She feeds and cares for sailors THE HIDDEN PORT


The fax machine behind Blanche Christman's desk spits out the Century Leader 5's grocery order. Among the delicacies: 50 pounds of black cod ("heads off"), 20 pounds of pork intestines, two pigs' heads, 30 pounds of beef feet and 15 pints of pork blood.

With the Japanese ship still a week away from Baltimore, Ms. Christman, office manager for Columbia Marine Supply Co., will have plenty of time to find even the most bizarre items before the vessel docks briefly in Baltimore. Much of it, in fact, will come from the company's Fells Point warehouse, where exotic and mundane stock fill the huge, walk-in freezers and shelves.

By the time the 45,000-ton car carrier chugs into Dundalk Marine Terminal, enough supplies to last the 20-man crew two months will be shrink-wrapped and loaded on pallets, ready to be hoisted onto the ship.

For more than seven decades, Columbia Marine Supply Co. has been grocer for cargo ships, war ships and tall ships. And 47 years after stocking her first vessel, Ms. Christman is still feeding the world's sailors.

"It's a fascinating, fast-paced business that teaches you a lot about the world's cultures," said the 67-year-old Ms. Christman, who grew up in the Pimlico area. Soon after her graduation from Western High School, she joined the Miglioretti family business as a typist, ultimately becoming its bookkeeper and office manager.

Twenty-five years ago, nearly 3,800 ships a year sailed into Baltimore; that compares with 2,200 today. With fewer and fewer ships coming to Baltimore, the business founded in 1921 by an Italian-born chandler named Jack Miglioretti has shrunk, much like the port of Baltimore itself. Ms. Christman and two other people now operate the business that once employed 10.

In the port's heyday, Columbia supplied two dozen ships a month, but today it fills only seven or eight orders. Indeed, it is one of a handful of chandlers that remain in Baltimore. But it is among the hundreds of small maritime businesses that still dot the streets of Canton, Fells Point, Highlandtown and Locust Point.

Ms. Christman is one of 18,000 people whose livelihoods would vanish were it not for the coming and going of ships at the port. And the chandler business, she says, still reveals fascinating tidbits about the lives of the world's seamen.

The Japanese, for instance, consume or use nearly every part of the pig, including its blood for seasoning; a 25-man crew may consume a ton of rice on a two-month trip. The Turkish crews order caseloads of the orange-drink Tang and hundreds of pounds of cream cheese. American crews on AT&T; ships, which lay or repair ocean cable, eat well -- all choice meat, all name brands.

But Columbia Marine is more than a grocer; it is a valet of sorts for foreign sailors for whom the United States is a wonderland of merchandise. Ms. Christman and her boss, Frank Miglioretti, grandson of the company's founder, frequently shop for special items that show up on the electronically transmitted orders.

The captain of the Century Leader 5, for instance, wants six bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Scotch. The oiler on his Filipino crew has requested a walking doll -- 91 centimeters high -- and two, 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzles of the world. Another seaman is looking for a 60-tablet bottle of Centrum junior vitamins.

On her way to work from her Northeast Baltimore home, Ms. Christman has bought lingerie for the captains' wives, Christmas and birthday cards, razors, toothbrushes and videos ("I refuse to buy the dirty ones, though," she says. "Frank gets them.")

It's all part of the chandler business.

Yet there is far less involvement with the ship crews than 25 years ago, when ships remained in port for days, sometimes weeks. Because automation has made unloading vessels a six-hour job, crew members, who once would have spent hours in Columbia's office, rarely appear there anymore.

"At one time, we took them to the doctor, or a dentist, or made sure they called their wives," said Ms. Christman. Today, however, a local agent representing the steamship company sends a "runner" to the ship to take care of the crew's needs.

"We used to do it for nothing," says Ms. Christman. "You don't have that personal touch anymore."

Once, years ago, she was even a witness for a Japanese seaman who married a local girl in a shotgun wedding at a West Baltimore church. Frequently, Columbia Marine arranged transportation for sailors who needed to fly home from Baltimore. Because of that, in 1951, it established a travel agency that still operates in the same office as the company's chandler business on Eastern Avenue.

While the business of supplying ships is highly competitive, chandlers tend to handle certain nationalities. Columbia, for instance, serves mostly Croatian, Japanese and Turkish ships.

The tab for stocking ships varies, depending on the type of food and the size of the crew. The Century Leader 5's grocery bill will run about $7,000.

In an electronic age, orders arrive by fax, sometimes a week or more in advance, sometimes only a day or two, setting off a mad scramble ("It's tough to get pigs' ear in a day, you know," Ms. Christman says).

Decades ago, chandlers competed fiercely for orders, waiting on the dock as the steamers arrived and then climbing on deck to peddle their services.

The earliest chandlers raced down the Patapsco River in launch boats to nab the steamships' orders.

Not all ships that call on Baltimore restock here; many will buy from chandlers in Savannah, Ga., Norfolk, Va., or other ports.

But, because groceries are typically less expensive in the United States -- beef tenderloins can sell for $100 a pound in Japan -- most will order enough supplies to make the return trip and then back to the United States again.

Sometimes, Columbia Marine will stock the same ship five or six times a year. Occasionally, a ship, like the Century Leader 5, will dock here only once or twice a year.

But chances are that Ms. Christman, 67 or not, will be there the next time, remembering how many pounds of pigs' feet are needed, or what kind of scotch the captain prefers.

"I'm not going anywhere," she says. "If I didn't love this business, I wouldn't have stayed this long."

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