Along North Fremont Avenue on Baltimore’s West Side, sandwiched between a tire repair shop and an auto body shop, across the street from a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall and a near-dilapidated Baptist church, sits a small horse stable. It houses more than ten horses and a number of cats. Hanging from the stable’s chain link fence encasement is a hand-lettered “NO TRESPASSING” sign. If you didn’t know it was here, or lacked a sense of smell, you could easily walk right past it — that is, if you miss the large and colorful mural that decorates what was once a drab brown concrete wall next to the entrance to the stable. Painted during the summer of 2013, and funded via a Kickstarter campaign, the mural is about fifty feet long and twenty feet high. It illustrates and pays homage to the history of the Baltimore City arabbers (pronounced AY-rab-ber) — African-American fruit and vegetable sellers who hawk their wares from horse-drawn carts. The name is believed to originate from nineteenth-century slang for London homeless and street urchins, who were tagged as “street arabs.”
Anthony Savoy, round-faced with gray sprinkled throughout his beard, points to each of the individuals portrayed on the brightly painted panorama, beginning first with his father, Donald, whose image sits in the center. “He was one of the top arabbers in Baltimore City. He retired a couple years back,” Savoy says. Moving on from his dad, from left to right, Savoy locates his brother, Donald Savoy Jr.; James Chase, who runs the Fremont Avenue stable, and Chase’s son, Ahmad. Savoy wraps up his summary with the only image that includes birth and death dates: “Up top there is George, who passed away on us. He was the king of the watermelons.”
Savoy’s pickup truck is parked in front of the church, its suspension straining under the load of watermelons that fill the bed. As Savoy acknowledges the cargo, he adds, “We’re still rolling, still selling, and still holding on to a tradition.” With that, Savoy drives off to sell watermelons along the city’s Northern Parkway, leaving the odorous outpost — owned by the Arabber Preservation Society — behind him.
The tradition of the Baltimore City arabber is one that dates back to the 1800s. According to Savoy, the majority of arabbers throughout Baltimore’s history have been African-American males, selling fruit and produce via horse-drawn wagon. Arabbing was one of the few independent jobs an African-American could find in Baltimore in the days following the Civil War.
However, the tradition seems to be dying out, with the remaining arabbers in danger of becoming nothing more than a part of local folklore that Baltimoreans will relay to new generations from their stoops.
To hear Charlie “The Fruit Man” McLean tell it, the point of no return has already been reached. “It’s going to die in the next ten years, I don’t care what nobody says,” the baseball-cap-wearing, bespectacled McLean says with an air of resignation. In his mid-fifties, he has been an arabber on the streets of Baltimore for more than forty years. Currently, he works out of the Fremont Avenue stable a few days each week. “This time last year, you might have had ten or twelve teams in the street. It’s now down to five or six. So, you tell me what you think in the next ten years?”
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On a sunny Saturday morning last summer, the brightly painted yellow and red wagon that McLean and his bearded and cornrowed partner Yusuf Abdullah, twenty-six, will take out is loaded with product. Meanwhile, the stable cats roam the grounds looking to swoop in and grab any stray items that fall to the ground. The horse, Joe Joe, who pulls the cart for up to twelve hours on a working day, is in the stable getting brushed and readied for his shift.
There are watermelons, cherries, grapes, bananas, pineapples, strawberries, corn, oranges, cantaloupes, pears and collared greens which all arrived at the stable before eleven a.m. in pickup trucks, driven in from a wholesale distributor in Jessup, Maryland, fifteen miles south of Baltimore. On this day, the product is split between McLean’s wagon, the cart of another West Side arabber who picks up stock at the same stable, and Savoy’s pickup truck. On weekdays, McLean says up to five wagons packed with fresh, tasty merchandise leave the stable and head out into the streets of West Baltimore.
That’s a far cry from the numbers of the past. “Back in the day, there were a hundred-some horse wagons out in the street — at one time,” McLean recalls. “There used to be stables everywhere you go. If you went through an alley with garages in it, you can bet your bottom dollar three or four of them had horses in them. This is forty-some years ago.”
As McLean sees it, there are several reasons for the sharp reduction in the number of arabbers toiling throughout the city. “Society, upbringing. They’re putting more cars in the street, so they’re trying to put the horses off the street. They don’t realize the horses are what built this town. So what they’re doing, they’re eliminating the horses, which ain’t right. Why take something away that works? Especially for the elderly.”
In addition to providing the elderly and the homebound with fresh fruit and vegetables, the arabbers offer a valuable service for those in the city who live in food deserts — areas where there are few stationary markets.
“You got a lot of people that can’t come outside, sitting in the window, waiting for an arabber to come down the street so they can holler out the window and get what they need,” McLean says. “You take ’em all off the street, then what’s gonna happen to your older people?”
McLean and Abdullah’s workday is delayed when the most important part of the team, Joe Joe, is reluctant to be hooked up to the wagon. As Abdullah and McLean struggle to get the horse to back into the wagon, a passerby, who is walking down Fremont Avenue with his young son, is enlisted to assist.
