"Finding the Truth After 20 Years of Madness"

My intro to the upcoming book “Long Distance Drunks: A Tribute to Charles Bukowski”


I was 21 when Bukowski died. Old enough to drink in a bar.  Young enough to believe his bullshit.

I was a copy boy at The Baltimore Sun, filing late obituaries and lottery scores before breaking out when the first edition rolled off the press at 1 a.m. Any bar that was still open was home.

I was the first one to see Bukowski’s LA Times obit on the wires – or I was the only one who cared. There was no effort to hold up the paper’s A section to squeeze it in. In a room filled with people who trade on words I was the only one crying in the fifth floor mens room – a subway-tiled haven for anyone who still smoked cigarettes, had to take a shit, or found themselves crying over the Great Poet’s death. 

I wept alone while Baltimore lit up and got down outside of windows big enough that a man could sail into the mystic with just a few steps forward. Never would I make the trip to LA to see him in person. There was no chance he’d respond to my letters now. He was gone, and all I had of him was what everyone else had – more published works than anyone who drank that much had likely ever produced. 

Back at my desk, tears wiped from my cheeks, I read the obit again. It wasn’t enough. Had he died today the Internet would be lousy with hacks posting blog pieces and Tweets about him. In 1994, I was the only hack I knew with access to a newsroom and a few editors who were willing to give me a shot. Bukowski deserved more than a few graphs. So I started writing:

"If there is anything more futile than coveting a man’s soul, it is pretending to be that man. I wanted to be the poet Charles ‘Hank’ Bukowski. I tried to be Bukowski. Now Hank is dead, and I’ve stopped trying."

The words came fast. I wasn’t thinking. I was eulogizing – a selfish act in which the living harvest the greatness of the dead. 

"His family came to America from Germany when he was three, landing first in Baltimore. They settled in Los Angeles. It was here that Hank suffered his father’s stern discipline, without escape, until finding solace in a bottle at age 13. Like Los Angeles, booze would both corrupt and create his writing all his life."

His biographical details made him Bizarro to my Superman. I didn’t have his scars – my father was a good man who never beat me. I wasn’t an alcoholic. The drunks I knew were not interesting. They didn’t bet on horses while carrying Kafka novels in a back pocket. I felt like a traitor – still do – trying to exploit his madness rather than finding my own. It was a sad truth. Sadder still is that it didn’t stop me from raping him a little more for my eulogy.

"On good days he would write of women and the track and Brahms on his radio. On bad days he challenged the inner doom of the alcoholic, and wrote things like this :

there is nothing subtle about dying or,
dumping garbage, or the spider
and this fist full of nickels and
the barking of dogs tonight
when the beast puffs on beer
and moonlight
and asks my name
and I hold to the wall
not man enough to cry
as the city dumps its sorrow
in wine bottles and stale kisses,
and the handcuffs and crutches and slabs
fornicate like mad.

An hour later the papers rolled off the press. I walked to my car. That morning I found a cassette of him reading poems. I turned the key and heard his voice, soft and weak:

"Each one get’s a taste of honey. Then the knife."

Waiting for me at the closest gin mill was a broad I barely knew. I use the word “broad” not because I’m in a Bukowski mood, or because I am the son of a Baltimore tugboat engineer, but because she was a broad. I drank scotch and water and held court as if I had known the man. As if my appreciation of him was enough to carry his balls in a paper bag.

After 20 years I still wonder how he drank so much and wrote even more. It can’t be done. It’s never done. It’s true that a lot of his stuff is bullshit – good bullshit, but still bullshit. The fighting and fucking and tough guy routine has lost its luster as I’ve grown older. The moments of truth are found in scenes of Hank at the track, Hank listening to the radio, Hank weak and alone. Hank writing words like these:

I pick up the skirt, 
I pick up the sparkling beads 
in black, 
this thing that moved once 
around flesh, 
and I call God a liar, 
I say anything that moved 
like that 
or knew 
my name 
could never die 
in the common verity of dying, 
and I pick up her lovely dress, 
all her loveliness gone, 
and I speak to all the gods,
Jewish gods, Christ-gods, 
chips of blinking things, 
idols, pills, bread, fathoms, risks, 
knowledgeable surrender, 
rats in the gravy of two gone quite mad, 
without a chance, 
hummingbird knowledge, hummingbird chance, 
I lean upon this, I lean on all of this 
and I know 
her dress upon my arm 
but  they will not give her back to me.

