The Wire’s Rafael Alvarez knows he could be kissing Baltimore’s cheek for the last time.
My Beloved Crabtown,
I could live anywhere in the world—in storybook capitals or pastoral hamlets greatly desired—but, God help me, I choose to cohabitate with you.
You are, by far, the longest relationship of my life; nearly six decades save for a brief fling in Hollywood.
[It was just money, baby—didn’t mean a thing.]
To abide you—a salty old broad with harsh edges and ridiculous hairdos; the way your progeny throws trash from moving cars and believes the best way to cross the street is to walk (in fuzzy slippers and pajama bottoms) directly into traffic…
To put up with all of your bullshit I pass our assignations inside a sanctuary sculpted from more comforting material.
The evening sun setting over the Patapsco River—where Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” 200 years ago—fires pink and orange, a thousand shattered panes of the shuttered bottle cap factory at the end of my block.
But in the morning, as I lay supine before the city of my fancy, it warms stained glass brilliant with all the good things.
People willing to lend a hand when their own cupboards are bare; aging, lion-hearted stevedores holding the door to the coin laundry for young women comforting their children in Spanish; tugboats churning past the 120-foot by 70-foot Domino Sugar sign while saints sweep the sidewalk in front of the St. Jude Shrine—you are not hopeless, Lovey, no matter what the TV says. Just a venial sin or two away from Lexington Market.
On land donated by Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard, the market dates to 1782: a bazaar of grilled kielbasa, fresh roasted peanuts and true crab cakes, delicacies as big around as a softball, deep fried or broiled to a golden brown, the lump back fin of callinectes sapidus—beautiful swimmers of Chesapeake lore—bound with the merest dusting of breadcrumbs.
I write to you all hopped up on love and mercy, for despite the frequent atrocities (east to west, some staged outside those same market doors), everybody does the best they can.
Love for your hard-headed belief that hard work (both underground and legit) will carry the day, though your bounty of plentiful jobs—good pay, good benefits—is long diminished. And mercy for those who missed every boat that passed your way.
Four miles east of Lexington Market, I pour my heart into an old reporter’s notebook over a plate of French fries and gravy at G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs, just around the corner from a library marked by a bust of native son Frank Zappa on a stainless steel pillar.
This is the Holy Land of my imagination, where my family—Polish on Mom's side, Dad's parents from Spain and a part of Italy called Western Pennsylvania—has lived since the 1920s; where my grandmothers bought me baby clothes near a popcorn store that made its own caramel and a blind man sold pencils while drumming his fingernails against a meatloaf pan, the sound his fingernails made becoming deeper as the tray filled with nickels and dimes.
Love for rebirth: a Peruvian restaurant specializing in rotisserie chicken now sends the smell of fire-roasted fowls onto Eastern Avenue where the popcorn store once filled the air with hot caramel.
Mercy for the left-behinds: the blind man has been replaced ten-fold by beggars, all of whom can see.
Yet passion can be a many splintered thing and, dear Crabtown—del mio cuore as they say at the century old DiPasquale's market two streets away from the hot dog diner—let me be clear.
Though many tens of thousands of my fellow Baltimoreans are hostage to your often lethal charms, I am not. They do not have the luxury of storing up treasures of amber narrative with which to build a cathedral. Or the middle-class option to leave it behind if reality intrudes on make-believe one too many times.
I have been lucky in love—unharmed for many a year while cruising every corner of your 92 square miles—but I don't underestimate you.
I know that anywhere, at any moment, I may be kissing your cheek for the last time.
Rafael Alvarez is a fiction writer and screenwriter who learned the craft of storytelling as a young reporter on the City Desk of the Baltimore Sun and wrote for the first three seasons of HBO drama The Wire. His latest collection of short stories—which won praise from James McBride—is Tales from the Holy Land.
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