Rafael Alvarez – LikeTheDew.com http://likethedew.com A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Mon, 19 Nov 2018 13:02:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 http://likethedew.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/cropped-DewLogoSquare825-32x32.png Rafael Alvarez – LikeTheDew.com http://likethedew.com 32 32 Silver State Summer Vacation 2012, Part 2 http://likethedew.com/2012/09/20/silver-state-summer-vacation-2012-part-2/ http://likethedew.com/2012/09/20/silver-state-summer-vacation-2012-part-2/#respond Thu, 20 Sep 2012 13:21:02 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=42287 “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.

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A travelogue from parts out West.

“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.

Vintage miner's shack, Tonopah. Credit: Macon Street Books
Vintage miner’s shack, Tonopah (Macon Street Books)

These are the towns you pass from the neon city at the southern end of Nevada (when aliens land, they will recognize their kin in Las Vegas) to the capital of the Battle Born State some 440 miles to the north.

On U.S. Route 95: Weed Heights, Indian Springs, Beatty, Scotty’s Junction, Goldfield, Tonopah, Coaldale, Luning – the metropolis of Hawthorne, population 3,269 – through the Walker River Indian Reservation and Fallon before breaking west on U.S. 50 through Silver Springs and the city named for the Indian fighter Kit Carson [1809-to-1868].

After two nights at the Resort on Mount Charleston high above downtown Vegas, the true road trip began for me and Phoebe: eating instant oatmeal with hot water from gas stations (in an especially hungry pinch I have slopped it up with cold water); stopping at the oasis of parking lot espresso shacks only to discover no one was home and stopping to pee.

Stopping to pee, stopping to pee, stopping to pee and not always in a bathroom.

In Goldfield, 175 miles into the journey, we strolled through a miner’s cemetery where folks who’d been born during the War of 1812 were buried during the Civil War. Part of it was cordoned off for the Catholics. Many of all faiths had fought in the Indian Wars.

Civil War veteran Joseph Bown [1839-to-1906] was one of them. In an essay by his great-grandson George Kuhn, we learn that Bown ran a boarding house for miners near Goldfield in a place called Jumbo Town.

Goldfield Cemetery (Macon Street Books)
Goldfield Cemetery (Macon Street Books)

Back in 2009, George traveled to Goldfield from Pittsburgh with a headstone to replace the weathered wooden markers of his great-father Joseph Bown and wife Mary. While there, volunteer groundskeepers worked with snow on the ground to keep undergrowth off the walkways. We walked those paths in early July when a snowball wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance.

And then, 30 miles north, THE QUEEN OF THE SILVER CAMPS.

Tonopah.

When silver made Tonopah in 1900 – to the tune of more than $30 million mined daily in the years leading to World War I – Tonopah helped make Nevada. It was the second largest silver strike in state history, launched when prospector and town founder Jim Butler went to throw a rock at an errant burro and found the stone heavier than it should have been.

The town has preserved many of the original mining shacks in an open-air museum, complete with saloon, tool repair shop and general store. We didn’t see a hoosegow. Perhaps bad guys and claim jumpers never made it that far.

At the Mizpah Hotel, built in 1905, its lobby right out of the great late ‘60s CBS show “The Wild, Wild West,” we had lunch beneath old mining stock certificates. Rooms go for about $95 a night. Down the street, not far from a metal sculpture of the mining fire hero Big Bill Murphy, the shrimp with rice and beans platters at the El Marques restaurant were fresh and affordable.

But across the street is the spot we should have stayed had we just held out a block or two past the Best Western, the place where all of us have passed at least one night whether we knew it or not: the Clown Motel, 521 North Main Street alongside of the Tonopah Cemetery.

It’s for real: clean rooms, circus décor featuring hundreds of clowns and bikers welcome.

As one honeymooner said: “This place freaked my peaches …”

We were beat when we fell into the clean sheets of the Hampton Inn off on Hospitality Way in Carson City. Downtown was three miles south and after a little bit of rest it was off to the Firkin & Fox across from the State Capitol.

"Your room is ready..." (Macon Street Books)
“Your room is ready…” (Macon Street Books)

We chose the F&F because it was on the ground floor of an old brick hotel, the St. Charles. It was okay for a couple not interested in pints and almost too tired to eat. But our young waitress enhanced the meal with stories of living in an Italian village before a spoiled marriage to a paisano returned her stateside with bambino.

After dinner we crossed Carson Street to the wide and illuminated lawn of the State Capitol [1870 cornerstone], which were far less grand when Mark Twain described them in “Roughing It,” his 1872 memoir of the Sierra Nevada and the barely settled American west.

It was in Nevada that the author first began using the immortal by-line “Mark Twain” in place of his given Samuel Clemens. “Roughing It” [published 1872] describes the capitol grounds as a vacant lot having more in common with the North Point Road flea market than the seat of government.

That would change with amenities like floors and wainscoting carved from 20-ton blocks of Alaskan marble shipped to San Francisco.

After inspecting the statues by moonlight – memorials to miners and frontiersman, Kit Carson on horseback – we climbed the steps and peeked in the front door at a long hallway of portraits. Somewhere inside is a chair made of elk horns upon which Teddy Roosevelt rested his fearless haunches.

As we peered inside, cupping our eyes against the glare, an armed, middle-aged woman in uniform strolled down the long hallway, opened the door and started talking. And talking and talking and talking. Carson City’s own Marge Gunderson pointing out the treasures of her beloved Nevada.

U.S. Route 95 Nevada: always a welcome sign on the road... (Macon Street Books)
U.S. Route 95 Nevada: always a welcome sign on the road… (Macon Street Books)

An ambulance peeled off from the main drag near the downtown casinos and Officer Friendly predicted which neighborhood they were headed to before confirmation came over the radio. If we were only staying longer, she said, we could skip over to Tahoe, go horseback riding or walk along the Carson River.

No better ambassador could a town have, a knowledgeable local taking time to gives the ins and outs to a couple of strangers.

Marge went back to the marble hallway of long gone elders and Phoebe and I called it a night.

And that was our point A to point B tour of the Silver State over the long, 2012 Fourth of July weekend.

The next morning – saddled up with boiled eggs, instant oatmeal and fresh fruit from the Hampton Inn breakfast bar – we crossed over into California for a long ride south through the green beauty of central California.

One of our stops was Convict Lake, which got its name in 1871 when a bunch of convicts escaped from a Carson City jail holed up here and killed a couple of men in the sheriff’s posse.

But that’s a Golden State story.

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Feeding Your Face on Vacation in the Silver State http://likethedew.com/2012/09/03/feeding-your-face-on-vacation-in-the-silver-state/ http://likethedew.com/2012/09/03/feeding-your-face-on-vacation-in-the-silver-state/#respond Mon, 03 Sep 2012 12:46:09 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=41935 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...

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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.

4th of July road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Carson City It preceded by a fortnight a 4th of July road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Carson City with Phoebe, whose father said upon introducing us at a Spanish restaurant, “If you wanna keep her happy, feed her…”

Though we’d dare not claim the culinary acumen of the Trillins—Calvin and his late, beloved wife, the Alice of Alice Let’s Eat fame—Phoebe and I enjoyed several fine meals and several more good ones over five days and more than 1,200 miles. We also ate some crap on the road. This is a diary of our week of Independence Day adventures from the south end of Nevada to the north and back again by way of California.

Our first night was at the Resort on Mount Charleston—a lodge-themed hotel, complete with stuffed black bear—about 40 minutes up U.S. Route 95 from downtown Vegas.

The 30-year-old inn sits about halfway up the mountain.

The “resort” (there is a family of ducks and antique pinball machines but no swimming pool) is favored by locals for day-tripping because temperatures on the mountain are often 20 to 30 degrees cooler than down on the strip.

Of the 61 rooms, we were given the “King Suite,” which runs between $179 and $229 a night depending on the season. Rates are lower from March to Memorial Day—the “mud season”—and rise in the heart of winter when folks come to ski.

“We are the great local escape from the flashing lights, the traffic and the old lady with the oxygen tank crossing the street to get into the casino,” said Marc Nelson, the 44-year-old general manager. “When it’s 105 or higher in the city, its gold for us.”

How different is it up on the mountainside compared to the scene down on Dean Martin Boulevard?

“In the fall when the leaves are changing up here, people in the casinos don’t even realize it,” said Nelson, a native Detroiter who brought along his love for Tigers baseball. “In the wintertime we have snowball fights on the parking lot.”

In the summer, hikers and bikers pass burros and coyotes on the hillsides and birdwatchers witness hummingbirds and enough butterflies to keep Nabakov busy for a month of Sundays. When the snows come, the Resort at Mount Charleston is somewhat reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, which the staff jokes about.

References to the 1980 Kubrick film come around, said Nelson, “When there’s four feet of snow and the power flickers.”

Most folks in the dining room, however, had a little more meat on their bones than poor Shelley “Olive Oyl” Duvall and the menu was a heavyweight challenge to my fledgling change of diet.

Mountain meat stew with bison & wild boar at $9.95 a bowl!

Half-pound burgers of Kobe beef!

Racks of ribs, a $16.95 buffalo burger with bacon, Southern fried chicken and more steak than a Chicago stockyard.

They boasted “Maryland crab cakes” for $14 but I never eat crab west of Ashburton Street. It came with a “house remoulade.”

Even Morris Martick—may he rest in cantankerous and culinary peace—wouldn’t do that to a crab cake.

