Feb 02, 2017, 06:02AM

Baltimore’s Morris Martick: Last of a Breed

More tales from Tinytown.

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Katie Brennan

There were no thousand rays of pointed light. It was an easier time. No computers, Internet, CDs, DVDs, cell phones, or cable TV. No Twitter, no tweets. That was 1975. No wars to speak of. Gasoline prices were low. But art students still had to eat on the cheap. The Little Tavern, buy ‘em by the bag, 25 cents each, was on Mt. Royal Ave., next to Lovegrove Alley and Little Caesar’s Sub Shop was on Oliver St. Little Caesar and his son Littler Caesar worked together and were both huge in size. There was nothing little about them. You could feel the deep fat fryer grease floating in midair. Harley’s Sub Shop was around the corner on Charles St. Harley was a local DJ with an oldies music radio show that had a theme song about cruising down the Chesapeake Bay.

Junk food was a main staple food source our freshman year at MICA. Yes, everything centered around art, food, drink, sex, and that watering hole, The Mount Royal Tavern. Over drinks there one night, someone mentioned they were just hired as a dishwasher in this French restaurant downtown, called Martick's Restaurant François. They weren’t sure if they were up to the task. Something about seriously cutting into their drinking time; also they thought the owner may be crazy. That suited me fine as I thought I might be crazy too. The next day I jumped on the opportunity. I figured I could drink after work.

I never knew Baltimore had an authentic French joint until that moment. As I said, it was a simpler time, and this town was anything but fancy. The next day I went to check out my prospects of having a regular meal plan. Martick’s was located on 214 W. Mulberry St. at Tyson St. (Tyson St. is really an alley), between Park Ave. and Howard St. At that time there was Sherman’s Bookstore on the corner at Park Ave., across the street from Martick’s were a few head shops, Brass Towne Antiques, and above it was Mee Jun Low’s restaurant.

A frenetic, always busy peasant style Chinese food place, Mee Jun Low’s was the best of the Chinese restaurants in the surrounding area, but still a poor excuse for a Chinatown in Baltimore. To this date the building where Martick’s thrived is still standing. It looks more like a house than anything else. There’s a tree growing out of the roof now. To enter you had to ring the obscure doorbell. A throwback to its old speakeasy days. A scruffy little man opened the door, Morris Martick. "What do you want?" he said. "I was told you might need some help." I replied. "I'm beyond help,” he said. ”Hurry up, get in here, boss.”

Upon entering, my eyes needed to adjust to the darkness. The first thing I was able to see was a giant chrome espresso coffee machine with a huge brass eagle on top. Along the left wall, shiny metal sheets covered the wall, some claim they were B-52 fuselage. Small rectangular backlit stained glass window decorations above, all handcrafted by Morris himself. To the right is an ancient ornate hand-carved wooden bar. That’s where I sat near the door. On the wall hung Albino snakeskin wallpaper above a long black leather booth. At the end of the booth stood a life-size wood carving by Morris of a woman holding a loaf of bread. It was supposedly Morris’ mother. Definitely a folk art treasure.

I felt like I’d fallen into a time machine, transported back to the Prohibition days of F. Scott and Zelda. The odor of garlic and onions permeated the room. Also, there was a musty ancient smell like I had stumbled into an archeological dig in an underground cave, or some forgotten colonial room on dusty display at a local museum. Once my vision focused on the dimly lit bar, I saw a bottle prominently displayed above all the top shelf booze. The label read “Martick’s Jazz Gin.” My query about the bottle to Morris received a curt reply: “I made that in my bathtub.” 

There were curios and Art Nouveau sculptures displayed around the back bar. The old black rotary phone blasted its ringing bell shattering the silence. Morris quickly answered the phone, “Hello Martick’s, what do you want? What? Table for four at seven, okay, how do you spell that, R-I-D-G no?, R-I- D- E, no? Alright, never mind, just come at seven and don’t forget to ring the bell.” Morris slammed the phone down in its cradle, “Can you start work now?” he stared at me. I stammered, “Well, sure I can.” “Come on, follow me, boss.” He bounded up the steps to the second floor. I was halfway up the steps, when he yelled at me, “Hurry up, time is money, boss.” I couldn’t argue with that. I needed money, time, and food.

Finally at the top of the steps, I was standing in the doorway of a makeshift kitchen, beaming with fluorescent lights. It was very bright and all the stainless steel tables and sinks, along with the massive exhaust hood just made it appear brighter. A steam table filled with stainless containers large and small, which held sauces, rice, soups, and other sides, were within. Above me, hanging down from the ceiling racks, were utensils, pots, and sauté pans of all sizes. Under the tables were plates and platters, ramekins and ceramic soup bowls, all precariously stacked.

On the left side of the kitchen was a six-burner Vulcan stove with oven and a broiler-grill top combo. On a table in the corner, three tabletop gas burners sitting on bricks where everything was cooked. On the floor sat a slop bucket full of grease, kitchen matches and cigarette butts. Above that messy, but functional conglomeration, was the giant exhaust hood that sounded like a rumbling, jet engine when switched on high. I felt at home almost instantly, especially after meeting David and Gary, who were busy at work in the back kitchen washing dishes from the lunch crowd and prepping for dinner.

“These dummies will show you the ropes,” Morris said as he climbed a 15-foot aluminum ladder disappearing into a hole in the ceiling. David and Gary replied, “Fuck you, Morris!” I heard that phrase many more times and said it too, in the years that followed. It felt like an X-rated episode of The Three Stooges. There was a small radio sitting on the window ledge blasting rock ‘n’ roll. From the hole in the ceiling he screamed, “Turn down that damn radio, or I’m gonna throw it out the fuckin’ window!” We laughed. That occurred on a daily basis. One time, while working in the back kitchen, singing along with the radio, Morris started yelling down from the hole in the ceiling, “Turn down that damn radio!” Billy Mo grabbed the radio and threw it out the window. “Fuck You Morris! Happy now?”

