Baltimore's 'arabbers' Keep 150 Years Of Tradition Alive (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Now, before the golden age of radio, there was a time when the streets of American cities were packed, not with cars, but with horses and buggies. Given the traffic we see in this region today, you'd think those horse-drawn carriages are long gone, right? Well, not in Baltimore. If you visit Charm City you can still see these carriages, from which real live vendors peddle fruits and vegetables. Hans Anderson tagged along with two of these vendors to learn how their old-fashioned job has survived the test of time.

MR. HANS ANDERSON

00:00:34
I'm walking thought west Baltimore with Law Law and Yusef. These are their street nicknames and the names they prefer to use. They're both arabber, food vendors who sell produce off a horse and wagon. Law Law's knocking on doors and doing most of the hollering you hear.

LAW LAW

00:00:48
Like, I'm the fruit seller.

ANDERSON

00:00:50
So, like, what's your job as the fruit seller?

LAW

00:00:52
That means sell the fruit. That's what I do. My name's Law Law, L-A-W L-A-W.

ANDERSON

00:01:02
The person who handles the horse is Yusef.

YUSEF

00:01:05
Yeah, my name's Yusef, arabber, sell fruit off a horse and wagon. A lot of people can't make it to the market, you know, old people. They love the arabbers.

ANDERSON

00:01:14
Yusef is 25 years old. He wears baggy pants. His hair is in corn rows. His partner Law Law is 50, thin, wearing a beanie. They're both African American, nearly all arabbers are. Their food cart is ornate and brightly colored. It's filled with grapes, greens, onions and bananas. When it comes to selling all that produce, they have two different approaches. Law Law is more of a traditional door-to-door salesman.

LAW

00:01:35
For arabber business you go to the beauty salons, you go to the barbershops, you knock on doors because people, like now it being the wintertime, it'll be a little chilly and people won't be outside like they normally are in the summer. So we knock on their doors, we bring them to their doors. We bring the groceries to you.

ANDERSON

00:02:03
Yusef has regular customers. We're stopped at a row house off Mosher Street where most of the buildings are boarded up. The block looks pretty much abandoned, but Yusef is shouting up to a second floor window. And older man opens the window with a walking cane and shakes his head. He doesn't want anything right now and asks Yusef to come back a little later in the day.

LAW

00:02:24
He's got his own customers. He's the best arab. I'm second, but I keep (unintelligible) first, but I'm second. I'll give it to him.

ANDERSON

00:02:32
The day goes on like this. Law Law stops and tries to talk people into buying fruit at every moment. And Yusef starts to complain that Law Law is talking too much and is slowing him down. But Law Law is confident that they'll sell everything.

LAW

00:02:43
Sometimes you have a feeling that you're going to sell out. That's the kind of feeling I've got today. Yeah, I need it, for real.

ANDERSON

00:02:51
He needs it for a few reasons. Law Law's been to jail and is having trouble getting a steady job. Yesterday he was by himself and his horse got away and almost hit a car, ruining all of his fruit. And he's not that well off to begin with.

LAW

00:03:02
I can barely pay my mortgage. And my truck notes. If it wasn't for my wife that's helping me…

ANDERSON

00:03:09
Arabbing dates back to the days following the Civil War. But no one has a definitive answer for where that term comes from.

MR. DANIEL VAN ALLEN

00:03:14
H.L. Mencken wrote about it. Some people think it comes from the term street Arab. The Greek word for horseman sounds something like arabber. And there's lots of Greeks here in Baltimore. I'm Daniel Van Allen and I'm the president of the Arabber Preservations Society.

ANDERSON

00:03:29
Van Allen lives across an alley from one of the horse stables used by arabbers. He helped establish a preservation society 10 years ago.

ALLEN

00:03:36
As far as the history goes, there's always door-to-door vending. As soon as they laid any streets here in Baltimore, somebody was out there with a cart selling things door to door, whether it was produce or 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 that's been available to the black community.

ANDERSON

00:03:58
That's the history of arabbing, but the arabbers I met are in the business because of their personal history. Many are related to earlier vendors. Like, Dion, who comes from a long line of arabbers.

DION

00:04:09
My grandfather, his father, my Uncle Howard, all of them. I'm 33, I've been in this since I was 1.

ANDERSON

00:04:16
Dion is a stable hand. He grew up around horses and likes them. Plus…

DION

00:04:20
It pays the bills. You know, some people don't know how to work. Arabbing is their life. You've got some people who never had a job a day in his life, like, my Uncle Howard Smith. He never had a job. This is what he did his whole life.

ANDERSON

00:04:32
Which is a sentiment echoed by Yusef while he's out on his route. He walks 12, 13 miles a day, five days a week, in the cold or in the middle of summer. And he still likes this job.

YUSEF

00:04:42
As long as I can walk and talk and see I'm going to do this. It's fun.

ANDERSON

00:04:48
I'm Hans Anderson.

SHEIR

00:04:49
We have photos of Law Law and Yusef at work on the Baltimore Streets on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:05:02
Time for a break, but when we return, restricted real estate in the days of racial restrictive covenants.

MS. VALERIE SCHNEIDER

00:05:09
The goal was to restrict African Americans or religious minorities to particular areas in the city. You know, I think there was a lot of fear.

SHEIR

00:05:16
Plus, the back story on one of D.C.'s most mysterious sites.

MS. EMILY EIG

00:05:20
It's a beautiful place. And the irony is that we don't see, however, the industrial side of it.

SHEIR

00:05:27
It's just ahead on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

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00:05:32
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