Late January might be high muskrat season, but don't ask me to touch one. In truth, I don't even like their skinned bodies when displayed on a bed of ice at the Lexington Market.

I encountered this critter, which normally thrives in the Chesapeake's marshes, often on Saturdays in my childhood, when my mother rounded up her children and led us across 29th Street to Greenmount Avenue to board a No. 8 streetcar.

My mother, who carried the family name of Stewart as a given name, was a descendant of a family whose roots were planted in the Oldtown neighborhood. Her people were original settlers of Baltimore and she was not about to change her shopping habits. So we were off to the stalls where the Stewarts had filled their bags and baskets forever.

Instead of taking the No. 8 northbound to Govans or Towson, we took it southbound and exited below the old Walters Public Bath House, one of the several institutions whose workings she sketched in graphic detail. We got a running commentary on the State Penitentiary, the No. 6 Fire Engine House and of course, Green Mount Cemetery and the Department of Public Welfare. We were city kids, and she did not edit the realities of Baltimore life. In fact, she delighted in them.

Our destination was the Belair Market, which in the 1950s had plenty of raucous life in it. The demolition bulldozers were still decades away. The market stretched along Gay Street near Mott and Forrest. On a Saturday afternoon, the scene there was like something out of filmmakers' portrayal of 19th-century London. While recently at the new film Sweeney Todd, I thought: This is nothing new - it's 1958 Gay Street.

For starters, merchants had disregarded city health department rules and set up a line of skinned muskrats along the granite curbstones, not far from the rails of the Belair Road streetcar. She never bought a muskrat, nor did we eat them - she thought they were a colorful part of the Maryland experience.

There was first-rate people-watching here. Many a shopper here obviously breakfasted on a shot of liquor. Ditto lunch. It was an ethnic festival, too, but not like the ones later presented in the Inner Harbor. People diversity reigned - happily. In addition to varying accents, skin tones and hair and clothing styles, there was the background of pleasantly deteriorating Baltimore.

As a child, I was fascinated by all this show, as well the mazelike intersecting streets the urban planning reformers had yet to correct. Some of the retail stores that adjoined the market were busy money makers; others were junk shops with dusty windows. An amazing cigar store wooden American Indian stood at one store's door.

My mother's shopping list was as colorful as the setting. She headed for the pickled pigs feet, kidneys, liver, tripe and exotic blends of sausage, as well as fresh-ground buckwheat and probably some winter turnips and rutabagas. If the food tasted strong or gamy, she bought it. The next day, Sunday, our breakfast table would hold kidney stew, buckwheat cakes and high-octane sausage you could taste the rest of the day.


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