ken againken*again, Vol. 12 No. 4

Lover Boy was my uncle. Tanta Anne was his aunt. Baltimore’s Pigtown was their home.

My uncle, the second oldest of five brothers and the one most likely to become a juvenile delinquent, grew up regularly charming his way out of the kind of trouble that usually landed his four brothers in fistfights, mostly to cover for Lover Boy’s small frame and big mouth.

His aunt Anne was a round, sedentary woman of the Wernsdorfer clan that had arrived in Baltimore from Germany in the late nineteenth century. Tanta expended no more energy than was absolutely required to get from one end of the day to the other, preferring to sit in her well-worn chair behind the painted screen of her front window watching the world go by and waiting for someone to throw a party.

Their neighborhood got its name by virtue of being the turn-of-the-century runway for the boxcars of little oinkers off-loaded at the B&O Railroad’s Mt. Clare station and herded through the streets to the slaughterhouses of South Baltimore. Old-timers told tales of the days when the pigs were running and neighbors’ arms reached out from the tiny row houses’ sooty, street-level portals, otherwise used for coal deliveries, in hopes of snagging one of the little porkers on its way to sausage glory. It was a blue-collar neighborhood where everyone seemed to be related…many by blood, virtually all by heritage.

In the summer of 1945, my uncle returned home from the war, no longer in harm’s way but still in uniform. I wasn’t there. In fact, I was still about a year from being anywhere. But thanks to the story’s endless retelling at family gatherings, the scene plays out in my mind as if I were watching it from the balcony of my very own cinema paradiso. It is a memory that keeps me happily grounded in my roots.

*  *  *

The taxi picked up my uncle that morning at Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station and drove him the two short miles southwest into Pigtown’s crisscrossing rows of tiny brick-front homes, industrial warehouses, and northern European immigrants. As the taxi turned onto Wicomico Street, my uncle looked out at his childhood home, perhaps appreciating for the first time how much life he, his four brothers, and their parents had managed to squeeze into such a small space.

Stepping out of the cab, he paused to observe the old neighborhood; the midmorning sun reflecting brilliantly off the iron rails that carried freight cars down the middle of Wicomico Street to meld into the B&O’s eastern corridor commercial lines. Directly behind him stood the huge Butler Brothers Warehouse that provided hourly wages for so many in Pigtown, especially the women awaiting the return of soldier husbands, sweethearts, brothers, and sons. Before him, dwarfed by the eight-story warehouse and the massive freight cars, stood a row of five runty two-story houses—each less than twelve feet wide, maybe thirty feet deep. Home. For several precious moments, he lost himself in memories of life before the war and life during it. It was good to be back.

Just then, Mrs. Linthicum, who lived two houses down, opened her door and propped herself against the jamb, one leg on her front stoop and one still in her living room. Cloaked in a standard-issue Pigtown housedress—a single sleeveless garment adorned with muted flowers that hung on her overweight body like a drape—she held a feather duster in one meaty hand and a cigarette in the other.

“Hey, Lover Boy, what are you doing here?” she bellowed.

“Whaddya mean, what am I doing here? I’m home from the war,” my uncle responded.

“I can see that,” Mrs. Linthicum said as she sucked in a satisfying drag of her Lucky Strike. “Thing is, your mother doesn’t live here anymore. They moved.”

“Moved!” my uncle responded, incredulous. “Where to?”

“Around the corner on Cross Street. Not far from Annie. Good to have you back, Lover Boy.” With that, Mrs. Linthicum flicked her butt onto the sidewalk, raised her flabby, sleeveless arm to wipe away a stubborn bead of sweat from her forehead, surveyed the street one more time to see if any other wayward souls needed direction, and disappeared inside.

