Baltimore City-- A-Rabs, vendors who sell produce and vegetables via horse-drawn carts are slowly fading away in Baltimore. Once hundreds of a-rabs roamed the city selling their wares. Today there are only a handful left. (Above) Eugene "Fatback) Allen with one of his prize ponies.. photo by Andre lambertson/staf
Baltimore City-- A-Rabs, vendors who sell produce and vegetables via horse-drawn carts are slowly fading away in Baltimore. Once hundreds of a-rabs roamed the city selling their wares. Today there are only a handful left. (Above) Eugene "Fatback) Allen with one of his prize ponies.. photo by Andre lambertson/staf (No Source)

Eugene E. "Fat Back" Allen, a recently retired arabber who spent 80 years clip-clopping up and down city alleys and streets selling produce and seafood from a horse-drawn wagon, died June 13 of leukemia at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.

He was 88.

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"He was the oldest working arabber at his death," said a niece, Dorothy Johns. She and her husband, David Johns, own the Bruce Street stables, a longtime home for arabbers. "There are maybe six or seven arabbers left working the streets today."

The son of Benjamin Allen and Mildred Allen, Eugene Ember Allen was born into a family of Baltimore arabbers. He attended city public schools and served briefly in the Army.

"His mother was the first African-American female arraber in Baltimore," said Mrs. Johns, who lives in Randallstown and is a granddaughter of Mildred Allen.

"The reason they called him 'Fat Back' was because he was a twin. When he was born. he came out first and was the fattest, while his sister was really small," Mrs. Johns said with a laugh. "So they called him 'Fat Back,' two words, and it stuck."

Mr. Allen's mother began selling fruits and vegetables from a wagon in the early 1920s, and her young son became an ambitious apprentice when it came to learning the arabbing trade.

"He relished bargaining at the docks and with wholesalers, and enjoyed the social interchange with often cantankerous and fussy customers," reported The Baltimore Sun in a 1973 article. "But above all else, he loved the horses, which he says are in his blood."

"As his niece, I remember him teaching me about selecting prime fruit for distribution," Mrs. Johns said. "He cared about the trade."

One of seven brothers and sisters, when his mother's health failed, it was he who took over the business which for years had operated out of the Whatcoat Street stables in Sandtown-Winchester, which the family had owned for years.

The term "arabber," pronounced "AY-rabber" by Baltimore's practitoners of the trade, is derived from "street Arab" — a term thought to go back to the 19th century that described denizens of the street with no fixed addresses or those who sold merchandise on the streets to passersby.

When Whatcoat Street stables were demolished in the 1990s to make way for low-income housing, Mr. Allen moved his operation to Bruce Street in Southwest Baltimore.

There are two other stables still in operation, Carlton Street and Freemont Avenue, according to Mrs. Johns.

As owner of two wagons, one painted green and yellow, the other yellow and red, Mr. Allen traveled for decades through West Baltimore neighborhoods from dawn to dusk, summoning prospective buyers from their homes for his produce, fruit and fish with distinctive, colorful street yells, many of which date to the 19th century.

"We call those calls 'howls,' and he could really do them," Mrs. Johns said. "Fat Back was very outgoing and knowledgeable, and people liked him. He loved children, and children all over the city called him 'Daddy.'"

In the summer months, Mr. Allen preferred wearing a summer Kangol cap, and in winter, a tweed Kangol.

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Mr. Allen proved to be a very successful arabber.

"He sent his five children through college," his niece said.

When Mr. Allen turned 81, he stopped working the streets but did not retire from the business.

"His legs simply gave out," his niece said. "But each morning, he'd still go to Jessup to purchase the produce, which he gave to his team who operated the two wagons.

"Even though his days of arabbing had ceased, Fat Back still carried out his passion for it by caring for horses and helping out or assisting in repair of the wagons," she said. "No one had better knowledge of horses than Fat Back."

Mr. Allen was generous with his time and knowledge, and would often go to the other remaining stables to assist in the repair or building of new wagons.

He stopped working about three months ago, his niece said.

When he wasn't working, Mr. Allen enjoyed dressing in fine clothes and sporting wide-brimmed Panama hats in the summer months.

"He was a snappy dressser," his niece said. "Even when he was working, he liked to wear his Stacy Adams alligator shoes."

The former longtime Monroe Street resident was living in a senior citizens home on Edmondson Avenue at the time of his death.

Mr. Allen enjoyed traveling, playing bingo, going to Atlantic City and attending family reunions.

His wife of many years, the former Marguerite Green, died in 1990.

He was a longtime member and deacon of Jerusalem Soul Seeking Baptist Church in West Baltimore.

Funeral services for Mr. Allen will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Wylie Funeral Home, 701 N. Mount St., which will be followed by a traditional arabbers' farewell.

"The arabbers will come with their wagons, and the casket will be put into the first wagon with the flowers being placed in the wagons behind," Mrs. Johns said.

"They will then go through the neighborhood and past his home and then return to the funeral home, where his body will be placed in the hearse for the journey to Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery," she said.

In addition to his niece, he is survived by a son, Robert Allen of Philadelphia; two daughters, Kimberly Parks of Baltimore and Ilene Green of Philadelphia; six grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Bruce Allen, and a daughter, Lavern Allen.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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