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Sizzlin Feature

She Sells Hardshells

A Day in the Life of a Crabgirl

Jefferson Jackson Steele

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By Ingrid Ankerson | Posted 5/24/2000

During the hours that I sell crabs, I believe the very center of Baltimore is where Woodbourne Avenue meets Perring Parkway. It is a bustling corner in the afternoons: rush-hour traffic, baseball practice in the field across the street, dog walkers, joggers, the wafting smell of burgers on a grill, and me sorting and selling live Maryland crabs to what feels like all of Baltimore.

But I have driven past this corner at night, when only the moon and a streetlight touch the corner of the lonely silver crab trailer, like a dimly lit stage between performances. You too may have driven past this corner, may have stopped at this light, may have noticed the trailer for a moment before the light turned green.

I landed in Baltimore three and a half years ago from a small town in Wisconsin, where "seafood" meant beer-battered cod at a Friday-night fish fry. (The move was purely accidental--a long, solo cross-country trip ended with my car wrapped around a light pole at Howard and 25th streets, and I ended up staying.) The first crab I ever ate was at an all-you-can-eat joint in Ocean City. I couldn't stand the thought of ripping off their backs and made my friend do it for me. By the end of the exhausting two-plus-hour feast, I had eaten three crabs. Even as a novice, though, I found every nugget of the experience enchanting. I couldn't wait to tell my family about my introduction to Maryland cuisine--how newspaper was spread across the table, how I pounded the shells with a little wooden hammer, how much fun it was to eat and drink for hours.My introduction to the world of crab sales came one evening when I was waiting tables at a local restaurant about six months after I moved here. A co-worker introduced me to Megan, a crab-selling veteran. Megan and I were both of a literary bent, and after only a few minutes of listening to her rave about all the hours she spent reading at the crab stand, I asked if there were any openings. Two weeks later, I was a crabgirl.

"You sell what? Crap? You sell crap from the side of the road?" my Wisconsin friends and family ask. It's a difficult concept for Midwesterners to grip, this open-air selling of live seafood. Every year at Christmas all my aunts and uncles ask if I'm still selling clams. "Crabs," I say, and they ask how I like living in Boston.

The summer of 2000 will be my fourth at the crab stand, and I consider this the best job I've ever had. I love interacting with the customers. I love the dirt and the sweat, the lifting, the sorting. Most of all I love the time it gives me to read and to write, to observe the season change, and to watch the sun set nightly. I can't think of a better way spend summers in Baltimore than selling its crabs.

"I sell crabs," I proudly correct my family and friends, "live crabs from the side of the road." To this, there is only one question: "Where do you go to the bathroom?"

Arrive at the corner of Perring Parkway and Woodbourne at 2 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. on weekends. Put the signs up first. live crabs goes on an overturned empty bushel basket and is tied to the light pole on the corner. live md crabs hangs on the nail in the utility pole facing the traffic going north. Lean the live heavy crabs sign against the trailer. When the signs are up, line an empty bushel basket with a garbage bag. Put newspapers on the bottom of the basket. The newspapers are very important, as this is the "dead basket"--they soak up the dead-crab juice. Line up four empty bushels and the dead basket and sort the crabs. This bushel is for small males, this for mediums, this for larges, and this for females. Get a full bushel from the trailer and put it in behind the row of empties. Sort: small male, large male, medium, female, dead crab, until each of the five bushels are full. Load the sorted bushels back into the trailer, remembering what size crab is in each one.

Take out the lawn chair, the box of Old Bay seasoning, a clean 7-Eleven coffee cup, and the baggies. To bag the seasoning: Half fill the cup with the Old Bay and dump it into the baggie. Twist and tie. (There are actually two ways to do it: Scoop, dump, twist, tie, scoop, dump, twist, tie or scoop, dump, scoop, dump, twist, tie, twist, tie.)

When you have finished bagging the seasoning, sit.

I spend long, contemplative hours sitting in the lawn chair on the incline above the corner of the crab stand. I watch the traffic bunch up at the red light, wait, pull out at the green; hear someone's subwoofing bass as the car speeds by, or whistles and honks for my legs or my tan.When I sit, I am all the time aware of the traffic, four lanes of wheels rushing past. But if you imagine this scene as a play and myself as a character, the traffic would be nothing more than a backdrop. Onstage is Crabgirl (played by me), dressed in cutoffs and a tank top streaked by my dirty fingers wiped across the belly, my hair pulled up in a ponytail. The oppressive August heat in Baltimore you must imagine also, air so wet and heavy it defies gravity. I wait for customers in the sweltering shade of the oak trees (from which, occasionally, a squirrel tosses acorns at my head), an overturned basket serving as a footstool or table.

