Meet Me at the Old Chuckwagon
Milton Avenue

I was raised on westerns, and my first sight of real horses was when the "Arabbers" came through the alleys selling topsoil and fresh produce. They sang out street vendor songs and walked beside horses that were either ponies or slightly larger. Often they would be pintos or piebalds. Once in awhile I saw a palomino, but chestnut came to be my favorite color in horses, so when I watched the westerns I learned to distinguish the colors somewhat. With a black and white television in the early sixties, it was not so easy to see anything other than the limited chiaroscuro of our 19 inch RCA.

My uncle Ronnie was a self-made film expert, and he helped bolster my early accumulation of westerns watched, if I can take the time to name a category. My father's favorite was "Shane," and I have it on DVD in my collection. Every now and then I pull it from the shelf to try to figure why my father called it his favorite. I have my own reasons for liking the film. There is a simple beauty to it, something unpretentious compared to some others.

When I think of westerns and cowboys, I think of how black urban notions of masculinity in Baltimore might have been affected by what men and boys saw in these movies. I think first of the way we walked down the street. Learning to negotiate the urban landscape was a matter of knowing how to walk with confidence. Men who were up to no good had a predatory way of moving, and it was important for nerdier young men such as myself to know them and know how to respond, if necessary.

When I was working in Procter & Gamble's warehouse, we all walked like characters out of westerns, men and women alike. At least that's the way I remember the folks I worked with. We didn't carry guns in the warehouse, of course, but many of the men I worked with had revolvers, semi-automatics, and shotguns in their trucks and cars. However, inside the warehouse we had only buck knives, and we wore them on our belts, as if to be ready for an assault from a coworker.

We were white and black, and there was one truckdriver who came in regularly and described himself as a "hillbilly" with no fondness for white people. He was probably one of the toughest of all of us, but we all swore machismo and proved it on the parking lot by calling each other out to settle scores with fistfights. We walked to the lot like the characters in the films, steadying from one foot to other while keeping an eye on the target, another man, another human being with whom we had a beef.

The "cow" of cowboys came to me on my first horseback ride. I was riding a mare named Tilly that belonged to another uncle of mine. We were on a farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and unbeknownst to me my trusty steed was a Quarter horse. She was bred for "cutting" or separating individual cows from the herd. We headed down the field toward a barrel at a slow gallop, and when we got to the barrel I eased against her neck with the right rein to signal her for a left turn, and she "cut" so fast I nearly fell out of the saddle.

I continued to ride now and then over the years, getting beyond just watching the first horse handlers I saw, the "Arabbers" of Baltimore. But it's been years since I've been in the saddle, so long that I miss it now. It would probably be wise not to let nostalgia relieve me of a healthy awareness of bones that are forty plus years older than the ones that made it around that barrel with Tilly.

When things went wrong in East Baltimore between men, it was usually a matter of taking risks with one another for the sake of pride or out of some serious dysfunction, some craziness.

The Chuck Wagon was a restaurant that opened a side panel onto the sidewalk for sales in a way that mimicked the chuck wagons in TV and film westerns. One night in the summer of 1969 a friend and neighbor by the name of Oscar was shot to death in the street directly in front of the place. He was taunting another young black man who was not known as a trouble maker, and neither was my neighbor for that matter. He had been drinking. It was the improper alignment of the forces affecting the development of black men in the sixties, a decade when major American cities were war zones between blacks and whites. When Oscar reached into the other young man's car, he was met with a revolver and received a fatal gunshot wound to the abdomen.

It was the summer men landed on the moon. It was the summer of a race riot in York, Pennsylvania. It was the summer I went to the race track for the first time with another uncle and learned the basics of gambling, the merits of "win, place, or show." In the streets black men often lost without placing or showing.

When the Arabbers came through the alleys in the heat of summer, my mother would sometimes take cold water to them. They were always grateful and responded with a series of genuine "Yes mam's and thank you's." The horses stood there obediently, decorated as they usually were with some kind of headdress and then the bells in the harness that let you know they were coming. As a child I wanted to be able to sit on the wagon and pretend it was a stage coach and we were rumbling along somewhere in Arizona and New Mexico. Or I imagined I could take one of spotted ponies and avenge Native Americans.

I often rooted for the underdog without full recognition that I was one of them. After all, I had access to horses beyond the street vendors in the alleys and beyond the dangers of the streets because I had survived the turning of a barrel, and so falling down seemed like something I could avoid--if not all the time maybe in matters of life and death.

So I walk a little like a cowboy at times, or at least the way I think a cowboy walks, especially when I am climbing into my version of a truck, a SUV that is dwarfed alongside a Chevy Suburban the way a pony is dwarfed by a Clydesdale.

Black Urban Cowboys


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