So we shared a white pizza with green Spanish olives stuff with pimiento and Phoebe ate the grilled chicken out of a spinach salad, leaving me a feast of strawberries, blueberries, cucumber, tomato, and feta cheese.

All in all—with no alcohol or dessert—$32 and a good night’s sleep in the King Suite, whose balcony overlooked what was once a nine-hole golf course slowly being reclaimed by the mountain.

Next up: Saturday night in Sin City for a couple of bookworms who don’t drink and don’t gamble and aren’t crazy about crowds.

Phoebe chose an old Vegas standby called the Bootlegger with scores of autographed 8×10 glossies on wall (Steve and Eydie, Herr Danke Schoen, and certainly the King somewhere among the frames) and a father/daughter piano and torch song duo for our dining entertainment.

Like Matthew’s in Highlandtown or the sorely missed DeNitti in Baltimore’s Little Italy, the Bootlegger has a long history stretching back to the old country.

It was named for patriarch Luigi Zoia who left Padua and landed on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls about the time Teddy Roosevelt was president. Luigi made homemade wine (what true Italian didn’t?) at the boarding house he ran with wife Maria during the Prohibition against booze on the other side of the great cataract.

Unlike the legends of Crabtown pizza (to which we must add Skip Sullivan’s fabled Colossus Pizza on Furnace Branch Road in Glen Burnie), the Bootlegger claims Marlene Dietrich [1901-1992] as a customer.

The cabaret legend would come in to pick up her own pizza in the mid-1950s when she was making $30,000 a week at the Sahara and the Bootlegger was a pizza pie joint owned by Al and Maria Perry called the Venetian.

At the Bootlegger, now on Las Vegas Boulevard near the Mandalay Bay casino, Phoebe got a deep dish of clams and linguini—$16.95—and I ordered grilled swordfish, which in Italian goes by the operatic pesce spade griglia.

A beautiful piece of fish, the filet came on a bed of spinach and whole garlic cloves sautéed with olive oil and onion. It cost $20.95. Below the bed of spinach—hiding like a Baltimore bad guy under his mother’s skirts—a carpet of white beans made me yearn for a little pasta fagiole like my Aunt Meeley Adornato makes.

Pasta “fazool” was one of many Italian dishes I talked about with matriarch Maria Perry. The daughter of the original “bootlegger,” she came to Vegas with husband Al and baby Lorraine in 1944.

“Mama” still comes to the restaurant each week for Sunday supper. Despite some eye trouble, she lives on her own and is adamant that she can still drive (though family members respectfully disagree.) A widow after seven decades of marriage to Albert Perry, Mama worked the kitchen until age 80. She lives on her own.

Chef Agostino Sandoval is the guardian of Zoia treasures handed down through the generations.

“They’re all my recipes and we’re still cooking the same old way,” she said. “I used to make a medium-thick pasta fagiole all the time. But now people really want the minestrone. They stopped making the wedding soup after I retired.”

The conversation turned to a meat roll called braciole, which like pasta fagiole is an Italian delicacy found more on kitchen tables than restaurant menus.

”When I was still in the kitchen,” she said of the Bootlegger’s various incarnations, “I made a beautiful braciole. We put it on the menu as a special.”

Like Charlie Eckman liked to say, it’s a simple game.

“You lay out your steak and flatten it,” said Mama. “Make up a tasty bread crumb dressing, roll it up, bake it awhile and then put it in the sauce.”

When I was growing up, my mother added a little ham and sliced boiled egg to the roll.

I miss braciole—with or without the egg—but in Vegas I made sure not to miss dessert.

We ended the night in the bar at Bouchon Bistro, a bit of Francophile fantasy in the desert that took us to the 10th floor of the Venetian Hotel and Phoebe back to the autumn of 2003 in Paris. She made that journey with her father, Julian S. Stein, Jr., who passed away a few weeks before our Nevada road trip.

“I stayed with Dad at the Hotel Le Relais Medicis and ate the best dessert of my life (a chocolate tart) at Closierie Des Lilas,” she said.

That dessert was a chocolate tart and she tried to capture the memory with a Bouchon perfitorole. I had a crème caramel and pretended it was flan from the long-gone Corral’s on South Broadway in Fells Point while Phoebe talked about Paris.

Sense and memory are funny things. Smell transports you to lost worlds like little else. But things rarely taste as good as you remember.

Back in 2003, when Julian was a mere 84, Phoebe was determined to take her father to every arrondissements in Paris he’d yet to see in a long lifetime of visiting France. There are 20 in all and divide the City of Lights into distinct areas.

“I know he’d seen a lot of them but not all, I just wanted to take him to at least one he’d never visited,” said Phoebe, spooning in the puff pastry with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. “I succeeded by taking him to number 13—Gobelins.”

On the Left Bank of the Seine, Gobelins is primarily a residential area and home to the National Library and the city’s Chinatown.

Said Phoebe before we wandered the Venetian’s vast hallways and plopped on a finely upholstered sofa to watch the gangs of ridiculously dressed young men follow gangs of barely dressed young women: “Dad and I ate at a restaurant filled with local bureaucrats.”

It sounded a bit like Werner’s [1950-to-2011] in good old Baltimore.

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A Fistful of Pennies http://likethedew.com/2012/07/21/a-fistful-of-pennies/ http://likethedew.com/2012/07/21/a-fistful-of-pennies/#comments Sat, 21 Jul 2012 20:27:07 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=40888 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.

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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.

Like a fool – Killgrew, Gimpel, the one on the Hill – I looked up to see if the pennies had come from an upstairs window or the roof. Perhaps they’d fallen from sky, the clouds of Los Angeles encouraging me, as they had der Bingle, to carry my umbrella upside down.

I calmly pocketed the change – one penny short of a dime – and sat back down to read my book, “The Shawl,” by Cynthia Ozick, purchased for a dollar on the same block.

When I’d finished the drink, I walked back to where I was staying in the shadow of the Castle Argyle. On the way, I stopped in the Bourgeois Pig for a double espresso (the dual nature of my Gemini birth – caffeine versus coconut – in battle) and dropped the pennies in the coffee house tip jar without incident.

-o-

The next day I was back at Real Raw Live for a $5 “cleanser” of lemon juice, clove and maple syrup.

I was waited on by the same guy who’d made me the coconut drink the day before: an aloof somewhat surly manager in his late 30s or early 40s given to salt and pepper stubble and zippered hoodie sweatshirts.

After paying for the drink, I dropped a couple of quarters in the tip jar. The manager turned to me and in front of two employees and at least one customer said: “We don’t want your pennies.”

“Those were quarters.”

“Yesterday,” he said. “Pennies.”

“Are you the guy who threw them into the street?”

Smug and righteous he said yes.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because pennies are an insult to my employees.”

The allegedly offended employees, two young women manning juicers behind the manager, turned and caught my eye. I think they looked embarrassed but I’m not sure.

There was so much I wanted to say to this guy.

That my mother and grandmother rolled coins when I was a kid to help pay for a family trip to Spain, whether he’d asked the help if they believed a penny saved is a penny earned, if a dime was only nine cents away from being offensive.

How a penny is still a penny where I come from.

But I was angry and afraid my thoughts might spill out in three words or less.

Mystery solved – the pennies were mine and they’d come back according to the proverb – I took my drink and left.

Walking to the Gelson’s supermarket across Bronson Avenue, I tried to remember how many pennies I had dropped in the juice bar’s tip jar the day before. I wasn’t sure but it was less than the nine I collected from the gutter.

I’d made a few cents on the deal.

Leaving Gelson’s, I noticed a guy who’d been at Real, Raw Live during the confrontation. He was sitting at an outside table eating a sandwich with his health drink. Begging his pardon, I asked if he’d witnessed what had just happened and what his thoughts were on the validity of pennies as tips.

“If they are going to give you pennies as change,” he said. “Then they should expect to get them back in the jar.”

Then he allowed that he had often seen the manager act like a jerk in the past – “three or four times,” he said – and, like me, would not be returning.

His final observation echoed my own thoughts: It is especially unsettling to be treated rudely at a place in business to promote wellness.

As I continued the campaign to eat a healthier diet, I had lunch later in the week at Leonor’s “100 percent vegetarian” Mexican restaurant on Moorpark in Studio City. Leonor’s is a family-owned business and when I paid for my wheat-crust pizza with soy “cheese,” I asked the young woman at the register if they minded pennies in the tip jar.

Not at all, she said, giving the impression that it was a silly question.

I asked what they did with their pennies.

They are counted out; rolled and put them back in the register, which saves the owners trips to the bank to get pennies for change.

-o-

I love pennies.

I like finding them, collecting them, rolling them into 50 cent tubes to trade for coffee and turning over a face down penny in the street so the next person that comes along finds it heads up.

Heads up pennies – Honest Abe facing east – are often left on the Booth family graves at Green Mount cemetery. The actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth lies with his kin somewhere below the sod, the exact location unmarked.

When I wrote for the FX show “Thief,” in 2005, I had the good-hearted girlfriend of one of the safe-crackers sport earrings made of pennies. Wearing the lowly pence made her more attractive – at least to me – in contrast to her boyfriend’s lust for millions.

In an unproduced 2010 pilot I wrote for the Sundance Channel, the lieutenant in charge of the homicide squad sits at his desk sorting through water jugs full of pennies as a way of calming his thoughts as he puzzles through cold cases.

Last year, with the help of many friends, in particular Beth Sherring and the Farantos family at G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs on Eastern Avenue, I collected $700 – the bulk of it in pennies – to help keep the doors open at the embattled Poe House.