My first day on the job was confusing. “Hey, my name is Tom, what do you want me to do?” David replied, “We don’t care, you don’t have to do anything. Do you know how to clean squid?” I didn’t. “Sure” I said. He grabbed a bus tray filled with squid and dumped it into a large colander, then rinsed it out with the spray nozzle hose in the three-compartment sink. It was a multi-purpose sink, used to wash dishes, clean produce, seafood, poultry, and silverware. When you drained all the compartments at the same time, it would overflow the grease trap, and then rain down into the dining room onto table number C6. Always when customers were in the middle of dinner.

The boys began pulling the heads off the squid, throwing them into a bowl, then stuck a finger into the squid body and pulled out a long transparent piece of what looked like plastic. “You see, you pull the spine out and then squeeze out all the guts and slice them into half-inch rubber bands, and throw ‘em in the bowl with the heads. Oh yeah, you also have to pull the bird beaks out of the mouth, right in the middle of their heads between the tentacles too.”

By mid-day Michael would show up. He was an assistant dinner chef along with many others I would come to know as family. Morris liked to cook everything himself during that time. David introduced me to Michael: “This is the Rat, I’m the Pig and Gary’s the Goat. You need to assume your animal identity here soon.” The Rat had a British accent and was very cool. One of the first true punks I ever met. He would say things like, “Milk Rules Okay” and other quotes from A Clockwork Orange, and also listened to mix tapes of Roxy Music and the songs of Captain Beefheart.

I thought about what animal identity I’d become. I announced the next day, "I am the Dog.” All the others agreed that was apropos. David had his own agenda. David was the first political radical I ever met up close and personal. He had a mimeograph magazine called Conspiracy Trail, one of the first underground magazines to publish my poetry.

David was also the first to turn us on to the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Sham 69, The Damned, Wire, The Clash, Black Randy and his Elite Death Squad, X-Ray Specs, and the films of Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero. David went to protests all the time. One that sticks in my head was the protest against the proposed Harborplace, which was then a huge field along the docks at Pratt St. We all know how that one turned out. Also the petition to save Odorite, a pest control and janitorial supply house that was threatened with eviction by Baltimore City. Their window display of monstrous two-foot replica models of roaches, wasps, rats, and mice was a wonderful campy and kitsch Baltimore tableau.

The story of Martick’s goes back to 1917. First operated as a grocery by his parents until Prohibition, it became a speakeasy, a bar after repeal, and a jazz club until the late 1960s. Morris went to France after an existential crisis, learned to cook, and returned to Baltimore to open Martick’s Restaurant Francais in 1970. During the jazz club years it was one of the few interracial establishments in the city, and was also open to gays during those intolerant times in Baltimore. There was an old handbill placard leaning against the espresso machine advertising Hank Williams and Billie Holiday performing live at Martick’s. Morris was a true original Baltimore character who gave others the freedom to be characters too.

One day Morris snuck a pig’s head into the walk in cooler, totally traumatizing David, aka Piggy. David loved pigs so much he had a vast collection of pig memorabilia. One night my future wife, Bronwyn, and some other co-workers taped Playgirl magazine photo cut-outs of huge cocks inside the dumbwaiter, sending it down with the desserts to the waitress on duty that evening, Tess, aka Michael, who was one of the first transgender folks I ever met. I heard the screams and laughter echoing up the dumbwaiter shaft. So did the whole restaurant. Afterwards, Morris was yelling at the entire kitchen staff about what a terrible thing they did but he couldn’t stop laughing. Another time at a dinner party for John Waters, Morris carved miniature penises out of carrots and whipped up a creamy white sauce appetizer for the guest of honor.

It was a beautiful dysfunctional family. In the five years of my apprenticeship there, I viewed Martick’s as my sanctuary, refuge, and sustenance. Morris was the father many of us never had. The rest of that second-hand family and crazy crew is tattooed in my brain forever. Martick’s was a place of tolerance and acceptance for all kinds of people. No one was ever judged or criticized for beliefs or non-beliefs. No one was ever bullied because of gender or sexual preference. Restaurants in Baltimore today could take a cue from his old school finesse. 

  • I wish I had gotten a chance to go to Martick's. It sounds like the free for all of my dreams

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  • Ach! Morris fired me 10 minutes after he hired me!

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  • Sounds like a wild time in the city

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  • What I remember is having to knock on Martick's door and waiting for him peep out the curtain and decide if he was going to let you in to eat or not. it was always a tad nerve wracking..

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  • well , Thanx TD, now i'm Craving! Squid Squid Squid Squid SQUID! Calamaaaaa! been long time since i savored those tentacles and i could Smell them fresh as you pulled the spines with your kitchen zoo crew..you actually were the StrayDog..all eager all learning, Ears UP yep ya took me to Martick's finally here.. the new Harbor police these days would be sending in counter-co-intel under covers to such places of social culinary poetic glory , places of Defiant Reistance , chapels to freethinking, and Food with existential importance thanx TD for the tour again, for the process of "Adjusting my eyes to the darkness", i ask the readers, didn't you feel yourself Doing that? TD's narrative fills the room, i always enter no knocking demanded, just a password, "open the suitcase".

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  • Ah! Nothing like the good old days! The seventies definitely were the times we're all we could think about was party, party, and more party. Also, I lived the little shack that sold 25 cent hamburgers. We used to get them after going to club Venus.

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  • Thanks for taking me back to where I wish I'd been...

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