Baltimoreans I can't forget

July 01, 1999|By Rafael Alvarez

IN THIS year of honoring all that is important to our century, I went fishing for local legends in the Baker-Whitely tugboat company file cabinet beneath the stained-glass windows of my Greek Town rowhouse.

I offer good-hearted goofs, thin-skinned merchants, passionate collectors, unsung angels and pains-in-the-neck; a Pikesville Rye barrel's worth of flawed and beautiful eccentrics who didn't waste a breath aiming for fame.

Soft touches like corned-beef king Seymour Attman and a sleight-of-hand sorcerer called the Great Dantini.

Bernard Livingston -- the real-life uncle of Chip and Ernie Douglas of "My Three Sons" TV fame -- who grew up backstage at the Clover Theater strip joint on The Block and wrote a book about it called "Papa's Burlesque House."

Lou and Judy Boulmetis, the mom-and-pop pixies who run one of the last haberdasheries in town -- Hippodrome Hatters -- and have resigned themselves to finding new happiness if the Westside renewal plan devours their block of Eutaw Street.

Evelyn Butterhoff, who played the piano at Rickters in Hamilton, cleaned houses for a living and declared from the stool behind her rollicking upright: "I got a story that never ends. "

Good people.

People like "Miss Mary" Portera, the rabbit cacciatore-cooking "mother superior" of the St. Jude Shrine on Paca Street.

If you ran the numbers on Mrs. Portera's salary over the past half-century as chief cook and bottle washer at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, where the Shrine is housed, you'd tally up a Third World paycheck.

"I cooked so much the priests used to call it St. Jude's kitchen," she laughs. "All my life I did everything but hear confessions and say Mass and loved every moment of it."

Saints of the city

The accents and hairdos and what's hidden in their shopping bags may be different, but there are spiritual siblings of Mrs. Portera in every neighborhood of the city.

She explains: "You've got to give so much charity in this world."

The gifts of Mrs. Portera will be honored at the shrine at 10: 30 a.m. Sunday, with a party celebrating her 85th birthday.

What she shares with pilgrims seeking hope from St. Jude is matched by sharp memories of a vanished city: The Italian enclave that surrounded Lexington Market, 25-cents-an-hour piano lessons from "Miss Maggie" Winters at 314 S. Poppleton St., and the Joseph S. Hoffman tailor shop at 12 S. Hanover St., where Mrs. Portera worked as a seamstress.

The former Mary Cannatella was born at 638 Dover St. near Camden Yards. Her father, who drove a mortician's flower wagon, ran a movie house and sold fruit, grew up at 222 S. Eutaw St. and played street ball with Babe Ruth.

Her grandfather ran a produce market from the front parlor of a rowhouse at 402 S. Paca St., which was torn down for a highway. The big house the family lived in at 11 N. Pearl St. was razed by the University of Maryland. The site of another home, 505 W. Mulberry St., is now a parking lot.

What Mrs. Portera lived, John Schulian tasted in the 1970s as a reporter for the Evening Sun.

So strong is Mr. Schulian's nostalgia for Crab Town that two decades of screen-writing success in Hollywood -- where he created Xena, Warrior Princess -- have not dimmed it. Asked to name his favorite Baltimore people, he began rattling like a windup Easter chick from Herb Rosenberg's Light Street bargain store.

Longing for Abe

"Absolutely Abe Sherman," he said, enthroning the crotchety Park Avenue newsstand owner at the head of the class. "Ellis of South Broadway who would sell you a comb for 15 cents and tell you never to come back Dantini doing magic at the Peabody Book Store and Beer Stube. Is that place still around?"

Getting his answer, Mr. Schulian despairs: "Why do I even ask?"

After a respectful pause, he rolls on: "Polock Johnny, who was really Bohemian. Mr. Diz trying to make a living at the track by selling balloons and parking cars. Eli Hanover in the gym he ran above a bar on The Block and, of course, [burlesque queen] Blaze Starr."

In his native Los Angeles, Mr. Schulian encounters all manner of freaks, but never characters who remind him of Baltimore.

"It all comes down to soul, which is absent from most of American life. It would be more fun to have Abe Sherman bitch at you than it would be to do whatever Bill Gates does for fun," he says. "Everyone I wrote about in Baltimore enjoyed life in the weird little worlds they created for themselves."

Weird little worlds inside the weird little city that struggles forward along the banks of the Patapsco.

As "Miss Bonnie" Hunt filled her bar at Fleet and Port streets with the smile of Elvis Presley, "Aunt Mary" Dobkin, who ran Little League teams, taught poor kids how to bunt and chided Earl Weaver that the big boys didn't do enough of it.

Belnord Avenue's Virginia S. Baker, the city recreation department's Queen of Fun who preached: "If it ain't decent and it ain't right, stay the hell away from it."

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