It’s All True, Hon, Vows Alvarez

Rafael Alvarez, appearing at Cyclops Books in Baltimore in the fall of 2010. Photo: Lauren Barnhart.

Rafael Alvarez has spent most of his 52 years in Baltimore. He spent 23 years working at The Baltimore Sun, writing daily news stories on Baltimore’s odd collection of crimes and misdemeanors. Consequently, his journalism seems full of imaginary people and places, and his fiction reads real. And it all feels Baltimore.

“My journalism informs my fiction,” Alvarez says. While on newspaper and magazine assignments, he picks up stories and details that he can’t use in a particular nonfiction work, so he stows them away and then sews them into his fiction. “A lot of what I do is making a patchwork quilt. I save all my remnants. I’m like the Inuit and the whales; I don’t waste anything…When you use real pieces, it adds some authority.”

A recent story, “Rolling with the Seasons,” was published in September 2010 in The Scotsman, out of, yes, Scotland. An editor from The Scotsman arrived in Baltimore, looking for the real-life places from The Wire, the David Simon-produced television show that Alvarez wrote for that has developed a cult following here. Since the BBC started broadcasting The Wire, Brits have gone wild for the show, and The Scotsman books editor, David Robinson, was doing a “follow the footsteps” story. Alvarez became his guide to Baltimore, and The Scotsman later published Alvarez’s story.

Robinson and Alvarez have become close. Robinson writes in an email:

I’m writing this from Edinburgh, which is one of the more picture-perfect cities you could imagine, but Rafael showed me that a city doesn’t have to be merely photogenic to be fascinating. Sometimes it can be scarred, wounded even, but the people who love it often care for it all the more. So it is, I think, with Rafael and Baltimore–his love of the city is palpable and immediately obvious, even when he might be driving you round the less salubrious parts of West Baltimore.

He understands how the generations have swept into and out of various places, always leaving their mark, and he knows how central that mark, the one that says, ‘This is where I’m from, this is where our family lived for decades,” is to all of us. So yes, Baltimore might have got itself a bit of a bad reputation, its crime and poverty indices might be heading up the graph, but that doesn’t stop someone like Rafael from loving it–in fact I think they probably love it all the more because they know how it used to be and dream about how it should be.

They stay true to their city, even when it’s battered and bruised. If Rafael were born in Glasgow or Liverpool over here, he’d be exactly the same about those great cities, as wounded in their own way as Baltimore is. Mind you, even in Glasgow and Liverpool, I’ve yet to hear of people burying stolen cars in public parks, as happens in “Rolling with the Seasons”!

“Rolling with the Seasons” grew out of a true tale Alvarez stumbled across while working his first “real job” in years. He was in a cubicle at General Dynamics Information Technologies in Rockville, editing Website stories with news from the Balkans to promote democracy in those countries, which were teetering between democracy and totalitarianism. Alvarez edited five stories a day, usually about war crimes or countries wanting to join the European Union or clearing up the rubble of revolutions.

A story came across his desk about a man in Albania who was looking for his dead father, killed by forces loyal to the dictatorship. Every day, the man walked up a mountain, which had become notorious for the mass murders and burials of civilians, and dug in the hills for his father’s body. He finally found it. “I couldn’t forget, even amid the heinousness, the idea of a single individual going into the mountains with a shovel and finding his father,” Alvarez says. “I knew I wanted to do something similar. But I work within a circumscribed area known as the city of Baltimore. I thought, how can I transplant the story to my own back yard but make it organic, so it doesn’t look forced?”

He turned to the urban wilderness of Leakin Park in the 1970s, where bodies were occasionally buried to hide crimes. Alvarez laughs, now, to think of how quaint that is–to bury a body, rather than leaving it on a street corner. “It’s so old school,” he says. Crime novelist Laura Lippman sets one of her stories in Leakin Park, with two young girls hiding a baby in the park’s scrubby land in Every Secret Thing. Seems like Leakin Park is where things in Baltimore get hidden and found.

Alvarez made his protagonist, Junie Bug, take his shovel and head into the wilds of Leakin Park every day, looking for his father’s body, taken from the murder scene outside a sandwich shop and never found again. “On the other side of the world, it’s totalitarianism,” Alvarez says. “In Baltimore, it’s homicide for the sake of a very small and very stupid criminal agenda.”

It wasn’t just the story of a man looking for his father’s corpse. Along the way, Junie Bug finds a livelihood harvesting honey from the park, selling refurbished furniture and odds and ends that he finds in the bushes, peddling tomatoes and herbs that he grows on the parkland. In spending all his time in the park, looking for his father, Alvarez says he is spared the dangers of the streets–the needle, the gangs, the criminals. “Junie Bug’s life was saved by digging for his father,” Alvarez says. His father’s demise was his salvation.

Alvarez believes he has always been a storyteller and always wanted to write fiction but relied on journalism to pay the bills and provide the fodder. Writing his fiction, he says, takes a lot longer than his journalism. I asked about his characters, who all seem to be drunk, off in the head, eccentric or broke. “Just Highlandtown, Hon,” Alvarez laughs. “It’s a town of generally simple people, but all of those simple people are yearning.” He compares his characters to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” “Except they’re walking down Eastern Avenue with a soda and a transistor,” Alvarez laughs.

Alvarez’ most recent story, “Granada in the Drink,” set on a sultry day when a body is found in a Ford Granada submerged in Patterson Park’s lake, features just such a “simpleton,” as Alvarez dubs him. An old barber clings to a character’s sleeve, mouthing utter nonsense and profound truths while annoying most around him. The Granada story will be published in the January 2011 issue of the Little Patuxent Review. To promote the launch, the LPR will host a reading on January 30 at Oliver’s Carriage House.

Alvarez, whose book, The Wire: Truth Be Told, was just nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, will be reading and signing books at the Little Patuxent Review’s Salon Series event on February 7 at the Columbia Art Center. Danuta Hinc and Truth Thomas will also be featured.

Alvarez is the LPR prose editor and also writes for Maryland Life magazine, Patch and Baltimore magazine. The Sundance Channel recently purchased his script about corruption on the Jersey waterfront.

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