Hard Times: A Memoir of Growing Up in Balto.

by E. L. Maugans
     Standing just inside the vestibule of a house on Collington Ave., I shouted my warning up a long dark hallway.
     “Cheese it, the cops!”
     A grunt from the interior reassured me. My signal had been heard.
     The house was in a neighborhood called Sheep Hill by the old timers. It was occupied by the Pals A.C. An athletic club? Yes and no. It was common knowledge in this slice of Baltimore that amateur sports were not the sole concern of the Pals.
     We boys learned through gossip sessions at Resnick’s pharmacy, corner of Biddle St. and Patterson Park Ave., that the principal interest of the Pals was the production of illegal elixirs and home brew. (Corners, store corners in particular, were and are great places for disseminating information which, by tribal custom, is not available at home.)
     Wets vs. Drys: Though unpopular, Prohibition was the law of the land. Thirsty imbibers--the wets--had nothing but contempt for abstinent citizens--the drys--who imposed the soul-searing 18th Amendment on impenitents.
     Armed with our knowledge, we boys offered our services as lookouts to the Pals when and if prowling gendarmes were seen in the vicinity. The agreed gratuity would be two bits. It certainly beat weeding the backyard gardens of Preston St. householders for a thin dime.
     I concealed the arrangement from my mother, a no-nonsense moralist of the first stripe. She knew that the scofflaw scallywags (her term for the Pals) held periodic bacchanals to which giddy, giggling and noisy flappers were invited.
     To keep up appearances, I suppose, the gendarmes did make occasional raids on the Pals’ clubhouse. When it happened, local citizens quickly assembled in anticipation of a forthcoming arrest. What actually came was a farce. When the drys in the crowd began grumbling for an arrest, the law officers became agitated. Ignoring taunts and threats to summon the mayor, the uniformed stalwarts leaped into their paddy wagons and sped away empty- handed.
     Impeccable Presidents: There were good times before the economic depression. The nation was blessed with an impeccable president--ol’ Cal Coolidge. He was a man who would not drop an off-color word, a stiff upper lip, or a responsibility (let alone his pants in or out of the oval office). President Hoover was cut from the same fabric, a capable and proven compassionate chief executive who was confronted by trying circumstances and a belligerent, uncooperative, irascible Democratic congress. A current ditty was a stab at humor: “Mr. Herbert Hoover put the sun back in the sky. Let’s have another cup of coffee, Let’s have another piece of pie.”
     Despite the local and national depression, I never heard anyone admit to living in poverty. Because blue collar families were painfully aware of the shameful, wretched circumstances in which they were trapped, mention of poverty was stoutly avoided. It was somewhat similar to locking a retarded, defective family member in a third floor attic. Both were realities. Both were then carefully guarded humiliations.
     My father’s furlough from the steel mills engendered hardships. Nevertheless, my questionable association with the Pals’ A.C. did modify my own personal distress.
     To me, the Depression was a foggy, mysterious entity. Why had the stock market crash brought on such wholesale, disastrous unemployment? East Baltimore, I learned in time, was a microcosm of an immense world beyond my imagination.
     Life went on, if not joyously at least with stubborn resignation. The moguls of finance took advantage of the bear market to pick up cheap certificates and wait for an upturn. The unemployed stiffs waited too--until they could recover 10 cents on the dollar of their life savings. “Banker” and “financier” were dirty words.
     My dad put down his racing form and tried to explain it to me. “There are big fish and there are little fish. The big fish eat the little fish--always.”
     The times were surely hard, especially when compared to today’s economy, but there were compensations. The price of everything was dirt cheap, within reach of any householder who could scrape a few shekels together.
     The following price tags apply to 1927 and ‘28, a boom time: Bread per loaf, unsliced: 9/10 cents; Milk per quart, in glass: 14/15 cts.; Coffee per lb., paper pkg: 48 cts.; Eggs per dozen, carton: 45 cts.; Bacon per lb: 47 cts.; Flour per lb. bag: 28 cts.; Lard per lb. slab: 19 cts.; Steak per lb. (avg.): 41 cts.; Margarine per lb: 28 cts.
     Wages? Big Steel pretty much set the nation’s pay scale for lesser industries. Machine shop employees, depending on skill or experience, received 45 to 73 cents an hour for a 50-hour work week. Blast furnace laborers were paid 39 cents per hour for a 62- hour work week.
     Then the crash of ’29 put even professional men, men with engineering degrees and their like, on corners downtown peddling hand-polished red apples. They were humbled individuals, dour in demeanor, not prone to uttering more that a word or two in any transaction.
     Returning to Youthful Stomping Grounds: To reinforce an untrustworthy memory, I recently returned to once-familiar haunts. I found my old neighborhood has become all Afro-American ethnically. Those to whom I talked were pleasant, openly curious about my reason for being there. In the way of explanation, I pointed out No. 37 public elementary school, Patrick Henry by name. Next to it was what was once Abie Dickman’s confectionary. Abie Junior, who was not one of the hoodlums who assaulted me on the first recess of the first day in school, became a good friend.
     Xenophobia: The school roughnecks did not know it, nor did I at the time, but they suffered from xenophobia--hatred of foreigners. I was a stranger who did not walk the way they did; I had the lope characteristic of boys from the Cumberland Valley’s furrowed fields in Pennsylvania. I talked funny too. I said “tire-uh,” but they said “tar” when alluding to an essential component of automobile wheels. I spoke of “fire-uh,” but they called a conflagration a “far.” Worse, I betrayed my Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing by pronouncing “chimney” as if it had an “l”--”chimley.”
