobbled together from earlier firms. The store may have been closed to the general public, but Dorothy said, "Hello!" to a security guard as if she were Mrs. Kohn.

I believe we entered through what was known as the Murphy Building, then boarded a semi-hidden freight elevator to the store's beauty parlor, a place that in a few years would be billing itself as "Canned Ego." Don't ask me to explain that one. I guess Hochschild's was going for the youth vote while the Aunt Dorothys of Baltimore were really its constituency.

Dorothy possessed the first appointment on the books. She arrived as the beauty operators were taking off their coats. Her regular beautician was named Muriel, and she lived in Anne Arundel County.

The next 90 minutes were deadly dull for me. Escape was not practical. I was fearful of never being able to negotiate the maze of passages and 1930s elevators that somehow led to the beauty parlor.

On one occasion, I fled to the pet department in search of a hamster, a replacement for one that had escaped its cage at home and probably nibbled on my grandmother's homemade soap. Dorothy was not optimistic about this intended sale and ordered a phone call home. My mother vetoed it.

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