You don’t have to be a drunk to write those words. You don’t need a history of abuse, a face riddled with acne scars or a healthy disgust for authority. To write like that you need to be alive. You need to be exposed. You need to drop the tough guy shit. The Great Poet, when he was truly Great, knew this. He died in the old fashioned way – in love and happy, leaving pages of truth waiting for those of us who finally decided to drop the act and start living.

Many thanks to Max Booth III at Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing for making this happen.
You can pre-order “Long Distance Drunks: A Tribute to Bukowski” here:
http://perpetualpublishing.com/product/long-distance-drunks-a-tribute-to-charles-bukowski/

Eight years of miracles and madness

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That morning we pulled away from my childhood home in Megan’s rental car – a sad little Chevy that marked Detroit’s apathy with cheap plastic accents and a sandpaper interior. Me in the back seat, still a little pie eyed from the prior night’s rehearsal dinner shenanigans. As ready to be married as I’d ever be. Which is to say that I knew I was blessed to finally find the right woman.  

I felt safe with two of my dearest friends. Megan drove. Travis fiddled with the radio, searching for appropriate pre-wedding tunes on our 40-minute drive from Baltimore to the rest of my life.

This diamond ring doesn’t shine for me anymore!” filled the tiny cabin. 

Gary Lewis and The Playboys were fucking with me.

"And this diamond ring doesn’t mean what it did before!"

I yelled “Dude!” from a fetal position in the back seat.

Travis, snickering, changed the dial.

"Baby, baby, I’m gonna leave you."

Now Robert Plant was fucking with me.

"But I got to go away from this place …"

"DUDE!?"

I can’t remember if Travis found something else or just turned off the radio. 

If you believe in omens, this was not going well.

Don’t believe in omens.

That was eight years ago today, the day when Annie Walsh McGarrah – a scholar, a beauty, a lover of children, animals, nature and science – married the manchild she met at a shitty bar in Baltimore. She walked down the aisle to Johnny Cash singing "The first time ever I saw your face."

"And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave. To the dark and the endless sky, my love."

Annie has since given me all the gifts a man could want. Two amazing children top the list, of course. But it’s the small moments. The jokes only we share. Moments of weakness and fear soothed only by her soft voice. Mistakes made and forgiven. 

Love.

After the kiss, now husband and wife, we looked at the small crowd of family and friends cheering for us. We walked out to the White Stripes singing “Hotel Yorba.”

"It might sound silly,

for me to think childish thoughts like these.

But I’m so tired of acting tough,

and I’m gonna do what I please.

Let’s get married

in a big cathedral by a priest.

Cause if I’m the man that you love the most,

you could say ‘I do’ at least.”

My Old Man and the Sea

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Photo courtesy of alvarezfiction.com

As they ready themselves to hunt the Great White in “Jaws,” Robert Shaw (Quint) orders Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper) to tie a proper knot. Hooper abides. Quint tosses it aside. 

“Let me see your hands,” says Quint. “You have city hands, Mr. Hooper. You been countin’ money all your life.” Hooper pulls away. “Hey, I don’t need this. I don’t need this working-class-hero crap.”

But I did. I saw “Jaws” in 1977, a few years after it was released. I was five. Even then I knew I was Hooper. I knew I’d never be Quint.

In a few more years, my friends wanted to be Cal Ripken. I wanted to kick around the docks and make my own hooch while crushing cans of Narragansett beer in my calloused hands.

A decade before I discovered Bukowski, before I found myself culling newspaper stories from cobblers instead of city councilmen, I’d encountered Baltimore’s Quint.

My suburban hands were soft from turning pages in Catholic school textbooks. I didn’t know just how soft they were until I shook hands with Chester Rakowski at his barnacled South Baltimore marina on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

My Old Man called the place “Neat and Tidy” – my first lesson in sarcasm. Mr. Chester was my father’s waterfront friend – he’d once worked on harbor tugs with my father, sailing as mate or cook, and he had been part of our family long before I was born.

