A moment in the market brings back holiday feeling

December 03, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

The thin December light made Baltimore look worse than it really is. I hopped a bus, which went a block, but the driver departed for a shift change. The ride that should have taken six minutes now took twice as long. I found myself even grousing about the condition of Baltimore's notoriously ill-paved streets, which, as bad as they are for driving, are not a pleasure for a pedestrian either.

I have to admit it. That day I was suffering from pre-Christmas jitters, the kind of mood that magnifies even the most stupid trivialities. I can usually walk these anxieties off, but even the sidewalks seemed filthier than usual.

Then I made the wise decision to stop stewing and do something for somebody else.

I don't have a huge Christmas-buying list, but I thought, "Give it a start." I closely adhered to my mother's sage advice. Even small gifts, if well-considered and personally selected, work wonders for the recipient.

At this point I was on Eutaw Street and about to give Lexington Market a pass, when I said, "No, go in, it'll probably improve your attitude. It always does."

There is nothing like that scrambling scene within the market that food consultants and retail specialists cannot tame or perfume. It's unfashionable but don't change it, please. A visit here brings you back to Baltimore reality.

I don't know if it's the cake sold only by the affordable slice (no Sam's Club quantity-buying here) or the panhandlers who so diligently work the place.

But I was soon eyeing the homemade nut taffies at the old Konstant's stall and smelling the turkey platters at Krause's.

For me all the aisles seem to lead to Rheb's candies, where two stalwart female packers and wrappers were in the throes of yet another Christmas selling ordeal, absolutely unchanged from my youth.

Once again, I thought of my mother's precept of buying people what they really want, not what you think they should have. This makes for selections I would never choose for myself: chocolate-covered pineapple whip and something called an orange cream.

My mood was still squarely in the volatile setting. I was getting a little impatient about the time it was taking to select, assemble, box and wrap 16 ounces of whipped-up pineapple when, like Christmas magic, I was cured of my complaints.

As I stood by the high glass candy cases, I caught a glimpse of scarlet fingernail polish darting about like a December mosquito. Then I saw the hand-held, neat list and surveyed the customer.

It was a moment of pure, unfiltered Baltimore. The customer had the kind of Patapsco River-Wilkens Avenue face that is far from beautiful, but I get the willies when I'm away from this look for too long. It just says home.

It also is part of the Christmas shopping I've experienced all my life here. Her requests to the harried but patient candy ladies were as extreme as my own: one of those mint creams, two pecans, one almond paste, a cherry and yes, wedge in a caramel, too, even though I instructed you not to.

As she tapped the glass case with her red nails, I couldn't help but think about our old family friend, Dorothy Croswell, a devoted patron of the Lexington Market and the long-ago 5-cents-for-all- you-can-drink buttermilk stand.

She used a similar shade of red nail polish. She also favored my grandmother's chocolate cake, which appeared every December, sliced into reasonable -- not overly large -- servings. Being the proper guest, Dorothy never asked for seconds. But there were always the random bits of chocolate left on the cake stand. And those red fingernails made sure there was never any mess left on that dining room table.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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