Rafael Alvarez’s new book, Basilio Boullosa: Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, just released this September, explores the lives of 20th Century European immigrants and their descendants during the 1960’s and 70’s in Baltimore and its surroundings. A native Baltimorean, Alvarez draws on his own background and experience to depict a world whose vestiges have disappeared, only to be replaced by the vicissitudes of gentrification.
I asked Alvarez some questions about his life and the influences that came to play in writing the short stories that make up his new book. Below are his responses. You can read my review of Basilio Boullosa: Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown in the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Maggio: Tell me about yourself and your background. What was it like growing up in Baltimore in the 1970’s?
Alvarez: I entered the 9th grade of Mt. St. Joseph, a historic all-boys Catholic school in southwest Baltimore in the fall of 1972, a neighborhood called Irvington, on the “other side of town” from the family home on the eastside. My grandparents were still alive, and my Spanish grandfather had just retired from the shipyard. I wasn’t paying as much attention to the world beyond my desires as I should (shortly I would discover Frank Zappa, begin drinking more than my share of the homemade wine at dinner, start chasing herbal enhancement and girls who reminded me of my cousins in Spain.) I had no way of knowing it was the beginning of the last gasps of industrial Baltimore. If I did, I might have taken notes the way I started sketching Baltimore architecture with words about the same time. When I started high school, the city had 905,00 residents, almost 300,000 more than today and was still a majority white city. It is much smaller in population now and about 70 percent African-American.”
Maggio: You are a lifetime resident of Baltimore. How has it changed over the years? Do you see those changes as being for the better or for the worse? What’s been lost and what has been gained over the years?
Alvarez: All you need to know about this stands at the corner of Clinton street and Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, ground zero of my fictional Holy Land. For seven decades at that location (since 1926) there was a German restaurant at which generations of Baltimoreans from all walks of life celebrated birthdays and graduations and anniversaries, everybody having strawberry cream pie for dessert. The greatest influx of immigrants in Baltimore, by far, were the Germans but they don’t get the dramatic rendering in our histories – outside of H.L. Mencken – that the Italians, Poles, Greeks and Jews do.
The restaurant was called Haussner’s and it was as indelibly Baltimore as a fried soft crab) which they served along with more than 400 other offerings (one of the last places you could get Terrapin stew.) After it closed in 1999 (almost as many tears were shed as when the Baltimore Colts left for a cursed and insignificant midwestern burg in 1984) the building stood vacant for 20 years. No one was interested in reviving the old building (a series of about six rowhouses that expanded the original ‘grocery’ over the years) and it was decided it was too expensive to bring up to code.
So what happened? It moldered and then it was razed and now there’s a very modern “mixed-use” apartment / condo / first floor retail building there. A very nice building mind you, very forward thinking like you might see in Brooklyn, NY these days. But it ain’t Haussner’s. And nothing could be and the Beatles ain’t getting back together and that’s how it goes.
Maggio: In your new book, Basilio Boullosa: Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, you create a very clear picture of a time gone by: a time when immigrants and their descendants built lives and neighborhoods that were comprised of elements from the old world (Greek restaurants, Italian bakeries, etc.) mixed with popular Americana (Elvis Presley and, later, the Beatles). The scenes you create are vivid and the emotional attachment is poignant. In general, do you think these individuals were happy in their lives or were they disappointed? Which do you think weighed more heavily?
Alvarez: I think we all have secrets and in the old days it was people’s wounds – even those visible for everyone to see – were their secrets. You didn’t talk about it. And I think it is the rare human being in any generation (at least in this country) that goes to his/her grave fulfilled.
I have seen the ego fulfillment of Greek immigrants who became wealthy in this country by standing over a short order grill 18 out of every 24 hours and forfeited a relationship with the very same children for whom they “sacrificed everything.” They not only went to their graves disappointed but bitter and, perhaps worst of all, wondering where they went wrong.
