Talking To Rafael Alvarez

Posted on October 5, 2011 by Peter Davis

Photographer Phil Laubner and I meet Rafael Alvarez at the G & A Restaurant on Eastern Avenue where he is a regular. The very moment I roll tape and ask the first question, Andy Farantos, the third generation owner comes over and introduces himself. Phil takes pictures of Andy and Rafael. We invite the waitress to join in. She’s shy, but enters Phil’s camera frame with a big warm smile on her face.

Francis Ford Coppola said Apocalypse Now wasn’t about Vietnam, it was Vietnam. This column isn’t about theater. On Rafael’s turf, it is theater.

Peter

What’s new?

Rafael

North Baltimore dot Patch dot com.

Look for the Alvarez Book Page.

Peter

How new is it?

Rafael

Very new. We launched it to coincide with the Book Festival a week ago (9/22/11).

Peter

How’s it going?

Rafael

We never know from day-to-day if AOL…Patch.com is a national experiment…you never know. There’s no stability in the on-line world. There’s no stability in the old school. I come from the newspaper world. There’s no stability there. It’s going well so far. Today we had a good response to a thoughtful review of a book of poems by William Carlos Williams, one of the great modernist American poets. We got a really good response.

(The book was reviewed by Dean Bartoli Smith. Here’s an excerpt.)
The slender volume had disappeared until a decade after William’s death in 1963.
Providing a rare glimpse into the poet’s engine room, the hybrid work alters seamlessly between blocks of prose and swiftly moving currents of free verse such as “Wheelbarrow,” “To a Contagious Hospital,” The Rose” and “At the Ball Game.”
It’s a notebook that lays bare the gears and the levers of imagination at work. When you see these poems all spruced up in his collected volumes, the wild noise of the blast furnace is gone, making this book essential to experience the poems as they happen.
But my editor could call tomorrow and say we’re closing it down.

Peter

What’s the concept behind the Alvarez Book Page?

Rafael

Literature is my—the thing nearest and dearest to my heart. It’s Rafael Alvarez getting to do what he loves best, which is to bring literature—and the classic definition of that word—and put it before a population spoon-fed celebrity pabulum. If I could bring a slice of the Paris Review to people who love the written word…

Peter

How do you attract people who love the written word to your page?

Rafael

I’m easily found in Baltimore.

Peter

What about the page?

 

Rafael

I use Facebook as my private distributorship. I’m simultaneously doing something very old school with very cutting edge technology.

For years, book publishers and record companies owned the ball game, not because of the product, it was distribution. Facebook is…I’ve got a couple of thousand “friends,” two- thirds of which I’ve never met, but we’re friends because we share certain interests. I have friends who have several thousand friends. I’ve also been fortunate to have been allied with some bedrock Baltimore institutions such as The Baltimore Sun and The Wire. I am seen as a pure product of this city. When I bring certain products, they’re intrinsically recognized as authentic. I work very hard to cultivate and protect that authenticity.

Peter

I’m going to paraphrase something from your page and turn it into a question.
Is there still an appetite to savor a meal when we’re in a deep phase of journalistic fast-food?

Rafael

I am not a content provider!

Peter

Explain.

Rafael

I’m not a blogger, not a content provider. I’m a writer.

There’s a phrase that was used by reporters I hung out with at the Sun…”Are you doing it for the love of the game?” I take it very seriously.

I still have to support myself. Yesterday I turned in a story to the Catholic Review on 7 places to go to Mass before a Ravens game within 3 miles of M&T Bank Stadium. That’s pick and shovel journalism, right? A content provider would go to each church’s website and cut & paste, put a clever headline on it and end with a call for more information. That’s providing content. I wrote 1200 words weaving in things like the most legendary of all sportswriters was an usher at St. Jude’s Shrine. I know this because I worked with John Steadman. A content provider wouldn’t know that. A content provider wouldn’t know that Chuck Thompson’s… You know all broadcasters have like a couple of catch phrases that they’re known for. Chuck has two. “Ain’t the beer cold?” Somebody would hit a home run, “Aint the beer cold?” This is another one that, um, who the hell knows what it means, but it sounds very Baltimorean, “Go to war, Miss Agnes!” which was an old school version of “what the fuck?” Now, “Miss Agnes” is so indelibly Baltimore. Any city that has an old entrenched Eastern European Polish Community is going to have a Miss Agnes.