Fortunately for Lover Boy, in Pigtown, everything was close. His parents’ move had been a short one. Hoisting his bulky service bag over his shoulder, my uncle trudged thirty yards up Wicomico, past Mr. Sam’s corner grocery, and across Scott Street to the church before turning onto Cross, where he noticed a couple of women scrubbing their white marble stoops. It was one of Baltimore’s great rituals and supreme ironies. Ironic, that such simple brick row homes should be entered via magnificent slabs of white marble, kept that way through the diligence and hard-brush scrubbing of the ladies of the neighborhood…a ritual that reflected not only personal pride and housekeeping competence, but competitive spirit as well.

One of the scrubbers was Lover Boy’s mother.

“Hey. Does anyone know where Lily Riesett lives?” he called out playfully.

She looked up, squinting against the sun.

“Charles. You’re home,” she said brightly.

“I hope so,” my uncle responded with no small bit of sarcasm. Then, lifting her off her knees, he gave her a long hug, confirmation that home would always be wherever they were together.

Across the street, perched in the big easy chair that sat in her front parlor, just behind the pastorally painted screen in her front window, sat Tanta Anne. She had watched Lover Boy walking past Mr. Sam’s grocery and onto Cross Street. It made her toes wiggle. Lover Boy might have been the runt of her sister’s five-boy litter, but as his nickname suggested, he had an uncommon zest for life, fun, and good times. Tanta knew the return of Lover Boy meant a party. And there was nothing Tanta loved more than parties, especially dance parties. As she watched her big sister hugging Lover Boy, she could feel the rhythm building.

It bears noting that Tanta Anne was a large woman—sixty to seventy pounds overweight if an ounce. She spent the greatest portion of any given day doing exactly what she was doing at that moment—very little. Her position of preference was to be embedded in a comfortable chair. To see her in such a stationary position did not conjure images of Ginger Rogers swirling magically to the lead of Fred Astaire. But as soon as a party was in the air, Tanta was ready. In no time, she would be moving on the dance floor like a schoolgirl in new pumps—smooth, graceful, and incongruously light on her feet.

The party would be held at the 1019 Pleasure Club, just a few blocks away on James Street. Lover Boy’s father, my grandfather, was a charter member of “the 1019”—an unassuming row house converted into a social club, fronted with a glass block window surrounded by formstone, the faux rock plaster compound aptly described by Baltimore native John Waters as “the polyester of brick.” The club had a large front room with tables and a dance floor, and a smaller back room where the bar and kitchen were located. Like all things Pigtown, “the 1019” was a simple place that served simple people: people like Lover Boy, Tanta Anne, and Mrs. Linthicum; ladies like my grandmother who scrubbed their marble stoops; men like my grandfather who worked in the steel mills; and a host of other largely German immigrants who needed little more than a few beers and a bowl of pretzels and chips to have a good time.

*  *  *

My parents grew up in Pigtown in the days when pigs were still herded through its streets. They met, married, and gave me my start there. When I was four, we moved away, but my grandparents lived there until I was well into my thirties…so, in a way, I did too.

Today, Pigtown is sandwiched between the city’s sparkling baseball and football stadiums and the multilane highways that lead to Washington and New York. It sits in the shadow of a revitalized city and on the edge of brick-and-mortar monuments to the industrial remnants of the old economy. It is poor and largely ignored. Yet every time I go there, I am reminded of scenes from the past—of family and extended family.

I see my uncle in his military uniform hugging my grandmother in her housedress. I see Tanta Anne sitting in the big chair behind the painted screen. I see my family gathering at “the 1019” for birthdays and anniversaries. I see a lifetime of memories.

In time, Pigtown will be gentrified. Its fringes are already feeling the evolution. It will be discovered by the young and cultivated by the affluent. The old Butler Brothers Warehouse will undoubtedly be transformed into fashionable loft space, with Soho-like cafes and art galleries below. Perhaps one of the freight cars will be positioned on Wicomico Street’s rails as the centerpiece of a pedestrian promenade dotted with Bohemian coffeehouses. Paddle tennis courts could rise from the remains of the old sheet metal yard at the bottom of Scott Street. Babies will be born. New memories will be created.

May those memories of Pigtown be as deeply felt and as warmly recalled as my own.


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