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The Last of the Arabbers

As he leads a painted horse cart brimming with oranges and bananas and peaches past housing projects and boarded-up buildings, B.J. looks like the king of West Baltimore. Friends shout his name, grasp his hand, lean over to share hugs. He greets, chats, and moves on, calling out his wares in the grimmest part of town, through streets strewn with garbage and smelling of urine.

"Yeah, pretty red tomato, tomatoooo. Yeah, watermelon, watermelon, watermelon."

The syllables melt into a tune that, to the uninitiated, might sound like nonsense.

"Wat-oh, wat-oh, wat-oh, oh-oh…"

It sounds like a voice from the past as it echoes off brick and formstone walls, and many Baltimoreans fear that it will be. B.J. may be the end of a nearly 150-year-old lineage. The last of the arabbers.

Not long ago, dozens—maybe hundreds—of these vendors, mostly African-American men, sold their goods on these streets from horse carts. Baltimoreans call them arabbers (universally pronounced AY-rabbers) and their singsong calls are known as hollers, a sound that’s been heard on these streets since the days after the Civil War. B.J., 26, is one of just a handful of men who remain true to this history, who still guide horses pulling wagons bearing piles of fruit through streets full of traffic and the bass boom of hip-hop blasting from passing cars. But even as the legacy of this trade is fading, B.J. hopes to save arabbing. And he hopes arabbing will save him.

B.J. may be the end of a nearly 150-year-old lineage. The last of the arabbers.

"THE TERM ARABBER is not a phrase of respect," says Charles Camp, a Baltimore resident and a former folklorist for the Maryland State Arts Council, though for most Baltimoreans, it's not considered a pejorative. Selling fruit and vegetables by horse cart is a global practice that stretches back into antiquity, but it never really caught on in America. Horse-and-cart vendors may have roamed the streets of a few Southern cities—Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans—where produce markets were more numerous and less regulated than in the North, but one of the only places where the tradition still continues is Baltimore. And Baltimore is the only place where the men who ply the trade are called arabbers.

Camp traces the term to 19th century England, where street urchins and pickpockets were dubbed street arabs, a reference to their nomadic nature and, perhaps, their swarthy complexions—a reflection of the ungenerous perception of Arabs at that time. The term swiftly became divorced from its original ethnic reference, however. Writing in 1848, member of Parliament Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, said of the vagabond children, "City arabs … are like tribes of lawless freebooters, and utterly ignorant or utterly regardless of social duties." Somehow the name attached itself to Baltimore’s street merchants—no one’s quite sure how—and it stuck.

"They work on the backstreets and alleyways, and they move from one part of town to the other with no one but their customers noticing they’ve been there," Camp says. They don’t congest traffic, and despite their brightly decorated carts and musical holler, the arabbers rarely call unwanted attention to themselves. Nearly 150 years after they first started wandering the streets, they still operate on the city’s margins. Says Camp, "They’re sort of ghostlike."

In the days after the Civil War, when the practice of slavery in Maryland was newly ended, street vending was one of the few jobs where a black man could work for himself with little interference from whites, Camp says. Because Baltimore’s produce market was downtown and its seafood market not far away on the Inner Harbor, a man with a horse and cart could drop in, buy his goods, and slip away again to sell his wares. In time, a good salesman might buy another horse—or two, or ten—and bring on other arabbers to work for him. Often, arabbers passed on the tradition to their sons.

"THIS REMINDS ME OF MY FATHER so much," B.J. says of the world he now finds himself in. He’s unloading produce from a pickup truck and stacking it appealingly on his canopied horse cart. Watermelons, bananas, oranges, apples, grapes. Greens beside yellows. Yellows beside reds. "You gotta color coordinate," he says.