I scatter my props for the day about me like confetti: thin slices of poetry, a nectarine, a collection of short stories, a dictionary, three bottles of water, my spiral notebook, a radio, this morning's crossword puzzle, and my shoes. The play is about to begin.

In addition to the noise of passing traffic, an overture of squeals, splashes, and lifeguard whistles from the Swan Lake Swim Club rounds out the background music. Behind me, behind the foliage of the trees and bushes, is a swimming pool. I have spied into Swan Lake several times, peered in past the thick bushes through the wire fence where I can watch the children play volleyball and their parents grill burgers. At times, I've taped be right back to the trailer, run to the pool, and explained to the manager that I'm the crabgirl and may I please use the bathroom. He nods kindly, and points me past the concession stand to the rest rooms.

I am a peasant in a paradise when I enter the Swan Lake Swim Club. My clothes are dirty, my hair stringy, and by this time I have scrapes and bruises on my legs from brushing against crab baskets and wires. As if to mock me, the Swan Lake Swim Club members wear pretty bathing suits and even tans, line up on the ladder of the diving board, jump and splaaassshh, cool water everywhere. How much I would treasure one delicious misting of pool water. I am jealous of the throng of shivering kids waiting to jump in and splash hard.

Once the stand is set up, there is no order to my day, except the passage the sun makes across the sky, stretching the shadows so long the trees lengthen over Woodbourne Avenue and reach into the next block. I have been known to spend an entire day lost in London's Gordon Square with the Bloomsbury Group, in the mythical Mists of Avalon, or roaming the streets of Dublin with James Joyce.

A volleyball thumps the ground beside me.

"Crab Lady! Crab Lady!" a boy hollers from behind the trees. "Crab Lady! Can you get the volleyball?" I toss it between the branches of the oak trees back into Swan Lake's sand volleyball court. "Thanks, Crab Lady!"

I live novels inside my head as I sit, take the characters with me to the crab stand, listen to their conversations over tea, am silently thrilled at the juxtaposition of tea and traffic on Perring Parkway. Lately I've been sitting with Virginia Woolf discussing great poets.

"Tom came down on Saturday. We discussed Ulysses, and got on the topic of great poetry. 'When,' I asked him, 'do you think the last great poet was?'"

"And what was his answer?" I ask, leaning forward in my lawn chair.

"He said there were none that interested him since the time of Johnson. He said Browning was lazy, he said he thought they were all lazy, and that Macaulay spoilt English prose. We both agreed that people are now afraid of the English language. He said it came of being bookish, but not reading books enough."

We chat some time before I find myself in May 1924 of her diary, and pause to write in my own: The crab stand is enchanting. I step out upon a verdant magic carpet, it seems, and get carried into beauty without raising a finger.

A car door shuts. "Whachugot?" a man asks, walking towards the trailer. I spring from my chair, down the incline to open the door of the trailer. "How you doin'?" I ask."All right, whachugot?"

"I got males, $12, $18, and $28 a dozen and females, $16."

"They heavy?"

"Yeah, real heavy," I say, pulling the bushels out of the trailer.

"You sure they're good?"

"Man, they are heavy, and so sweet and full of mustard."

He asks for a dozen females. I count 13 into a paper bag, tell him to enjoy the crabs, and wave as he pulls away and honks.

The days are amazing, with all the lush poetry and the rhythm of the cars. People dive in and out, loudly, divertingly like vultures; I look down Perring Parkway, wet as a crab's back, or yellow and red with heat, and watch the buses going and coming and hear the kids splashing in the pool behind me.

"Attention Swan Lake members!" the lifeguard says over the intercom. "Whoever ordered from Pizza Boli's, your pizza is here. Whoever ordered from Pizza Boli's, your pizza is here."

I watch time pass as the shadow of the no parking sign finds the next hour in the sundial I've made with crayons on the sidewalk. I watch ants line up and crawl in and out of broken shells of crabs crushed in the gutter, pieces of crab in their mouths, to the anthill in the crack of the sidewalk. I eat my nectarine and offer them the pit.

