Lucy Sunderland, a student at St. Paul’s School for Girls, eats her first oyster at Faidley’s in Lexington Market. Credit: Jim Burger
Lucy Sunderland, a student at St. Paul’s School for Girls, eats her first oyster at Faidley’s in Lexington Market. Credit: Jim Burger

Now and again, a young person with dreams of becoming a writer (not PR, not tech, not “content,” but vocation with a capital V – a calling) comes to me for advice.

So, you want to be a rock and roll star? They always do. The lyrics to the song of that name advise wanna-bes to “take some time and learn how to play.” And be it the electric guitar or electric typewriter, it takes more time than most beginners are willing to sacrifice.

I tell them to forget about an MFA in writing (and perhaps college altogether during this long, strange moment in which we struggle) and run away with the circus. They laugh nervously, more so when they realize that I’m not joking.

When I was in high school, with literary desire so big it would be an embarrassment to confess), I came across this quote in the library: “Get action. Do things. Be Sane. Don’t fritter away your time. Take a place wherever you are and be somebody.”

Attributed to Teddy Roosevelt – and sometimes called the Rough Riders’ Creed – it so moved me that I scrawled it across my looseleaf binder next to titles of songs by The Who. And while I wasn’t about to gallop up any hills with guns blazing, the exhortation propelled my quest to climb the shelves of every library in the world.

Not long ago,the granddaughter of dear friends from Highlandtown – a 10th grader at St. Paul’s School for Girls named Lucy Sunderland – came knocking with a backpack of stories and ambition.

The Greatest Show on Earth folded the Big Top back in 2017, so the circus was not an option. I suggested the next best thing, a day at Lexington Market on Paca Street, where elephants once paraded when Ringling Brothers came to town.

Bring your notebook, I told her, and an appetite. To make the morning more entertaining, I invited local bon vivant and 21st century A. Aubrey Bodine – also known as the photographer Jim Burger – to come along. We set out to introduce young Lucy to the fine art of getting strangers to talk about themselves while being photographed.

We met at St. Alphonsus Church on Saratoga Street (a few doors away from the long-shuttered Marconi’s) and sat quietly in the Oz-like sanctuary before walking to the Eutaw Street entrance of the market, where Konstant Candies and Peanuts sold goodies for more than 125 years before closing on the last day of 2019.

Konstant’s was once the place where Orioles fans bought their peanuts before a ballgame. The company had considered reopening in a new free-standing addition to the market but said discussions with the developer fizzled.

The new market building is scheduled to open before the end of the year and will feature legendary Italian grocery Trinacria, founded in 1908 a few blocks away at 406 North Paca Street. Trinacria is one of about two dozen vendors who have committed to the site. Others include Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, Tio G’s Empanada, and Black Acres coffee roastery. More businesses are expected to sign on in coming weeks.

But it was what remains of the old to which Lucy was introduced on a cold Friday morning in “the east” market, built in 1952 and also scheduled for renovation. One of our first stops was the Berger’s cookie counter of Minas and Fannie Houvardas, market vendors since 1975. Natives of Karpathos, Greece, they immediately recognized Lucy as a descendent of Hellas. Her great-grandfather, the late Lampros Kontos, owned Lou’s Bar on Eastern Avenue in Greektown.

They fussed over her like she was their own granddaughter and offered a cookie. When I was a young reporter and Baltimore was still something of a factory town, I had family friends and relatives in the brewing, waterfront and auto industries, folks who wanted to see me succeed and were always willing to say (off-the-record) what was really going on behind the scenes. If Lucy had been on assignment instead of a school project, the Houvardas family would have done the same for her, something to remember when cultivating sources.

Lucy Sunderland with Minas and Fannie Houvardas, purveyors of Berger Cookies, at Lexington Market.

From there we got fried chicken for lunch – the classic Baltimore “chicken box” – a staple offered by several vendors. But Burger, who knows things, said it had to be Parks, so Parks it was. Lucy ordered a breast and fries, passing up chicken livers said to be among the best in the city.

We encountered a woman who saw Lucy taking notes and said she too had wanted to be a writer once upon a time. Her name, she said, was Tuesday Barnes and while learning the reporter’s ropes, someone mentioned the old newspaper saw that if a story “bleeds, it leads.”

A relative, Barnes said, had recently been murdered and that was enough for her to pursue other work. Barnes did give Lucy a bit of advice, however, saying, as we turned to leave, “The most important thing in journalism is it is what it is and it can’t be what it ain’t.” There you go, Journalism 101, free for the asking on the streets of Crabtown.

We chatted up a janitor named Rob, ogled a display case of cupcakes (yellow and pink frosting, three for two bucks) and looked at a mural (all but hidden, Burger had to point it out) by Bob Hieronimus.

Then it was on to the cornucopia of fruits de mer, Faidley’s Seafood. Opened at the market in 1866 and still owned by descendents of founder John W. Faidley, it is a market unto itself . Celebrated for its crabcakes, its stalls are beds of ice heavy with fish, shrimp, crab, clams, calamari, mussels and, our objective – oysters.

While Lucy spends a lot of time at her grandparents’ riverfront home on the Eastern Shore and is an accomplished sailor, she admitted never having the stomach to slurp an oyster. And thus was tossed into the deep end of first-person reporting.

Scribbling in her notebook while chatting up Lou Fleming, Baltimore’s premier oyster shucker as he told muskrat stories, Lucy was soon face-to-face with a cold and shimmering oyster on the half-shell.

She stared it down and then, like a champ, tossed it back in a single slurp, saying it tasted just as she’d been told it would while begging off in the past: Like the crisp waters of the Chesapeake Bay itself.

Before the delicacy had hit Lucy’s stomach, Fleming was passing on a statistic too good to double check: “They say that of all women trying raw oysters for the first time, 90 percent of them will eat oysters for the rest of their lives.”

Rafael Alvarez can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com