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Where Safeway Fears to Tread

West Baltimore's unlikely source of fruit.
(Illustration: Daniel Stolle)

(Illustration: Daniel Stolle)

A large black mare is tethered to a chain-link fence in West Baltimore. She pulls at it, causing the loose metal to rattle, and paws at the hot asphalt beneath her, scratching chalky cave drawings into the blacktop. Her name is Beauty.

“Hey, hey, cut that out, girl,” says Yusuf Abdullah, aka BJ, approaching with an old spray bottle filled with water. BJ’s hair is braided into cornrows, and he wears an oversized shirt, holed jeans, and a pair of purple and green high-top sneakers. In an hour, he and Beauty, pulling a wagon loaded up with fruit, will be heading out into the most dangerous streets of Baltimore to hawk peaches, cantaloupe, and other fresh fruit. Selling fruit in this way is called arabbing here (pronounced AY-rabbing), and fruit sellers like BJ are known as arabbers.

"Do me a favor and roll by my mama's house," says a man buying peaches on West Hamburg Street. "She got diabetes, and she needs this stuff. Tell her her son sent you."

On this day, three men, including Donald “Manboy” Savoy, an 82-year-old widower who has spent the last half-century working as an arabber, help BJ load up his wagon with fruit while BJ heaps a large, black leather saddle over Beauty’s sagging back. All arabber horses are fitted with elaborate tack and regalia—black Pennsylvania Dutch saddles rimmed in gold, caps with red and yellow plumage, and a long belt of bells and white bone rings that hangs from either side of the harness. It’s a style known as Baltimore fancy.

I’ve arrived at the Fremont Stables on the good word of friend Holden Warren, who is the vice president of the Arabber Preservation Society. This is not a full-time job; Warren tells me the preservation society operates on a budget of $5,000 to $10,000 annually. Still, the commitment to upholding tradition runs strong, and Warren has even tried his hand at occasional arabbing himself. (Since he is the only white arabber on Baltimore’s streets, this turns some heads.)

Arabbers are a group of itinerant merchants in Baltimore who have sold fruits and vegetables out of horse-drawn carts since pre-Civil War days. (The practice became almost exclusively African American after World War II.) The etymology of arabber is believed by some to date back to a 19th-century London reference to the homeless, but no one really knows. Today only a dozen arabbers carry on the tradition. Most of them travel more than 15 miles per day, bringing in from $100 to $300, depending on the season. Considering the costs of the fruit and the use of the horse and cart, arabbers leave each day with about $50 in pocket.

BJ, who is 26, has been arabbing for several years, and his father was once an arabber, too. Like many young men from West Baltimore, he has been in and out of prison. “I used to bang in the streets,” he says. “I used to like that fast money. But after a few stints at the D.O.C., I figured out slow money is good money. I can come out here and do honest work that helps people, and I don’t have to look over my shoulder.”

These blocks of West Baltimore are mostly abandoned, with large boards barricading the row homes. White marble stoops crumble into nothing and black plastic bodega bags float through the streets. When we are quiet, the only sounds are the disyllable clop of a shoed horse and the crunch of the wheels. “Suh-weeeeet peeeAAYCH- es!” calls out BJ periodically. “Can’lope! Can’lope hurrr.”

The calls are musical and often unintelligible. Occasionally, groups of laughing teenagers will pass by and mock the chants. But other Baltimoreans are more appreciative. The city is home to vast food deserts, and, in an area where stores are few and overpriced, the arabbers operate at a price point their customers can afford. Peaches are five for $3, oranges $1 apiece. Forty-pound watermelons that can feed a large family go for as low as $8. Men and women jog up to the cart waving dollar bills.

“Do me a favor and roll by my mama’s house,” says a man buying peaches on West Hamburg Street. “She got diabetes, and she needs this stuff. Tell her her son sent you.”

Halfway up Hamburg, maybe 10 blocks from M&T Bank Stadium—home of the NFL’s Ravens—Beauty’s legs begin to give out. “It’s her first time out with such a heavy cart,” says BJ.

In an area where stores are few and overpriced, the arabbers operate at a price point their customers can afford. Peaches are five for $3, oranges $1 apiece.

Pulling the horse to the shoulder of the road, BJ darts inside the nearest bodega, returning with rubbing alcohol and Bengay. “You’re supposed to use liniment, but this is practically the same thing,” he says. Sliding his hands inside a pair of gloves, he carefully applies the alcohol and cream to each of Beauty’s legs, gently massaging the contracting muscles. Minutes later, she is in full trot up a large, store-lined hill.

“She movin’ good now,” BJ says.

At 4 p.m. BJ parks the cart a few blocks shy of the stadium, in front of a hair salon called Greg Esquire II. Kimmy Kutz, one of the stylists, steps outside and greets BJ warmly.

“How the peaches?”

“Hard, but sweet,” says BJ. “Put ’em in a paper bag for a day and they’ll be right.”

Kimmy hands over a dollar and bites immediately into the peach, bending over as if drinking from a faucet.

A group of children hustle up the block.

“Can we pet the horsie, please?” they say in chorus.

“Course you can,” says BJ.

He gazes up at the sky, where several propeller planes are flying with advertisements in tow.

“Back in the D.O.C. I used to look out through the bars, and if I seen one of them, I’d tell my bunkmate, ‘There’s a ballgame today.’ He’d ask me how I know, and I’d tell him the planes was out, and that’s the only reason anyone advertise out here.”

“’Cept us,” he adds, smiling. “We advertise all day.”

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