Tony Todd is lovingly shoveling horseshit out of a stable in the dusty lot behind a West Baltimore building that looks like an old salvage yard from the road, except for the street-art murals of arabbers, Baltimore's wagon-and-horse-drawn vendors, covering the wall facing Fremont Avenue. The complex of structures, with several different stable areas, and an enclosed garage filled with vintage and restored wagons, is owned by the Arabber Preservation Society, which, according to its vice president, M. Holden Warren, wants to turn the site "into a living heritage museum."
Todd, 54, is wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a cap as he sticks his pitchfork into the mixture of straw and shit and scoops it up onto a wheelbarrow. There is still a chill in the air, but after a long winter, the arabbers are preparing for the spring. Another man, who says his name is Shorty, walks up and picks up a handful of hay from a big pile, where a small kitten sunbathes, and feeds it to a tall, black horse in the next stable. "I like everything about arabbing," he says. "I grew up on it."
"The most important thing about arabbers is the joy," Todd adds, stopping a moment and leaning on the handle of his pitchfork. Just above the stable is a portrait of his face, split in two at the top and bottom of the wall, by the street artist Sorta. "It's the joy of senior citizens. They can't get out, and they hear you call and can come to the front door, and you carry it up for them. It's like helping my grandmother or your grandmother."
"This is what we do," Shorty says.
"Horses are in our blood," Todd says. "Doing it all this time."
"Doing this shit forever," Shorty adds and walks off toward what they call the graveyard, a corner of the lot by a group of stables where several derelict wagons topple over one another, their once-vibrant reds and yellows fading in the city sun.
Todd, who comes to work here every day as a stable hand, says he got into arabbing when his godfather Walter Kelly started taking him out when he was only 8 years old. He came up with most of the other arabbers his age, including Donald Savoy Jr. (known as Junior), who is one of the city's best-known arabbers and the son and father of other prominent members of the arabber community (and had a number of horses taken by the city after the arabber stables at Retreat St. were shut down by the city in 2007). Todd says working with the horses kept them all out of trouble. "I would go, get out of school, do what I had to do and then go down to the horse stable. You couldn't come around the stable during school hours. The older guys back then wouldn't allow it."
Todd grins sheepishly, recalling how difficult it was to remember the names and prices of the various items on the first day he went out on one of the red and yellow horse-drawn wagons. Everything was different in those days, Todd says, shoveling all the while. "Back then, we were delivering coal, ice, wood. It was much better," he says. "You had to have big horses. Back then, they were all big horses and big wagons. Now there are a lot of smaller horses. Me, I mostly do pony rides, at birthday parties and stuff."
His godfather, Kelly, was also responsible for Todd's first pony. "When I first started going out with a horse by myself I was selling pony rides, and my godfather bought me a pony and I was amazed that he took his money and bought me a pony and said 'This is yours,' and I started going out and selling pony rides-and back then pony rides wasn't nothing but 15 cents."
They worked all around town and at various festivals, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for the 1976 bicentennial. "We also sold lemon twists, orange twists, slices of watermelon, slices of pineapple, we sold mangoes, we sold cherries," he says. "And all different cultures come from all over the world, and it was a beautiful thing to show their different cultures, their foods, their jewelry, their clothing. It was so beautiful, you know, that was a very learning experience for me. I was no more than 17 back then and my godfather took me over there with him."
When Savoy pulls up in his pickup truck, he remembers how "we used to go down on Camden Street, where there's now the Inner Harbor, and the boats would come right there." He says they picked up produce on one side of the street and fish on the other. Now, Warren says that the produce "is rescued from Jessup, it would be thrown away if they didn't get it." And the horses come from what is called a kill market. "If [the arabbers] didn't come [and get them] they'd be on the road to Canada to be dinner on some French man's plate," Warren says.
Todd is good with horses, leading one back to the stable that has just been cleaned before he sweeps up any last bits of refuse from the ground. "I used to break horses in, never been rode," he says. "I broke my hip doing that. I would go out in the county and even in the city, I used to be down on Carlton and Lemmon street, they'd go up and buy a new horse. Don't know how he ride, and I'd be the first to jump on him. Sometimes they nice, sometimes they not. Bucking and kicking."
Eventually, a man named Frog, who is the manager of the stable hands, arrives chewing a thick cigar beneath a broad-brimmed hat. "You gonna have to clean that up," he says pointing down at the ground in front of the stable as Todd leads another horse back to the stable. The rest of the arabbers have gathered around Savoy's truck outside the fence as Todd finishes cleaning.
"If I never, ever, do anything else with this horse business, it has taught me so much and I have met so many different people, so many different cultures, that I'm blessed," Todd says. "And I thank the good Lord above for allowing me to be blessed, to be able to do this type of thing."
To see a gallery of the Fremont Street stables, visit citypaper.com/arabbers.