The “Pennies for Poe” idea was inspired by a similar collection by Baltimore schoolchildren after the Civil War to purchase a marker for Poe’s grave in the Westminster Churchyard downtown.

Every day, tourists and others enamored of the great poet leave pennies on the handsome monument bearing a disc – not unlike a giant penny – of Poe’s face. The Westminster staff dutifully collects them – “see that my grave is kept clean,” as Blind Lemon Jefferson sang – and the next day more have taken their place.

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One Too Many http://likethedew.com/2012/07/14/one-too-many/ http://likethedew.com/2012/07/14/one-too-many/#respond Sat, 14 Jul 2012 18:32:13 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=40683 It’s sum-sum-summertime.

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.

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Too much to drinkIt’s sum-sum-summertime.

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.

So, between the pee-your-pants rollercoaster rides, sno-balls with marshmallow (old-fashioned Egg Custard at Rehak’s in Sparrows Point for me), and jumping waves where Worcester County meets the Atlantic, I’d like to pose a serious question.

Are you stuck on vacation with this guy?

“I’m drinking beer for breakfast… I party all afternoon…”

It could be your husband, your father, your brother, or the guy you’re really not related to but have called “uncle” since childhood.

Heck, it could be Grandma.

The lyrics are by Mark Noone of Washington’s fabled Slickee Boys. Noone is rocking “When I Go to the Beach,” a minor MTV hit from 1983 and the eternal soundtrack to the endless, intoxicating summer.

If you belong to the average American family, chances are good that someone is hitting the sauce too hard and too often. In the Susan Minot novel Monkeys, the kids know that if Dad has been “good” for a while, the distinctive sha-wish sound of a pop-top 12-ounce can—part metallic, part effervescent—is an air-raid siren.

Over time, it leaves you angry, disgusted, and sometimes hopeless. Like an alcoholic loved one at the end of a long day, you’ve had a bellyful.

But you don’t have to put up with it.

Really, you don’t.

That was the good news shared by more than 100 people gathered at Washington College in Chestertown earlier this summer for the 36th annual Maryland & District of Columbia Al-Anon Family Groups convention. The theme was “Discovering Choices.”

Navigating relationships with an alcoholic — whether wet or dry — is tricky business. It can be like wrestling the ghosts of ancestors you’ve never met.

Based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon began to take shape in 1951 and was formalized by Lois Burnham Wilson, wife of AA’s co-founder, Bill Wilson.

A new documentary — Bill W., released by Page 124 Productions — came out this summer and includes footage of the courageous and often-overlooked Lois (just as the lives of those in close range of bigger-than-life alcoholics are both overshadowed and frequently defined by the drunks they love).

In the auditorium of William Smith Hall in Chestertown, a woman told a story about her younger brother and began by saying how beautiful he looks in his baby picture.

Alcoholism created years of estrangement (the woman had found her way out of the maze decades before) but they were reunited not long before his death. One of their last times together was when she took him on a final run to the hospital.

The beautiful boy with the twinkling eyes was now ravaged—distended belly, yellow skin, rotting teeth—and old before his time.

His last words to his sister were, “What happened to my life?”

The woman could not save her brother, but with help she was able to save herself.

There are meetings of Al-Anon Family Groups throughout Maryland, from Ocean City to Deep Creek Lake. A toll free number (1-888-425-2666) can connect you to help just about anywhere in North America.

On the other end will be someone who will tell you — with the kind of conviction that only comes from experience — that it doesn’t have to be this way anymore.

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I Me Mine http://likethedew.com/2012/07/10/i-me-mine/ http://likethedew.com/2012/07/10/i-me-mine/#respond Tue, 10 Jul 2012 18:10:28 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=40647

“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.

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“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.

Alvarez at the foot of Broadway. Credit Allen Baker
Alvarez at the foot of Broadway. Credit: Allen Baker

Smith wasn’t keen on an encounter I had on a city transit bus with a guy who drew comics. In 1993, the managing editor of the Baltimore Sun loathed a cross-country tale about making novenas for the piano player Richard Manuel [1943-to-1986.]

And most recently, the WSJ editor passed on a story he’d requested about the way my memories of the Crabtown waterfront became scripts for television.

Sometimes I win that argument (the Manuel memorial, now anthologized, prompted a kind and unexpected note from the then-retired and now deceased Sunday Sun editor Hal Williams) and sometimes I lose.

But I never stop trying. Editors come and editors go. And once a story makes it into the world, it is there forever.

This is the most recent story – commissioned for the Journal’s “Word Craft” column – to be rejected for being too much about me.

-o-

Going to work with my father in the 1960s meant tugboat rides on the Baltimore harbor.

This is how a Hollywood script would depict the sun rising over grain ships, canneries and derelict railroad trestles.

EXT. ROTTING PIER/BALTIMORE WATERFRONT– MAGIC HOUR.

Years later, with the added freight of smuggling, prostitution, graft and violence, I would write that script.

My work on the second season of the HBO drama “The Wire” benefited from childhood memories of deckhands named Ronnie Rotten Crotch and stolen hams blessed by the neighborhood priest before the meat was sold and eaten at saloons across from the harbor.

The second season of “The Wire” dramatized the slow, steady death of organized labor in the port of Baltimore, which my father experienced in 1984 when a new company bought the tugs and illegally fired union crews.

I got a glimpse of it half-a-dozen years before as a rookie reporter covering a longshoremen’s strike as containerization transformed the industry.

Union boss Gilbert Lukowski, whose passion became the heart of his on-screen counterpart Frank Sobotka, said of attrition through technology: “You can’t just take a man in the middle of his working life and throw him on the junk pile.”

Sobotka spoke for the deceased Lukowski after watching the future of his industry in a video from the uber-mechanized port of Rotterdam.

“ROBOTS!” screamed Sobotka at a lobbyist he hired to represent his interests. “Piers full of robots!”

The only difference between the real-life Lukowski and the fictional Sobotka is that Gilbert died a natural death.

Along with tales of unloading grain ships with wooden shovels (metal might spark an explosion), I folded as much of the vanished world of industrialized Baltimore as possible into the episode “Backwash.”

Casting was crucial. Charley Scalies, who played the longshoreman Horseface Pakusa, often joked that he and his headshot had waited years for the role.

Scalies would have fit in easily with the guys my father worked, drank and went crabbing with, men whose lives informed Horseface and Sobotka and Little Big Roy. Writing their dialogue was as simple as playing a beat-up cassette tape. When they spoke, my old man’s cronies were alive again.

Before the first outline, the writers sat down with members of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local No. 953 at their rowhouse office in Locust Point – a former seafaring village glimpsed in the Hitchcock movie “Marnie” – and took down yarns going back almost to the days of sails.

Many of the eccentricities of Sobotka’s goofy son Ziggy, including his propensity to expose himself after a few beers, were taken from stories told about a waterfront legend named Pinkie Bannon.

But oral histories and the City of Baltimore in a starring role alone do not make compelling drama. It was putting more than a dozen streetwise, if tunnel-visioned longshoremen in play with homicide detectives, the white slave trade and lobbyists as ruthless as drug kingpins that made “The Wire” move in season two.

Countless shows have dramatized the inner-city drug trade. Not many have shown the day-to-day lives of dockworkers. None that I know of have put the two worlds in conflict.

And then there was Frank Zappa.

Born in Baltimore in 1940, the guitarist contributed a significant moment to “The Wire” in a way one would not fathom no matter how many times they watched. In 1986, I interviewed Zappa at length about his Maryland childhood. One of the composer’s earliest memories was watching an Italian knife grinder push down the alley with his sharpening stone. I later found descendents of one of the city’s celebrated grinders – Nilo Vidi – and learned how an expert sharpener could “make a meat cleaver sing.”

When the Polish-American Sobotka and the Italian-American lobbyist DiBiagio are in a shouting match over a future that is bleak for one and rosy for the other, DiBiagio allows that his great-grandfather was a knife-grinder.

“And since he didn’t want his sons to push the [grinding wheel], he made sure my grandfather finished high school and my old man went to any college that would take him.”

DiBiagio was the voice of my father, who never wanted his sons to follow him down to the piers.

Sobotka personified some of the other guys, gamblers who splurged on new cars instead of tuition because no matter how bad the economy, there was always work on the waterfront.

But as Horseface said in the first scene of the first episode of a season devoted to the working class: “Them days is gone.”

-o-

This second draft was built on what the editor said was salvageable from the first.

Politely pulling the plug, the editor repeated his initial instructions, which I’d tried my best to fulfill.

“What I wanted was how you transformed reality into drama, in technical terms.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t sure what those terms were when I wrote for television and I’m still not certain.

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Tinseltown Cab Fare http://likethedew.com/2012/06/14/tinseltown-cab-fare/ http://likethedew.com/2012/06/14/tinseltown-cab-fare/#comments Thu, 14 Jun 2012 15:23:07 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=40006 "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.

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“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.

She became a novice with the Sisters of St. Cyril and Methodius in Pennsylvania and a Romper Room lady in Chicago. Nationwide, Reilly hammed it up in commercials with the Pillsbury Doughboy, the young Jodie Foster in a spot for detergent, and Mrs. Olsen of Folgers instant coffee fame.

She even met America’s first couple of 1972—Archie and Edith Bunker—during a brief walk-on spot on the All in the Family spin-off, Maude.

She taught school in China, helped with post-Katrina relief in New Orleans, rebelled against Vatican doctrine by gently informing her class of Catholic seventh graders that good people of different sexual orientation are everywhere, maybe even behind the desk at the front of the room.

