Charlie "Fruit Man" McLean has been "a-rabbing" in Baltimore for more than 40 years, and he still can't think of a better way to spend his time.
As a boy, he rode with the men who sold fresh produce in the streets from their brightly colored horse-drawn wagons. He made the job his life's work. Even now, he says, he can get fresh food to people who might otherwise never see it.
McLean, 53, is one of only about 10 people still "a-rabbing," as Baltimoreans have long called his line of work. He fears his livelihood could vanish soon. But he thinks a new friend might be able to help.
For the past few years, the local filmmaker-activist M. Holden Warren has worked alongside "Fruit Man" and his colleagues at a stable on North Fremont Avenue in Sandtown, soaking up the rhythms of their life and dreaming up ways to help it prosper.
He hopes to turn the stable — one of only two still functioning — into a living museum that will become "a stop on the local cultural map." This Sunday, he and a team of fellow urban visionaries are scheduled to go public with the venture, throwing a six-hour party at the stable.
They hope to galvanize enough interest to make possible Warren's dream: to establish an art gallery and interactive features alongside the a-rabs as they work, to add green space and even to set up a cooking and fresh-food service area for neighbors to enjoy.
"The a-rabbers are a part of Baltimore history and African-American history, but what they do is still relevant in a city where so many people lack access to fresh food," says Warren, 36, a Catonsville native. "I'm interested in preservation. But this is about revitalizing."
"Every little bit can help the a-rabbers," says McLean. "I think what they're doing can help a lot."
Warren fell into the project in 2009, when he was just beginning work on "The Hottest Month," a documentary about Baltimore subcultures. The piece uses street art as a leitmotif to connect segments on the urban farm movement, youths who ride dirt bikes in the city and the lives of do-it-yourself enthusiasts.
The more he spent time among the a-rabs, the more he saw the produce salesmen as members of a significant culture, an entrepreneurial tradition that has blended ingenuity, self-determination and family values since the 19th century.
The term "a-rab" (pronounced AY-rab) is believed to derive from the term "street Arab," a slang expression widely used in 1800s London that referred to individuals of unfixed address, street salesmen, or both.
Generations of Baltimore's roving vendors have embraced the term, and the city embraced their work.
For decades following the Civil War, a-rabbing provided one of the few avenues to employment for blacks. During World War II, when white laborers took jobs by the thousands in factories, it became an almost exclusively African-American profession.
Driving wooden carriages that featured brightly jangling bells, they peddled watermelon, greens, cantaloupe, seafood and more, drawing attention up and down city streets with their distinctive calls.
The nonprofit Arabber Preservation Society, founded in 1994, cites one such call on its website: "Holler, holler, holler, till my throat gets sore. If it wasn't for the pretty girls, I wouldn't have to holler no more!"
Over time, the advent of supermarkets and increasingly strict city codes reduced the a-rabs' numbers, and animal-rights activists have kept close watch on safety conditions. But plenty of locals have vivid memories of the sights and sounds associated with the men in the wagons.
"It was such a part of my life, even when I was a child," says McLean, "I never dreamed [a-rabs] might not be around someday."
Each of the surviving stables — the other is on South Carlton Street in Southwest Baltimore — features about five a-rabs, seven stable hands and a dozen horses at a given time.
The horses generally work three eight-hour days in a row, then are transported to farms in Baltimore County or Howard County to rest.
Warren, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga in the South Pacific, spent a couple of years photographing and filming the a-rabs — just enough time, he says, to begin getting a genuine sense of what they do and how they do it.
He was taken by the way the profession runs in families. Former driver Donald "Manboy" Savoy, 80, is still a daily presence at the North Fremont stable. His sons Donald Savoy Jr. and "Frog" Savoy, grandson James "Fruit" Chase, and great-grandson Ahmad Chase all still help run the place.
Likewise, James "Pookie" Rich, 43, has been an a-rab for 30 years, and his daughter Weedy Rich, 22, has taken up the tradition, becoming one of the few female a-rabs. "I'm horse-crazy just like my father," she says.
Warren noticed something else of importance. Threatened as they are, a-rabs can get produce into "food deserts," places where low-income residents have little access to supermarkets that sell fresh fare.
"They're not a relic. They're relevant," Warren says.
He became so well versed in the culture he was nominated a vice-president of the Arabber Preservation Society. In that role he began hatching his plan for creating a site that will be "a stop on the city's cultural map."
He decided to try "reverse development" — instead of seeking financial investment, then adding art on top of a completed product, he'd "come in with art first, making a cultural investment that would inspire financial investment."
He engaged the services of Gaia, a New York- and Baltimore-based street artist who has created murals in places as far-flung as England, Argentina and Indonesia.
"At first I didn't see how a-rabbers and street art cohered, but when I realized it was about connecting disparate cultures, I got involved," the artist said in the stable on Tuesday.
He contributed several murals, including one that depicts the four generations of Savoy's family, a work that attracted visitors and photographers as he went.
Several other well-known street artists added pieces on and around the site, depicting horses at work, green cropland and other individuals who have been "mainstays" at the stable.
In May, the group set up a "kickstarter" social-media fundraising effort that drew on their professional and personal contacts. It raised nearly $6,000 overnight, about a third more than they expected.
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If Sunday's event goes well — and Warren expects everyone from Sandtown neighbors and a-rabs to City Council members — it could make the project more attractive to the nonprofit and government foundations that invest in urban revitalization projects.
The event will feature music, pony and carriage rides for children, two marching bands, a moon bounce and local cuisine. "It will be half pop-up gallery, half West Baltimore barbecue," Warren says.
Long-term goals, he adds, include getting the stable's roof repaired, incorporating three adjoining green spaces and rehabilitating the stable's interior to allow for art and video installations and events for school children. Total cost: an estimated $60,000.
On Tuesday, Gaia and two colleagues, the artists Nanook and Sorta, worked to complete murals in time for Sunday. Workers loaded wagons with watermelons for the afternoon's runs. And the "Fruit Man" took a break from watering a pony with a hose.
He's been a-rabbing since grade school, he says, and he has no plans to quit soon. Nor do his colleagues. It's not just their livelihoods at stake. It's a way of life.
"We're a group of people that won't give up until the bitter end," he says. "Why let something die that works?"