Shopping the variety store that is Fells Point

December 21, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

ONLY IN Baltimore does Santa Claus do his own plumbing less than a week before Christmas. One wouldn't think such a thing could possibly be true - certainly there must be elves trained in the plumbing arts - until one steps into Hi's Variety, the "almost everything store" on Fleet Street in Fells Point, to discover a black Santa named Mike White and the brothers who run the store, Patrick and Charlie Wroncinski, huddled over the front counter and contemplating a faucet hookup like somber surgeons preparing for a bypass at Hopkins.

I suppose this could have happened anywhere - I suppose you could step into a Home Depot in, say, Cleveland or Memphis, and find a black Santa Claus buying a stainless steel faucet six days before Christmas from two white guys who live over the store - but I doubt it. I believe such things appear to wondering eyes only in Baltimore, and particularly in Fells Point, where one can do some holiday shopping and simultaneously be entertained by the funk and glory of humanity. Friday, I purchased fish from a handsome El Salvadoran and smoked pork from a beautiful Polish woman. I ate oysters shucked by a Mexican. I saw something that reminded me of a favorite aunt. I found Santa in a hardware store.

Actually, Hi's Variety is a combination hardware and grocery store in what used to be a silent-movie house. It has been in the Wroncinski family for four decades and derives its name from High's Variety, the convenience-dairy store the family previously operated in another location. The Brothers Wroncinski live upstairs, and Charlie Wroncinski is an accomplished woodworker who has made altars from oak.

You can buy just about anything in Hi's. A female shopper Friday purchased six cans of cat food, a stick of Old Spice deodorant and a small bottle of aspirin, but had she the interest and funds, she could have taken home a fishing rod, paint brushes and a used book entitled The Politics of Riot Commissions.

Santa had dropped in for a hot-water faucet.

He wore the full red Santa suit with white trim, and those costume-store "boots" that are meant to slip over shoes and cover them, but never cover them very well - especially in this case, where Santa was obviously a workingman, in tan workingman shoes.

Santa, played by the good-natured Mike White, had come from the corner of Fleet and Broadway, his place of employment being Super Linens, a bed-and-bath supply store featuring, among the stacks of towels and sheets, one of the finest arrays of decorative toilet-brush holders one has ever seen. Mike White works there as a security guard, loader-unloader and general maintenance man. Friday, he was faced with a leaky faucet and went to Hi's Variety for help.

"Is the pipe one inch?" asked Charlie Wroncinski, trying to get a fix on his customer's needs. Santa and the Brothers Wroncinski exchanged opinions on the merits of replacing the stem or the entire faucet. It was decided to replace the faucet, and the Wroncinskis had one, and they sent Mike White, dressed in Christmas, off to make the repair.

Again, I say: Only in Baltimore, and maybe only in Fells Point.

"I need change for the bus, please," a skinny woman said as she presented me with an opportunity for charity outside the Broadway Market. "I have to get home with this wall clock." She had just purchased the clock in Super Linens, and she seemed in a rush to get home and hang the clock in her kitchen, as if not having one had upset her biorhythms. I gave her the three quarters in my pocket.

Outside Ze Mean Bean Cafe, I passed two young men speaking a language of Eastern Europe, perhaps Polish. Inside Krakus Deli, which is definitely Polish, the fragrance was Old World strong, as you would imagine meat shops of Krakow smell. I bought a cut of smoked pork (poledwica) and a whole smoked mackerel from a young woman with movie star eyes.

In the Broadway Market, I started shopping for my family's traditional Italian-Portuguese Christmas Eve dinner by purchasing baccala, the dried, salted cod that requires a couple of days of soaking before you can cook it. I got two nice flanks at $6.95 a pound from Broadway Seafood. I also took three pounds of fresh squid, and it was Tano Medrano, a native of El Salvador, who had the pleasure of sticking his gloved hand in the cold, slimy pile of calamari and weighing it for me.

I got some slab bacon at Fells Point Meat Market, which also offered "loose barrel kraut" and a brontosaurus-size beef bone - "Don't Forget Your Dog" - that I might have purchased had I owned a borzoi.

I purchased two dozen chrusciki, powdered bowties of light pastry, from Jay's Quality Bakery, and made a note to go back for the good-looking chocolate-covered Polish pound cake next time. I also noted fresh roses at $7.95 a dozen from Rosie's Posies, which might be the only florist in town that sells White Owl blunts. Inexpensive roses and cheap cigars - let's have a party.

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