And then there was the time she was held-up at gunpoint, playing late-night poker with a bunch of high-rollers in Baltimore’s Greektown neighborhood.

“I was the only woman in the room, and they told everyone to drop their pants,” said Reilly. “I told them they’d have to kill me first.”

Now trudging toward 40 years of sobriety, Reilly wasn’t always so tough.

During one of Los Angeles’ darker epochs, when the colors of psychedelia drained into a single, blood-red hue—she got tossed out of the Manson trial for sobbing too loud and too long during the gruesome testimony of Linda Kasabian.

“I had more nerve than sense back then,” said Reilly, who grew up walking distance from Pimlico Race Course in the early ’50s and often snuck in to see the horses. Now nearing 70, she looks back on her escapades as a Southern California 20-something and marvels at how easy it all seemed.

“I literally drove across the country, turned right on Hollywood Boulevard and found my sweet furnished apartment at 1738 Winona Terrace,” she said. “My first real job before I was ‘discovered’ was at Norm’s Restaurant at Sunset and Vermont. Their specialty was steak and eggs for $1.99.

“Of course I told everyone I was an actress and wouldn’t be working there very long. They’d heard those delusions of grandeur before and told me to just serve the food. Every other waitress and busboy was waiting for their big break.”

But success broke for the irrepressible Reilly. Just weeks into her waitressing career she was introduced to Herb Tannen—now a fine artist in Malibu—and booked the first three gigs the agent sent her out for. Her round and freckled face played the camera like a kid playing tag in the backyard: fresh, happy, innocent, and eager.

Mary Carol wasn’t thin and she wasn’t beautiful, but she looked like the people who flew United Airlines—except she did so on-screen with beaming smile and full nun’s habit—or like someone who might need to drop a few pounds with a Carnation breakfast drink.

The worries of home—widowed, schizophrenic mother, an equally if not more disturbed younger brother, and a rusting city ravaged just a year before by riots following the King assassination—seemed one million and three thousand miles away.

“All my life, I always wanted to be somewhere else with someone else doing something else,” she said. “But when I got to California, I was home.”

Yet Reilly’s rocket ship ride would end in 1969 just as quickly as it began.

Brother Johnny, the charismatic and beloved baby of the family, had been in and out of institutions, once after threatening Reilly when he saw her hugging a black friend. Johnny was, said Reilly, confused—“emotionally hurting”—and asked her to come home.

Mary Carol demurred. She was afraid of Johnny, and she was having too much fun in L.A.

“When Johnny called, it was the height of my first month of success, and it had gone to my head,” she said. “I really believed that the little girl from Baltimore had arrived.”

Not long after Reilly turned down her brother’s request, Johnny went upstairs while his mother was watching TV and drowned himself in the bathtub. To get inside the locked bathroom, their mother, also named Mary, crawled out onto the roof from another room and climbed through a window. Johnny was 24.

It was October. In the previous months she’d lost her virginity to a guy she’d met in acting class—still unaware, at 27, that her feelings for women were more than friendship. She was on her way to scoring a baker’s dozen of national commercials and, she says, “I was laughing all the way to the bank.”

Now she had to fly home. On the porch of their mother’s Windemere Avenue cottage near Baltimore’s fabled Memorial Stadium, Mary Carol and older brother Eddie mourned their sibling with vodka. Lots of vodka.

Reilly threw up in the bushes and believes that this was the moment her alcoholism bloomed. The disease quickly took a woman eager to be anywhere but where she was to places no one wants to go.

—————————————————————————————————————

“No one thinks of L.A. as a taxi town but it’s big, it’s huge. I had some great days driving a taxi in Los Angeles.”—Mary Carol Reilly

 

In the Tinseltown where she once touched the brass ring, the granddaughter of a Baltimore harness maker held tight the reins of a Los Angeles taxi. Between fares, she took notes—in the form of letters never mailed—about the adventures that flagged her down.

There was the woman who took a cab to surprise her boyfriend out in Marina del Rey, and Reilly prayed the guy wouldn’t be with someone else when they arrived. (He wasn’t.) The rough-looking but perfectly behaved men who wanted to be dropped off in an alley in East L.A. whom she refused, saying, “I don’t do alleys.”

And the 20-something party boys on the town in West Hollywood whose banter was a non-stop discussion of getting women drunk that night so they could take turns.

“People think the driver is invisible,” said Reilly. “I told them they had to get out of the cab for being so disrespectful to women. When I turned around to put them out they were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a woman. And she can speak English!’”

Reilly’s brother Eddie, who’d also left Crabtown for the Golden State, got Mary Carol into the cabbie business.

“I was a white, female senior citizen,” said Reilly of her indoctrination. “Boy was I the minority in that business!”

C. Arnholdt Smith controlled three-quarters of the taxi business in L.A. before folding his scandal-ridden Yellow Cab Company via bankruptcy in 1977. In the void created when Yellow sank in red, unaffiliated drivers organized while waiting for the L.A. City Council to award new franchises.

Eddie Reilly worked cab No. 22, one of the first drivers for the still-active United Independent Taxi Co.

“Eddie and his buddies liked to call themselves the last of the cowboys,” said Mary Carol, who was booed by fellow cabbies at the licensing test when her perfect score was announced. “The freedom is what they loved about it. After I drove that first summer, I understood that.”

So far, Reilly has had a handful of stints of driving a cab in Los Angeles, the only city where she’s done it. Each stretch—including Bell Cab along with United Independent—lasted about three months. She drove during a painful break-up over Christmas of 1985; hacked the summer of 1987; and last took a spin through the Thomas Guide in 2006.

“I liked going out at night after the sun had gone down and it was cooler,” she said. “I’d drive from 6 p.m. to 5 in the morning and get all the drunks up and down Sunset Boulevard.”

Men were better tippers than women, she said. Drunks tipped better than either although you sometimes had to clean vomit off the side of the cab when they hung their heads out the window.

Reilly’s Irish temper has always been tempered by an Irish heart, one softened since 1975 by recovery from booze. “Many times I’d be driving home about 2 or 3 in the morning and see a Latino man at the bus stop, somebody who’d just gotten off work from some restaurant,” Reilly remembered. “I’d pull over and say, ‘I’m going this way anyway, I won’t charge you.’”

If it had already been a good night of driving—say a $350 shift because it was her day to work the airport—the good deed made it even better.

—————————————————————————————————————

Reilly lives in Baltimore now, working as an overnight caretaker for the elderly and trying to develop new educational shows for children. She would return in an instant to Los Angeles—where she taught high school in the late ’70s and worked as a census taker in 2000—if the gig was right. Her last commercial work was in the 1980s.

“When I retired from teaching in 2004 I went back to L.A. to book commercial work, but I couldn’t get arrested,” she said. Following those disappointments, she drove a cab for a while in 2005. “It’s not the thrill of driving a cab, it’s just the thrill of driving,” said Reilly, who doesn’t sit still for long.

She loves taking a bus across the country (many people have to take a cross-country bus trip but who loves it?) and would hop in her Toyota compact right now to drive someone from sea-to-shining-sea for $1,000.

Asked if she would drive a cab again, the hard-core poker player’s eyes light up like sparklers—call me the tumblin’ dice … —and the answer is swift.

“I would do it in Vegas.”

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Front Yard Barbecue in the Mississippi Delta http://likethedew.com/2012/04/22/front-yard-barbecue-in-the-mississippi-delta/ http://likethedew.com/2012/04/22/front-yard-barbecue-in-the-mississippi-delta/#comments Sun, 22 Apr 2012 16:28:57 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=38758 “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.

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“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’d been to the Delta Blues Museum several times before, the first on my maiden Mississippi voyage in 1984 when it was still located in a corner of the public library, anchored by a wax figure of Muddy Waters. The new museum houses Muddy’s entire Stovall plantation shack, reassembled board by board.

My destination is Los Angeles – from Crabtown to Tinseltown – and I always take routes through the Great Magnolia State, which I have criss-crossed a hundred times since figuring out in high school that Led Zeppelin didn’t write any of the songs upon which the dirigible was built.

I drove slowly along the streets near the museum: Choctaw, Catalpa, Pecan, enjoying a fabulous spring day, a lazy Thursday, windows down and Freddie King singing from the dashboard: “I could spend a month of Sundays, talkin’ about the places I’ve been …”

As I turned onto the 300 block of State Street, across the street from Hick’s Suprette, I saw smoke rising from the front yard of a derelict cottage sided with sky-blue wooden planks. Tending a battered grill on the front walkway – the cast iron kind you find in state parks – was a middle-aged man of indeterminate age in a burgundy jersey with the name COAHOMA written in white letters.

I slowed to the curb near the open gate, opened the passenger window and – like a brazen suburban dope fiend rolling up to the corner of Denison & Edmondson and asked: “You selling?”

He was a very animated man – smiling beneath a blue ball cap the same light color of the house – and waved me into his yard.

“Come on,” he said. “What you want?”

“I was hoping you were selling ribs?” I said, pointing to the grill, which he fed with kindling, twigs and scrap wood from the yard.

It was clear immediately that this wasn’t a commercial concern. The man was grilling pork chops, the burning wood bathing a couple of chops with smoke, for his own supper.

“Ain’t got no bread,” he said, offering me a pork chop off the grill with his hands. I took it by the bone, blew on it a little bit and chomped. It was absolutely delicious, cooked just enough to be done without being dry and seasoned with the most secret of the world’s secret ingredients: salt and pepper.

