In the Arabber Yard on North Fremont Avenue, littered with pickup trucks and broken wooden carts, the sharp staccato of borax-tipped horseshoes reverberates on brittle concrete. A light rain sprinkles the leathery hands combing a wire brush down a horse's back.
Men trickle in through a shabby chain link fence, bringing horses up from the stables in back. Some of the regulars are absent. They're already attending the funeral for Donald "Manboy" Savoy Sr., who died on May 3, at 83, the remaining patriarch of the arabber yard, the heart of a long-standing Baltimore tradition of street merchants selling fruit and vegetables from horse-drawn carts.
Arabbers prepare to take the horses over to the March Funeral Home on Wabash Avenue for a final tribute.
"I met Manboy when I was 12," Charlie says as he grooms a shiny coat. "He was driving a big team of horses, we all wanted to be like him."
He pauses. "You know, he gave me my first team, cost $10 a day."
For years, Manboy handled the horses and wagons, while George, who died a few years ago, handled the produce. Today, George's son, Skeeter, runs the produce while Manboy's grandson, James "Fruit" Chase, handles the horses and wagons.
Fruit had been here working since early in the morning, setting up the buggies, wiping down the tack, preparing the horses. Fruit walks back into the yard and begins trimming manes with barbershop clippers, struggling with the horsehair. One of Fruit's nephews approaches him and explains the plans for after the funeral but Fruit cuts him off.
"Don't worry, nephew, this ain't my first rodeo," Fruit says. "When we get up there we are going to do it my way. I get to have say over something."
Everyone else in the yard is arabber family, either as blood relatives or because they're horse crazy; it's a family bound by the horses, Baltimore's streets, and the hustle. Being an arabber is a badge of honor, earned by walking the back alleys and side streets of Baltimore until sundown, feeding the mythology of hard work, hustle, and heart—which Manboy exemplifies. He raised eight kids on the backs of these horses.
Fruit's 14-year-old son Ahmad gently brushes his horse Polo.
"When I heard from my cousin he died, I went to the bathroom at school to call my dad," Ahmad says. "He didn't say anything at first and I knew grandpa was gone. After that I snapped, I cracked my phone and everything went dark."
Ahmad's face falls. "I am not ok. I am not ready for this."
"People being petty, Ahmad don't like that," Fruit says, as he drives the last wagon in a trailer to the funeral home. "Neither do I. That shit make me mad quick. Watch: I'm gonna say something at the funeral and call all of them out. Bitch-ass mother fuckers."
Fruit watched, over the last few months, as Manboy's stomach cancer slowly took away his independence. Old family griping only increased his isolation. Fruit has picked up Manboy's attitude: a tough-talking softy who would cuss you out but never let you down.
"I am good with my conscience," Fruit says to Ahmad. "I saw grandpa before he died. He kept asking about the horses. I told him how tough it was. He said he knew how tough it was but that we just had to hang in there and keep it going forward. I told him I would do my best."
Outside the funeral home, some horses are already tied to the fence, their harness splayed next to them on the grass. Inside, the viewing was coming to an end and close family made their way to the body. Ahmad came undone, weeping heavily. His grandmother helped him back to his pew.
On the inside lid of the casket the image of a horse was embroidered with "Manboy"—its red lettering matched his red Kangol hat.
Manboy helped raise preacher Charlie Peakers, who shouts "Amen," the audience swaying and shooting back "Amen" as the lid of casket is cranked closed.
Melva Harris, pastor of the living room church on Pratt Street that Manboy attended, talks about how arabbers built this city. Manboy's two adult sons sit in the front row. Junior stands and sings while his brother Frog holds their sister, Fruit's mother. Both brothers have battled and beat addiction, and both still arab.
It's what they do—for the city and each other. Manboy's wife, Viola May Savoy, died in 2008 due to complications from a broken leg she got jumping out of a carriage after her son lost control of the horse. They carry on.
For 70 years, Manboy fed Baltimore with horse and wagon. He was a legendary charmer and huckster, but what made him a great arabber wasn't his call or the money or the horses. He had a giving heart. Manboy was an arabber's arabber, they say, a man who fed a lot of people, sometimes whether they had money or not.
As the funeral winds on, Fruit arrives in time to catch the end of the sermon and makes his way to the mic to say a few words. He doesn't call out anyone. Instead he calls up a white man and woman, the only ones in the audience at this point.
"I want to thank Mary Mac for always having my grandfather's back," he says. "They helped pay for this. They always held Grandpa down, I just thought you should know."
China, a veteran arabber, only two years younger than Manboy, puts his arm around them as people began to holler out cries of the arabbers: "Watermeloooooon, red to the rind."
A cacophony of produce names is a fitting funeral dirge as the casket is placed on the waiting wagon, adorned with red flower to match Manboy's red kangol.