Rita Madejski
(J.M. Giordano)

It's a quaint term from simpler times:



Before the advent of the "convenience" store, they were all over Baltimore, typically a corner grocery that catered to children and sweet-toothed adults with a smoking habit.

On the Fourth of July in 1928, Rita Mary Roberts Madejski was born above her parents' confectionery store in a two-story alley house at 242 S. Chapel St. near Patterson Park.


"My father died when I was 8," says Madejski, who has lived all of her 85 years within a half-mile of the Thames Street waterfront. "That's when we moved to the second store at 1903 East Pratt Street. We were raised out of that store-five children and no father. It was hard days."

Hard days behind a big glass counter of goodies-licorice and lollipops but no rock candy, the walls lined with shelves of canned goods, and the probability that whoever walked through the door was as likely to speak Polish as English.

Rita and her siblings (she was the fourth of five, one of three still alive) took turns working the store while their mother ran the business and picked up factory work.

They sold baseball cards and potato chips-"If a certain candy wasn't selling, my mother would put a bunch of it in a grab bag for a penny," Madejski says-but oddly, not snowballs.

Like many working-class homes in Southeast Baltimore, the only room in the house with heat-first on Chapel Street and again on Pratt-was the kitchen.

"You'd come inside from freezing weather in the winter and lay your socks and shoes on the stove ledge," Madejski says.

On cold beds in cold bedrooms on cold, cold nights, the family slept under comforters made from flour sacks that her mother bought from a nearby bakery and stuffed with feathers. "You found one position and kept it until you got warm and fell asleep," Madejski says.

To meet neighborhood demand, the candy store sold wood and coal. "The coal came in bags, and you bought a bag of coal and took it out over your shoulder," she says. One of Madejski's childhood chores was tying up wood her mother sold for a nickel a bundle.

After heart trouble took Rita's father, Charles, in his mid-30s, her mother, now the widow Roberts-born Mary Cyran in Baltimore in the late 19th century, died in 1975-never married again. Mary was not a jolly woman nor particularly affectionate.

"She was our mother and our father," says Madejski. "She ran the store seven days a week and opened at 6 a.m. on weekdays to get the people going to their jobs. She didn't have time [for] anything but work."

All of the Roberts kids minded the store when their mom went into the back to make supper. In pots and iron skillets atop the coal stove might be anything from kidney stew to czarnina, a Polish folk delicacy made from the blood of ducks and simmered with prunes and sometimes pears.

Like homemade kielbasa, which filled her freezer every Christmas and Easter, Madejski can still make czarnina by heart-even though she hasn't made the sweet stew for many a year because a jar of duck blood, once common in the old neighborhood, is almost impossible to come by these days, as it's illegal.


She also remembers eating cow brains: "You dip them in flour and fry them in a pan and eat 'em with ketchup," she says. Her mother picked up cheap, exotic food-including pig tails-on almost daily shopping trips to Broadway Market.


When there was pickup work in the produce-canning factories along the waterfront-about a hundred of them from Locust Point around the harbor rim to Canton a hundred years ago-Madejski's mother would leave the care of the store to her kids and walk to the water's edge with a peculiar utensil in her pocket.

They called it a peeling knife, a strange hybrid of a knife and a thin, sharp spoon, the oval head about half the size of a teaspoon. With a wooden handle, it was a tool no more than 6 inches long, its name describing exactly what it was: a knife used to peel boiled tomatoes before the meat went into a can.

(Rita has kept three of her mother's old peeling knives, which is three more than the Baltimore Museum of Industry appears to have. Bernie Bodt's family once owned canneries in Harford County, and Bodt says the knives are not especially rare.)

"You could smell whatever they were doing at the packin' houses all over the neighborhood," Madejski says. "The smell from Panzer Pickles would come right up Wolfe Street . . . and tomatoes from Langrell's and Lord Motts and Gibbs-aww, it smelled so good . . . "

Memories of those days fade with each eastside obituary, like the one last month for John Ostrowski, third-generation owner of the Polish sausage-making shop near the park.

Madejski lives in a small apartment on the sixth floor of the Lemko Community, a 110-unit residence for seniors that opened in 1983 on the site of old Public School No. 6. If she no longer enjoys the smells of her childhood, she still has the view.

The window from her living room looks southwest across the harbor (on summer nights, the lights at Camden Yards shine through the glass), and a glimpse from her bedroom follows rooftops between Fells Point and Little Italy.

Across Ann Street is the old No. 19 branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where her four children once did their homework. The building now houses an educational outreach program serving Hispanics.

A block south is the 1889 brick building that once housed the sanctuary of St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church, where Rita worshipped after marrying Walter J. Madejski, a mailman and World War II veteran who died on her birthday in 1999. St. Stan's is now a yoga studio.

"I never wanted to move from this neighborhood. I been here all my life," says Madejski. "I might take a walk over to Broadway once in a while, but the arthritis in my legs is real bad. I don't roam about too much anymore."

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