He laughed while I tore into the chop, tickled by the sight of me enjoying the meal. He said he was a Vietnam veteran and when I asked his name, he just said, “You can call me ‘the Meat Man’” and offered his elbow to bump because his fingers, and mine, were too greasy to shake.

“I’m Ralph,” I said.

When I gave him $10 for his generosity the Meat Man began quoting Scripture, saying it was no coincidence – that there ain’t no coincidence in God’s world – that we had crossed paths.

He said he would use some of the money to buy bread to go with the rest of his chops. I think I can guess what else the cash was used for but to be honest, he did not smell of liquor. I really don’t know and I certainly don’t care. I also left him with three bottles of cheap bottled water.

The man’s high spirits got me so excited – licking sweet and salty pig fat from the corners of my mouth – that this Catholic boy was moved to quote some Scripture too. Pointing to the sawbuck in his hand, I bellowed: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s!”

The Meat Man loved that one!

“Hallelujah!” he cried as I walked back to the car. “Hallelujah!”

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Goofy http://likethedew.com/2012/04/17/goofy/ http://likethedew.com/2012/04/17/goofy/#comments Tue, 17 Apr 2012 14:13:00 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=38685 “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.

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Teens getting on a school bus“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. I don’t recall anyone hitting him, though some shoving probably occurred as he ran the gauntlet looking for a seat. What I remember most is the moment he came aboard when a bus full of boys—all Catholic, headed either to St. Joe or the recently defunct Cardinal Gibbons High School—erupted in calls of “Goofy! Hey Goofy! You’re a goof, Goofy.”

It got so bad that one day the bus driver opened the doors and said: “Get on the bus, Goofy.”

After freshman year, I began to carpool with older guys in the neighborhood, and though Goofy and I both stayed at St. Joe through graduation in 1976, I no longer paid him much mind. I was busy trying to be cool. I’m not sure what he was doing.

But I never forgot him or the bullshit he endured for no other reason than the way he looked.

***

After returning to Baltimore from lucrative but artistically bankrupt exile in Hollywood in 2009, I sometimes drove my sister-in-law’s father, Milton Farson, to Arbutus for dialysis. The ride took us by the very corner where Goofy waited for the bus.

Though the corner was always empty, I’d see the specter of Goofy with his canvas, drawstring book bag. And remember the words that would surely get someone fired today: “Get on the bus, Goofy.”

I often thought that, if given the chance, I’d make it up to him—grandiosity masquerading as faith in the search for a very small needle in a very large haystack.

I love the wayback-machine that is the Arbutus neighborhood. For a time, I picked up side work there writing about crab soup, fire department parades, and majorettes. One day in late June of 2011, I was assigned to write about a food pantry for the poor.

The story was what we used to call a “quick and dirty” on the Sunpapers City Desk. Pop in, ask questions of anyone within arm’s reach, be sure the photographer gets a good shot of the main character, run back to the office, pull clips from the morgue to see the last time the place was written about, double-check names and dates, and bang out 8 to 10 paragraphs. Daily journalism.

The pantry was going through a hard time. Those who had once donated food now needed food themselves, reminding me of tales I’d read in The Grapes of Wrath during the 2008 presidential election while driving across Oklahoma.

I asked my questions, browsed through the free book section, and put up with a lady who said, after giving good quote, “please don’t use my name,” as though people going hungry in the suburbs were a state secret.

And there was this: A bearded, disheveled man with one of those orange-tinted homeless tans walking back and forth between the free clothes room and shelves of canned goods, a guy helping out in little ways.

He looked familiar but I didn’t know how or why. I thought he might be someone from the rooms I frequent in order to stay on the right side of a good thing. Figuring he was as fair game for a quote as anyone else, I walked up with my notebook and said, “I think I know you.”

Without going through “Where did you grow up?” and “Where did you go to high school,” he put out his hand and told me his name, first and last.

If a miracle brought me to that moment, a greater one kept me from blurting out “GOOFY!”

It was none other.

And he had no more recollection of who I was or being in the same class as me than I have of what my mom served for dinner on some random weeknight in 1972.

(I knew, however, that his not remembering me 40 years down the road did not lessen the pain we put him through in high school.)

John was living in a homeless shelter on the grounds of Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville and took the bus to the Arbutus church pantry a few times a week to trade chores for food.

“I like helping,” he said. “Once you start, you want to do more.”

He said he was a laborer on disability and that he had been put through the financial and emotional wringer by an ugly divorce. And then he confessed to a lot of the same struggles I once had, problems with solids and liquids that lead, if you are lucky, to the aforementioned rooms of hope.

I asked if I could give him a ride to where he lived, a place where breakfast was always cereal with 2% milk and where he sometimes ate ravioli cold out of a can. He said that a lift to the bus stop would do, and as we hopped in, my mind began churning.

How to apologize without making him feel bad again?

“Who did you hang around with at St. Joe?”

“Nobody,” he said. “I was a left out.”

John did not relate memories of exclusion (we never let poor Goofy play in any reindeer games). Instead, he used a pronoun.

He was a “left out.”

“Well,” I said, pulling over to the bus stop on Sulphur Spring Road. “If I ever did anything to hurt your feelings, I apologize.”

John thanked me, took a couple of dollars I fished out of my pocket, shook my hand, and closed the door behind him.

 

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Four Decades with the Sailorettes http://likethedew.com/2011/07/22/four-decades-with-the-sailorettes/ http://likethedew.com/2011/07/22/four-decades-with-the-sailorettes/#comments Fri, 22 Jul 2011 07:13:22 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=27801 "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.

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“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.

Joyce Peugh Cooper, now 49, was a Sailorette, the Arbutus marching corps founded in 1963 that’s still parading down Main Streets across the USA.

“For 41 years, I’ve had a child, a grandchild and now a great-grandchild in the Sailorettes,” said Joan DeVan Peugh, assistant director of the majorettes, color guard and drum corps group.

It strengthened young Joyce’s legs and the Peugh family as well. Joyce’s daughter Jackie was a Sailorette, and her granddaughter Cadence, at age 3, is the youngest member.

Strong legs, strong family and a strong neighborhood can be attributed in no small part to the group founded in 1963.

“Arbutus is still apple pie, and the Sailorettes are part of that,” said Peugh, sipping a diet cola at Paul’s Diner, a folder of vintage photos spread before her in the booth.

One Arbutus native, a writer now in his 50s, recalled “cute-as-a-button majorettes who marched in every civic event in the community along East Drive—toddlers to teenagers, the youngest marching first.”

And Peugh had years of group portraits to prove it.

Peugh, born in Howard County, raised her four children on Sutton Avenue, living there from 1962—just before the Sailorettes were founded—until 2009, when she and her husband John moved to a mobile home in Lansdowne.

Joan, 66 and John, 68, are known in the Sailorette community as “Granny and Poppy.” They work as “turn keys” for the Arbutus Recreation Council, which gives the baton group practice space but no funding. The group’s director is Scott Brown.

“We do it all ourselves,” said Peugh, noting that current membership is down to about 40 from a high of 200 or so in the 1970s. “We need more people. It’s a dying sport but we’re determined to keep it going.”

It comes with its share of injuries—bangs, bings, cuts and conks on the head; the stuff that happens when you’re twirling six-foot flag poles and marching at the same time.

“I have a scar across the top of one of my feet where a saber cut me,” laughed Peugh. “That’s back when we used real sabers.”

Maybe a little blood might get some kids interested again.

Baton twirling started in festivals and military parades in Eastern Europe and Asia. It reportedly was brought to the United States after the Civil War by Reuben Webster Millsaps (1833-1916), a Mississippi businessman who founded the college named for him.

Asked if the current crop of 21st century teens is too cool to twirl batons in hot pants, play drums in funny hats and march up and down Oregon Avenue like Robert Preston in The Music Man, Peugh didn’t bat an eye.

“The Sailorettes are the coolest there is!”

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Grandma Cronise’s Crab Soup http://likethedew.com/2011/07/17/grandma-cronises-crab-soup/ http://likethedew.com/2011/07/17/grandma-cronises-crab-soup/#comments Sun, 17 Jul 2011 23:25:35 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=27658 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.

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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.

(Photo by Phil Romans)

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.

“It’s been emblazoned on my brain since I was three,” said Anello, a veteran Arbutus attorney. He told family stories while enjoying a fine bowl of crab and corn chowder at Larry’s 1332, a new restaurant on the first floor of his Baltimore law office.

Larry Schwartz’s crab chowder conjured images of Anello’s grandmother, Josephine Martin Cronise, at the stove in the house at 1223 West Lombard Street near South Carey. There, the extended family lived together.

Grandma [1892-1977] was born in Baltimore, the daughter of a B&O railroad worker at the Mount Clare works. Anello’s mother Rose, born in 1916, was the second of Josephine’s four children.

Anello–born Salvatore Emanuel Anello III, a 1965 graduate of Mt. St. Joseph High School–lived in the Irish/Lithuanian/African-American neighborhood until he was 10. In those days, he was known as “Little Manny.”

Though he often walked to the market with his grandmother to buy the crabs and stood by as she pieced together her version of the Free State staple, he’s only made it twice in the last 30 years.

“It’s a big job, not easy to do. She made enough to fill a large crab pot,” said Anello. “Grandma’s secret was putting in two dozen shelled female crabs cleaned and broken in half.”

Authentic Maryland crab soup is always made using whole or half crabs instead of, or in addition to, crab meat.

