“I’m not leaving the city of Baltimore. It’s my co-dependent dysfunctional love of my life.”
My name is Rafael Alvarez. And I am a writer, born and working, and living in the city of Baltimore.
My parents left the city in the early 1950s, and they moved us to a suburb not far from here, called Lansdowne. My parents were part of a generation that were looking for a way up and a way out, so to speak. I reversed my family’s upwardly mobile trend and moved back to the city the minute that I could. And I think, what I’ve come to realize is a lot of my work romanticizes city life. It’s sort of nostalgia without sentimentality. If I had literally grown up in the city, I may be like many of my cousins and be living in Harford County. Thank God I’m not.
A lot of families like my mother and father, they moved to the suburbs for a sense of protection. I found it to be terribly boring and as an artist I found it to be terminally boring. The city was where things were different, things were alive, people were strange, and as an artist I need that.
As soon as I got my driver’s license at age sixteen, I was in the city constantly. I made friends, I went to Mount Saint Joseph High School in a southwest Baltimore neighborhood called Irvington. And I met kids from all over. I met kids from Little Italy, from Highland Town, and Locust Point. At Loyola College, I met a young woman who grew up in Dundalk who is now a UMBC professor named, Deborah Rudacille, and we fell in love. One of the things that made us such a good fit, is that we loved the city. In ways that actually scared both sets of our parents who had worked their butts off to get out of the city.
In any case, we got married and bought our first house in the city. And then we started having children. And we bought our second house and our second house was in the city. And then Deborah and I decided to go our separate ways. And at that time, my grandfather was about eighty-five years old. And his house is in Greektown, or was in Greektown. Which was not known as Greektown in 1985, it was called “The Hill”. Anyway I needed a place to stay and Grandpop sorta needed someone to look after him. He wasn’t willing to admit that; he had a lot of pride. So I moved in with Grandpop. Now I’m back in the house that my father grew up in. I’m back in the house where I ate every Sunday dinner of my entire life.
In any case, I still live in that house. I moved in with my grandfather and about a year later he passed away. And his name was Rafael Alvarez, and I was named for him. And I didn’t even have to change the phone number. It was still listed in the phonebook as Rafael Alvarez.
The Greektown name has stuck primarily because of the church and the restaurants. One of the reasons, in my fiction, that I have characters named Orlo and Lennie. And they are lovers and their secret meal is pig feet. And it’s because I grew up watching my grandmother put pigs feet in her spaghetti sauce. These are the memories that sort of bubble in mind when I sit down to right one of my “Holy Land” stories. I call East Baltimore the “Holy Land” because it’s the sacred ground that my ancestors walked on.
So what a neighborhood like Greektown, what makes it distinctive and different is, it’s a statement of, we’re not melting into the melting pot. And if we are in this tossed salad, we’re a big fat hunk of feta cheese, and we are Greek. Except, and this is very important, yes they are Greek, and yes they are proud to be Greek, but they would fight to the death for America at the same time.
The thing that differentiates Greeks and Greek-Americans from a lot of the other ethnic groups is that they are not Catholic, they are Greek Orthodox. I think what makes Greentown distinctive is that they are far more determined not to lose the culture. And again, they are very proud to be citizens of the United States and they came here and did very, very well.
That makes them different from some of the other Baltimoreans that I know is, they would work a shift at Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel Plant. That would be their safety net job, that would be the one they could count on because they were in the union. And then when they would get off that shift-these people don’t sleep- they would get off that shift and then they would go work at their cousins restaurant for four or five hours.
I can’t think of anything that would force me to leave Baltimore. I would go to a different neighborhood perhaps, or I would spend winters in Spain. But I’m not leaving the city of Baltimore. It’s my co-dependent dysfunctional love of my life.