A lifelong Baltimorean, born on Bob Dylan's 17th birthday, Rafael Alvarez has spent the last 35 years writing about his hometown -- and when he can get away with it -- nothing else. The author of the epic "Orlo and Leini" stories, he is about to finish a history of The Tuerk House, a pioneering drug and alcohol rehab in Baltimore that was one of the first facilities for the poor when alcoholism was decriminalized in 1968.
Alvarez wrote for each of the first three seasons of the HBO drama, " The Wire," and was especially involved in season two, which focuses on the Baltimore waterfront. His book about the show -- the encyclopedic "The Wire: Truth Be Told" -- was published by Grove/Atlantic and was nominated for a 2011 Edgar Award.
His influences include the great Johnny Winter, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Number of posts: 13
Email address: email
By Rafael Alvarez:
“The view was always fascinating, bewitching, entrancing. The eye was never tired of gazing, night or day, in calm or storm …” —Mark Twain
All sorts of things stand out on my 2012 Nevada summer vacation (more spider webs and dragon flies at the desolate and shimmering Walker Lake than I’ve ever seen in one place) from Las Vegas to Carson City and back again by way of Convict Lake and U.S. Route 395 in California.
Eating to Carson City
I recently returned to vegetarianism—not super strict, seafood allowed, the occasional cheat—after a 15 year glut of barbecued ribs, cheeseburgers and fried chicken, often as late as 11 p.m.
Diet and its exacting drill sergeant—exercise—have long been the last outposts of self-preservation. I long ago gave up this and shortly thereafter forsook that. But at 54, with a penchant for Pop Tarts and gas station hot dogs along with an aversion to vegetables, this new asceticism didn’t come a moment too soon.
It preceded by a fortnight a 4th of July road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Carson City…
Two Cents Worth
I can’t imagine this happening in Baltimore.
Around the Fourth of July, I was drinking a “Blood Transfusion” cleanser shake (Thai coconut blended with spirulina and coconut water) and watching the hipsters line up outside of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Hollywood when a hail of pennies flew past my head.
The coins landed in the gutter outside of Real Raw Live at 5913 West Franklin Avenue, where I had purchased the drink for $5 and was enjoying it in a plastic chair next to the glass doors.
The cookouts and fireworks of July (hope you didn’t eat those deviled eggs that were left in the sun too long) have given way to the box-fan-in-the-window dog days of August.
It’s a time when lifelong memories are made, some beautiful. Others will forever stain that beauty like ink on your favorite blouse.
Covering the Waterfront
“I always wrote about me when I could … ” — John Lennon, 1970
I’ve been fighting this fight a long time, from my earliest days as an unpaid rookie on Russell Smith’s fledgling City Paper in 1977 to a recent impasse with a Wall Street Journal editor.
If it happens to me, I think you should read about it. That’s how I make sense of the world.
“I hate drunks, they are so obnoxious. I should know, I used to be one …”— Mary Carol Reilly on the fundamentals of being a cabbie.
She used to lie in bed at night, a 10-year-old kid imagining that one day she’d be a movie star. Though she never quite got the role—getting just close enough to feel the heat of the kliegs—the Mary Carol Reilly bio-pic is epic.
“The dreams helped me get to sleep,” said Reilly, a native Baltimorean whose family was riddled with alcoholism, mental illness, condescending haves, and subservient have-nots.
The Meat Man
“Catch a cannonball, to take me down the line …” — The Band
Clarksdale, Miss. – First, a moment of silence for the soul of a great American, the Arkansas drummer and singer Levon Helm, dead of cancer on April 19, 2012.
Here in the upper Delta – home to the country’s finest blues museum – I began cruising for early afternoon ribs. I’d passed the morning some 75 miles north at Graceland, taking photos and buying postcards at the King’s Memphis manse and then headed south on the highway little Bobby Dylan revisited so well.
“I work myself to death just to fit in . . .” – The Who, Quadrophenia
A year before the Watergate hearings, when I was a freshman in high school, I took a yellow school bus from Linthicum to Mount Saint Joseph in Irvington. On Hollins Ferry Road in Lansdowne, the bus stopped for a single student, a funny looking kid with fish-white skin, freckles, and splayed teeth. We called him Goofy.
Goofy had a rough time on the bus.
“Baton twirling looks easy but it’s hard … I’d like to see a lot of people try and do it.” —Joan DeVan Peugh
The little girl with braces on her legs watched the parade go by on the Fourth of July, 1970, in downtown Arbutus, Maryland.
As the marchers passed the Hollywood Theater—majorettes twirling batons, drummers banging out a military beat—the 8-year-old turned to her mother and said, “I want to do that.”
The kid wanted to be a Sailorette!
Mom checked with the doctors and they gave the green light, saying it would strengthen the child’s legs. By that fall, the braces were off.
The crab soup that Manny Anello thinks about when he wants to savor the good old days goes back to Hollins Street, the neighborhood of Mencken, St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church and the city market where his Irish grandmother bought live blue crabs.
Two indelible memories of Anello’s early 1950s childhood in southwest Baltimore are feeding sugar cubes to the ponies in neighborhood stables and watching his grandmother make a huge pot of crab soup.
Just beyond the Florida town of Jasper off Interstate 75, I crossed into Georgia, where the great slide blues guitarist J.B. Hutto (1926-1983) lived in Augusta from about the age of 3 until seeking his squealing fortunes on the south side of Chicago.
The home state of novelist Flannery O’Connor, who shouted her own blues with a tinge of the Gregorian, reminded me of a recipe for peach butter from a beautiful new book of southern delicacies from the Tupelo Honey Café (McMeel Publishing, 2011). Start with one large, ripe peach, peeled and finely diced, and soon you’ll find me back on Daisy Avenue, somewhere between English Consul and Lansdowne, in the last moments before Beatlemania changed everything.
I drove from Baltimore to Plains, GA, to meet Jimmy Carter and wound up eating fried chicken with Abraham Lincoln.
Such are the adventures of a wandering writer who only wanted to escape the February cold.
I left Crabtown on the evening of Feb. 8, what would have been my namesake grandfather’s 107th birthday. I deliberately delayed departure to 10:30 p.m.—as verified by my southbound receipt from the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel—to get on the far side of D.C. without wanting to blow my brains out.
Mom gave me a case of water, and I brought a couple of apples and a huge jar of peanut butter.
Across my shoulders: a deadline like an anvil.
The woman behind the piano was wild, gifted and fearless. Music was in Evelyn Butterhoff and it had to come out, whether in gin mills, Holy Roller churches or events at which someone had already been hired to play the piano.
“At my 40th birthday party on a [boat] in the harbor, Mom asks if she can play a song or two. She’s the mother of the birthday girl, so what’s the guy going to say?” laughed her daughter, Mary Carol Ambrose of Parkville, Md.
“She sits down at this electric pi-annah and RIPPED it up! The band didn’t know she could play. Everybody’s screaming for more, and the regular keyboard player didn’t want to follow her.”