July 4th crabs come out fighting

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"OW. DAMN."

"Gotcha," says Cardy, smiling wickedly.

"Got me right through the damn glove," says Bobby, pulling the rubber away to examine the wound at the base of his thumb. A little indentation, a little bit of missing skin -- nothing to really wail about.

Bobby reaches back into the basket to pry out the assailant in question. There are times when a crab gets his man and the man gets angry enough to mete out some retribution. Stomp that bad boy into the cement or wing it against the wall. Crab fission. And leave the splatter there as a lesson to others.

But it's only two in the afternoon on this long Independence Day, too early in the battle to lose yourself in primal exaggeration. Bobby Short, a crab sorter for a couple of decades, simply drops his adversary into the $20-a-dozen bin. Then he reaches back into the bushel.

Baltimore's love of the blue crab ends here -- right here in the back of the Seapride crab house, a converted rowhouse hard on the southeast corner of West Pratt and Monroe streets. It's carryout only at Seapride -- all morning, all day and into the wee hours of the night.

And by midafternoon on this wet and humid Fourth, the crowd is chained all the way out the door, with the tail end waiting on the sidewalk beneath open umbrellas. By accounts, those laboring in the back of Seapride are the busiest men in the busiest crab house on the busiest, crab-eatingest day of the year.

They are hauling crabs, stacking crabs, sorting crabs, chilling crabs and cooking crabs. They are selling crabs, cussing crabs, stepping on crabs, slipping and falling on crab innards, then pulling escapees from beneath the stainless steel stun tubs, corralling them with a broom, driving them like a herd of sideways-walking longhorns bound for Abilene on the Chisholm Trail.

The back-room boys at Seapride have no love left for the blue crab. They are -- quite literally -- death on crabs. For them, the crab cake has no local charm.

We're talking cuts and gashes and bruises and puncture holes, some of them bloating with infection. We're talking heat prostration from the front-room steam and summer flu from the back-room refrigeration, chills from the condensation dripping from overhead coils and burns from a runaway steam hose.

And on the other side of the ledger, we're talking crab holocaust. On this Fourth, more than 500 bushels of blues from five states will meet their doom at Seapride. That's about 60,000 individual crustaceans to be sorted and sized, steamed and sold in a single day so that when a Seapride man lays down at night, he dreams crab dreams.

"There used to be this Plexiglas window right in front of the bins," remembers Bobby Short, laughing. "And in my dream the crabs would be up against the glass, pressing in, trying to get at me."

When Max Warren bought the place back in '75, it was already profitable, but since then, the Warren family has transformed Seapride into one of the largest -- if not the largest -- cooked crab emporiums in Maryland. Sales in excess of Bo Brooks'. Bigger than Bud Paolino's. Bigger even than Gibby's in Timonium.

Max and Ron Warren, his son, don't really keep an annual tally anymore. For years now, they've been somewhere in the mid-40,000 bushel range. A 1993 news clipping beneath the counter shows Seapride on top, with Gibby's second at 38,000 bushels. Bo Brooks was in the low twenties.

On the average weekday, Seapride might move 50 to 80 bushels -- more if that day falls near the first of the month, when local customers have more to spend. A summer Saturday can mean 200 bushels. But Memorial Day, Labor Day and above all, Independence Day, are the times that try the souls of crab house veterans.

By 3 p.m., bushel and half-bushel order slips are plastered above the kitchen window, where counter workers battle to keep pace. Paper bags and cardboard boxes are filled as fast as humanly possible, then pushed across the front counters into waiting hands.

"The spice," explains Cardy McCullough. "The spice brings 'em back."

Max Warren bought the recipe when he bought the crab house 20 years ago. The Italian brothers who sold him the carryout learned the mix from an old crabber on the Eastern Shore and they actually went out and got a patent on it.

The Seapride seasoning has given the carryout a market lock in the black neighborhoods of West Baltimore. The yuppies find their way to Obrycki's and the white ethnics may gather at Bud's, but black crab-lovers have for years looked to Seapride. And by late afternoon, in fact, it seems that all of West Baltimore is gathered on the other side of the counters, waiting with as much patience as the humidity will allow, trying to hear the numbers called above the hiss of the steam pots.

"FIFTY SEVEN," says the counter girl, holding up a half-bushel.

"We need females," yells Ron Warren, shouting over the steam. "Three bushels for Liberty."

"We're out of sixteens," says Bruce, shouting through the curtains to the back room. "We need sixteens up front."

So the sixteens go into the ice water, with the females for the Liberty Road outlet right behind them. The ice stuns them, giving the boys chance enough to get them into the pots and dust them down with spice.

"FIFTY EIGHT," yells the counter girl.

"Where are the females? I need them females."

It's mayhem. It's hell. Over at the sorting bins, Jimmy Stewart is cursing softly, pulling a shell point from his glove. Behind him, Billy is wrist deep in angry Number Ones, wincing visibly as one crab reaches a claw over the edge of the bushel to grab his gut. Near the hoses, Paul is breathing hard, his skin as steam-cooked and red as that of his victims.

"FIFTY NINE."

And the worst is yet to come. Five begins the dinner rush. Six or seven for the people who want to break down blue crabs under the fireworks. And back in one corner are those Number Ones that came from Big Al and Limbo. Yes, Lord, those are still waiting.

"Big Al doesn't keep his trucks so cold," says Cardy, "and Limbo, he brings 'em all the way from Delaware on the back of his pickup."

Without refrigeration, it's a fair fight. With a hot summer wind rushing through the bushels, the crabs don't sleep. "They evil," says Cardy, "you'll see."

Bobby Short opens a Big Al bushel and the crabs fairly explode, sprawling in all directions. It's terrifying and epic. Bobby has crabs clasped to fingers, arms, shirt folds.

And this is the truth of the thing -- the simple fact that separates the Seapride boys from anyone shipping and selling cucumbers or grapefruit or heads of lettuce. No grapefruit ever reared up and tried to tear a grocer's skin off. And no cucumber ever flipped the edge of a broken basket and ran sideways out the nTC loading dock and down Monroe Street, choosing two lanes of traffic over a more certain doom. On this holiday or the next, any cynic can tear off a blue crab shell, look at that small squish that passes for crab brain and conclude that the critters don't get it, that all of this can't make a lick of sense to them. But at Seapride, the boys know better.

"Give 'em a chance and they fight like hell," says Billy, licking yet another puncture wound. "They don't want to die."

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