It’s eleven in the morning, and we’re at Baltimore’s last remaining arabber stable. It’s an open lot tucked between vacant buildings on North Fremont Avenue, a chain-link fence keeping everything contained. The concrete walls that surround the lot are covered with murals celebrating the arabbers’ legacy, and wagons painted in vibrant hues—yellow and green, red and blue—fill the yard. Eighteen horses wait in the stalls, including a new one, just purchased at a livestock auction in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, who’s waiting to be broken for street life.

This neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester, is adjacent to Upton, a once-prosperous African-American enclave that Cab Calloway called home. Both areas have spent the last fifty years falling into deeper and deeper poverty; now the two are among the poorest areas in Baltimore, infamous for heavy drug activity. I feel like an intruder; I’m one of the only white people around, and I’m attracting stares. As a journalist, I live as a professional outsider, but I’ve never felt so alien in my own country as I feel here, forty-five miles from my driveway.

Baltimore is mostly black (63 percent) and mostly poor (its per-capita income is under $25,000; a quarter of the city’s residents live below the poverty line). The crime rate is perilously high, ranking it consistently among the country’s most dangerous cities. Stop signs on certain street corners are frequently decorated with balloons to honor the birthdays of young men shot dead nearby. Last year, 235 people were murdered, the sort of statistic that earns Charm City another, less flattering nickname: Bulletmore.

In Baltimore, a city of row houses, the architecture barely changes from a wealthy neighborhood to a poor one, but the feeling on the street swings from one of vitality to something else. So many empty buildings fill the downtown area that they have their own nickname: vacants. But Baltimore is also a city with a rebellious spirit, especially in its poorest neighborhoods. That’s where young boys defy police by zooming past squad cars on motorbikes, popping wheelies. Where guerrilla artists cover crumbling walls with vivid murals. Where a man like B.J. can find redemption.

B.J. is thin and jaunty. He wears his hair in cornrows, and sports a pointed beard. He often keeps a cigarette tucked behind his ear and—today at least—he’s dressed all in blue, from his t-shirt to his Brooks sneakers. Like most arabbers, he’s best known by his nickname, the initials that stand for Bilal Junior. His real name is Bilal Yusuf Abdullah, the same as his father’s: Bilal Yusuf Abdullah Sr. was an arabber—a good one—who once owned a stable of 17 horses. He died when B.J. was 8 years old, and it wasn’t at all clear that the son would continue his family’s arabbing legacy. Just a year after his father died, B.J. was arrested for selling crack cocaine, the first of many criminal charges he would face over the next dozen years—assault, burglary, possession of illegal firearms.

He was tired of going to jail. He stopped selling drugs and, taking a cue from his father, he started selling fruit.

"That’s all you grow up around," he tells me about the allure of criminal activity in his West Baltimore neighborhood. "You see people wearing the finer things and diamond rings. If that’s what you want, eventually that’s what you end up doing. Then it leads you to a place you don’t want to be."

B.J. spent much of his youth behind bars. I asked him how many times he was incarcerated, and he said he couldn’t count it, but it was a lot. For a few years in late elementary and early middle school, his mother sent him to live with an uncle in rural North Carolina, but he didn’t last there. He missed city life too much, and he came back to Baltimore, and to trouble. It wasn’t until last year, after being released on parole after serving half of a five-year prison sentence for drug dealing, that he made up his mind not to go back in again. He was tired of going to jail. "Once you get tired of something, you gotta change," he said to me. He stopped selling drugs and, taking a cue from his father, he started selling fruit.

JOE JOE IS A CHESTNUT GELDING with a corn silk mane and tail, freshly bathed and curried. At the arabbers’ lot, B.J. slides on his bridle, attaches his collar at the shoulders, straps on a leather saddle, and connects the two shafts that link horse and cart. The traditional arabber’s harness regalia gleams with brass details and jingling chains. With a show horse’s green feathered plume attached to the bridle atop his head, Joe Joe’s ready to go. The man, horse, and cart set off at a fast walk. "Sweet cantalouuupe, cantalouuupe," B.J. hollers right out of the lot. "Wat-oh, wat-oh, wat-oh, oh-oh."

