Latrobe seat hottest, coolest in town


Oriole Park box seats are easier to come by than a place on a park bench not far from Fort McHenry.

This green bench sits on the edge of Latrobe Park in the Locust Point neighborhood in South Baltimore. Morning, noon and night it's filled with club members who pass the time of day under the branches of a mature elm tree.

"It took me 15 years to get a seat. It's the most entertaining place in Baltimore," says Tony McHale, a dock worker and Locust Point resident who's related to many of Locust Point's reigning families -- the Harts, Flynns and Hugheses. It's not unusual for a cousin to be sitting a few places away from him.

What's so unusual about the bench near the intersection of Fort Avenue and Andre Street?

"It's the best seat in a great neighborhood. All we do is talk about women, ballgames, women, ballgames and women," says Franklin Preston, a longshoreman who was born in West Virginia and is best known in these parts as "Hillbilly."

Most all the bench-sitters have nicknames, names they were given as children or picked up in the neighborhood.

Among others, there's "Horse," "Three Times," "Himalaya," "Bird," "Freight Train," "Hindu," "Clown," "Hoofer," "Jigs," "Mugsy," "Sarge" and "Fibber."

There's also "Stretch Cargo," who is Steve Kazmierski, a longshoreman whose clothing size, naturally, is extra-long.

"I got the name 'Stretch Cargo' when I was 15 and unloading bananas," he says.

The thread running through many of the lives of the bench regulars is their association with Locals 953 and 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, or the ILA, as it is known familiarly. This powerful union's membership moves the cargo through Baltimore. It can also bring the port to a standstill.

Many of the bench-sitters are retired from waterfront jobs. The younger cargo handlers and "checkers" who inventory cargo pass the time here and chat about the Greek ship that's due Monday or the "car ship" that steamed up the Patapsco earlier this week.

The bench is pretty much a private male preserve, though a few women leaving a meeting at a Locust Point senior citizens club did drop by yesterday afternoon. But they stayed briefly. Joggers, roller bladers, bikers and tour buses en route to Fort McHenry all pass the bench, but never stop.

The bench begins to fill up a little after 7 each morning. It has a "governor" in Michael "Poogie" Hart Sr. and a "mayor" in Bobby Jackson.

Hart's place on the green wood slats is made a little more comfortable by a square of carpet he sits on when he's in residence.

"It's the coolest spot in Locust Point," says Hart. He then corrects himself. "Maybe Fort McHenry is the coolest because of the breezes. This is the second coolest."

That said, he walks across Fort Avenue to the Star Confectionery store for a cup of coffee.

The ringing of the noontime angelus bell in the tower of the nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church signals prime time for sitting. The longshoremen working the Locust Point piers break for lunch and drop by to talk -- about women and baseball, of course.

The bench's attraction stretches across the harbor. Each day, a large man named Al walks a roundabout route from Baltimore and Port streets in East Baltimore via Little Italy and Federal Hill to this shady spot. "I wore out two pair of shoes last year," he says of his nine-mile daily trek.

Come the fall when the weather grows chilly, and the winter when it finally turns cold, the bench-sitters are forced indoors, sort of. They reluctantly abandon the bench for their parked cars. As long as there are coffee and automobile heaters, they are in residence.

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