You don’t see it too often these days and there is a generation who believes that if you don’t get half a crab in the bowl, you have not been served crab soup. Some folks just throw in the claws and unscrupulous establishments try to pass off vegetable soup spiced with Old Bay as the real thing.

An especially unique take using halved crabs is Frances Kitching’s “Jimmy Stew,” with broth the color of a tidewater inlet. It can be found in “Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cook Book” [from Cornell Maritime Press.]

To be worthy of Grandma’s crab pot, said Anello: “All the vegetables had to be growing.”

By “growing,” he meant fresh, uncooked produce from the market or roadside stand: lima beans and peas that had to be taken home and hulled; string beans in need of snipping.

“The only vegetable from a can was Maryland white corn,” said Anello, taking his last spoonful of chowder on Sulphur Spring Road, his mind seven miles and 60 years down the road.

“I’m going to make it again,” he said. “It’s on the agenda.”

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Sunday Supper with Honest Abe (Part 2): Where’s Jimmy? http://likethedew.com/2011/06/10/sunday-supper-with-honest-abe-part-2-wheres-jimmy/ http://likethedew.com/2011/06/10/sunday-supper-with-honest-abe-part-2-wheres-jimmy/#comments Sat, 11 Jun 2011 02:28:59 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=25961 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.

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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.

Dennis Boggs as Abraham Lincoln outside of Mom's Kitchen in Plains, Georgia. (Photo by Macon Street Books)

There, in my parents’ first home after leaving East Baltimore for the climb up the suburban ladder of promise, we kept a half-dozen or so peach trees.

“They were beautiful if you picked them [just] before they fell off the tree,” remembered Mom. “I had never made preserves before. With a cookbook, I learned to put up peaches and added oranges in a few of the batches. The color was gorgeous and they tasted delicious.”

Mom’s peaches are one of my earliest memories. I remember eating them out of square, dimpled bowls of clear Depression glass for dessert or by themselves at lunchtime, the syrup eminently slurp-able.

In Georgia, I did laundry at coin-operated machines in Valdosta and ate ribs hot off a front yard smoker on Highway 84 near Thomasville, a shady lawn with a picnic table where a wife ran the barbecue as her husband held court with cronies and sold fresh produce from an abandoned gas station next door, both doing business in front of “Willie’s Tire Shop.”

Also in Valdosta—a $10 shower at a Pilot Travel Center truck stop.

And thus, with a haircut, hot towel shave and clean clothes—freshly showered and my mind flushed of impure thoughts—I was ready to attend Sunday school in Plains and meet Jimmy Carter, one of my personal heroes no matter how history scores the game.

Jimmy told us the truth, preaching in that corny sweater by the fireplace more than 30 years ago that we should drive 55 and turn down the thermostat. We kicked him in the face. The next guy told lies so big they named an airport for him.

Why is it un-American to practice humility?

Jimmy’s memoir advises travelers that if they “keep on for another 30 miles, still heading toward Columbus, Georgia; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; and points beyond, you’ll come to Plains …

“… a small town on land as level as any you will ever see. As people have always said, ‘When it rains, the water don’t know which way to run.'”

I arrived about 10 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 27, and made my way to Maranatha Baptist Church a few miles beyond downtown and old Plains High School. The renovated 1921 schoolhouse is now part of the U.S. Park Service’s Jimmy Carter Historical Site. It is also a near-shrine to his English teacher and principal—Miss Julia Coleman—who he quoted in his Jan. 20, 1977 inaugural speech:

“As my high school teacher, Miss Julia Coleman, used to say, ‘We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.’”

Coleman also had young Jimmy reading War and Peace, before the seventh grade, which is almost unthinkable in today’s America. (If anyone knows of a local kid who has read War and Peace before high school, please let me know and I will write a glowing feature about that student.)

I should have known that Carter was not in town when I pulled into an almost-empty church parking lot before the Bible lesson that precedes weekly services.

Because it would have been rude to say at the door—“Oh, Jimmy’s not here? I’ll see you later”—I went in.

And who did I find in a metal folding chair in the back row, so tall his knees seemed to touch his chest?

Honest Abe.

Carter was apparently fishing with friends off the coast of Peru. His substitute—Mashuq Askerzada, an ex-Afghani military man who became a U.S. citizen and a Muslim converted to Christianity—asked if there were any visitors.

I raised my hand, stood up and said: “I drove here from Baltimore looking for Jimmy Carter. I didn’t expect to meet Abe Lincoln.”

Or Dennis Boggs of Nashville, as the man with the fake mole on his right cheek is known when he’s not wearing a long black suit and top hat. The veteran Lincoln impersonator was in Plains to speak at local schools and also hoped to meet Carter.

After the Sunday school lesson—from the Old Testament book of Numbers featuring a talking donkey and a prophet-for-hire named Balaam—Abe and I retired to the nearby Mom’s Kitchen diner on Highway 27 for lunch.

The waitstaff at Mom’s—a classic southern buffet of fried chicken, turnip greens, catfish and now and again quail—was African-American. The older women asked if you wanted another slice of cornbread while teenagers bused tables.

It was a little uncomfortable sitting down to lunch in the Deep South with a guy dressed like Abe Lincoln—truly a spitting image when Boggs is in full mid-19th century regalia—surrounded by black people.

They didn’t seem to mind, but I was reminded of a Baltimore Halloween story from about 20 years ago when the very tall artist Chris Connell (who painted pictures of household appliances in Crabtown under the pseudonym “Billy Ray Gombus”) dressed up as Abraham Lincoln.

Walking down Lancaster Street near Broadway for revelries in the Fells Point square, Connell said a young black kid appeared out of nowhere, bashed him in the legs with a baseball bat and said: “Free me, [expletive].”

This is likely no more than yet one more story of idiocy in Baltimore. But it was palpably strange to be sitting down to lunch with a dead-ringer for the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation while being waited on by the descendents of those he’d freed.

In An Hour Before Daylight, Jimmy Carter writes: “My life was shaped by a degree of personal intimacy between black and white people that is now almost completely unknown and largely forgotten.”

Boggs—who will not appear at car dealerships or furniture stores and doesn’t think the car insurance ad where Abe tells poor Mary Todd the truth about her ample stern is funny–takes the Lincoln role very seriously.

Elvis impersonators, of whom he knows more than a few, have more fun, he said.

Boggs knows the difference between what Abe said and a boatload of errata that people think he said. His personal library of books about the 16th president (he didn’t read much before assuming the Lincoln role a dozen years ago) now runs to some 150 volumes, a small fraction of the more than 15,000 that have been published.

And he keeps copies of the secession papers of various Confederate states on hand to show combative and contrary schoolchildren why the war was fought.

(Hint: It wasn’t over taxes and tariffs).

Boggs has been heckled in parades, called a mass murderer and had his hand refused to be shaken by an 8-year-old boy, all of which and more he expects to endure again as the nation approaches the 150th anniversaries of the four years of the war, which began on the 12th of this month.

When I asked when he finally knew he had the role of Abraham Lincoln in his bones, Boggs replied: “When they hate you.”

Sunday Supper with Honest Abe, Part 1

This article first appeared in NorthBaltimorePatch.

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Sunday Supper with Honest Abe http://likethedew.com/2011/06/06/sunday-supper-with-honest-abe/ http://likethedew.com/2011/06/06/sunday-supper-with-honest-abe/#comments Mon, 06 Jun 2011 06:00:48 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=25704 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.

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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.

Bricks made in Baltimore on the grounds of Hemingway's home. (Photo by Richard Snyder)

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.

Some years ago, I’d learned from Tom Nugent—perhaps the most fearless and unsung writer in the United States—of the work habits of the Belgian Georges Simenon. Nugent said that when Simenon (1903-1989) conceived a new novel, he would take leave of home and family, check into a hotel with his typewriter, ample supplies of pipe tobacco and Coca-Cola, and remain ensconced until the work was complete.

In this way, Simenon produced nearly 200 books.

“I’m an artisan. I need to work with my hands,” Simenon told the Paris Review in 1955. “I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood.”

Tobacco is of no use to me and I prefer water to soda pop, but the idea of placing myself at a considerable distance from the distractions of Baltimore—family, dishes in the sink, Ikaros restaurant two blocks from my front door—became more attractive as the zero hour of Valentine’s Day neared.

I had a week to finish a rewrite of a pilot script before shipping it off to the suits at the Independent Film Channel, who would then squeeze it like a tomato before being judged worthy of production.

Using every waking moment to write, I didn’t make it very far from Macon Street the first week on the road. Aside from living within the story (a waterfront cop drama set in a Portuguese enclave in Jersey), the most dramatic event was a dream I had during a layover in Dunn, NC, population 9,200.

In it, I encountered the musician PJ Harvey, whose new album—Let England Shake—I’d just downloaded after catching her interview with Terry Gross.

The dream opened with Polly Jean dressed like an acrobat, walking across a Baltimore parking lot that looked like a circus scene from Wenders’ Wings of Desire. She was surrounded by pinheads, people once seen in sideshows.

I got Harvey’s attention and asked, “What do you think of Johnny Winter?”

As the pinheads chanted “Johnny Winter, Johnny Winter!”—in the same cadence of those singing “One of us, one of us!” in the 1932 Tod Browning movie Freaks—Harvey replied:

“Johnny Winter is one of the greatest guitarists the world has ever known …”

Polly took her leave of me and I took my leave of the dream. The next day took me to Florence, SC. It was Feb. 15 and I had wheedled an extra day to parse the script one last time. I’d made it no farther than the Palmetto State town of Manning, some 600 miles from home.