Afternoon, and the rush. Small male, large male, female, dead crab, medium. I sort quickly, bent over the bushels, the back of my legs straining, sweat dripping off my nose. I point and shout: "I got 12s, 16s, 19s, 28s, males, females." There is a line of cars behind the trailer, a line of impatient people around the crabs, a mix of crabs around me. People point, ask, "How much are these? What are these?" "Twelve, 16, 19, 28, males, females." I bend and bag, calculate one and a half dozen, two and a half dozen, count one, two, three, "Where are the crabs from?" "Upper bay," I say, losing count, four, five, a slow six as I have let the crab go of my glove, seven, "Don't that hurt when they bite you?" "A little," eight, nine, "What time are you here till?" "About eight," nine, 10, 11, 12, an extra crab, or if I lose count maybe too many extra, so just not to hear, "You ain't going to give me any extra? That other guy always gives me extra," and I point for the next customer, "These are 12, 16, 19, 28, these are the males, these are the females."

To me, they're all regulars. They all want to know which ones are the heaviest, the sweetest, which ones have the mustard, the eggs, how long to steam them, how they're running, if I catch them myself, if they're local, what kind of deal they can get for three dozen. There are those who only eat females, usually women, believing females have the sweeter meat, or more of it, or they like them for the orange eggs inside. The Asians too like the females; in their countries, they sometimes explain, the eggs are a delicacy. There are those who only eat males, proud to be doing their part to keep the Chesapeake stocked with crabs by letting the females lay their eggs, or those who find the meat easier to get at in a male. There are those who buy whatever's cheapest, or biggest, or whatever I tell them is heaviest today. There are those who tell me they can buy their crabs steamed for less, just up the street.

There is Mr. Bob, the elderly Italian man who never buys crabs, but who takes his dog Holly for a walk past the stand every day and brings me a jar of his famous tomato salad, or a treat from Lexington Market, and stays for an hour making me guess things like how long it took him to sail to America, or how old he is, or how many pounds of sugar it takes to make a jar of peach jam.

There is Bill, who comes with stories of the '60s, of dropping acid, growing weed, who tells me about the characters at his Monday-night AA meetings, and who wants to make sure business is good, tells me he'll watch the stand if I have to pee.

There are the stalkers, the propositioners, the ones who give me their phone numbers or ice cream drinks, who stop just to size me up, up close. Occasionally, there are guys with guns who ask for all the money.

There is the elderly woman who asks me to take the backs off of what she buys for her soup, the man who walks across the street to buy his wife the three biggest crabs I have, the Africans who put the crabs in a curry dish with pumpkin and coconut milk, the women who fry them or steam them with hot sauce. Always, always, there are those who complain the prices are too high or the crabs too light. To me, they are all regulars.

It comes up slowly at first, ominously from the east, dark swollen clouds pulling over the blue, gradually grumbling louder, deeper. I sit like a large blade of grass, hair blowing. I collect my books and put them in my bag. A whistle blows from Swan Lake. I smell it on the road, edging closer, the clouds blacker, bigger, accelerating.The first plops of rain are fat and deliberate. I put my chair in the trailer with the crabs.

Then, CRASH!

What the Thunder Said

A great cacophony of lighting and thunder shakes the corner. It is the grandest climax of the symphony--percussive kettledrum, timpani, the shower pelts the roof like a torrid fanfare.

In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust

Bringing rain.

The view of the corner is different from inside the trailer. The open door frames the Barclay Square Apartments and the evergreens on the other side of Perring Parkway. I can no longer see the traffic come and go, can only hear their delightful skidding wheels pass and swoosh in the puddles.

As the storm eases, I sit among the flies and bushels of crabs. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. The steady rain beats a rhythm on the roof. Poetry.

To the crabs in the trailer I read:

O City, I can sometimes hear

Beside a public bar in lower Thames Street

The pleasant whining of a mandolin

And a clatter and a chatter from within

Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls

Of Magnus Martyr hold

Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

When the sun goes down, Eric the Crabman pulls up in his truck, and it is time to take down the signs. Picture the title of poet Dave Smith's "Snapshot of a Crab-Picker Among Barrels Spilling Over, Apparently at the End of Her Shift." Put all the signs and the chair back in the trailer; help Eric put all empty baskets and any leftover crabs in his refrigerated truck. Count the money. Lock the trailer. Notice that the moon is up now.


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