My grandmother was a bean snipper.
The New World daughter of Old World Poles, Anna Potter Jones started making her own way in life as a child. At 9, she lost her mother to cancer and her father promised never to marry again. With her 11-year-old sister, Anna helped raise three younger siblings and began a lifetime of work.
I knew that my grandmother had been a flapper during the Roaring '20s, had sewn sandbags for the Allies during World War II, and that she had once taken my mother to see Lou Costello in person at the old Hippodrome Theater.
But I never knew she was a bean snipper in a packinghouse.
Stories float through my family likes prayers drifting through the cosmos, and the ones told in the neighborhoods of Baltimore's immigrant holy land -- Highlandtown, Broadway and Canton -- were magnificent.
Growing up I heard tales of bicycles carved from wood, of distant teen-age relatives who died fighting Franco, of sea dogs who built cabin cruisers in their living rooms, and about soup made with prunes and the fresh blood of ducks.
Through the weave of such yarns there would be talk about "the packin' house," the place where Anna Jones worked for nickels during the Depression.
When I later found out that almost every Polish woman of her generation labored in Baltimore's canning industry -- that the story of my grandmother was stenciled across the harbor landscape a thousand times over -- I set out to preserve it in the words of the survivors.
To find these women, I walked along the streets and alleys of the old Polish neighborhoods and started knocking on doors, just the way a man known as Mr. Roberts did in the 1930s. I began at my grandmother's little brick rowhouse on Dillon Street.
In 1937, as the Great Depression rolled through its eighth year, Mr. Roberts came begging women to work for him.
My grandmother listened to his pitch while a little girl hid behind her skirt. "He needed help bad," she said. "But my Gloria was only 3 years old and I told him: 'I got a young baby at home, I can't work.' And he said I could bring Gloria with me, so I did. She sat next to me while I worked in the packinghouse."
My grandmother, one of thousands of Poles living along the Southeast Baltimore waterfront before World War II, married as a teen-ager and had three kids before she was 23. An offer to make a few bucks without having to hire a baby sitter was perfect and, taking him up on the offer, Anna Jones embarked on a working-class career that lasted 35 years at East Baltimore factories making everything from canned goods to slipcovers. The money helped add to the few dollars my grandfather made as a journeyman laborer.
The little girl at her skirt was my mother and the Roberts packinghouse was her first playground.
The Roberts family owned the fruit and vegetable cannery around the corner on Binney Street, a block-long, unheated wooden building in the looming shadow of the American Can Co. was one of many similar buildings in the long-vanished Baltimore that was once the nation's great canning center for everything from oysters to pineapples.
At the packinghouse, my grandmother stood over a table cutting the ends off of string beans the snipping machine had missed. Next to her sat my mother on an upside-down bushel basket.
"Some of the baskets would be stacked 20 high and we'd move them around to build houses with doorways and play out on the sidewalk," my mother recalled. "And to keep us out of his hair in the summertime the foreman would let us cap strawberries for pennies."
The packinghouse was open to the street and the older children who spent the day praying the rosary in Polish and learning to read at St. Casimirs School around the corner often came over during lunch.
"I remember going over there lots of times just to talk with her," my mother said. "We could always just run in and out. You walked in and you knew that your mom was sitting over at the bean belt."
"It was a good job if you had kids because you could run home at lunch when they came home from school and eat with them," my grandmother said. "And when they went back to school, you went back to work."
The job paid on "piece work" and the women made so much per bucket of tomatoes, or pound of spinach, or basket of strawberries, receiving tokens that were redeemed for cash at the end of the day. "We made a quarter an hour," she said.
On Saturday the women worked until all of the produce had been processed so the plant could be hosed down before Sunday, the only day off at the packinghouse. "I remember standing up around the snipper all week, and my feet would swell up," she said. "And on Sunday the kids would want you to take them out somewhere, but my feet hurt so bad you'd almost have to do nothing on Sunday just to be ready for Monday."
My grandmother remembers trucks loaded with fruit and vegetables coming in "from little farms around town"; farms that were out "in the country" -- the term city folk used in the first decades of this century when talking about any place north of Towson, south of Curtis Bay, east of Highlandtown or west of Catonsville.
"The trucks would be lined up outside the packinghouse in the morning and we used to count [them] to see how long it would take us to finish," my grandmother recalled. "You had your season for tomatoes, for spinach, for string beans and a season for strawberries. Everything came around in season."
In 1873 Mark Owings Shriver invented the pressure cooker in Baltimore and the new way of steaming allowed food to be cooked four times faster than previous methods. It so changed the canning industry that a few years later there were more than 100 canneries ringing the harbor from Locust Point to Canton.
Although black women also labored there along with a few men who shucked oysters, the work in the canneries was mostly done by Polish women who lived along the narrow waterfront streets a block or two from the packinghouses. The job of skinning tomatoes, snipping beans and cleaning spinach was considered unmanly.
The women of the packinghouses brought out-of-season nutrition to soldiers, westward pioneers and ordinary people used to enduring endless meals of cabbage, potatoes and salted meats, foods that would keep over a long winter in the basement. Before man figured out a way to preserve fruit and vegetables in tin, scurvy was a menace. But a couple of cans of Eastern Shore tomatoes had enough vitamin C to keep illness at bay.