In that first week, with daytime temperatures below freezing and colder at night, I stayed not in pensiones but a succession of Holiday Inn Express hotels that dot the interstates. At McDonald’s, I stoked the furnace with dollar cheeseburgers, good, cheap coffee and free WI-FI.

Alexis de Tocqueville would find a highly agitated 21st century America—across all demographic strata—at any McDonald’s in the land. Fox News hangs on the walls (We inculcate, you parrot) and fuels the conversations of older white men who meet beneath the Golden Arches in the early mornings to grumble.

Somewhere in the Carolinas, I overheard a middle-aged man tell his mother over a Big Mac dinner: “Before you know it, we’ll all be speaking Spanish and reading the Koran” and I wondered how hard it would be to find a Spanish translation of the Koran in Vidalia.

On the other side of Manning, where I actually found a man reading the Koran at McDonald’s and gave him a ride home—an aging African-American from Boston named Louis Roberts, a combative man with Native-American heritage and a satchel of heroic resentments—I was free: script turned in, a few bucks in my pocket and temperatures warming with each mile south.

In my sights: Miami and a massage for my aching back; Hemingway’s imprisoned typewriter in Key West, and Vlad Guerrero’s goatee at Orioles spring training in Sarasota.

Between the southernmost town in the lower 48 and my eventual return to the Mason-Dixon Line, there were places I lingered because something caught my eye, or my eyes were too tired to go another mile.

Over the course of 23 days, I found my way to a chili dog at the still weird-as-weird-can-be South of the Border (you never sausage a weiner!); a white anchovy tart—boquerones—in St. Augustine; and fresh grouper at Rusty Bellies in Tarpon Springs, eating it dockside as a dog tried to catch pelicans that calmly evaded him with a single flap of their wings.

By Savannah, my first visit to the colonial jewel of Georgia, time became my own. With points earned through fidelity to the Holiday Inn, I enjoyed a free room with a view of ships and tugs pushing through the waters of the early 18th century port city.

There, I toured Mikve Israel, a gothic synagogue whose congregation can be traced to 1733; circled a monument honoring Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski (the one in Patterson Park, dedicated in 1951, is far more compelling, almost a moving picture); and savored a wide saucer of “low country bouillabaisse,” a regional favorite of fish, shrimp and scallops in a saffron broth ($26) at the Boar’s Head Grill along the cobblestones of River Street.

From Savannah it was a short hop to the Sunshine State. I was now far enough south to sleep at night in the back of the Toyota pick-up, a white, 2006 Tacoma with a camper cap and some 113,000 miles on the odometer when I left home.

(On previous trips—usually from Baltimore to L.A. and back by way of Memphis—I used to pile up comforters on a feather bed and snooze atop the shifting pile in a sleeping bag.

This time around, I bought a thin, “low-profile” mattress from Mattress Giant near the Motor Vehicle Administration on Ritchie Highway.

There, the “how-did-it-come-to-this” salesman—a guy named Danny, who drove a beat-up Cadillac DeVille, cherry red and littered with coffee cups and other detritus of the salesman’s life—allowed that the last year or so had been pretty rough.)

I continued on through Jacksonville and Daytona along Route A1A, the tight two-laner that hugs the coastline of the 27th state from Callahan down to Key West. On Feb. 19, I hit Miami and found the grave of “The Great One”—Jackie Gleason.

Gleason is buried at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery beneath an eight-pillared marble monument worthy of the man it entombs.

Atop four steps lay a pair of graceful, side-by-side markers. One is engraved: Jackie Gleason, 1916-1987. The other remains blank, apparently waiting for a tenant.

To the side of the monument, flush with the sod, are a few bronze markers. One is for June Taylor, choreographer of Gleason’s fabled “June Taylor Dancers,” and her husband. Taylor reportedly met Jackie in a Baltimore nightclub in 1946. Wish I knew which one.

Gleason’s third wife, the dancer Marilyn Horwich Taylor (June’s sister, who left show biz in 1956), is apparently still alive. Perhaps the empty crypt waits for her.

In my pocket, I happened to have a small bottle of holy water from my only visit to the gurgling grotto in Lourdes, the last of a half-pint I gave my Polish grandmother after a 1990 holiday in France and Spain. When she died a few years later, I took the water back.

I’d brought it with me in a plastic Blessed Mother squirt bottle, thinking I might use it to make the sign of the cross when I said the rosary (which calms me down) on long stretches of open road.

And wouldn’t that make for an especially ridiculous police report? Knuckleheaded victim has fatal crash not while texting but praying rosary beads with one hand while crossing himself with holy water with the other.

Could such a motorist be judged too much of an idiot to get the green light from St. Peter?

In any case, I had the water when I located Gleason’s grave. Knowing he was born Irish-Catholic into a grinding and brutal poverty of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I sprinkled some over his grave and said a Hail Mary.

Chiseled into the top step of the Gleason monument: “And away we go …”

Roosters, Six-Toed cats and a Guy named Joe Buggy

From Miami to Key West, I began listening to a CD of Jimmy Carter reading An Hour Before Daylight, his 2001 memoir of growing up on a south Georgia farm during the Great Depression.

I’d bought the audio book a day or so earlier for $10 at a used book shop in Melbourne. I was looking for Pessoa, but the poetry was paltry and un-alphabetized while the science fiction ample and manicured.

If you ever wondered where a straight-arrow Boy Scout like Jimmy acquired his self-confessed appetite for lust, read the section where he talks about going with his father—whom he “almost worshipped” as a boy—to get a “white” turkey one Thanksgiving from a comely widow.

Along Route 1, which connects more than 30 of Florida’s “keys,” are about as many places offering conch stew as you might find crab houses on North Point Road.

The bowl I sampled at a handful of places (no native-born local to direct me as I might send a pilgrim in search of a crab cake to Koco’s on Harford Road) was unremarkable. The broth wasn’t bad—as hit or miss as roadside crab soup in Maryland—but the minced conch had no discernable flavor, even less than minced clams from a can.

Arriving in Key West early on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 20, I treated myself to a room—$219 before tax at the Best Western on Roosevelt Boulevard—and headed off to Mass at St. Mary Star of the Sea on Windsor Lane.

It was one of those Caribbean-styled churches where the walls are a series of doorways that generally remain open because the weather is splendid, as it was the morning I arrived, the seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Roosters crowing on the grounds reminded me of a similar Mass in St. Croix during the summer of 2002, when I worked as a deckhand on the Atlantic Guardian, a British cable ship whose home berth was Locust Point.

Photo by seabright hoffman

From the roosters on Windsor Lane, I made my way to the gaggle of six-toed cats at the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street. It was $12 to take the tour and glimpse Ernest’s writing studio, still pristine and protected behind a wrought iron gate.

The guide for my group—Joe Buggy, real name—rattled off heroic lore from room to room: that the master bedroom headboard was carved in Spain some 300 years ago, and the goat in a painting above the bed was named Alice, and that large parts of For Whom The Bell Tolls was written on Whitehead Street.

The dedication of the 1940 novel about the Spanish Civil War reads: “This book is for Martha Gellhorn.”

Gellhorn, a magnificent war correspondent, was a combat reporter for six decades, from the tragedy of the Second Spanish Republic through Vietnam, the Central American revolutions of the 1980s and the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.

She was one of the first reporters to file from the liberated death camp in Dachau, of whose victims she wrote: “They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky.”

Burnishing the well-burnished, Buggy told our group that Gellhorn—who celebrated Christmas 1937 with Ernest in Barcelona while Pauline Pfeiffer (the soon to be second ex-Mrs. Hemingway) greeted the Yule in the States—showed up at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West one day with the expressed intent of marrying the famous author.

Buggy noted that Martha succeeded but failed to mention Gellhorn divorced Hemingway five years later, ultimately dismissing him as a blowhard to whom she resented being a footnote.

Which I guess is akin to a docent on Emory Street saying Babe Ruth liked hotdogs.

(Young reporters wanting to bask in the echo of Gellhorn’s sniper fire had to agree to the strict ground rule that Hemingway would not be mentioned in the ensuing article.)

The paving stones around the house are stamped Baltimore Block. On a garden bench, I sat down with a Hemingway short story from a collection bought in the gift shop—The Butterfly and the Tank, fiction with the same sensibility that presaged Led Zeppelin.

While reading the story—about a foreign correspondent and a barroom prank that turns deadly during the very war Hemingway covered while doing the hanky-panky with Martha—I gave away poetry by the late Baltimore legend David “Footlong” Franks (1943-2010) to other tourists.

“I don’t have a clear memory of David having much to say on Hemingway,” noted Joe Wall, Franks’ biographer. “But he did seem receptive when I suggested a road trip to Key West to kidnap a Hemingway cat.”

Bucket List Letdown

After Key West, it was “around the Horn,” as my old man likes to say.

But even the great Bolano—whose massive, labyrinth of a novel 2666 I read during breaks from writing and driving—would be hard-pressed to compare the legends of Tierra del Fuego for Hialeah, where I picked up Highway 41 for the turn-around and drove west to Naples.

On the Gulf Coast, I napped along a stretch of public beach on Sanibel Island (and later ate more fresh grouper, this time deep fried on a Kaiser roll at The Timbers) and then up to Sarasota to do something I’d never done, one of the expressed reasons for the trip: see the Baltimore Orioles in spring training.

I arrived at Ed Smith Stadium on Feb. 23, too early for the start of Grapefruit League games. It was hot and—except for the senior citizens splashing in the Fountain of Youth (the one old Ponce never found) by asking men one-fourth their age for autographs—a little boring.