He built his office – a simple room littered with tools, rope, and paperwork – atop an old barge in an oyster shell-crusted lot where carcasses of work and pleasure boats waited to never launch again.

Chester could cater your kid’s graduation party with a Baltimore Pit Beef feast just as easily as he could knock out a finished “club” basement over seven days and as many cases of domestic beer. My father – a man who drops compliments like manhole covers – says Chester was one of the most talented men he ever met. He just couldn’t keep an even keel, or a steady job.

Dad took me to the marina on summer weekends when he wasn’t on the tugs. I’d drink Suburban Club Golden Ginger Ale and shoot empty beer cans with my BB gun while the men drank beer in lawn chairs on the pier. Then it was a trip to the Pumpkin Patch Tavern around the way on Waterview Avenue for some codfish cakes and a few games of Donkey Kong.

Years later the two old seamen fell out when Chester spat the wrong words at my father – in a bar, with people listening – that he never took back. The Old Man won’t tell me what Chester said, or why, but it sunk the friendship.

By that time my hands were calloused from lifting weights in high school, swinging hammers on summer construction sites through college, and slinging sauté pans in restaurant kitchens to make ends meet as a young writer.

And there was always a newsroom. I took a job as a copy boy at The Baltimore Sun on Calvert Street when I was still a student at Mt. St. Joseph High School. Back then, most ambitious reporters could find a decent newsroom job somewhere. That was still true, mostly, until I got laid off a few years ago. The industry’s impotence in the fight against the Internet finally caught up to me.

I have two young children, a mortgage and a loving wife. She’s a rock, but I needed a job. The only newspaper that was hiring wanted me for half of my prior salary. I needed a bigger boat. Years of honest work and loyalty in the newspaper business paid off as I built a freelance career. When I needed it most I discovered that I knew how to tie the right knots.

I am calloused. I am prepared for the hunt.

This essay appeared in The Long Vietnam of My Soul – a collection of fiction edited by my brother, Rafael Alvarez.

Providence: The 8th snobbiest city in America


Rhode Island may be at the bottom of lists that track economic growth and education, but its beloved Capital City is in the top ten when it comes to snobbery. So says Travel & Leisure, who ranked Providence #8 on its list of America’s snobbiest cities.

Here’s what they said (with some light editing from me):

 

“These New Englanders [Fuck you. We’re from Providence] seem to embrace a café-culture attitude: after all, the city ranks No. 3 for cafés (such as the techy, artsy AS220) [If the unpaid intern who wrote this blurb has ever actually set foot in AS220 I’ll buy them a beer at Muldowney’s.] and No. 4 for cutting-edge performance art [Courageous art and a decent cup of coffee equals snobbery? Did they miss the fact that we have one Dunkin Donuts serving coffee-flavored water for every 15 people in this state?]. Even its No. 1-ranked burgers exhibit a little healthy pretension: the sliders at beloved [Says who?] Harry’s Bar & Burger are 100 percent Hereford beef [Again, quality equals snobbery?], and you can wash them down with a local beer (served, quirkily, in a 68-ounce boot)[They’ve got me on this one. That’s a lot of douchebaggery right there].

Snobby city? Really? For every out of state RISD grad looking to get a stellar education and then screw out of here there’s probably a dozen Providence kids washing dishes or slinging hummus in the cafeteria while socking away enough cash to go to CCRI and get their foothold on the American Dream.

I may be a Baltimore native – which, not surprisingly, didn’t make the Snob City Top 10 – but I’ve been here long enough to love Providence. This city is not filled with snobs. It’s filled with art, culture, food, natural beauty, breathtaking political corruption and even a healthy sense of dread. Providence folks have every right to be snobby about their city, but they’re not. That’s why I love this place.

On the other hand, Travel & Leisure listed Boston at #3. Can’t argue with that one. Boston folks are strong, but so is their contempt for the rest of us.