Another arabber, a slight man with a shaved head who calls himself Pee Wee, falls into stride with us, hollering a tenor harmony to B.J.’s baritone. "Yeah, Silver Queen corn and white potatoes."

In their heyday in the early 20th century, arabbers filled the streets of Baltimore. Charles Camp estimates that at their peak, two or three dozen arabbers at a time were out there peddling everything from coal to crabs. But some, like arabber Donald Savoy, claim the numbers were much greater.

Savoy—or Manboy, as he’s known—is the patriarch of the Fremont Street stables. His deep-set eyes, framed between a white beard and a driver’s cap, are depicted on the stable murals. He’s eighty-five years old, and as he tells it, hundreds of arabbers like himself filled the streets in the 1950s and ’60s. "There were lots of arabbers," he says, "because people didn’t have jobs." Arabbers have always been informal laborers, working when they want, quitting when they like, returning when they choose. At times of high unemployment in Baltimore’s black community, it was an attractive option for a man who could get access to a horse and cart.

Now Savoy’s grandson, James Chase—who carries the straightforward nickname Fruit—runs the urban stable. He owns the horses and employs a few workers to maintain the stalls. Each arabber pays him $50 per day for the use of a horse and wagon. Some days, only one or two go out. Sometimes it’s four or five. Besides the horses, who earn their keep pulling the carts, I find pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, and even a donkey wandering the lot, part of what Fruit hopes will one day be a petting zoo for city kids. It’s hard to see how the business sustains itself.

"It’s up and down," Chase says. "But the money I generate I put back into it. I love it. It’s just in my heart to do it. Arabbing has always been around. My grandfather did it. Everybody I came up around did it. All the older guys that passed, they showed me how to do it."

A stable worker named Tony is astride the new horse, bareback. He leads the animal outside the chain-link fence and gallops up and down streets. It looks like a wild, urban version of the Old West—and I can’t imagine it happening anywhere but here. Still, Chase wonders how much longer it can last. "We’re still in the fight," he says, "but it ain’t easy."

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN BEMOANING the end of arabbing for decades. In 1949, the Baltimore Sun wrote a paean to its heyday, already slipping away. "With a grocery store on practically every other corner," reporter Ralph Reppert wrote, "there is little incentive to go into business that way."

The profession’s obstacles have only grown since then. In 1976, Baltimore closed its three produce markets, including the one near the harbor, in favor of a central market 17 miles to the southwest, in the town of Jessup. The Greater Baltimore Consolidated Wholesale Food Market Authority built a new, modern distribution center on farmland across from the state prison—as it happens, the same prison where B.J. would later do time. To Baltimoreans, it was the middle of nowhere, but planners saw it as the midway point between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., two cities that were steadily growing toward one another. The seafood market closed its Inner Harbor location and joined the produce center in Jessup eight years later.

Located near the former Spurrier’s Tavern, a lodge where George Washington used to eat, sleep, and rest his horse (it’s a Holiday Inn now), the Maryland Wholesale Food Center occupies nearly 400 acres. Tractor-trailers arrive each morning bearing pallets of Michigan blueberries and South African navel oranges, which are unloaded into row after row of refrigerated warehouses. By afternoon, almost all the food has been carried away by delivery vans and pickup trucks, headed to restaurants, groceries, and distributors throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

More and more arabbers dropped off their carts at the end of the day and never came back to pick them up

For most fruit vendors, the centralized produce market has been a blessing. But the market’s move so far out of town forced arabbers—independent-minded and operating on low margins—to give up on pulling their own carts to pick up their goods, and instead to pool together to rent produce trucks that could drive out daily and bring back fruits and vegetables. This was enough of a change for plenty of them to get out of the game.