That’s the difference between a writer and a content provider. I could have banged it out in 20 minutes, but, come on, I’m an old rewrite man. I double checked to make sure the Mass times were correct.

The 20-year old Rafael Alvarez, a newsroom clerk always had literary dreams. My dreams were never to be H.L. Menken. It was always to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. The newspaper was the first and best stage I had. Thank God. It taught me to write and it paid my bills.

 

Peter

How do you respond to a digital prophet who says your page or what you’re trying to do is like a dinosaur caught in a tar pit?

Rafael

I’ll take AOL’s money until they tell me to stop. Until then, I don’t care what they think.

I’m completely baffled by this industry that has arisen around MFA programs. We turn out more accredited fiction writers than ever before, while the audience for reading literary fiction decreases every year.

Peter

Does America have a relevant mythology anymore?

Rafael

Sure, cowboys and Indians.

Peter

Does that still work?

Rafael

Yeah.

Peter

Hmmm…

Rafael

The West is our Greek tragedy.

Peter

The Alvarez Book Page includes a serial novel.

Rafael

It’s called The Long Vietnam of My Soul, which my kids think is the stupidest title they’ve ever heard.

Peter

Who is the protagonist?

Rafael

Basilio, who is also the main character in The Fountain of Highlandtown, which is basically the blueprint for all of my fiction. All of which takes place in East Baltimore.

Peter

There’s a character, a woman named Nieves, introduced early on.

Rafael

Correct.

Peter

She’s a heroin addict.

Rafael

She is.

Peter

Is heroin addiction more romantic than being a crack- or meth-head?

Rafael

Of course!

Peter

I agree. Why is that?

Rafael

Billie Holiday shot dope. Charlie Parker shot dope. From what I gather, a heroin nod is a dream state and—I’ve never done crack either—a tweaky, crack-out, on your hands and knees, looking for pebbles in the shag carpet—what’s romantic about that?

Peter

Not a thing.

Rafael

I don’t want to live in either state, but, I’ll take opiates over amphetamines any day. Any day! From what I’ve read in books.

Peter

Of course.

While we’re on romantic outlaws, tell me a bit about your friend the late David Franks.

(long pause)

 

Rafael

You could do a whole story on the late great David Franks.

Peter

It’s already been done.

Rafael

Aaron Henkin did a great piece! You should ask a lot of short-answer questions, because I could go on a tangent that digresses and the digression will have digressions.

Peter

I believe you.

Rafael

You couldn’t get your hands around Franks. He was one of these guys—I don’t appreciate this kind of art—but he was so brilliant that he would invent these performances that you’d have to write a dissertation about to figure out. Nothing was self-evident.

Peter

Was it theater?

Rafael

Very singular. I knew him as a writer. I connected with him on the writing plane. I always wanted to talk to him about his poetry. He would coerce people to be a part of his art.

Peter

His theater?

Rafael

Yes. Which I would find to be border-line exploitation…reluctant collaborators.

Peter

What was he trying to do?

Rafael

(pause) That’s a good question.

Peter

If art has a point-

Rafael

-Does it? That’s a big if.

Peter

If it does, what might his have been?

Rafael

The greater glorification of David Franks, for one.

Peter

Is that valid?

Rafael

David needed, and more than most, he deserved a spotlight.

Let me explain what he did and you tell me what it is.

He would freeze his tears. And I think he tried to get some of his lovers, during a break-up to surrender theirs. Those poor women. He was very much a Lothario, an older Svengali. Imagine, in the middle of a break-up, he’d ask if they minded if he gathered up some of their tears to freeze them. What kind of art is that?

Peter

Sadism?