There goes my hero

When I was 8 years old my parents dropped me at my grandfather’s house for the afternoon. He was a tough old man, a Spaniard right off the boat. His broken English and stern demeanor terrified me. All we had in common (that I could tell) was that we both liked watching Lynda Carter on the Wonder Woman TV show - for different reasons, I would later discover. That afternoon he poured me a drink – half wine, half 7-Up. He said:
"A man never hits a woman. No matter what he does. A man can leave. But he never hits a woman."
I never mentioned it to anyone.
8 years later I drove the old man’s 1968 Ford Fairlaine to pick my dad up from work. It was the first time I ever drove by myself. Dad got in the car and I drove carefully to Orchard Road.
"There are many things a man can do," my father said.
"But a man never hits a woman. Never."
My father is known to keep his own counsel. “My thoughts are my thoughts,” he says when one of his sons gets too close to the truth. But he went out of his way to say that. I like to think I didn’t need to hear it to know it, but he didn’t take that chance. 
We spend a lot of time telling girls not to stay with abusive men. I don’t know if we spend enough time teaching our boys not to hit.
Happy Father’s Day to my hero, Manuel Alvarez.

That’s not news. That’s entertainment.

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I was a summer intern at The Charlotte Observer in 1994 when a teenage girl went missing after Lollapalooza. I happened to be at the same show, and I also happened to find out that the missing girl attended the show with her older sister. I found the sister’s name and the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. Minutes later I arrived at the restaurant and asked to be seated in her section. After she brought my coffee I told her who I was and rattled off questions about her sister’s disappearance. She started to cry then fetched a manager who (correctly) told me to leave.

I was 21 years old. My peers in the internship program praised my moxie. My editors, mostly old salts, were not impressed. The gambit at the restaurant revealed nothing. I wasn’t being a newsman. I was being an asshole.

With this in mind I watched the clip of a Providence mother assaulting a TV news crew. The crew was looking for reaction from the mother after her teenage daughter was shot at a graduation party. The mother responded by throwing a rock at them and ordering her two dogs to attack.

I won’t defend the woman for throwing rocks and unleashing Hell. She should have gone into her home and, if warranted, called the police. (The news crew was on public property.) But I don’t know that I’d be composed and polite if a news crew showed up in front of my house to ask me about someone shooting my daughter.

A young girl getting shot is news. Her mother’s reaction – even if it were composed and weepy – is entertainment. In this case, it turned out to be the kind of entertainment we devour in this country. A disheveled black woman attacks a pretty white newswoman with a rock and two dogs. Some people will watch this and have their bigoted assumptions reaffirmed. What I saw affirmed my despair for the business I once loved, and the things I did while under its spell.

I was a reporter/editor for 20 years. I’ve been the guy looking for comment from people suffering with undeserved tragedy. One day they’re living their lives, the next day news trucks are parked out front. I’ve been out of the business for two years. Context is my reward. When I see reporters dogging the innocent – the unsung working class we swore to give a voice – I realize that news now follows entertainment.

That is, of course, old news. That line was crossed long ago. But while it might not change your life to see a frazzled mother hounded by a reporter, your stakes are much higher when it comes to politics.

In 1959, senator and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy wrote an essay for TV Guide about television’s influence on American politics.Kennedy said television could bring politics – both campaigns and scandals – straight to the public, highlighting the contrast between political personalities.

In his words, a “slick or bombastic orator pounding the table and ringing the rafters” would fall before a more congenial candidate and “is not as welcome in the family living room” as a candidate with “honesty, vigor, compassion [and] intelligence.”

It was as if he was writing his own future. One year later Kennedy faced his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, in America’s first televised presidential campaign debate. The handsome senator famously buried Nixon in what we now call “optics.” Poised, calm and preened, Kennedy came off better on TV than an apparently flustered Nixon. More was made of Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow than his answers. Kennedy handily won over the TV crowd. It was later reported that the majority of people who only heard the debate on radio believed Nixon to be the winner.

In his TV Guide article Kennedy warned that political campaigns “could be taken over by public relations experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what kind of person to be.”

“It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed.”

It is also in your power to demand news, not entertainment or gimmickry, from journalists.

