Once, Baltimore Summers Seemed To Go On Forever

July 11, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY

A Baltimore summer seemed to last forever when I was a child.

Things were so languid during July and much of August that many of the city's downtown department stores would close early on summer Saturday afternoons. It was that dead downtown.

City noise quieted. If you rode a transit bus, you avoided the rear seats over the motor. They heated up, and air conditioning in transit vehicles was a distant dream. The movie houses, which promoted their cool air, had a corner on cool comfort. The 1950s Technicolor movies were fun; there was plenty of black-and-white stuff out, too. You rarely picked a certain film; you just went.

A long day did not always translate into a dull or uneventful one.

Because consumption of soft drinks climbed during a heat spell, there would be a good number of empty bottles chucked in alleys and doorways. In those days, before plastic beverage containers, an empty bottle was worth 2 cents when returned to a corner store. It didn't take long to find 12, which left you just a penny short of the 25-cent admission to a neighborhood movie house. (The bottles were washed and reused, a concept not so popular today.)

If you were just a little more industrious, and found another 12, there would be candy money for a trip to a Read's drugstore, where 5-cent bars sold at five for 23 cents. This was big July living on a Baltimore kid's budget.

My grandmother tried not to light the oven; suppers were not much more than hamburgers or scrapple. That didn't mean they weren't good. The foods changed and were just as tasty, if not more so, than in the winter.

One of the reasons the days were so long was that the nights were so miserable. You retired late and rose early. Successful sleeping? A bad joke. I was assigned to a bedroom on the third floor of the old house on Guilford Avenue. That sleeping chamber was under an asphalt roof. Despite three large windows facing east and south, the room was a cooker.

Home air conditioners were a luxury beyond us. Also, there were reports that old wiring, barely able to cope with the electric refrigerator (we still called it the icebox), could cause a fire.

The refrigerator had a small freezing compartment and two ice trays, whose daily output was just enough for evening iced tea with dinner,

The heat made people sedentary but actually abetted social interaction. Television was not much of a draw. Those 1950s summer television reruns were flat and wretched.

The big nighttime entertainment was sitting on the front porch, which despite facing west (hot setting sun) was screened by a striped canvas awning. The summer lured neighbors who remained more private during the winter They came out, and there was a mix of visiting, conversation and, if light permitted, reading of Baltimore's two afternoon papers.

Come sunset, a charming Baltimore neighborhood ritual occurred. Our street still had old-fashion gas illuminating lamps. When the gas came on and the light cast a pleasant glow under the canopy of sycamore trees, the summer night was officially on.

The final act of the day called for a trip to the soda fountain at the corner drugstore. Anything to put off going to bed - buying cigarettes, ice cream cones, the first edition of the morning paper - helped extend the summer waking hours.

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