Getting Joe Joe hooked up to the cart is a project that takes more than a few minutes. As Abdullah walks Joe Joe in circles, trying to relax the horse, McLean remembers that Joe Joe is sometimes “a kicker.” After a few false starts, and, thankfully, no kicks, Abdullah manages to back the horse into the cart. Once hooked up, Abdullah affixes a green, white and red feathered plume to the crownpiece of Joe Joe’s bridle and the horse and cart are led down Pitcher Street.
As several dragonflies circle the wagons, cars began to pull up, their drivers making purchases from the window before continuing on their way. They head down Pitcher Street, past the many abandoned and boarded-up row homes, the clip-clop of the horse hooves on the blacktop the only audible sound, but for just a few moments. As McLean and Abdullah arrive at the intersection of Pitcher and Argyle Avenue, the hollering begins.
“The holler” is the distinctive singsong manner in which an arabber alerts all within earshot that they are in the neighborhood. McLean starts it off with a call of “fruit man!” followed by a list of some of the more desirable items on the wagon. Throughout the day, McLean and Abdullah share the duty of letting everyone know what they are carrying on the wagon.
After some time, McLean and Abdullah hit bustling Pennsylvania Avenue, a wide street with shadows cast on pedestrians by the rowhouses. The loud noises of the trucks and busses clearly spook Joe Joe, but McLean is quickly able to calm the gelding and keep him on task.
The sales begin slowly for McLean and Abdullah, but business picks up as they arrive at the homes and businesses of their regulars along the route. McLean stops and holds Joe Joe as Abdullah knocks on their doors. If the stop is a business, Abdullah walks in the door to let them know what they are hawking for the day.
One of their regulars, Alexander, lives in a rowhouse on Druid Hill Avenue. A native of Chicago who moved to Baltimore eight years ago, Alexander had never heard of arabbers before moving to the city, though he did recall similar street vendors from his younger days in the Windy City. “They would sell rags and bring the ice around on the carts, but this here is a long legend and it’s to be respected.”
Alexander, who says Abdullah stops at his house every Wednesday and Saturday, is hopeful that, with the support of the community and maybe a little luck, Abdullah will not be the last generation of arabber in Baltimore. “These guys here put their heart and soul in it,” he says as the shouts of McLean and Abdullah echo down the street. “It’s a community thing, and maybe God will bless them along the way. Maybe more of these carts will be out here selling other things. I want to support them, and this is why I do it, to be supportive in the community.”
Of his purchases for the day, Alexander says he is unable to eat the fruit himself, but that his godchildren “just love this stuff,” namely the bananas and the grapes.
Regular customers are a benefit to the arabbers, but turning the casual purchaser into a sure thing is not the easiest task. More reluctant shoppers tell the arabbers that they can find the same produce cheaper at the market. However, such an exchange is something McLean looks forward to. “You’ve got all kinds of different attitudes out there. I get a kick out of it,” McLean says with a smile before adding, “It’s a job and a lifestyle. It helps you pay the bills and it lets you meet all kinds of people.”
When a shopper balks at the price of the produce, McLean and Abdullah stand firm, sending the bargain hunter away with well wishes for their day. “It’s not all good. You got some people that can actually piss you off,” McLean says. “See, but you got to learn to maintain your cool.”
It’s true that some of the items on the cart are pricier than at the local grocer. But the arabbers feel that their personalized service brings a unique element to all that they have to offer.
McLean says that children and tourists in particular love to see the horse-drawn wagon rolling down the streets; they say, “We heard about this, but we never seen this. It’s amazing!” Many customers, especially children, will take time to pet the horse too. One young woman has her birthday picture taken next to Joe Joe.
Shortly after McLean makes his comment about how children love to see the horse-drawn cart, we approach a playground. The kids hear the distinct clopping of hooves on blacktop and immediately rush to the fence enclosing the playground, smiles plastered on their faces as Joe Joe slowly trots by.
As the day progresses and the arabbers snake their way through the streets, the wagon gets lighter, with the biggest seller of the day being the cherries — which Abdullah correctly predicted would be the fastest mover, citing their limited availability at the market.
There are considerable stretches when there are no sales made, and the only sounds are hollering and horseshoes on the macadam. During these times, it becomes hard to imagine another generation of arabber having their images added to the mural outside the stable on North Fulton Avenue.
“You’re looking at the last of a dying breed right now,” McLean says.
Those words bring Abdullah to a stop. “Shit, I don’t believe that. As long as I got these right here”— he gestures to his legs — “arabbing will never stop.”
McLean doesn’t completely disagree, but says that if he’s still arabbing a few years from now, he’ll be doing it from a truck, much like Savoy set out to do earlier that day. Abdullah refuses the notion, saying, “I’ll be pulling the wagon, Charlie.”
As Abdullah continues his refrain, McLean, somewhat sadly, notes: “I’m glad he got good dreams. You got to have good dreams to have good hopes, but if I’m living in the next ten years and I see a horse wagon running up and down the street, I’ll be just as happy as a tick.”
Abdullah, the youngest of those working from this stable, adds: “They did it for thirty years, and I’m going to do it for thirty years. This arabbing ain’t ever going anywhere.”
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Trent Reinsmith is a Baltimore-based freelance writer. He has written for Vice.com, OZY.com, Vice Sports, Noisey, The Bark Magazine and Fight! Magazine, among others. Follow him @TrentReinsmith.
Patrick Joust is a librarian and photographer. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and son.