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Baltimore's 'Arabbers' Keep 150 Years Of Tradition Alive

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Hans Anderson

You could say it's a little old fashioned, selling produce out of a horse drawn cart, but for the arabbers of Baltimore, it's how they make a living.

You can hear them as the walk through the streets hollering the produce that they're selling that day, whether it be watermelon, apples, or bananas. Aside from making a living, the arabbers also provide a service to underserved communities.

"A lot of people can't make it to the market — the old people. They love the arabbers," says arabber Yusef.

I followed him and Law Law around on part of their route through west Baltimore down to Fort McHenry. Yusef is young, 25, and he handles the horse. Law Law is 50 and sells the fruit. Like almost all arabbers, both are African American. Their cart is ornate, painted bright colors and full of grapes, greens, tomatoes, and onions.

When it comes to selling that produce, they have two distinctive techniques. Law Law is more of a traditional salesman: he knocks on doors, upsells, and runs into nearly every business they pass by to rouse new customers.

"You go to the beauty salons, you go to the barbershops, you knock on door," he says.

Yusef, on the other hand, has regulars. He stops off at a row house in a block full of boarded up houses and yells at a second story window. Much to my surprise, someone opens the window — he is one of Yusef's regulars on this route. "He's got his own customers," Law Law says. Yusef and Law Law normally walk 10 to 15 miles a day, five days a week, all year round.

"As far as the history goes there's always door to door vending," says Dan Van Allen, he's the president of the Arabber Preservations Society. "As soon as they laid any streets here in Baltimore, someone was out there in a cart selling things door to door whether it was produce, ice or coal. It's a free country and there has been itinerant vendors and a lot of them have been African American because that is something available to the black community."

The practice of arabbing dates back to around the time of the Civil War. And the term arabber has a few potential origins, the famous Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken wrote about it notes Van Allens.

"Some people think it comes from the term street Arab," he says "the Greek term for horseman sounds something like arabber... there are lots of Greeks here in Baltimore."

Aside from the broader history, most arabbers are in the business because of their personal history. Ferdie for example comes from a long line of arabbers.

"My grandfather, his father, my Uncle Howard," he says, "I'm 33, I've been in this since I was one." Yusef is the same way, he grew up around horses and plans to be arabbing for a while. "As long as I can walk and talk and see I'm going to do this. It's fun."

[Music: "The Old Refrain" by Fritz Kreisler from Kreisler: Original Compositions and Arrangements]

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