The market's Miss Phyllis - she'll be sorely missed

December 27, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

MOST OF MY adult life I've used a trip to Baltimore's Lexington Market to put me in a proper Christmas spirit. One day this week, I extricated myself from a horrible traffic knot at Saratoga and Eutaw streets (the cab I was traveling in was the subject of rude insults hurled by frustrated inertial drivers) and walked the rest of the way.

Once inside the market, I had a nice surprise. The Lancaster Mennonite Choir was visiting. Its well-scrubbed members sang "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" amid the market's din, scarcely any less comforting than Eutaw Street. It was still a glorious sound, one of those unexpected urban experiences.

As I made my rounds, I paid a call to my old friend Phyllis Jenkins, who has served coffee and hot dogs at the Konstant stand since I was in the eighth grade at the old Visitation Academy. After 39-plus years behind the market's most frenetic stand, she was retiring. This was her last Christmastime on the job, the final time I'll see that comforting face at Eutaw and Lexington streets. (Her last day was Christmas Eve.) She has truly earned the day off.

Miss Phyllis, as market regulars know her, has been a civilizing and optimistic presence at this landmark counter. She is a stately lady, unerringly well groomed, with manners, grace and dignity. Attired in her smock, she was soft-spoken and imparted a much-needed air of refinement to the roisterous market scene.

What Miss Phyllis sold was not yuppie designer coffee. The Konstant operation offers one of the very best cups in Baltimore, for all of 71 cents. She hand-spooned the sugar to your specification.

I often observed how her hurried customers, in need of immediate caffeine or a quick chili dog, did not always share her calm demeanor. But, as they encountered her quieting and contagious ways, they, too, simmered down and started behaving the way their elders taught them.

Only because she was leaving the market after nearly four decades of faithful service did I ask some biographical questions of her. She was born in South Hill, Va., and came to Baltimore in 1956. She worked at a delicatessen at Baltimore and Catherine streets before switching to the market in 1964.

There she met Anthony Konstant, Nicholas Konstant and Constantine "Gus" Spero, who owned and ran the stall founded on that spot in 1896. Until the other day she dispensed coffee alongside their descendant, Nick Konstant, who presides over the coffee-and-hotdog stall and an adjacent candy counter.

The Konstant stall opens at 6 in the morning, and many a day was Miss Phyllis on the corner awaiting the No. 15 bus at 5:15 a.m. More recently her husband, Andrew, gave her a lift from her Forest Park home because she doesn't like driving in downtown traffic.

She told me that over the years she has waited on department-store buyers, day laborers, shoppers, Oriole Park fans and all her Lexington Market regulars. Now she'll have the time to travel and to devote to her three grandchildren.

That said, I'll still miss the sight of my friend behind the coffee counter, standing there, unfazed, dispensing far more than coffee and hot dogs to her fans.

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