Nostalgia Doesn’t Always Lie

Think about this the next time you’re crushing the Chimera or halving the Horde: Warlords did it first.

Well, not first. Not even best. But to the people who remember waiting in line for machines to open up in arcades Warlords was one of the visionary games that brought people together before the word “multiplayer” was ubiquitous. A lot of games in the golden age were multiplayer. Pong could not be played without an opponent when it was first released as a bar novelty. Through the years kids would gather around cabinets such as Gauntlet and TMNT along with a ton of side-scrolling beat-em-ups and lose quarters together.

But it was the 1981 release of Warlords for the Atari 2600 that got people together in front of the TV for 4-player action. Other multiplayer games came before it, but none of them hold up as well. Instead of beating a buddy in Combat or besting one person’s score in Pac Man, Warlords let you lay the smackdown on three people sitting right next to you.

And it was a blast. In the game you defend yourself from three other players - preferably human. Each player occupies a castle that they defend with a shield. Each character represents one of four brothers fighting endlessly over the fortune of their dead father, The King.

In the days of blocks and beeps, well-written instruction manuals and clever cover art filled in the graphic and story-telling gaps. To wit:

"So King Frederick’s warlords have been battling for many centuries and now it’s up to you to carry on their long-standing feud.  Dominick, Marcus, Felipe, and Restivo have been locked inside this Game Program. They’ve stored enough fireballs and lightning balls so that they’ll never run out, and neither will you. They can hardly wait to do battle.”

The object is to chip away at your opponents’ castle until you can strike them dead. When this happens, their “ghost” can be seen wandering the fortress. (That’s a nice way of saying the programmer needed to explain a glitch in which your character kept  blinking after you died.)

None of the upgrades or Atari classic compilations have done justice to the game. To be played right, you need an Atari 2600, a copy of Warlords and two sets of working paddles. Luckily, all those things will cost you around $50 on eBay. Believe me, it’s worth it.

The sad truth is that many classic games are simply not fun to play anymore. Our memories of the game don’t equal its playability. Nostalgia is a lie. But as we get farther away from the classic era of gaming, I think it’s important to remember not only the games that made a difference, but the ones that are still fun to play. Warlords is just such a game.

That’s not a Maryland Crab Cake

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Armando was a beast of a man. Chef’s coats fit him poorly so he took to wearing the short-sleeved whites favored by dishwashers and busboys. Cramped restaurant kitchens are cruel to big guys. Not Armando. He spun from the range to the pass with grace.

He left Guatemala for Philadelphia to make hay while the sun shined. A Greek chef with an eye for talent and hard work hired Armando to run the line at a fancy joint on the edge of the city. After paying rent and utilities every month, Armando sent every other penny to his family.

He also made the best crab cake I’ve ever had outside of Maryland. The recipe came from the old man, a self-made American success story from the island of Lefkada. But a recipe is just a list. Lists don’t cook. Guys like Armando cook – with skill and love. 

The crab cake had another thing going for it: It was never described as a Maryland Crab Cake. It favored Panko over milk-soaked bread cubes and came with a remoulade spiked with whole grain mustard. Adding the word “Maryland” to its description may have moved more cakes with the tourists. But it would have been a lie.

It is a lie I have believed before. And I’ve been burned every time. As a Baltimorean exiled to New England, I’ve had alleged Maryland Crab Cakes up and down the East Coast. Not one measured up to the fat, lumpy beauties in the land of pleasant living. Is it that hard to make a decent crab cake?

No.

A Maryland crab cake – like a Philly Cheesesteak, a New York Pizza or a Maine Lobster Roll – is a simple thing. You could make a superb Philly Cheesesteak tonight with three common ingredients – thinly sliced ribeye, a crusty sub roll, and Cheez Whiz (yup). Oh, and love. You need love. Armando had it. Like all true line cooks he selflessly put his love into recipes created by the boss.

That love is the missing ingredient in every bad crab cake I’ve ever had. (That and crab meat, which is woefully absent in most so-called Maryland crab cakes.) A decent crab cake is a simple mixture of good crab, scarce binders and a little seasoning. My friend Rachael said it best.

