South Baltimore's shop with a cherry on top

City Diary

May 31, 2000|By KATE SHATZKIN

WHEN I first came to Baltimore six years ago, a friend led me down a steamy side street near Canton and then down another, until we were standing in front of a basement window about shoulder high, so that we had to peer down to see inside.

Like many a house in Baltimore, this one was also a place of commerce.

My friend knew to knock on the window, where a little man appeared. He spoke in sentences of two or three words, and when we told him what we wanted he slid the window shut, in a manner that made it unclear whether he would return. Then he took our money and furtively shut the window again, leaving us in the open with the stuff we had come for.


At the height of a Baltimore summer, you crave a few elemental things. Things the heat makes unattainable and thus, illicit. You crave ice and cream, sometimes together. And you'd kill for a good hair day.

Imagine how delicious, how naughty, it would be to find them together.

Pursuits like these lead me to Fort Avenue in South Baltimore. To Earl Gallion's place, where I nestle into an old wooden booth with a curvy soda glass topped by a perfect cloud of whipped cream, smelling the smell of a permanent wave.

You could call it a spa. Earl calls it an inn -- "Earl's Beauty Inn."

It's got decadent offerings at the soda fountain in front. Pampering at the hair shop in back. Multicolored curlers and Aqua Net hair spray and big dome dryers surrounding your wet head like a womb. And though people don't stay overnight, they do stay, in that they become fixtures on the stools and in the waiting chairs of the hair salon every Wednesday through Saturday.

They are little old ladies in flowered dresses. Kids bulging out of their baggy shorts, or too skinny to fill them up. Guys who wear their first names on a chest pocket, coming home from work. Teen-age girls, seeking hair magic for prom night. Husbands picking up wives from the weekly styling, compliments on their lips.

At first, I puzzled over the name of Earl's place, for we women learn that ice cream isn't about beauty, that in fact attaining beauty involves avoiding ice cream. Then I realized Earl was talking about two different things. There's the beauty shop. And there's ice cream, the beauty part.

In his 66 years, Earl has been a glass factory foreman and a shipyard worker and a bellhop at the old Lord Baltimore Hotel, hoping for an autograph when the movie stars passed through. But his first job of all was jerking sodas at a confectionary just down Fort Avenue from the place he has now, starting at 14.

It was Earl's mom who taught him the importance of a good cut and style. She was blind, and homebound. Earl couldn't find anyone to come in and cut her hair. So he learned the trade himself, fussing with her pin curls, fumbling with the scissors. His mother still cared to look her best, and she'd run her fingers over his work. Pointed out his mistakes, and his progress, by feel. He'd go on to get his license and run his own shop, long after the sad day in 1975 when she no longer needed his services.

About 10 years ago, Earl took over the place at 635 Fort Ave. for his hair business. But he paused over the dormant fountain dispensers from the shop's days as a pharmacy. The ice machine, the steel stools. And he thought, why not.

Now that Earl suffers from glaucoma himself, he has turned the cutting of hair over to others.

He spends all of his time out front, spritzing seltzer into glasses, splitting bananas, sinking the scoop deep in vats of chocolate peanut butter cup.

It's the kind of place where kids spend an allowance in one long sugar high of a day, a day in which almost every hour involves a return to Earl's. First -- a double cherry vanilla cone dipped in chocolate, and then an egg custard snowball, and then a root beer float, and then just a cup of water, please Mr. Earl.

Each time it's like the first treat of the day, because Earl always acts like it is and the money still burns in their hands and the first bite always tastes like the best kind of surprise -- the familiar kind.

Sometimes if you're an adult you might hear arguments about Earl's between kids on the streets nearby, which tells you more than anything that it is a serious ice cream place, worthy of debate on the merits.

"I like Earl's," says one strappy kid on nearby Harvey Street, stepping idly on one end of a skateboard so the other shoots up like a mini teeter totter.

"I hate Earl's," avers his two-heads-shorter pal. "His snow" -- he means the ice packed in snowballs -- "is too soft."

But one must judge the product on one's own. I ask Earl for his root beer float, said to be the best in Baltimore. Purely in the name of research.

Earl obliges. Scoops up the heftiest hunk of vanilla, spritzes in the root beer and the seltzer so it gives his shirt a fine spray. Lovingly, slowly, squeezes out the whipped cream, curly and fat, and upon it nestles one pretty cherry just so.

I pause to ask how many calories this colossal structure might contain. Without a hint of irony in his voice, Earl announces that only one component is fattening: The cherry.

In a minute, it doesn't matter, because it's all gone. Cream breaks down into seltzer and it all slushes and slurps together. All that remains is the cherry, untouched, rolling at the bottom of my glass.

I linger over it, find myself wavering. Find myself believing Earl, against all reason, about the most decadent part of a root beer float. Find myself laughing at that kind of faith, the kind that ice cream temples and houses of beauty encourage.

And then I find the cherry gone, too.

Today's writer

Kate Shatzkin is a reporter for The Sun. She lives in South Baltimore.

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