Rafael

Then he would write about it.

Peter

He reminds me of Andy Kaufman who alienated a lot of people with his performances. Many considered Kaufman a genius and others thought he was just a jerk.

Rafael

It was in Andy’s best interest to make sure that was never answered, whether he was or wasn’t.

America can’t stand anything they can’t label, commodify, and put on a shelf. Franks was unshelveable. He was quite the local legend. I want to keep his name in front of people. He was one of the greats.

(The conversation stops so Andy can ask Rafael about the curse of the Bambino. Then, back to David Franks.)

Rafael

Not anybody could have gotten 9 tugboat Captains together to blow those whistles in a certain syncopation while Franks was filmed conducting them!

Peter

Brilliant!

Is there anyone in Baltimore today with that kind of juice?

 

 

Rafael

Probably. I don’t know who they are. Baltimore is getting an influx of young, the artist class; not the gallery owners, not the society fundraisers, but the street level, worthless degree, fuck-it, “I’m going to Baltimore and making something happen” artists. I would like to think every generation produces a David Franks.

Peter

This generation seems much more earnest than Franks.

Rafael

Baltimore was lucky to have him. I was blessed to know him.

Peter

Franks, Zappa, Waters, what is it about Balti-

Rafael

I don’t know. I’m so sick of that question. There’s a David Franks in Coney Island. There’s a David Franks in Cleveland. All I know is this is my town!

(silence)

Are we done?

Peter

That seemed like punctuation.

Rafael

I just wrapped it up in a bow for you!

Peter

I’ll pick up the check.

So, here we are talking about David Franks, he’s dead, and we’re making a big deal out of him. You’re painting a great picture of him for me.

Rafael

While Phil stuffs hot roast beef into his mouth.

Phil

So good.

Peter

And one day we’re dead. What will people be saying about you?

Rafael

I don’t care what they say. I just want my stories to survive. If there is someone trying to do for me what I’m doing for Franks, then I’m fine.

(The cook, an early twenty-something, enters from the kitchen and introduces himself to Rafael as someone interested in writing. I leave the tape running and go to the front of the restaurant to pay the bill and thank the owner for indulging us. What follows is Phil Laubner’s experience of the cook/busboy who recites poetry to strangers.)

 

Phil

I didn’t know what to make of what I was hearing; the unannounced cook was standing next to our table reciting a poem? Here it is:

“When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
 Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
 Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
 Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”

His delivery was earnest and unfaltering, so Rafael Alvarez and I were listening as if it was planned. We learned the poem is When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be by John Keats. And that the brave cook, Francesco Lazarro, is also an aspiring writer and student at CCBC Essex.

I was glad that Peter Davis had left the tape recorder running when he stepped away for a moment to settle the check.

If I wasn’t sitting at the G&A Restaurant, an Eastern Ave. eatery that boasts “Baltimore’s Best Coney Island Hot Dog,” and looks like an Edward Hopper painting, I’d be surprised. An impromptu poetry recital by a cook holding a mop and a portrait shoot/interview of Rafael Alvarez. I realized I’d sooner get tofu and braised seaweed at the G&A, than I’d ever witness a moment more quirky, appropriate or “Baltimore” than this.

Rafael asked him: How do you know Andy? 
Francesco replied: I, umm, I’m dating his daughter.

This made Rafael roar with laughter. He teased Francesco that Andy didn’t see him as a writer as much as he saw him as his successor at the restaurant. Rafael may have teased him, but he also gave him encouragement and the name of a professor at CCBC that he felt would further his writing. Francesco was openly grateful for the exchange, thanked us many times, and you could just feel his sincerity.

Then Andy, who is looking at receipts at the front of the restaurant waves to Francesco to get busy. The young cook takes his mop, becomes a busboy, and gets back to work. What an Italian poet will do for the love of the Greek restaurant owner’s daughter.

When Francesco walked away, Rafael turned to Peter and me and said: “Now that’s what Baltimore is all about! That would never happen in New York. That’s Baltimore!”

 

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