“A Maryland crab cake is mostly crab, lots of lumps, round, big like a softball. And did I say lumps? I want to see the lumps from across the room.”

So why have I suffered through thin, hateful looking cakes filled with bell peppers, carrots and soggy Ritz crackers? Why have I wept over “Old Bay Infused Aioli” garnishes on fancy menus and imitation crab abuse at dives? And frozen cakes from the supermarket? I don’t think so.

I am not alone.

“I had ‘Maryland Style’ crab cakes in Dallas once,” said Eric, another exiled Baltimorean. “There was nothing cake about them. It was like two dollops of hot mayonnaise with sparse bits of crab meat.”

Lump crab meat is expensive. I get that. But I’d rather eat a decent crab dip or soup made with claw meat than choke down a bargain crab cake from a frugal gourmet.

I am reminded of a Parks & Recreation episode in which carnivore Ron Swanson orders a steak at a diner and gets a thin, brown slab of sadness instead.

“This isn’t a steak. Why would you call it that on your menu?”

Exactly. Calling it a Maryland Crab Cake is making a promise. A good cook, like my friend Armando, doesn’t break promises.
Show some respect.

 Miss Glo’s Crab Cake Recipe

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My mother makes the best crab cakes I’ve ever had. She’d say I’m a better cook, but that’s what moms say. Despite my years in professional kitchens I’ve never been able top her.
Glo adapted this recipe from one she found in “Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook.” She serves them with crackers. That’s it. God bless you if you reach for extra Worcestershire or a little Tabasco.

 

1        lb. backfin crab meat

3        tbsp. self-rising flour

4        shakes Worcestershire Sauce

1        egg

1        tbsp. parsley flakes

1        tbsp. prepared mustard

2        tblsp. mayonnaise

3/4    cup vegetable oil

 

In her words:
“Sort through crab meat to clean out any shells. Add all other ingredients, except the oil. Mix well, being careful to keep the crab meat whole. 
Shape into medium-sized cakes. Heat the oil. Fry on both sides until golden brown. Remove and place on paper towels.”

The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man

I’ve collected comic books since I learned to read. The important issues – old, rare, personal – are bagged and boarded. I’ll give them to my kids when they have kids. Hundreds of others are stacked and sorted in the basement. I’ll never read them again. Every week I open a box, grab a dozen issues with no monetary or emotional value, and put them in my backpack. Like the stump in “The Giving Tree,” they’re modest but still magical.

Most kids don’t read comic books anymore. The glut of superhero movies, TV shows and video games have pushed comics aside. It’s bittersweet progress. I’ve preached the importance of superheroes since high school. Now I watch with glee while my heroes are brought to life in (mostly) quality interpretations. I still buy my comics every Wednesday. You can’t appreciate legends on a screen without a tether to the page.

Which is why I always carry those comic books in my backpack. My backpack is my office. I take it to the coffee shops and restaurants where I write every day. I reach in when I see a kid with a Superman T-shirt or a Captain America doll. I introduce myself to their accompanying adult and make my pitch.

“I believe kids should read comic books. I have plenty to go around. May I offer this comic book to your kid?”

It is awkward every time, but the quizzical looks quickly change to smiles. The first time is still my favorite. A little boy was drinking juice from a Spider-Man sippy cup with his mother at the local Panera Bread. They graciously accepted my offer. I returned to my seat and watched as they moved to the cozy chairs by the fireplace. The boy sat on Mom’s lap while she read to him about Spidey and The Green Goblin. Perfect.

Only one person has said “no” – a little boy who didn’t give a shit about free comics. His father apologized to me while a woman at the next table said her son would love a comic book. I gave it to her.

I hope these kids enjoy the gift enough to beg Mom or Dad to take them to a comic book store. My guess is most of the kids I meet forget about it once they turn on the TV at home. That’s fine. Acts of charity are as much about the one who gives as the one who receives. Like a eulogy, it is not an entirely selfless act. I feel great every time I give a kid a comic book. 

In childhood we accept the world’s gifts before it makes cruel demands on our adulthood. I’ll give out those gifts until I have no more. By the time I age from tree to stump, with nothing left to give, perhaps the seeds I planted will have grown into giving trees of their own.