Then, in the 1990s and 2000s, urban renewal efforts shuttered unsightly horse stables downtown. Health department officials and animal welfare officers cracked down on stable owners. Horses were required to be microchipped. The cost of vending permits rose. More and more arabbers dropped off their carts at the end of the day and never came back to pick them up.

TODAY, DESPITE THE EIGHTEEN HORSES in the Fremont Street stables, only about a half-dozen arabbers still keep at the trade. For most, it’s extra income. For B.J., it’s a full-time job. Even on a bad day, he earns a couple hundred dollars. It’s less than he earned selling drugs, he says, but he doesn’t have to worry about getting shot.

On the day I join him, his route will stretch 10 miles over seven hours, most of it covered on foot. He won’t take his seat on the cart until nightfall ends his sales prospects for the day. "You can’t get no money riding," he says. "You ride past all the customers."

With a young man’s loose stride, B.J. guides Joe Joe by the bridle down the middle of empty streets, across busy four-lane roads and through narrow alleys. With Pee Wee walking alongside, they crisscross Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, and as they walk they holler, and buyers come out for bananas and melons.

B.J. sells fruit to young men chatting on the front steps of row houses, old men selling secondhand items on street corners, mothers with small children who stare wide-eyed at the pretty horse, and old ladies who hover inside darkened doorways. Sometimes, he stops to rap on the doors of regular customers.

"Are they Maryland tomatoes?" Robert Gray calls from his doorway. "I haven’t had a Maryland tomato all summer."

Gray is B.J.’s first white customer of the day. Five days shy of his eighty-fifth birthday, with curly white hair and skin that’s almost translucent, he remembers arabbers from his childhood. "Their stuff is fresh as fresh can be," he tells me. As he fumbles with his wallet, he mentions to us that he’s recovering from a stroke. Giving up on the maneuver, he hands B.J. the wallet and asks him to remove from the billfold the four dollars Gray owes. "This getting old stuff isn’t easy," he says, taking his tomatoes.

It’s the elderly and the very poor who rely most on the arabbers. Many live in parts of town that qualify as food deserts, areas where people without cars have few options to purchase healthy groceries. Corner markets conduct business from behind metal gates and Plexiglas windows. They sell cigarettes, beer, and breakfast cereal, but not fresh fruit.

Just a few blocks is all that separates Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods from some of its wealthiest; the cityscape gives way from broken concrete to stately brownstones. As B.J. and Joe Joe cross the divide, white office workers stop on the street, snapping photos with their cell phones of this only-in-Baltimore image: a black man, his decorated horse, and his colorful wagon of fruit.

"If I didn’t have this wagon, the police would be chasing me," B.J. says, looking around the well-maintained neighborhood. "Around here you get judged by your complexion. They love the horses, though."

THE BUILDINGS SHIFT AGAIN as B.J. and Pee Wee wend their way through leafy working class black neighborhoods. Joe Joe is a city horse; he’s become accustomed to the noises and the cars. The only thing that seems to spook him is groups of kids on mountain bikes, or sometimes motorbikes. "You gotta watch out for these guys," Pee Wee says, gripping the horse’s bridle. "You never know what he might do." He tells me that a few days ago, Joe Joe bucked, breaking a cart’s axle.

As evening falls, girls ride bicycles, boys toss baseballs, and neighbors chat on porches. It’s been a long day, and the streets are steep. Joe Joe breathes hard.

"I’m exhausted," B.J. says. He lights a cigarette.

I’m exhausted, too. Joe Joe cuts a fast pace that leaves me nearly jogging to catch up, but the pauses to conduct business can be long as customers consider the prices. Ten dollars for a watermelon. Four for a bag of grapes. Three dollars buys a half-dozen ears of corn, five peaches, or a bag of potatoes. Two dollars buys a bunch of bananas. It’s more than they’d probably pay in the supermarket, but the supermarket doesn’t wheel the produce section to their door.

