What the heck is an “Arabber”?
Have you ever come across an unusual word you’d never heard or seen before? Every so often, I’ll bump into one that enters my brain, rolls around in there for years, and then miraculously and unexpectedly fits perfectly into something I’m writing.
Arabber proved to be one such word.
First time I encountered it was on the landmark TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets, which got a lot of its gritty realism from being filmed in Baltimore throughout its 1993-1999 run on NBC. In one early episode, a grizzled Black man named Risley Tucker (memorably played by Moses Gunn) becomes a suspect in the baffling murder of an 11-year-old girl named Adena Watson. Tucker ekes out a meager living as an arabber—a peddler who sells fresh fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn cart in urban neighborhoods.
I never forgot the episode or the word. So, cut to 2018. There I am, starting on Galloway’s Gamble 2—and once I’ve decided much of the story takes place in 1873 Baltimore, that word taps me on the shoulder and I immediately know arabbers will be part of this new story.
The word probably derived from a (non-politically correct) 19th century slang term “street arab” describing nomadic bands of Dickensian urchins trying to survive on mean city streets. Wikipedia says arabbing began in the early 19th century, and after the Civil War, increasing numbers of African American men entered the trade when it was one of the few jobs allowing Black people to be their own bosses.
Their brightly painted and artfully arranged carts became a beloved Baltimore tradition, as did their distinctive calls alerting city residents to their arrival: “Holler, holler, holler, till my throat get sore/ If it wasn't for the pretty girls, I wouldn't have to holler no more/ I say, Watermelon! Watermelon!/ Got ’em red to the rind, lady.”
Although arabbers continued working in Baltimore neighborhoods through the 20th century, their numbers dwindled to a handful. In 1994, a Baltimore Sun article asked, “Isn't there a way to keep arabbing alive? The colorful carts, the shouts of the vendors—these are part of the city's flavor we would hate to lose.” Arabber Ronald Upshaw told the Sun he was proud to provide a service “for a lot of people who can’t always get to the store themselves. We bring it to them.”
The Arabber Preservation Society, formed in 1994, won a Maryland Heritage Award in 2021, and now uses 21st century technology to keep this 19th century tradition going, with a Facebook page and a website—www.arabbers.com
One of the things I most enjoy about writing my historical novels (the award-winning Galloway’s Gamble, and Galloway’s Gamble 2: Lucifer & the Great Baltimore Brawl) is finding bits and pieces of actual history—real people, places and traditions—and using them to season these stories and make them even tastier for readers.
When we meet important supporting characters Solomon Carver and Hub Robinson in Galloway’s Gamble 2, these two Black men are hawking fresh fruits and vegetables from their carts near Baltimore’s new Pimlico horse racing track. And the story immediately identifies them as arabbers. I hope Baltimore area readers will recognize the word and the tradition it represents—and readers elsewhere will get a kick out of learning something new and colorful about the past.