When I think about Joseph C. “Turkey Joe” Trabert Jr., I think about life after death.
Not that Joe’s coming back, not after last week when he left us, at 83, after a long illness. But it’s the neighborhood he helped bring back to life that always stays with me.
That’s Fells Point. Joe was one of those tavern owners along what we used to call the “Foot of Broadway,” back in the anxious 1970s, who helped bring back Fells Point and — in the process — sent a message across the entire metropolitan area that it was OK to venture out after dark in downtown Baltimore.
We were still living in the fearful aftermath of the ’68 riots back then. If you found yourself walking downtown after dark and heard footsteps behind you, they sounded like assassins lurking. Somebody was surely out to get you.
Then came Turkey Joe and a bunch of other bar owners down in Fells Point, flinging the doors open, creating a party atmosphere, encouraging all manner of offbeat behavior. In an uptight era, Fells Point became the place to unzip your inhibitions.
A lot of the newcomers were young people, in their late teens and 20s, kids whose parents had moved to the suburbs in the ‘60s, and they found it bland and boring out there. They were looking for action. Fells Point, with its cobblestone streets, smoky dives, curiosity shops, Broadway Market, maritime history and ethnic mix, had character – and characters.
Including Joe Trabert, owner and patron saint of Turkey Joe’s Bar, on lower Broadway in the very shadow of the Broadway Market.
How did he get that nickname? Well, it depended when you asked.
Sometimes, he’d tell patrons he was born in Turkey. (Actually, he was a Bawlmer lifer.) Sometimes, he’d claim he’d been in the turkey business. (Actually, he was a school teacher before he bought the bar. And after he sold the place, he worked for the mayor’s office and eventually became the city’s film commissioner, helping to land such movie productions here as “Avalon,” “Hairspray” and “The Accidental Tourist.”)
Back in 2004, in a little neighborhood publication called The Fell’s Pointer, a fellow named Mark Walker claimed that Joe, in his youth, resembled a turkey. When he bought the bar, somebody asked, “Would you buy a beer from this turkey?” And a nickname was launched.
The bar became home to a bunch of ink-stained newspaper types as well. The Sun’s folks jokingly called themselves “the Fellowship of Christian Journalists.” The News-American’s were “the Wednesday Afternoon Tea Club,” which naturally met on Thursdays.
Jim Joyner, a plumber by trade but an artist at heart, painted a bunch of turkeys to brighten up the tavern’s walls, and Joe always had some sort of slogan he’d paint on the big octagonal window that fronted the bar.
A typical sign: “You can take the girl out of Glen Burnie, but you can’t take the gum out of her mouth.”
That was Turkey Joe, always looking for a laugh. We were a city in need of laughter back then (and now), and those watering hole and restaurant owners down in Fells Point helped bring some of it back.
Life after death, it was. If only we could do the same for Turkey Joe, one of the good old guys of Bawlmer.
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,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.