For a few minutes I watched new Orioles bench coach and former Yankee second baseman Willie Randolph, now 56, teach rookie hopefuls how to take safe but aggressive leads off of second base.

(Willie will be No. 13 in your program this year, just like another former Met who once wore the native black and orange and will not be named because of gross ineptitude.)

It’s funny how I couldn’t wait to get to spring training, which had lingered on my bucket list long before I knew what a bucket list was.

But once I got there, without the tension of competition—the transcendent state that falls as you watch a guy foul off eight pitches in a row, as Albert Pujols did in 2003— I was disappointed.

So I drained a bottle of water, admired Vladimir Guerrero’s swing during batting practice and shoved off.

Next up: Day 17 and the sponge diving capital of North America, the aforementioned Tarpon Springs with a population of 22,500 and more Greek restaurants—including “Mister Souvlaki”—than Highlandtown.

Where Greeks came to Baltimore for many of the same reasons other ethnic groups once migrated here—good factory jobs, affordable housing, relatives who’d settled before them—Hellenic emigres from the Dodecanese Islands began landing in Tarpon Springs in the late 19th century to work a fledgling sponge industry.

Though the sponge docks are largely a tourist attraction—like a small section of Ocean City’s Boardwalk with Greek flags and a deep sea diving motif—Tarpon Springs maintains a higher percentage of Greek-American residents than any city in the United States.

Despite a modest comeback in the sponge harvest—nothing near the million-dollar bounties of the 1930s, a lost era captured in the 1953 Cinemascope spectacular Beneath The 12 Mile Reef—most of the sponges for sale are imported.

It was in Tarpon Springs that I decided to cut my on-again, off-again goatee.

Where slugger Vlad’s is coal black and becomes scraggly as the season wears on, like a tangled nest of lethal baby snakes, mine is almost all white, as though waiting for an errant dollop of Thanksgiving gravy from the Helping Up Mission.

I happened upon “John the Barber,” on East Tarpon Avenue. John—no last name listed on his business card or other searches—is a Chicago transplant, an Italian-American who apprenticed with an old school Italian barber.

(Along with masonry and making especially uptight Supreme Court justices, Italians are legendary for their barbering skills. Frank Zappa’s father—Francis Vincent Zappa—put himself through the University of North Carolina during the Roaring ’20s by cutting hair on the side.)

Forty bucks later, $36 for the shave and the haircut and a $4 tip collected at the door by Mrs. John the Barber (so much for two bits), I was Georgia bound.

Sunday Supper with Honest Abe, Part 2

This article first appeared in NorthBaltimorePatch.

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The ballad of Evelyn Butterhoff http://likethedew.com/2011/06/02/the-ballad-of-evelyn-butterhoff/ http://likethedew.com/2011/06/02/the-ballad-of-evelyn-butterhoff/#respond Thu, 02 Jun 2011 11:37:13 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=25571 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.”

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Piano woman: Evelyn Butterhoff
Piano woman: Evelyn Butterhoff first played with Frank Skalski and his Silver Eagle Orchestra at the Polish Home Club in Fells Point.

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.”

Evelyn Butterhoff – who gave virtually all of her 86 years to music – died last month at the Hamilton Center nursing home on Harford Rd. in Baltimore from complications of dementia and a stroke suffered in 2005.

Evelyn could do more with one hand on a set of 88s than many musicians can do with two. But that never translated into fame or fortune.

“That girl … plays for a few lousy dollars [in saloons],” lamented the pianist’s mother – Agnes Beck – not long before her own death in 1990. “It breaks my heart to see these other people with no talent who have two or three homes and cars.”

Eveyln’s last performance was more an act of bravery than entertainment.

“Mom’s sister [Dorothy] was visiting not long before she died and took her downstairs to see if she could play the piano,” said Ambrose. “My mother played ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ with her one good hand.”

Live from East Baltimore

The former Evelyn Anna Beck was born at the height of the Jazz Age to an East Baltimore factory worker named John Charles Beck and his wife, Agnes Smrha.

The couple belonged to St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church in the days when the parish was strictly Bohemian and Czech. It is where Eveyln and her three siblings were baptized.

The young Evelyn Butterhoff: "she absolutely did not want to be a homemaker.”

The Beck family lived at 443 North Curley St. in Baltimore, just around the corner from Butterhoff’s Grocery where Evelyn’s future husband was born.

“Mom’s father was a natural musician,” said Ambrose. “He played piano, violin, drums and mandolin. Never took lessons.”

Evelyn attended St. Elizabeth of Hungary parochial school adjacent to Patterson Park and began 50 cents an hour piano lessons with a neighborhood woman her mother described as an “old maid.”

At age 12, Evelyn began studying with Jack Rohr at the Hammann Music Co. in the 200 block of North Liberty St. downtown. Those lessons cost $2 each.

“Jack really socked it to me,” said Evelyn in a 1986 interview, recalling Rohr as the biggest influence on her playing, particularly in regard to keeping time. “He taught me sonatas, Beethoven, how to change keys, improvise and fake it.”

First Professional Gig at 17

In 1940, Evelyn graduated from St. Elizabeth’s business school. Her first professional job came when she was 17, a gig with Frank Skalski and his Silver Eagle Orchestra at the Polish Home Club on South Broadway in Fells Point.

In those pre-Elvis Presley days – when pianos were as common in bars as shuffleboard tables – she played a wide range of Baltimore taverns, restaurants and social clubs, many of them long-gone.

And kept at it deep into the dark epochs of disco, grunge and gangster rap.

A quick sampling of the houses rocked by Evelyn Butterhoff includes Meushaw’s Restaurant on Frederick Rd., the old Finnish Hall in what is now Greektown, various Democratic clubs and Odd Fellows halls, the fabled Emerson Hotel downtown, dance halls at Moose and Elks clubs, and nightclubs from Essex to Pasadena.

“Mom had to deal with crappy pianos in bars and hated it,” said Ambrose. “She played many a crappy piano.”

Toward the end of her career, Evelyn’s regular gigs were at Rickter’s on Belair Rd. near Herring Run Park, a job behind the organ at Winston Ave. Baptist Church on East 39th St., and the Glenmore Tavern on Harford Rd.

“I never hired her,” said Cal Bitner, who owned the Glenmore at the time. “She’d just come in and play the piano.”

A pass of the hat might be enough for Evelyn to get a sandwich and cab fare home with a few nickels left over.

All-Girl Band

In 1950, Evelyn joined the Queens of Rhythm, an all-female band that played in the mid-Atlantic area. A surviving band member – Viola Stelmack of Essex, still playing music – was one of the mourners at Evelyn’s funeral, a Mass of Christian burial held at St. Pius X church in Towson.

“She’d just come in and play the piano," said one bar owner.

A year or so before joining the “Queens,” Evelyn had married John Frederick Butterhoff, Jr. Family legend holds that John, a drummer who graduated from Mt. St. Joseph High School, was smitten by Evelyn’s talent as well as her beauty.

The attraction set in motion a conflict – the life of a musician versus the more mundane obligations of a wife and mother – that dogged the couple to the end of their days.

“Mom had no interest in domestic things,” said Ambrose, noting that her mother was a loving parent whose interests lay outside the home. “She absolutely did not want to be a homemaker. She wanted to play music.”

Ambrose said that when she turned 18 in 1968 her mother “ran away from home,” leaving Mr. Butterhoff with her and her brothers. “We didn’t even know where she was at first,” she said.

Mr. Butterhoff died in 2004 and was buried at the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills. Although he hadn’t lived with his wife for the last 40 years of his life, Ambrose put Evelyn right next to him.

“In life they were too hard-headed to sit down and have a sane conversation, so now that they can’t talk anymore, I put them in the ground together,” she laughed.

Whoop, Holler and a Smack

I met Evelyn Butterhoff in the mid-1980s when I was living on Kentucky Ave. in Mayfield and she regularly played at Rickter’s (now Slim’s Ace of Club) nearby.

I was thrilled by her Keith Moon approach to the piano – she would whoop and holler and smack a hanging plant while playing.

Legend holds that Rickter’s installed a steel plate under the piano because she had stomped a hole in the floor.

A lifelong Roman Catholic and always a woman of faith – sanctity and the rollicking fun of a good-timer living side-by-side in the same heart – Evelyn attended services with a brand of Catholicism known as the “charismatics.”

Her faith was tested – and faltered, according to her daughter – when she began encountering health problems.

“Mom had breast cancer and a mastectomy in 1994 and she was never the same after that,” said Ambrose. “It shook her faith. And after the chemo she was less lively. Never the same.”

Evelyn Butterhoff is survived by sons, John J. Butterhoff of North Charles St. in Baltimore and Robert W. Butterhoff – a drummer in a 1970s local band called “Fresh” – who lives in Manchester, Md.

Other survivors include her sisters, Dorothy Beck Hutchins, wife of the retired Sunpapers photographer Paul Hutchins, and sister Marie Kohl, as well as three grandsons.

Evelyn also leaves behind her piano, an upright made by the Meissner Co. of Milwaukee. She bought it used on Joppa Rd. in 1975 for $250 and paid it off by installments.

The piano – faithfully tuned over the years by Evelyn’s cousin, Bernard Hauser – is “safe and sound,” according to Ambrose, in the home of good friends in Fork, Md.

 

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All photos courtesy of the Butterhoff family. This article first appeared in Baltimore Brew.

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