11 Mar Baltimore’s Lightman, May He Rest in Peace

Jill and I have learned that Mr. Herstein passed away recently. He owned a dusty, crowded lamp shop on Howard Street, downtown. Howard Street used to be the Baltimore’s premier avenue for antique shops. There are still a couple of high-end stores there. But the street is long past its prime, as Mr. H’s shop illustrated. For many years, Jill and I had heard about him from our fellow antique collectors. Some days he was open, some days he was not. One sun-beaten August morning some years ago, we found him open, hunkered in a wooden desk chair at the back of his sweltering shop, next to his fridge-sized safe and surrounded by a scatter of aged lamp parts -— as if he himself had been left there by a careless Maker long ago.

Mr. H. looked 90 and seemed to be melting: a little puddle of a man, his bearded face sunk into shoulders and his chest sunk into his ribs. He has trouble talking, the result of a stroke, we supposed, and his arms were bumpy from a condition that Jill and I could only guess at.

He said he’d been in his shop for 20 years. We thought it more likely 60 or 100 years. His place was such a forgotten wreck, I could hardly believe I saw a couple of customer tags on a few floor lamps behind his cluttered counter.

Mr. H eyed us curiously because — I was thinking — he hadn’t seen anyone enter his shop in a long time. We told him we were looking for vintage chains for a hanging lamp. The new chains were too thin and shiny.

“For old chains like that,” he said, “you gotta go in the basement.”

Yes, I nodded eagerly: the basement! I’d been once before. It’s dim, dirty, and scary as hell.

Painfully he pushed himself out of his chair, then shuffled to the back room, where salvaged light fixtures were heaped in a knee-high tangled mass that reminded me vaguely of those horseshoe crab heaps on dark green beds of seaweed at lowtide way up on northern shores. Right on top of the heap I found an old ceiling pan with heavy chains, all of it painted silver: more paint stripping?

Mr. H pulled out a pen knife, picking at it to retrieve the blade. I recalled that every old man from my childhood had carried a pen knife. It was as necessary in those days as a cotton handkerchief.

“This’ll get it open,” he rasped.

He jimmied the knobless basement door, then pushed it open. “Be careful,” he cautioned.

Because I’d seen it before, I was not stunned by the mess down there: aged brass light sockets scattered over the dust-black concrete floor— so many sockets there was no place to step . . . except on them, as if I were crunching my way over a shell-strewn shore. Dangling from a ceiling joist, a single bulb illuminated the dank space: there was a listing workbench in one corner, crowded with blackened wooden trays of dust-covered parts. Then the dark-dark far back, which beckoned the adventurer in me.

I started picking and probing, finding plenty of pieces that might be useful if they could be cleaned.

Jill called down to me every few minutes as if checking on a spelunker dangling in a chasm. There was so much junk here, I could have spent hours pawing through it: who knew what I might find?

As I stepped gingerly into the darkness, I could make out another naked bulb, whose pull I yanked, giving me more dim light to search by. Soon I was in the far back under yet another weak bulb, wondering if the mold down here was toxic.

Finally Jill came down, knowing I wouldn’t surface unless forced to. Emerging from the gloom, I found her laughing at the foot of the stairs as she surveyed the incredible mess.

I said, Mr. H is gonna sell me some of this dusty, rusty stuff, even though he himself hasn’t been down here in decades.

Upstairs again, with blackened hands, I showed him what I’d found, including a fistful of chains. “You don’t want these,” he said, tapping two large solid brass fittings that would bring plenty online—not that Mr. H was going to auction them or sell them to anybody. He simply knew their value and was obliged to charge what they were worth: clearly more than I wanted to pay. I nodded in agreement.

When we catalogued my selection, he said, “I don’t want to make you pay too much but then I don’t want to let you have it too low.” I suggested we throw in the painted light pan I found in the back room. We paid him $12.

Jill said she wanted to buy his display case. She’s always doing this, asking about what obviously isn’t for sale or what can’t be seen. Mr. H said she’d have to wait until he’s dead. Then, apparently prompted by the thought of his own demise, he told us about old Baltimore, how there used to be a toll gate just north of Druid Hill Park and how the politicians used to be too obviously crooked. When he started out, he said, you had to be careful if you were Jewish, like him, and it was tough to find a job. Blacks, he said, were all but invisible. He ended up working for the government as an acoustical engineer—and he still writes reviews for one of the engineering journals.

So what are you doing here? we sputtered.

“This?” he croaked, smiling his crooked smile and raising the gnarled fingers of one hand as if to draw the crumbling shop into his palm: “This is just a hobby.”