Photo credit: Jennifer Bishop
When Little Patuxent co-publisher Mike Clark emailed and requested that I interview his former Baltimore Sun colleague Rafael Alvarez, I launched into research mode. I also downloaded to my Kindle a copy of his latest book, Crabtown USA: Essays & Observations and began to read. Alvarez has been a screenwriter for “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and “The Wire” as well as a ship deckhand and newspaperman. He’s best known for his short story collections, The Fountain of Highlandtown and Orlo and Leini.
Mark Kram, Jr., wrote in his introduction to Crabtown, USA, “Rafael not only winked [at the city], he laid his Orioles jacket over a puddle for her as they crossed Eastern Avenue and eloped with her to Dundalk. Baltimore is nothing less than a beauty queen to him.”
Being a Philadelphia native, I marveled at the Baltimore Alvarez describes — and so clearly loves — because it’s so different than the one I have lived in for the past 21 years. In fact, his love affair with his hometown will leave you feeling as though you must get out more often, wander the streets of Charm City, and pay closer attention.
To give our readers a taste of Alvarez’s ninth book, I excerpted ten particularly interesting segments and asked Rafael to elaborate. Here’s our conversation.
Little Patuxent Review: “[Anna Jones] had a way with the local patois that I inevitably conjure for characters in my fiction and screenplays, not cartoons like the beehive pretenders at that shit-hole restaurant in Hampden but real people who live with the water of Bodkin Creek in their veins.” Describe for us your version of a real Baltimorean.
Rafael Alvarez: It may be somewhat fossilized in the post-factory Baltimore but to me a real Baltimorean is someone who goes to work every day and if the work dries up or goes away they hustle to find the next thing, sometimes mainstream and sometimes under the table. I think of my good friend Petey who paints houses and is never too busy — no job too small — to help someone out with a quick paint job or caulking job for less than what the market would bear. And then Petey goes home and feeds stray cats behind the Royal Farm store because he hates to see them go hungry. That’s a real Baltimorean to me, male or female, child or adult. My Polish grandmother was as real a Baltimorean as I ever knew — she ventured across the city on transit buses, treated her grandkids to movies downtown at the Hippodrome and worked in sweat shops as a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
LPR: “My father’s mother, Frances Prato Alvarez, died when I was at sea in 1976, just a year or two before I realized that while good stories can be found all over the map, the best ones are stirring something on the stove with a wooden spoon.” Tell us about your grandmother and in influence on you.
RA: Perhaps no one has had a bigger emotional influence on me than my Italian grandmother, Francis Prato Alvarez, 1906 to 1976. She is at the heart of every story grounded in the Macon Street rowhouse where my father (born 1934) grew up. The early “Basilio” stories only hinted at her (read Fountain of Highlandtown) because Grandpop loomed large over those early stories. “Francesca” became real in my fiction when I discovered that she was Leini’s best friend and they had known each other as adolescents. It is Leini who teaches the legally blind Francesca, at age 15, to sign her name by showing her how to trace it over and over again.
LPR: While sick and feverish in the late 1990s, you saw the specter of Anne Frank hovering near your tin ceiling. You wrote that “but for the rest of that year, by diminishing degrees, it felt as though she and I were the same person, that somehow I became Anne Frank while remaining myself.” What was that experience like and how did it impact you?
RA: Although I hint at it in my writing from time to time, this is a very private experience and I don’t want to tarnish it by talking about it too much. Suffice to say that when I told one of the more learned Orthodox rabbis in the Northwest Baltimore shtetl about it, his response was, “You were Anne Frank for two weeks and you didn’t tell me?”
LPR: Your father was a tugboat man with Baker-Whitely Towing Co. He knew before you the late poet David Franks, about whom you wrote an essay in Crabtown USA. Share with our readers the story about the tugboat symphony, “Whistling in the Dark.”
RA: The Franks’ tugboat symphony was well documented by Franks, whose archives have been preserved in the basement of a rowhouse deep in the bleeding heart of the Holy Land. My father told the story at the dinner table when I was maybe 12 years old and it was fascinating. I wanted to meet the kind of people with ideas wild enough to ‘conduct’ a fleet of tugboats and their shrill whistles. Here is the Baltimore Sun obit on Franks, written by a friend of mine — Arthur Hirsch — whom I introduced to Franks several years before the poet’s death.