And whether they live on Dillon Street, a mile west on Bond Street, or up on the hill that gives Highlandtown its name, the refrain of the surviving packinghouse veterans is the same: The work was hard. Honest labor brought independence a few dollars at a time. Those days are gone, and no one wants to live through them again.
"They're the good old days for the ones who never lived it," says Florence Plociennik, 71, who lives on South Kenwood Avenue. "I was making 25 cents an hour, but you had nothing because you came home and gave your mother everything you made."
Montford Avenue's Mary Ljek Eber, 76, can rattle off the factory names without blinking.
"There were packinghouses from Aliceanna Street clear over to Kenwood Avenue: McGraff's, Roberts', Boyer's, Webster's, Gibbs, Langrell's, Foote's, Lord-Mott's. . . . I worked in almost all of them," she said, looking out of her front window at a stretch of luxury homes along a marina that took the place of Boston Street's canneries.
During the Depression, Mrs. Eber would put in a few hours at a packinghouse and then go up to the Varsity underwear factory at Eastern Avenue and Port Street to help her parents support a family of 10 children. She started out working the strawberry line in her early teens before the floor walkers discovered her talent for separating a tomato from its skin. "I was a hog-eye on tomatoes, I could skin 'em fast, I could do the work of two women," she said. "I wouldn't say it was a rich life, but it was a good life," Mrs. Eber said. "We never went hungry and my mother made sure we had something to eat all the time. At Langrell's the farmers would bring corn or half-green tomatoes and you'd buy 'em for almost nothing. We used to have tomato trucks sitting all around here, all along Boston Street. The farmers would pick the nice ones off the top and give 'em to you."
Not all of the tomatoes eaten on the eastside were given away or paid for.
Near the beginning of my life and the tail end of Baltimore's canning era, I remember swiping one and biting into it on the sidewalk, a big kick for a kid raised in the suburbs where you
bought tomatoes at the supermarket, and I remember the juice, warm and sweet, running down the corners of my mouth as I stood on Binney Street eating a stolen tomato.
For me it was an isolated thrill, but for generations of eastside "hoodles" -- waterfront kids who played street football, swam naked from the end of the wharves, and broke soda bottles against sewer grates -- stealing tomatoes off a truck was an everyday thing.
As a kid who hankered to play with the hoodles on weekends and get in their games, I didn't pay much mind to the sour-faced women who stared at us out their front windows when the ball bounced up against their storm doors.
Back then I didn't know them, I didn't know how hard and how long they had worked to say with pride that their house was their own: little row houses paid for in sweat by women who put spinach in cans.
Women like Sophie and Helen, the tomato-skinning daughters of an oyster shucker from Poland named Frances Wolaniec.
"I worked hard all my life, that's why now I got a nice pension and don't have to depend on anybody," said 82-year-old Sophie Jender, who lives in a little alley called McKay Court a few blocks north of my grandmother's house on Dillon Street.
Her pension comes from 38 years at the National Can Co., where she made beer cans on a "double seamer," but her vivid memories come from days picking fruit and vegetables "down the country" and putting the harvest into tin cans at the neighborhood packinghouse.
"I been working since I was 8," she said. "When I was about 14 I made out that I was 16 so I could get a job down the packin' house. I had to go because my daddy -- he worked in the licorice factory -- got a heavy cold and he died, and my mother made me quit school. She needed me."
Her little sister, 80-year-old Helen Sadowski of Macon Street in Greektown, followed the family's footsteps to the edge of the water in 1932, skinning tomatoes and running back home on lunch hour to nurse a baby.
"I remember my mother shucked oysters for Langrell's. It was cold and they wore rags around their shoes to keep warm -- all bundled up and all day shucking," she said. "That was hard work, babe, but it was easy to get work in them days."
Anna Potter Jones worked at the packinghouse around the corner from her Dillon Street home for about five years. She quit skinning tomatoes when the Depression lifted and took a job sewing sandbags for the Allies. By the 1950s she found steady work with regular raises, protected by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
She worked long enough to earn a pension and Social Security.
"It gets me mad now, how people praise these women who go out and work," she said. "How about us poor old women in the olden days, getting up at 4 in the morning? It was cold working that spinach and them string beans in the winter. Us women had to work," she said. "Just like now."
All but one of Baltimore's canneries are gone today, vanished as new plants were built closer to the crops on the Eastern Shore and Florida. The wooden packinghouse where my grandmother worked between 1937 and 1942 is now a cinder-block warehouse, a 26,000-square-foot building where vending machines are stored.
And when she steps out of her front door to look at it, she looks back on her days there as an entry into a life of hard work that made her independent.
Being independent meant paying your bills, owning your own home and having a couple of dollars extra on the weekends to take your grandchildren on a bus uptown to see a movie on Howard Street.
And whenever she opened her change purse, there were always dollars inside, endless dollars for hamburgers and popcorn and soda; dollars to be given away to a kid like me who never questioned or knew where they came from.
Now I know.
RAFAEL ALVAREZ is a reporter for The Sun.