I am blessed to be the son of a kind and gentle man who knew the rewards of a balanced life, a man who said to me the other day (age 83) that he “accomplished everything he wanted in life. By that he meant raising three sons who honor him, want nothing from him but his happiness (as he only wants from us), rising to the top of his profession (chief engineer in the maritime industry), saving for a comfortable retirement (thanks in part to a union pension) and staying married to his high school sweetheart – no matter the bumps in the road – for seven decades. My father never wanted for the shiny things in life, he had the wisdom to be grateful for the things that endured.
In general, I think the typical character that I write about may not be completely happy with their lot in life but even the Greek whose family was in nearly free-fall dysfunction as he relentlessly pursued wealth had it better in this country than the literal starvation experienced in his country of origin. [This is dramatized in the story A Banquet of Onions in the new book.]
I try to portray characters somewhere between the two poles just mentioned (my father, Henry Boullosa in the Holy Land mythology) and the hard-headed Greek who felt good about himself because his kids always wore the latest fashions but those same kids honored him out of obligation not love.
Maggio: Your stories, while rooted in Italian, Spanish and, to some extent, Lithuanian immigrant experiences, seem to have implications for other groups, particularly newer immigrants: Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc. What lessons, if any, do you think these groups can learn from the experiences of those who came before?
Alvarez: I’m not quite sure. But when I see families that obviously just landed here (mostly Spanish in my part of East Baltimore) and hear them speak their native language – an overburdened Mom pushing that stroller up Eastern Avenue with a kid on each arm and a wagon of laundry behind, I try to imagine that they are my father’s Italian forebears or my mother’s Polish ancestors just getting a footing in the New World – “My mother would iron shirts
for a penny a piece,” an elderly Czech woman said to me a few years ago — and I wonder if at some point it’s all the same process – take’em from anywhere, pushe’em through the red, white and blue funnel, see what pops out the other side in a generation or two – all the same except the language and the food is different for each group.
The biggest thing they will not experience that previous waves of immigrants to Baltimore had access to is good paying factory jobs with (sometimes) union wages and a bit of job security. Be on time and pay attention and you can make a decent living I am not sure that the level of resentment new immigrants face by people who consider themselves “American” is any greater than that faced by preceding immigrants, many of whom now support Trump and his brutal ideas. When my father was young, Italians were considered just half-a-click (if that) above African-Americans by “real” (non-Catholic, white) Americans. That seems to be part of the immigration experience: Get here anyway you can, make good and then – in a generation or two – forget how it happened because you reaped the rewards worked so hard for by those who came before you.
Maggio: Immigrants cling to old world customs and values yet strive, in their own way, to be American. Their children are in-betweeners, accepting both the new and the old while becoming more “American,” often to the distress of their parents. And the third generation seems to want to reject the old ways, though they ultimately come to terms with them. What are your observations regarding this phenomenon?
Alvarez: Growing up, my Spanish grandfather used to tell us not to be “like the Americans.” Which always made me wonder just exactly what we were. Perhaps the “in-betweens” you mentioned earlier. I have seen it time and again — most profoundly within the Greek community in which they strongly urge and sometimes demand their children to marry other Greeks. This is in large part due to wanting the family to remain rooted in the Orthodox Church. In my family, my Spanish-Italian-Catholic father married my Polish Catholic mother and in the 1950s in Baltimore’s ethnic community (Germans marrying Italians, Irish marrying Poles) this was considered a ‘mixed-marriage’ but the bond of Catholicism smoothed things over. Where you will really see tears in the family fabric occurs when the immigrant generation has made a great success and whatever business it was made in gets taken over by the second generation. By the third generation, things often turn to shit with greed and envy. The saddest for me is how the original ethnic foods slowly but surely by the third generation become assimilated into the crap most Americans call dinner.
Maggio: What is your next project? Have you ever thought of making a novel starring Basilio?
Alvarez: I am now at work on a novel about two other characters who dominate my “Holy Land” fiction: the young Greek immigrant beauty Leini (short for Eleni/Helen) traded by her village to America in 1918 for 14 sewing machines and her “American” lover, Orlo Pound, a waterfront salvage king, a man who finds treasure in the debris of other people’s lives. It is called “Orlo the Chicken Necker” and it addresses almost every question you have asked in this interview. I’ll be working on it for about another year. Probably longer.