Arabbers: Working the city streets of Baltimore
Clip, clop, jingle, jingle. Next comes the sing-song holler: pe-eee-aches and ca-aaa-ntalopes, wa-aaa-termelon, su-uuu-gar bananas and swe-eee-et grapes…” This musical rhythm section cuts through the humdrum sounds of traffic, turning a routine city scene into something special. An Arabber, no longer a common sight on Baltimore’s streets, has arrived. Leading this musical band is Yusuf Abdullah, known as B.J., followed by his horse Tony, decked out in bells and a red feather plume and harnessed to a vintage wagon laden with fruit.
B.J., 25, works out of the North Fremont Avenue stable, one of two Arabber stables currently in operation. As he carefully stacks the cart with fruit at the start of his 12-hour workday, B.J. recounts, “I’ve been around horses since I was a baby.” His father owned horses and did some arabbing, but wasn’t around enough to teach B.J. the tradition of selling fruits and vegetables by horse-drawn wagon. “I learned arabbing by going around with everyone. I learned from all the good people.” B.J. added, “I love horses. They put food in my mouth and I have fun with them.”
“I stopped going to school after 8th grade,” B.J. says. “I was still coming down here. But the money wasn’t fast enough. I used to like fast money when I was young.” Fast money – and drugs – landed B.J. in jail for three years, where he earned his G.E.D. “That’s one thing I like about arabbing,” B.J. says. “You can be slow. Now I’m making slow money doing something I love most.”
Arabbers vary their routes, and on this day, B.J. heads east, logging over 11 miles, mostly on foot. “I go through a lot of sneakers in a year.” B.J. keeps a brisk pace, passing decrepit rowhouses, congested downtown streets, a housing project and more rowhouses before reaching the leafier neighborhood of Berea on the east side. Along the way, B.J. criss-crosses the streets, knocking on the doors of his regular customers. At Edison Highway, as dusk approaches, B.J. turns around onto East Federal Street, heading westward again, making a few more sales as night falls.