The three of us, ducking out of a mean winter’s Siberian chill, warmed ourselves the other day by dipping into Gil Sandler’s memory bank. Gil’s our great “municipal rememberer.” He stores memories the way other people store coins in a pushke, all designed to be shared at large.
Nearly a century ago, he grew up on Cottage Avenue, off of Park Heights, just above Park Circle and the grand Carlin’s amusement park.
“Cottage Avenue,” said Alan Feiler, the editor-in-chief of this magazine and an old friend of Gil’s. “Isn’t that where Talmudical Academy used to be?”
“Absolutely,” said Gil, looking back a mere 88 years. “When they built the school, they took away our ballfield.”
Give him a location, Gil Sandler gives you a memory.
They take us to every corner of Baltimore — to its vanished political clubhouses and smoke-filled wartime nightclubs, its synagogues and its burlesque houses, its packed trolley cars and its Howard Street department stores, its delis where chicken fat hung from extended fingers, and its shvitzers luxuriating at the city’s public baths and drying off with their rented five-cent towels.
He knows. He was there through it all, and he remembers.
Gil turns 95 on Feb. 3, and the stories still burn brightly. He’s been bringing them to us with his books — “Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album,” “Small Town Baltimore: An Album of Memories” and “The Neighborhood,” about the city’s Little Italy — which are all treasuries of photos and text.
And, of course, his columns across multiple decades at The Evening Sun and other publications, and his broadcasts for WYPR Radio, where he finished 2017 by signing off for the last time. (But the station will broadcast taped Sandler reruns over the next two years, with proceeds going to his alma mater, Baltimore City College.)
Each offering was a kind of love letter to an era, or the opening of a time capsule declaring: Here’s how it was around here back in the great long-ago, and this is how your parents’ and grandparents’ world evolved into your own.
The world moves so quickly today. But Gil’s stories allow us to slow things down for a few moments, to catch our breath, to remember when people conversed with each other instead of sending text messages, when kids played ballgames in the street instead of video games in the club basement.
From Cottage Avenue and its stickball games, Gil found Carlin’s Park and its amusements, and the Avalon movie theater on Park Heights, and the streetcar down to the old YMHA at 305 W. Monument St.
All were the beginnings of a lifelong love affair.
That’s what his memories are all about, after all. You don’t spend decades talking about people just because it’s a nice way to make a living. You do it because you’ve fallen in love with the people and places, and the sights and sounds, of all that have touched your life, and the life of your hometown.
Here’s a sample of Gil at his best, from “Small Town Baltimore.” See if you can read this and not sense a fellow who’s given his heart to the immediate world around him:
“There were distinct noises. Voices and clanging and whistles and roars. The streets were filled with the cries of newsboys. (“HeyGetchaSunNews!”) and, within an hour of a major news event, shouts like ‘Extra! Extra! Louis KOs Schmeling in first round!’ rang out.
“The air brakes of streetcars gave off a whoosh-whoosh, and the motorman’s busy heel beat out the incessant ring-ring-ring of the bell. At Howard and Lexington streets, vendors shouted, ‘Shopping bag, three cents,’ and down the streets of rowhouse neighborhoods, the A-rabbers calling through cupped hand, ‘Waldeemelonlopescaw’ — watermelons, cantaloupes, corn.”
Savor the memory, and savor Gil Sandler’s telling of the stories, and know that he’s not talking off the top of his head. If he doesn’t recall something, he’s off checking the old clips, going through records, interviewing people who do remember.
He’s been our municipal archivist, digging deep into Baltimore’s very soul — and, in the process, exposing his own. It’s a beauty.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.