City delivers myriad sounds to paperboy on his rounds

July 26, 2004

As visitors descend on Baltimore during the summer tourism season, staff writer Larry Bingham offers an occasional look at how the city has been portrayed by writers over the years. Today, an excerpt from Russell Baker's 1982 memoir Growing Up. Baker's family moved from a small town in Virginia to Baltimore during the Depression. He worked as a paperboy for The Sun and later became a reporter. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1979 while working at The New York Times.

"Outside, the bracing cold air lifted my spirits, though there was nothing inspiring in the landscape. Baltimore was the dullest place to look at I'd ever seen. Miles and miles of row houses, all with red brick facades, flat rooftops, four or five marble or sandstone steps. It was a triumph of architectural monotony, illuminated at night only by dim little globes of light that came from gas street lamps. Still, it was always exciting to rip open the bundle of fresh newspapers and be the first in the neighborhood to know tomorrow's news. Lately, it had been more and more about Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Stalin. The chanceries of Europe. War in the air, and so forth, and so on. ...

"With a tonnage of Sunday papers held to my hip by the web strap, I set off up the Lombard Street side of Union Square. This was the best part of the route. There was good street light, and all the customers paid their bills every Saturday. Twelve cents for six afternoon papers and a nickel for the Sunday. Seventeen cents a week. Everything was quiet on Lombard Street and around Gilmor Street, too. Not a sound stirring, not a shadow moving.

"Out of papers, I went back to the drop point for a second bundle. This part of the route took me to Pratt Street, where half my customers were slow payers, wanting me to carry them three or four weeks until the bill ran up to 51 or 68 cents. When I finally threatened to cut off their service, they might come up with seventeen or maybe thirty-four cents and promise to pay in full next week. The worst part of Pratt Street was that the houses were cut up into small apartments and the customers expected me to come inside buildings, climb steps, and leave papers at their doors. Often there was no hallway light, which meant groping around in the darkness on tricky staircases and maybe falling over somebody's roller skate and spilling my whole load of papers.

"When I went back to the drop point for the third bundle I was tired and I sat down for a break to treat myself to the funny papers. I knew the natural sounds of the city at this hour - the clang of a distant trolley car, the clatter of a dog rooting in a garbage can, the faint wail of fire engine sirens far away. I could detect the unfamiliar sound - and therefore the potentially dangerous sounds - at considerable distances. This was what I heard now while I was looking at "The Katzenjammer Kids." It was the sound of footsteps, a man's footsteps. One man, and coming toward me from the east."

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