Some men live larger than others, and you see that in the range of their experiences and interests, the number of stories they tell and lives they touch. They have insatiable desires to go somewhere new, to meet new people, make friends, read books, listen to music, raise a glass and have a good laugh.
That was Turkey Joe Trabert, the lifelong Baltimorean, one-time saloon keeper and film-location expert who died Thursday at 83. He loved Baltimore and baseball, beer and beer cans, snow domes and painted screens, grand opera and folk art, history and trivia, old jokes and dirty jokes, crab cakes, sour beef, pickles, and liver-and-onions.
Which reminds me of a story.
One night, Joe and his wife, Sherry, spotted a dinner special at a tavern on Belair Road: “Liver and onions, mashed potato, one vegetable for $4.95.” Joe never wanted liver-and-onions cooked at home. The smell reminded him of Arbutus.
Which reminds me of another story. (I‘ll go come back to the tavern in a minute.)
For part of his life, Joe roamed Wilkens Avenue — he called it “the Vilkens Strasse” because of the families of German descent who resided there — and he lived in Arbutus. (He used to refer to Arbutus as “the gateway to Halethorpe.”) His next-door neighbor’s house frequently smelled bad because there were seven kids and their mother cooked liver a lot.
Now, back to the tavern on Belair Road.
So the place is packed with people at 6 o’clock. They all want the liver-and-onions special. Suddenly the waitress comes out and says they’ve run out of liver, but everybody can have hamburger steak for the same price. The customers are upset, far more than you might think. Except this is Baltimore, right? People take tavern signage seriously, especially when the special is $4.95. Joe and Sherry hear a guy say he’s leaving to go “all the way over to Harford Road to have a steak at that cop bar.”
And that reminds me of another story.
Turkey Joe became a Baltimore character because he owned a Fells Point bar in the 1970s and that’s what he promoted — lots of character, with some quirky antics and snappy, comic repartee. Joe was the main bartender and the main attraction. Politicians, cops, newspaper reporters and professional athletes were drawn to the place. “You went there because of Joe,” says his old friend, Baseball Billy Jones.
And that’s another thing: Turkey Joe had a nickname and felt obliged to give one to almost everyone else. So Jones became Baseball Billy, and there was Johnny The Tambourine Man, Gasoline Nancy, Skates, Space, Monk, Rat, Trash Mary, Bernstein The Clown and Karl The Clown Hater.
“You’d walk in, and Joe was behind the bar and he’d announce you, he’d introduce you to everybody,” says another friend, Howard Greenblatt. “Joe used to go with me to the Suburban House for lunch — he always ordered hot pastrami with latkes and pickles — and he didn’t know anybody there, but by the time he left the place, people from five tables would be laughing and talking to him.”
And that’s kind of what happened at the tavern on Belair Road.
The customers were angry about the lack of liver, but most decided to stay for the hamburger. Joe was right in the thick of that decision. “There was something nice about it,” he told me at the time. “The brief period when complete strangers banded together to criticize and mock the management for not having liver was a throwback to the good old days.”
Which reminds me of another thing about Joe: He had amazing recall. His brain contained acres of Baltimore history, especially about the old breweries. He gave me what I still consider the best-ever Baltimore trivia question: “What separated the Land of Pleasant Living from the Land of Sky Blue Waters?” (Answer below).
And Joe knew more jokes than anyone. If laughter makes you live longer, Joe is personally responsible for increasing the life expectancy of most of his friends and relatives.
I learned a lot from him — about Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, and the emergence of Fells Point as a destination for people who wanted to pub-crawl or stay past closing and buy a rowhouse. He introduced me to people who remain friends, and to Nickolai Volkoff, the bad-guy wrestler, which reminds me of another story . . .
But I’ve run out of room. That happens when you try to sum up the life of a man who lived such a large one. Rest in peace, Turkey Joe. Thanks for the memories and, most of all, the laughter.
(Answer: O’Donnell Street. Once upon a time, the National Brewery and the “Land of Pleasant Living” stood across from Hamm’s brewery and the “Land of Sky Blue Waters.”)