     That and my “countrified” knowledge of where milk came from incensed my new schoolmates. They threw me to the brick play yard at recess time and stabbed my arms and legs with the sharpened points of lead pencils--and broke them off. I evened the score at the afternoon recess by choking the ringleader until he begged for mercy and made me a gang member.
     Violence committed by mere children is not solely a phenomenon of the present age--but murder by mere children was unheard of then.
     I looked southward to the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge that spanned Patterson Park Ave., just north of Eager St. The bully boys (my gang) had made an incursion into another gang’s territory. Gangs confronted each other across the rails, at first hurling creative insults at one another. These harmless projectiles quickly became stones, lumpy cinders and finally rocks.
     I don’t believe anyone was seriously injured during these hostilities but I do recall both sides resorting to a platoon system, with three or four boys taking a break for lunch at home, returning to the battlefield to relieve their cohorts for the same purpose. These knifeless, gunless brou- ha-has recurred periodically until some “weak sister” snitched to his mother, who alarmed householders on both sides of the bridge.
     Diversions: Hard times did not squeeze all the juice out of us. There were inexpensive diversions. The Redwing movie theater, on the southern edge of the Eager St. gang’s bailiwick, charged 15 coppers for admission--the going rate. It was there that a neighborhood coquette propositioned me in a darkened balcony. Being socially retarded, I did not know how to react--so I fled home to the arms of my ever-doting mother. Years later, when my tomatoes had ripened on my vine, I attempted to locate the vixen and failed. Today the Redwing has been replaced by a major pharmaceutical retailer.
     The State Theater’s tall building still stands farther west on Monument St., just beyond the Northeast Market. It offered an unusual attraction for the area--vaudeville as well as movies. Admission was two bits, a little stiff for boys my age, but the arrangement I had with the pseudo athletes covered the cost. The theater’s glitzy internal decor overshadowed the grim realities beyond the doors.
     The Palace Theater on Gay and Hoffman St. has been razed. It featured Saturday afternoon shoot-outs between cowboys and Indians. William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Randolph Scott, Bill Boyd and their friends always won. The Ritz, nearby on Washington St., showed more adult films. It has been replaced by a supermarket, now closed. The Avenue, on Milton Ave. is now a church. The Belnord was too near to the Highlandtown gangs who policed the area; they were tough bruisers.
     Making Mischief: One day my buddies were walking to the clay mines on Fort Worthington, a high hill north of Preston St. There, we used slingshots to bring a crow down. Having no pot to cook him in, we removed some of his feathers and roasted him in a clay cave. We lost our appetites when his carcass proved to be tougher than a cow’s hide.
     Still seeking an exciting experience, we walked south on Loney’s Lane--now known as Edison Ave.--to Home Sweet Home cemetery, which stretched along Biddle St. Rumors had it that Jack Hart, a three-time loser, had hidden out there in a brick-walled mausoleum with a clay-on-wood roof. Scaling the walls, we were thrilled to discover that entrance had been made through a hole. Fearful but excited, we peered in, half expecting to hear ol’ Jack yell at us. All was quiet and forbidding. Nicholas Lotito volunteered to enter the mausoleum. Lying flat on our stomachs, we let him down hand over hand.
     At that most inopportune moment, a police car appeared just outside the cemetery fence. We scattered to the four points of the compass and left the intrepid Nicky to his own devices.
     Hard times? Yes, but take it from an octogenarian who survived them, they were worth the life investment. There were periods in which a church mouse would have seemed well fed--times when macaroni and cheese, baloney sandwiches and fried hominy looked like fitting entrées. I cannot recall ever feeling like fate had cheated me. Nor do I recall envying the well-heeled suburbanites with their housemaids, chauffeurs, yachts, or vacations in Newport. Maybe they felt the crunch more than we did.
     I will wager 10 to 1 that upper crustaceans did not have the fascinating neighbors that I had. Take Phil Thomas, recently deceased, a self-made magician who practiced his legerdemain with my brother in the basement of our home. I was his test audience.
     Then there was the man who lived behind Zeeman’s store, forever garbed in funeral black, forever spooky in manner, forever one-armed. The most lovable character was an A-rabber who let us ride his wagon horse to its stable on Loney’s Lane each night. I am confident too that there was nowhere in the world exactly like the Pals’ Athletic Club. Nowhere.
     Today there is a pile of rubble, mostly clay, where the Pals’ Club once stood on Collington Ave. near Mura St. For old times’ sake I called out: “Cheese it, the cops!” There was no response. I walked away...

Mr. Maugans, 80, lives in Charles Village. He studied literature for a while at Hopkins, and has two novels in the works. His varied career included work in food wholesaling. He went to South America in 1955 to take part in a mining venture that failed. He’s enjoyed sailing the Chesapeake, and once sailed all the way from San Diego to Honolulu.

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This story was published on Jan. 6, 1999.