Paying tribute to Baltimore's 'Klein'

We scattered the ashes of David Klein — the cantankerous sweetheart known to all as "Klein" — across his old neighborhood last month, over near Hollins Market and as close as possible to 26 South Parkin St., where he grew up with his grandmother in what was once Baltimore's Little Lithuania.

Grams had been a downtown textile worker named Christina Vogle. She's been gone for more than 50 years. The small house in which she cared for her grandson after his mother died was razed years ago, and, in 2014, colon cancer also moved Klein on down the line at the age of 71.


Two years later, Baltimore photographer Jim Burger and I got around to doing right by our friend, a furniture maker partial to salvaged wood and the baker of the best flan in Baltimore.

Jim represented David's paternal Jewish heritage, while I stood in for Rome on his mother's side. Klein, who attended St. Peter the Apostle grade school and caught a whipping for shooting out classroom windows with a BB gun, thought all religion a bunch of hooey.


Yet, some sort of ritual seemed like the right thing for us to do. So we drove through the rain with a jam jar of gray dust and pebbles to a garden across from the Lithuanian Hall where Gram's house once stood, where Klein enjoyed a rich working-class childhood of bottle caps, skate keys and mischief.

I looked for the outline of 26 South Parkin, a long, narrow rectangle that Klein walked off for me in 2012 after the Archdiocese of Baltimore sold St. Peter's — once "The Mother Church of West Baltimore" — to a Protestant congregation.

"We had lot of horse and wagons around here back then," said Klein. "Every day I'm on my knees in the street shooting marbles around horse turds."

A nearby factory made brooms around-the-clock — "Boom, chaka, boom, chaka," chanted Klein, who had a gift for sound effects, funny faces and, most of all, telling stories.

On the corner was "Mister Fred's" grocery, where Grams sent him with nickels and dimes to "buy pig knuckles, beans, onions, baloney."

Down an alley was a shoeshine shop that captivated the boy.

"You walked in – all dark and dingy and cramped, everything smelling like shoe polish," he remembered. "In the back was a little horse-racing machine you could play for a penny. I couldn't wait to play the penny horse game."

Klein earned his pennies on Saturdays by selling shopping bags to housewives at the market, getting two of the twine-handled brown bags for a nickel, selling them for three cents each and taking his profit back to the bag man for more.


And Gram's yard?

Klein closed his eyes and tilted his face to the sky: "A peach tree, fig tree, a little brick walkway in the garden."

To our ceremony, Jim brought a couple of yarmulkes and a pamphlet of Hebrew mourning prayers; I carried my rosary, and we laughed and laughed and laughed at the bounty of ribald mirth that Klein, who could make Buddy Hackett blush, had left us.

Jim and I agreed to this duty not long after Klein's widow Anita allowed me a few scoops from the mortuary box she keeps below an end table in the house she and Klein shared near Lake Montebello.

(If Klein were here to share his beloved chili dogs at the G&A diner in Highlandtown, I know I could prompt that great laugh of his — "hee-hee-hee" — by claiming that I'd skimmed the best part of him.)

In a blunder that surely pleased Klein's ghost, I misplaced his ashes somewhere in my house and spent months looking for them. To which Klein would have said, "WHAT A GOOF!"


This goof finally found by accident what he'd so carefully set aside for safe keeping, and services commenced. As I shook Klein from the jar, I could hear his voice, like a bell that's been rung once too often:

"Them days is gone, pal."

Rafael Alvarez writes from Greektown. His new short story, "Orlo the Chicken Necker," will be published in December. He can be reached via