True Baltimoreans never throw anything away

January 20, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

JERRY GORDON, my neighborhood grocer, clued me in to a little known Baltimore folkway of the foul weather season. I once asked him what Baltimoreans turned to during periods of rain, sleet and snow. He replied, "Silver polish."

By this he meant that come mid-January, we have so little to do that we shine the silver and do all those chores we've been putting off for months. I call it the season of compulsive behavior, the time of organizing bureau drawers, cleaning out the pantry and washing all the dishes that never get used.

Baltimore, the place we never leave, is also the place where we only rarely change neighborhoods. Our self-imposed immobility contributes to houses loaded with possessions. I'm not referring to costly rarities, but tons of stuff we simply cannot bear to place in a trash can.

This predilection helps make January high season for our organizing compulsion. I have been going from room to room, opening boxes and storage chests. I made an express trip to the office supply store for some nice labels and felt-tip pens. I am sticking little identification panels on 50 years' worth of inventory, everything from the box that holds the family Bible (actually there are two, one Catholic, one Protestant), through my grandfather's worthless stock certificates in the Columbia record company to all the family photos I've vacuumed up.

I am sorry. I hate to toss things out. And that sentiment must be contagious.

Last Saturday my sister Mimi read of the red blanket our mutual grandmother made about 1954. My sister, who lives in Northeast Baltimore, was digging through her cellar and found the scraps of material left over from the 46-year-old blanket's fabrication. I am surprised she didn't find the Stewart & Co. sales slip, too. Every worthy Baltimorean knows not to discard a sales receipt because you never know when you might need to return something.

My sister reported she also found the extra silk ribbon binding used around the 1954 blanket's edges. This she said was certainly a normal practice. When going to Howard and Lexington streets to do some shopping in the old days, you bought a sufficient quantity of what you needed. If you had something left over, it just went in the cellar and found its place in that delightful, comforting inventory we Baltimoreans glory in.

Friends of mine express disbelief that I keep so much stock at home. I reply that I like inventory. Maybe it is my life in a big family, where we always had a dozen of everything, everything always being somewhat nicked and used and beat. But it was there.

And, I am pleased to report, in its place. I use the month of January to inspect this inventory, dust it off and replace it in its box. I had a new row of shelves constructed in the cellar for this archive. My plywood repository is now neatly overflowing with old report cards, 1973 newspaper articles and canceled passports.

No matter how many lists you keep of all this stuff (talk about written compulsion), nothing replaces the act of opening boxes and inspecting their contents.

This leads to the point of all this. This past Sunday, while going through the contents of my dining room's old cupboard (a sensible thing built into the house in 1871) I found two small ceramic water pitchers. One had what appeared to be a decayed leaf from some old zinnia.

I tried to shake this bit of leftover debris out - but it wouldn't cooperate. Only then did I discover why.

Lodged in the pitcher was a dead bat, one that must have come to roost there this past August while I was on vacation.

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