In 2008, while scrambling between Baltimore and Los Angeles for work with stops in Tennessee for pleasure and the odd sojourn to New York City, writer Rafael Alvarez logged more than 20,000 miles on a Toyota pickup truck.
The journeys echoed those by John Steinbeck – who traveled in an old pie truck to research The Grapes of Wrath, the lonesome Catholic poet from Lowell whose name is synonymous with the American road trip – as well as those of the thousands of never-quite-made-the-big-time musicians who
crisscross the continent to make people forget their troubles for a spell.
The Toyota – a white 2006 Tacoma – is fitted with a small camper cap and Alvarez, who came of age on the City Desk of the Baltimore Sun and has collected narratives around the world, slept by the side of the road between dots on the map.
Over the course of 2010 – beginning with this New Year’s Day – Welcome to Baltimore, Hon! will publish a week-by-week journal of Alvarez’s 52-week adventure.
“Nobody said not to go . . .” — Emily Hahn (1905-1997)
The year began on a Tuesday, and I began 2008 by participating in an all-day literary reading at the Patterson Theater, where my parents had their first date as teenagers in the early 1950s.
The same movie house where while all hopped up on Terry Hesse’s mother’s diet pills, I talked through all 165 minutes of Towering Inferno during a first-and-last date with Lucinda Ares, and where, as a newly divorced father, I took my kids to see Jim Varney’s Ernest movies for a buck before it became the home to the Creative Alliance.
(The original Patterson Theater opened at 3134 Eastern Avenue in 1910. It showed silent movies and had a dance hall on the second floor. It was closed in the first year of the Depression and razed for the current building, which opened in the autumn of 1930.
A sign over the entrance read “through these portals walk the most beautiful girls in the world,” doors darkened by many of my relatives, including my Uncle Victor’s wife, the former Claire Weigman, a beauty once known as “the flower of Clinton street.”)
At the reading, I was heartened to see Chuck Donofrio, hear him read poetry about the great outdoors and his love for it, and launch the year by wishing him health, prosperity, and happiness.
Said Donofrio between poets: “I have driven across country several times. First time was right after high school, I believe. That was the time I got stopped at the border into Canada. They put me in a cell with wonderful drawings of Mounties beating up wrongdoers: aka HIPPIES.
It was a most feeble bust . . .”
Driving from the Patterson and through the Inner Harbor to my parents’ house on Orchard Road in Linthicum – where my father prepared our family’s traditional New Year’s Day meal of cocido (a peasant cabbage and bean stew eaten throughout Spain) – my mother called to say that the family had just increased by a seven-pound baby girl.
Charlotte Anna Alvarez arrived that morning in Providence, Rhode Island, to my youngest brother, Victor, named for my uncle, and his wife, Annie McGarrah.
The child’s middle name honors my Polish grandmother, Anna Potter Jones [1911-1996], who was also no stranger to the Patterson movies over the years (though she preferred the big theaters downtown and took us to the Hippodrome to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, back when such extravaganzas came with programs and intermission).
At dinner, as been my custom for a decade or so, I passed around a virgin composition book – the kind from grade school with a marbled cover, a work journal for the coming year – and had each guest sign with a wish.
Early the next day, Wednesday, January 2, 2008, I tossed the notebook in the back of the truck to await all the joy and beatings of the coming seasons.
It is because of that journal, along with a database of emails from 2008 and notes scribbled in the margins of books I read that year (including The Savage Detectives, by Bolano and Agnon’s To This Day), that I am able to give this account.
On Wednesday morning, the journey began in earnest. I left Orchard Road at 9:30 a.m. for the first of many cross-country road trips in 2008. The odometer on the Toyota reads 47,018.
Within two days of shoving off, my debut column for the Baltimore Examiner (both column and paper would barely survive the next 12 months before succumbing) appears in a quaint technology called newsprint around Crabtown.
It begins: “Hello Baltimore, I’ve missed you. I haven’t written regularly for a newspaper in seven years, not since leaving the paper of Mencken in January of 2001.
Now, after a few years on ships and a few more in Hollywood, I am at the paper of Twain. It feels right, and it feels good. Like that special thing you think won’t ever happen again.
But then it does and you smile: How lucky am I?”
Intrigued? Check this space each Friday during 2010 for a new installment of Ralphie on the Road. And feel free to leave us some comments too, hon!
Photos: Macon Street Books