The sisters walk in to the Fort Avenue ice cream shop, white hair freshly curled and firmly in place, looking like twins despite the seven years between them. The man behind the counter knows what to get them without even asking, because they've known him since he was a little boy, and they could tell some stories on him if they wanted.
Still, Earl Gallion can't resist teasing them. "I ain't got no chocolate, dumpling," he tells Elizabeth Hall, 79 - knowing what she really wants, what she always wants, is four vanilla milkshakes to go. She'll keep them in the freezer, and dip into them little by little, until she and her 86-year-old sister walk up Jackson Street for more.
Except that, after today , this ritual of 15 years will be disrupted. Gallion, famous in these parts for running both a "beauty inn" where the sisters are coiffed and an old-fashioned soda fountain where their cravings are indulged, will shutter his malt shop at 7 p.m., for good.
He'd love to rent the South Baltimore business to some enterprising young person who would appreciate the marble fountain, the checkerboard floor, the curvy glasses, the vintage Coca-Cola collection, the hanging Pillsbury Doughboy, the cookie jars that look like fat, cherry-topped ice cream cones. Somebody he might teach to work the old curved nozzle on the soda water jet, a technique he's perfected since his first job as a soda jerk at age 14.
"If they want to run it the way it is, it's all right here," Gallion said. "This would be a good business in here for younger people."
This summer, the 70-year-old put the whole building at 635 E. Fort Ave., up for sale, hoping to capitalize on the neighborhood's gentrification and retire to the beach. But there were few interested buyers, and Gallion's struggle with glaucoma in both eyes made it harder and harder to withstand the seltzer spray from his busy fountain. So he took the building off the market, and will stay in his apartment upstairs.
The salon he runs with business partner Richard Hagen, advertised as "the best little hair house in Baltimore," will stay open, and Gallion will even return to working there part time if he can find the right goggles. Four days a week, though, he plans to kick back down the ocean.
He knows this scaling back may mean the end of an institution - formally called Earl's Beauty Inn and The Olde Malt Shop - and the loss of those customers whose only interest is in root-beer floats and Hershey's ice cream, not permanent waves. "The people - I'll miss the people," he said. "They've been so nice."
The people are old and young, from little kids spending their allowances to new moms pushing strollers to longtime residents like Hall and her sister, Rita Sears, who live in the rowhouse they came home to as babies. As the spiffy new coffee house moved in across the street, Captain Larry's bar got a new look, and the elegant restaurant Soigne took over space a block down, Earl's endured.
Erin Konstantoulas, 26, brought her 3-month-old daughter and a friend to Earl's yesterday, but this trip was really for mom. She ordered a scoop of cookies and cream in a cup, admitting that she usually goes for a chocolate milkshake. Konstantoulas, who lives nearby, is such a fan of them that when he's trying to butter her up, her husband knows to pick one up from Earl's before arriving home.
Konstantoulas was sorry to hear that her favorite ice-cream source was closing. Other local parlors, she said, are not the same. "This has charm to it," she said. "It definitely has an old-fashioned feel." James Francis, who lives in Morrell Park, stopped in yesterday while just passing by, something he does every time he's in the neighborhood and sees that Earl's is open. "It's the only place I could find that makes a malted milkshake," the 41-year-old machinist said.
For their part, sisters Hall and Sears are heartbroken. "We hate to see him give it up," Sears said, sighing. "He keeps a nice, clean place."
What, the sisters are asked, tastes so great in Gallion's milkshakes that the ladies would rather keep them in the freezer than buy a box of ice cream at the Shoppers down the way?
"I think Earl himself," says Hall. "He's so pleasant." It's been nice, Hall says, to see the ornery little boy she knew from the neighborhood turn out to be a credit to his "sweet mother," who taught him to cut hair.
When Gallion took over the building, it had been Sollod's Fort Avenue Pharmacy, where he had sipped chocolate Cokes as a boy. Initially, Gallion just wanted to move his hair shop from the space he'd been renting nearby.
But then he saw the fountain, which reminded him of his days as a soda consumer, and then a soda jerk. Why not bring the thing to life, and serve ice cream in the front and pretty hair in the back? The fountain hadn't been used for years, but Gallion got it working again.
While Gallion hopes he can find a kindred soda jerk to take over, he knows there's no guarantee of that. So he'll entertain proposals for some other kind of business in the malt shop, "as long as it's reasonable." (He nixed one fellow's recent offer to rent the place for a video arcade.)
And even if the shop continues to sell ice cream, who knows whether the proprietors will still make the best root-beer float in Baltimore, as the City Paper decreed in 1997. Or whether they'll offer the old-time treats, like a lemon phosphate. Will they order the same special malt to keep the best-selling malted milkshakes thick and foamy? Will they list 22 flavors of snowballs?
Other menu items
There's never been much non-ice-cream food to be had at Earl's. But what there was was old Baltimore. Coddies, that deep-fried concoction of mashed potatoes, crackers and a hint of cod, so hard to find now, could be had for 90 cents. There were "Coney Island" hamburgers for $2.
Jonelle Johnson of Linthicum, 67, often orders those - along with a bag of coddies to take to her mother - after a hair appointment at Earl's. "I'm sorry to see it close, but I know it's a lot of work for him, too," she said.
The inspiration for the burgers, with cheddar cheese cooked into the patty, sauteed onions and a tangy secret sauce, came from a popular Light Street establishment called George's Lunch. Years ago, after the place had closed, proprietor Georgia Karangelen passed the secret recipe for the sauce on to Gallion.
Who will get it now?