He was a steel man. Each morning, lunch bag in hand, he’d walk the six blocks to the big U.S. Steel warehouse at the corner of Bush & Wicomico Streets, where he’d spend the day handling massive sheets of iron—cutting, forming, loading, and unloading—until the whistle sounded and his clothes and face were cobalt blue. Then it was home to hose off the carbon, have dinner with Lily and their five boys and, a little later, walk another handful of blocks to the 1019 Pleasure Club.

My grandfather was a founding member of the 1019, a mid-block converted row house—the exterior of which featured a large glass-bricked window fronting James Street, with the interior little more than one big open room, in the middle of which stood a pool table, and behind which, and two steps above, perched the smaller, but all-important tap room. A poor man’s Cheers, where the tedium of the day was erased with good friends and cold beer!

He was my paternal grandfather. Born in 1901, the youngest of nine children, Pop was part of a family evolution that had begun in 1846 when his grandfather and family of seven arrived at Baltimore’s Locust Point from the small, rural farming community of Wasserlos, near Frankfurt in Germany. The immigrant family soon made its way to Pigtown, a South Baltimore neighborhood named for its slaughterhouse functionality, where the Riesetts would essentially remain for the next hundred and fifty years. By the time I was born, a hundred years into the process, Pigtown was very much our tribal village. Within a quarter-mile radius, family or extended family seemed to occupy every other house. And whoever wasn’t family was German.

My mom’s parents lived around the corner. Tanta Anne was across the street. My dad’s Uncle Edgar and Aunt Edna were three houses down; my mom’s Aunt Lil and Uncle Hap, the bootlegger, two blocks up, almost to the boulevard and just below Great Uncle Harry’s big house on Lombard Street. That house—a three-story, twelve-room brownstone-like structure—had once been home to Great Uncle Harry, his three sisters, two brothers, and a sister-in-law, all living there as adults. When I came along, Great Uncle Harry, then well into his 90s, was living in the big house alone and using maybe two rooms.

There was also my mom’s Uncle Jody, who didn’t live in Pigtown, but whose Becker’s Pretzel delivery route included our neighborhood, so he was around most every week. Even the people we weren’t related to—like Mister John and Miss Marie, who lived next door to my maternal grandparents, the blazing redheaded Miss Velma who lived across the street, and my maternal grandparents’ great friend, Mrs. Broll, who was such a fixture in our lives—were all as good as family.

My grandfather spent his life in this small world, though I know it never struck him as being small…only as home. About the furthest he ever ventured from Pigtown in the early years was to go “up the country,” a misnomer referring to a tiny plot of land on the mosquito-infested Marley Creek where Pop & Lily, along with Uncle John and Aunt Dora, rented an old shore house on one lot, while Pop’s brother, Uncle Leo, rented the house alongside. It wasn’t fancy, but it was a summer paradise for eight adults and twenty-some children, and a drawing card for visits from even more relatives. It’s hard to imagine how they all packed themselves in. Then again, they were family.

For my part, I started life and closed out the 1940’s in Pigtown. The pigs were no longer running the streets to the slaughterhouse, as they had when my parents were kids, but other aspects of earlier days lived on.

Coal, for example, was still delivered through the sidewalk-level front basement window into a 3-by-5 foot section of cellar that was impossible to go near without getting black with soot. And “the iceman” still carried a cubic foot of dripping ice through the front parlors of those homes yet to enjoy the wonders of the refrigerator-freezer combo. Interestingly, one of Pop’s first jobs, before he found unionized stability at U.S. Steel, was as a driver for the ice company.

After the war, my dad joined Pop at U.S. Steel but, true to the tribal rite of passage, my dad worked in the white-collar sales office. I recall a proud picture of Pop and my father, standing side by side, in the U.S. Steel Newsletter, celebrating their respective anniversaries with the company. Even at my then young age, I remember feeling that it was somehow special. (Many years later, that feeling would be rekindled at a local hospital when I ran into my youngest cousin wearing an iconic white lab coat with a nametag that identified him as Dr. Riesett.)

After Pop retired from U.S. Steel, he had plenty of time to focus on his bartending duties at the 1019…and the occasional assignment of babysitting yours truly if my parents had a night out. Pop was considerably more adept at the former, however, as he had a bad habit of falling asleep before I did.

The years went by and eventually I, being the oldest grandchild, gave Pop his first great grandchildren. My kids, of course, had never known life in Pigtown, we didn’t even live in the same state anymore. Yet, the tribal instinct carried on…if only for a week each summer.

Each July, throughout much of the ‘70s, a large chunk of the family, plus assorted friends and family extensions—would set up a mini-Pigtown at the Ocean Gem apartments—a block off the boardwalk in the heart of Maryland’s Ocean City beach resort. The apartments, less than twenty units in all, were split between two old, two-story wood frame buildings that faced each other across 14th Street. Pop and Lily always had a street-level unit directly across from the second floor apartment where my kids stayed with their grandparents.  The remaining units were invariably filled with uncles, aunts and cousins—a lot of cousins!

Every morning, my three kids would wipe the sleep from their eyes and trundle out onto the porch to yell down to Pop & Lily, and the rest of the tribe. And every evening, the whole family would congregate on Pop’s porch before heading up to walk the boards, pump coins into arcade games, and dribble melting ice cream cones onto themselves, before returning at dusk to Pop’s, where the adults would play cards, drink beer, and talk about anything and everything for hours. Meanwhile, just outside the big screen door, the ever-expanding contingent of kid cousins deployed on Pop’s porch as if it was their personal reviewing stand—watching an endless parade of other family tribes straggle by—hoping no one would notice that it was well past their bedtime.

Those summer days were a small slice of the tribal life of Pigtown. They were a reminder of the functions of family—warmth, caring, kidding, belonging, accepting, loving. They were a strengthener of tribal roots and a builder of pride. Not pride of personal achievement, or the outward perception thereof. Rather, pride in a family’s ability to keep going forward together, no matter the geographic, financial, or perceptual evolution of individual members.

Those summer days were the closest my kids ever got to the familial life of their Pigtown heritage. I’m glad they had the experience, and especially glad that Pop was a part of it.


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