Dean of a-rabs takes a last ride

Funeral: Procession of horse-drawn vehicles follows wagon bearing Willie Brown's coffin along Baltimore streets.

July 11, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

"Pistol" took his last ride in a horse-drawn a-rab's cart yesterday, his flag-draped coffin rolling west from stables near the Hollins Street Market, a cavalry of mourners behind it.

After holding hands in prayer at the corner of the alleys called South Carlton and Lemmon streets, friends and family moved to a dirge of clip-clops and jingling bells as the horses hit West Lombard Street for a four-mile journey to the March Funeral Home on Wabash Avenue.

No one stopped to hawk strawberries or string beans. No one bellowed the urban field holler that heralds the arrival of fresh produce at a rowhouse door.

More important business was at hand.

They were laying a stable master to rest: Willie "Pistol" Brown.

The son of an a-rab, Mr. Brown worked with horses and wagons nearly all of his 80 years.

"When we were young, he'd put us on horses and we'd ride bareback in parades," said Patricia Smith, one of his 10 children.

"Daddy said a horse could be your best friend. I've never known him to be without one."

Born in rural Anne Arundel County and a longtime resident of the 1000 block of Vine St., Mr. Brown died of pneumonia Wednesday at the Veterans Administration Hospital on North Greene Street.

He was preceded in death by his favorite horse, Bum, which he'd raised from a colt.

"He sang like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine, and he was a great dancer," said William Brown Jr., a retired autoworker who sat in the first carriage behind the canopied red wagon that carried his father's body.

"A while back, we tried to get him to stop coming down to the stables. We thought he was getting too old," he said.

"If we'd have made him stay home, he would've died a long time ago."

A World War II Army veteran, Mr. Brown worked his father Wesley's trade since the days when nearly everything was carted through Baltimore on horse-drawn wagons - ice, rags, wood, coal, fish, stone wheels to sharpen knives, and of course, fruit and vegetables.

When a-rabbing was slow, Mr. Brown did labor on such construction projects as the Baltimore Civic Center and hustled extra cash on the waterfront moving fruit and other cargo.

Although the source of Mr. Brown's nickname wasn't exactly in dispute yesterday, some folks did try to put a gentle spin on it.

Soft-spoken in his old age, it seems that Mr. Brown was a bit wild in his youth, took grief from no one and wasn't averse to backing himself up with something that packed a bigger punch than his fists.

Hence the moniker, "Shoot A Pistol," shortened to "Pistol," according to his daughter Charlotte Dumas, with whom he had lived in the 5900 block of Key Ave. for the past three years.

Added his son William Brown: "He had that kind of fun-loving personality.

"Everybody knows what it means when you talk about somebody and say, `He's a pistol.'"

Although he had given up a-rabbing in the streets about five years ago, Mr. Brown continued to pick up produce at the Jessup Farmers Market for his buddies and truck it to the Carlton Street stables, where he often napped beneath a portrait of Jesus.

In the old days, the men kept goats and chickens under the huge tree that shades the yard there.

"I'm going to miss seeing him every morning," said an a-rab who said his name was Blue.

"Gonna miss drinking coffee with him."

Next to Blue sat an a-rab who'd identify himself only as Big Daddy, a man who remembered the days when there were more wagons on the streets than cars; who said that when a horse died, a guy known as the "Killer Man," would come and take the corpse away.

New experience

When Shannon Stokes of the March Funeral Home showed up on South Carlton Street to oversee the transfer of Mr. Brown's coffin from the back of a Cadillac hearse to the back of a wooden wagon, she acknowledged a wide experience in funerals, but nothing like this.

"Never," said Stokes, as Donald "China" Waugh drove the coffin-laden wagon west on Lombard Street toward South Fulton Avenue and a 5 p.m. service at the March home.

Mr. Brown, who is also survived by his former wife, Alverta Wright, will be buried this morning at the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills.

Baltimore is believed to be the only city in the country where hucksters still work on horse-drawn wagons and share the streets with cars and trucks.

The last stables survive on South Carlton Street, Retreat Street and Bruce Street, all on the west side.

Adele Stolte and Frances Mason - a pair of elegant, elderly women about as different from a-rabs as peaches are from parsnips - were on hand yesterday to pay respects to Pistol Brown and make sure a way of life does not die with him.

Stolte and Mason are members of the A-rabbers Preservation Society. Two years ago this week, the society filed a federal class-action suit against Baltimore City to protect a-rabs from what they claim is a campaign to shut them down.

Complaints for horses

The suit followed efforts by the city animal control agency - at the prompting of animal rights activists - to close the stables on allegations of poor living conditions for the horses.

"These are independent businessmen who don't have to depend on anyone," said Mason, who lives on a horse farm in Howard County where retired a-rabs' ponies are put to pasture.

"The city should be smart about this and have them down at Harborplace every weekend."

In 1998, about two dozen a-rabs took part in the still-undecided lawsuit.

Today, there is one less.

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