“Be a roughneck for once and ride down to Back River,” he suggested. “There’ll be rough stuff there if you want it, but you’ll he safe enough if you’re good.”
By H.L. Mencken (The Baltimore Sun, 7/23/1911)
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”HEY, wait a minute there! Who you shovin’, Bo! Where boutsya walkin’ at, them’s my feet! Take yer time, Sport, plenty more cars! You shove yer elbow at me once more an’ I’ll bounce you one on the conch! Come on, conductor, give him two bells! Let’s go!”
Ding, ding! They’re off. Hanging on the footboard, clinging to the bumper, standing up between the seats, sweating copiously and all thirsty, the crowds start every night from Holliday and Baltimore Streets for Back River, where the rancous-voiced vaudevillians sing and dance to the accompaniment of gurgling beer and popping corks.
Rough they are, some of these crowds, and trouble looks sometimes imminent. But a close study of the frequenters of the Back River resorts shows that in spite of all their rough end ready business they are a pretty good-natured throng. Half the time when they talk fight they let it go at that, for all are seeking fun and diversion and they don’t mean half they say.
A trip to Back River is worth taking. Once there were two young men standing at Baltimore and Holliday streets watching the crowds board the cars. One of the men was a chap who knew the last names of half the bartenders in town and could tell unhesitatingly where a drink could be had on Sundays. The other was a gentleman, for he never drank too much, and the pleasures of the plain people did not appeal to him.
The pushing, surging throng fighting for a toe hold on the crowded cars interested him. He wanted to know why they shoved each other so and why they were so keen on getting to Back River. He had never been there, so the other suggested that they take a ride and follow the crowd.
“Be a roughneck for once and ride down to Back River,” he suggested. “There’ll be rough stuff there if you want it, but you’ll be safe enough if you’re good.”
So they plunged in with the rest of the mob, squirmed their way through and succeeded in getting aboard the car. They joined In the pleasant persiflage considered ethical on a Back River car, let their fellow passengers walk on their feet, did a little elbow and foot work themselves and were perfectly contented and happy. Everybody was growling at everybody else, and all enjoyed it very much.
The Back River cars run out Lexington street, turn down Caroline street to Fairmount avenue and thence through Highlandtown to the Eastern avenue road and then on to Back River. It is a long and tiresome ride through the city, but when the car reaches Highlandtown the things that are said make the ride worth while.
Somehow or other everybody says something sarcastic about Highlandtown as the car runs through, which shows ignorance, because Highlandtown is a perfectly good place and full of excellent people.
When the car gets to Eastern avenue and leaves the place where the Bay Shore cars slant off on their straight line, the motorman lilts up a good speed, and a cool breeze sweeps through the car. The people on the footboard take a firmer grip and yell to the motorman to go as far as he likes. The motorman jacks up the controller handle a little more and the car bounces merrily on.
OUTPOSTS OF THE MECCA.
Pretty soon the outposts of the Back River resorts are passed. They are roadhouses and on the porches and at the tables under the trees are coatless ones drinking beer to their hearts’ content. A few drop off the car at these places, but most of the crowd stays on, for they’re bound for the parks which make Back River famous. Past Prospect Park, Liberty Park and the ball grounds, that have received so much attention from the pulpit, the car goes until this side of Back River is reached.
There used to be a wagon bridge over Back River, but that has been torn down and a new concrete structure is being built. So the only way to get across the river is to take the car. At this side there are not so many garish lights, but the car almost empties itself.
The places of those who get off are quickly taken by those who have already visited the resorts there and are finishing up the trip by going to the parks. They crowd on as if the car was the last to be run for a year, but they’re all jolly and when they walk over somebody’s feet they act as if they are sorry it happened.
Now we come to a really pretentious place. It is ablaze with electric lights and there are a whole lot of attractions. There are two towering roller coasters on which the reckless ride, there is a shooting gallery, an every-time.you-hit-the-baby-you.get-a-good-cigar arrangement, a couple of ring-throwing devices, a carrousel and several other gentle amusements for the guileless.
But nobody stops for them, and the young man who had never been to Back River before wondered where the crowd was going. He, and his companion followed along until they found themselves in a big shed filled with little white tables, among which strong-armed waiters were rushing bottles, while a thirsty crowd spent its time absorbing moisture and listening to a song from a stage at one end.
Coatless gents who were not interested in the show sought to beguile the “kiddos” who strolled aimlessly around. Fancy of dress and dainty of face were these pretty girlies, but they had an eye open to the main chance and a man who looked as though one bottle of beer would be his limit was passed by stonily. If a live wire who made a noise like real money invited the ladies to sit down they accepted his invitation graciously and the world moved pleasantly on.
The waiters belong to the regular type of park servitors. Most of them look as if they do prize fighting as a side line and all have an efficient appearance. Few of them are fat and none is unduly thin. They look clean-cut and strong, and putting down trouble is one of their specialties. It would never do to “start anything” when they’re around, for the rash person who thought he could clean the place out would never finish it.
You don’t have to wait long to be served at Back River. As soon as you find a vacant table and take your seat a waiter in a blue shirt and an apron, with a bottle opener dangling from his belt, is at your side. He leans over, with one foot back in the pose of a discus thrower, and he’s off as soon as you give him your order.
In a remarkably short time he is back with about a dozen bottles on his tray. You get yours and he passes on, distributing his cargo to the people surrounding you. That is the way he and his mates do business. They waste no time in idle running back and forth, for they get the orders in a bunch and bring them all along at one time.
This H.L. Mencken photo was taken at the Hotel Rennert in 1933, after Prohibition was repealed, but we are sure he enjoyed many beers like this at Hollywood Park. ( Frank Miller / Baltimore Sun Photo )
All around are people industriously drinking. To sit at a table with nothing in front of you is akin to treason, and nobody does it. They know that the proprietor is not in business for his health. So back and forth the waiters ply and they are seldom empty-handed.
“Where’s that rough stuff you were talking about?” asked the man who had never before been to Back River.
“There isn’t any around,” replied his friend. “See that guy with the cap and the blue coat? His job is to see that nobody gets ugly, and he’s got all this bunch of husky waiters to help him preserve peace. It would be unhealthy to ‘start anything’ here. Anybody who wants a fight would have to go out in the road to get it.”