LPR: Reading your book helped me to see my adopted city and understand its quirkiness and charm in a new way. You delve deep to highlight character and place, such as Kramer’s Golden Crisp Popcorn Shop and Miss Anna, Monkey Row, and A-Rabbers. When you think of B’more, what images pop immediately to mind that you’d want others to know?
RA: So much of what I want them to know is gone – Karcz’s Café on South Broadway, Corral’s Spanish restaurant, also on South Broadway (Vagabond Theater in that spot now); the Broadway Recreation Pier will be condos by the time this interview is published, when I was little (and my mother and her mother before then) it was an urban rooftop playground (visible in some scenes from the NBC show ‘Homicide, Life on the Street’); the marble steps are still here but no one scrubs them, Martick’s Restaurant Francais – gone. So I have used my work not only to tell stories and weave fact and fiction into ‘tales’ but I use the narrative to preserve places that are gone. The images I want people to see have to be read in my books and then ‘conjured.’ If they can truly “see” them, I’ve done my job.
LPR: In the early 2000s, you made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles about which you write in Crabtown USA. Along the way, you meet all kinds of characters and deposit 78 copies of LINK and Crabtown Stories with those deemed worthy. Each copy included ways to get in touch with you. Has anyone ever reached out?
RA: Nope. Not a single person. Though apparently I gave a copy of my book Storyteller to someone in a Starbucks south of Kalamazoo, Michigan back in 2014 who wrote and told a friend about it. I am often greeted on the road by fellow Baltimoreans because I am always wearing my orange, floppy Baltimore Orioles “cartoon bird” hat.
LPR: What did you learn about yourself on that trek?
RA: That as I grow older I love solitude. That on long trips across flat states where the road ribbons out for miles in front of you stories not only come to you that you could never have imagined sitting at the keyboard but often SOLUTIONS to literary puzzles set down in early drafts of existing stories sometimes make themselves clear. I learned how much I love the early morning, sipping coffee and saying the rosary with the sun coming up as I drive east toward home from Mississippi; how much I love the magic hour of late afternoon after a roadside nap, sipping coffee and listening to the blues in the orange/pink/gray sunset as I drive west toward Iowa and the cornfield where Buddy Holly crashed in February of 1959, the great Dion DiMucci miraculously spared death.
LPR: You wrote, “Now to be an artist or poet in Baltimore — a weirdo, a drifter, a dreamer — is common but good jobs are scarce.” You’ve had many interesting jobs. Share highlights with us. Looking back, would you do anything different?
RA: I would have partied less and read more. I would have taken advantage of the wide array of theology and religion courses offered at Loyola College while I was there (1976 to 1980) and spent less time wondering what Keith Richards and Robin Trower were up to. I would have taken more photos of things that are gone.
LPR: Your description of a real hon made me laugh out loud. “You know how to have a good time but you also “know your place.” You’re not cheap — either in your morals or “pocky book” — or else other Hons “will talk shit about you.” How do you like to have a good time? If a Hon were to “talk shit about you,” what would she say?
Illustration by Billy Ray Gombus
RA: She might say, “He’s a charmer, I wouldn’t trust him …”
LPR: Good to know! What are you working on these days?
RA: A book about World War II love letters (non-fiction) and a new short story (fiction) called “Spellbound in the Family Circle,” about following a woman through India as she buys a wedding dress during the week of Mother Teresa’s funeral.
Online Editor’s Note: Thank you, Rafael, for showing me the unexpected beauty of Baltimore and reminding me what I love about this city. Whether you’re a native Baltimorean looking to take a stroll down memory lane or a transplant like me, pick up your own copy of Crabtown, USA. If you’d like to meet Rafael in person, he’s hosting a reading of his new story, “A Banquet of Onions” at Ikaros Restaurant (4901 Eastern Avenue) in Greektown on Sunday, April 10 at 4 p.m. The event is a fundraiser for Mother Seton Academy.
Read Susan Thornton Hobby’s 2011 blog post on Alvarez.