B.J. works three different routes, each one twice a week. He says he prefers the white neighborhoods, where business is brisker and shoppers are less likely to complain about prices. My presence seems to be slowing down his business in black neighborhoods. Regular customers are visibly wary when they see a white guy walking alongside him. One man says I look like an undercover cop. I probably do.

The route we walked today carries B.J. to his mother’s house, where four young nieces and nephews are playing in the yard. When they hear the horse clop up the alleyway, they rush to greet him. Five-year-old Dillian mimics his uncle’s holler as we approach the house: "Wat-oh, wat-oh!"

B.J.’s father would be proud, his 17-year-old brother, Zayne, tells me: "He’s probably up in heaven letting balloons loose." Zayne says that arabbing was "a blessing from God" for his brother. "It gave him something positive to do with his life."

"He’s a better person than he was," says his older sister, Atiya, 27. "He had a hairpin trigger. But having to deal with customers, and walking, it built up his patience."

Life hasn’t all been terrific for B.J. since he started arabbing, though. A recent dispute with an ex-girlfriend led to criminal charges of property destruction that have jeopardized his parole. Today, a different woman followed him for much of the route with a two-month-old boy in her arms, playfully but insistently repeating that B.J. is the father. He doubts that he is, but admits to me that he isn’t entirely sure.

THROUGHOUT OUR JOURNEY, Pee Wee spent time grumbling about B.J.’s arabbing abilities. Twice, he got so upset he walked away, but both times he ran back to meet us. He complained that B.J. wasn't cautious enough with the horse and, worse, that his holler is only about cantaloupe and watermelon. "I holler everything on the cart," he says. "Shouldn’t an arabber holler everything on the cart?"

Yes, B.J. concedes, he probably should. But hollers are as distinctive as arabbers. In his 1989 book The Arabbers of Baltimore, Roland L. Freeman, an arabber turned documentary photographer, recalls hollers from his youth:

Fresh an’ fine,
Get ‘em for a dime,
Good at any time,
Strawbu-e-es, wallbu-e-es!

Red to the rind, come lady!
I got ’em red to the rind today!
Big, ripe, red, juicy watermelon whole!

Hollers, said Ralph Reppert in that same 1949 Baltimore Sun story, sound like a mix of yodeling, calypso, tobacco auctioning, and the blues. Half a century later, it remains an apt description. "From any point close at hand, the ‘holler’ sounds like gibberish," Reppert wrote. "It is only at a distance of a block or so that the ‘holler’ mellows and takes definite form."

What I notice is that the same holler sounds vastly different in each neighborhood: It’s lonely in back alleys, hopeful on poor streets, quaint on rich ones. Sometimes it seems out of character. Sometimes it blends in perfectly. But it always sounds to me like a call from the past to an uncertain future. I find myself having two clear feelings about arabbing: one is a sadness that it seems to be dying, the other is amazement that it persists at all.

We leave B.J.’s mother’s house, and as the sun sets, he jumps at last into the wagon. "My feet are killing me," he says. I take a seat beside him, and Pee Wee hops on the back of the cart. Dressed all in gray, he looks like a ghost in the yellow streetlights. We ride the last two miles back to the Fremont Avenue stables, down a four-lane thoroughfare jammed with evening traffic. "Take your time, fat daddy," B.J. coos to Joe Joe.

As we reach a busy intersection, a group of dirt bike kids buzzes by. They’re riding wildly, shouting at one another. Joe Joe spooks and caroms toward oncoming traffic. Pee Wee leaps from the wagon to safety. I reach for my seat, ready to jump. B.J. stays cool, pulls the reins, and tugs Joe Joe back in line. "Walk it off," he purrs.

In a few blocks, the cart passes the house where B.J. grew up. "There used to be stables all up and down that alley," he says. The stables are gone, but the arabbers aren’t. Not yet.

"I’m keeping this alive," B.J. says, and urges Joe Joe onward.

Photographs by Cristina Frey
Editor: Helen Rosner

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