Weekend shopping expeditions to downtown Baltimore

On an early October 1962 morning that I took a tour of downtown Baltimore. A neighbor named Dorothy Croswell suggested I accompany her on her weekly Lexington Street pilgrimages. She set the hour of departure at 6:55 a.m. Saturday.

"Hmmm," I thought to myself. "The department stores don't open until 9:30. This will be interesting."

Dorothy was a wonderful Baltimore eccentric who met my mother when they were both beginning their careers at the old city Department of Public Welfare, the social-work agency she served for decades. For 20 years she lived alone in the Guilford Avenue rowhouse next to ours. She was so much a part of the family that my grandmother, Lily Rose Monaghan, entrusted Dorothy with a rare honor: one of the front-door keys.

Not too many of us were up on that chilly Saturday morning. Armed with the schedule of the old Baltimore Transit Co.'s No. 11 bus, Dorothy directed our crossing of Charles Street to await the arrival of that green coach bound ultimately for Morrell Park.

Dorothy ordered me to pull the buzzer cord as the 11 lurched down the steep Liberty Street hill just past the central Pratt Library and the church we called the Old Cathedral. We slipped out the rear door and walked past dozens of sleeping stores to a side entrance of Read's at Howard and Lexington, then probably the best-known drugstore in Baltimore.

I am not sure if the entire store was ready for customers, but its soda fountain and balcony restaurant served breakfast. Dorothy always ordered black coffee and a grilled nut stick, a Baltimore favorite. She said it would be tasty, and she didn't lie. It turned out to be a multilayered hunk, gooey and laced with small nuts, cinnamon, raisins and butter. Years later, I wrote an obituary for the German baker who produced these treats.

The cook split it open, lathered on yet more butter and placed it on the grill for a minute or so. I made it disappear fast.

Dorothy carried a shopping bag. The way she swung it along the street, usually while humming a tune like the "Summer Samba," was one of her signature gestures. She was one happy soul on these Saturday mornings.

She had a passion for hand lotion and usually went through a pint a week. I think she stopped long enough to buy her Saturday fix, the first purchase in the bag that would be weighed down by the end of the day.

I thought I was generally familiar with the layout of Baltimore's downtown department stores, but Dorothy entered Hochschild Kohn & Co. through an entrance that stumped me.

Hochschild's buildings were cobbled together from earlier firms. The store might have been closed to the general public, but Dorothy said "Hello!" to a security guard as if she were Mrs. Max Hochschild. We boarded a semihidden freight elevator to the store's beauty parlor. Dorothy possessed the earliest appointment on the books. She arrived as the beauty operators were taking off their coats.

The next 90 minutes were deadly dull for me. Escape was not practical. I was fearful of never being able to negotiate the maze of passages and 1930s elevators that somehow led to the room that smelled of hair-setting chemicals.

Once coifed, Dorothy announced we would take our place at the store's main entrance. There, other early-bird shoppers stood in a roped-off enclosure by the revolving doors. At 9:30 a.m., a bell went off and the restraining straps were drawn up, and Dorothy started going through that Saturday's list. She would buy notecards, stamps and maybe a new Ngaio Marsh mystery paperback. A highly motivated and directed person, she shopped from a list. Impulse buys did not exist.

There were other errands. A pair of resoled sensible shoes, claimed in the basement cobbler shop at the McCrory 5-and-10-cent store, went into the ever-swinging bag. So did the cross-stitch embroidery supplies that she was always buying in order to make a quilt or sampler for a friend.

Dorothy loved being a Baltimorean. She embraced the Lexington Market like an old friend and soon wove through its stalls and counters. Her unerring sense of thrift made her appreciate the offer of the Castle Farm dairy store to provide you all the buttermilk you could drink for a dime. She also dropped by the Utz potato chip stall (she was addicted) and Konstant's, for just one more cup of coffee.

She wrapped up the day fairly quickly and didn't waste much time heading back to a northbound bus.

By the time we passed North Avenue, she'd be dipping into that shopping sack, locating the Read's hand lotion and lathering it over her dry hands, this time humming a new tune, maybe Frank Loesser's "I Believe in You." I just rolled my eyes.


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