The Colors Behind The Pictures You See

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Published on April 11th, 2012 | by Melody Cade

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Rafael Alvarez – Writer

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By Melody Cade

The first words Rafael Alvarez wrote to me were, “Do I know you?” I had seen his name in big bright letters in the credits of Life, a former NBC show. I then decided to track him down online. It was a shot in the dark.

Rafael started his television career writing for Homicide: Life on the Street (my favorite childhood show by the way). Then he moved on to The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed cable shows of all time. I met him during the writers strike. I thought he was Hispanic for months, until he started telling stories about his very Polish-American childhood.

He’s been asked to speak to Hispanic students, I imagine about his life and career. He goes. I don’t think he tells them ahead of time he doesn’t identify as Hispanic. This is a strange new place to be in society. In years past, a person’s name could tell you a lot about them. Not so much anymore.

There was some thought put into whether or not to include Rafael on the site. He’s a white guy. Something I heard Halle Berry talk about finalized my decision. She’s remarked about being biracial, but how her mother raised her to think of herself as black. She did this because ‘black’ was how the world was going to perceive her. In a profession where your name and resume precedes you, an ethnic name can really precede you. His name caused me to make assumptions that were very off.

The first words he said to me were, “Those shoes are wild!” I met him outside a radio station. He had invited me to one of his interviews. I was wearing my rose colored corduroy Pumas with the lime green rubber strap and white soles. He watched my feet as I walked.

Rafael tells inappropriate jokes and stories about pissing off Kevin Bacon. He likes his Thai food from Santa Monica and doesn’t watch television. He invites me to roller derby and loves, loves the city of Baltimore.  He sends me short stories and book recommendations and tries to get me to read more fiction. He answers questions in very in depth ways and is never at a loss for words. This is Rafael Alvarez.

Q: You have a Hispanic name, but you’re not Hispanic, talk about that. What’s your background?

My father’s father — Rafael Alvarez — landed in Baltimore in the mid 1920s and married an Italian American woman. My father — Manuel — was born in 1934, their second child. Spanish was not spoken in his house growing up (the house I have lived in for the past 23 years) My father married a Polish-American woman in 1953. Spanish was not spoken in our home either. I was named for my Spanish grandfather — I am Rafael Alvarez, close friends call me Ralph. Fairly typical American story, my name obscures rather than illuminates my ethnicities.

Q: What were your younger years like?

By the age of 19, I had spent two summers sailing up and down the Atlantic Coast as an ordinary seaman in the Seafarer’s International Union. I was this kid that wanted to be Ernest Hemingway and got lucky enough to get thrown into the newsroom back in the days when you can still just be a kid with potential who was willing to do just anything and it gave me some opportunity. I did well with that opportunity and learned on the job. I didn’t go to journalism school. I have a degree in English Literature from Loyola College.

Q: How did you get the job on The Wire?

David Simon and I were young reporters together on the city desk of The Sun and more or less grew up in the newsroom. In 1997, after Homicide (NBC, based on Simon’s book) had been on the air for many years, Simon offered me a chance to write a freelance script for the show and I did. It aired 12.12.97 as “All is Bright.”

Then I left the paper (as Simon already had) via a buy out in 2001 and went to work on ships. By this time, Simon had gotten The Wire on the air and offered me a script in the first season. I wrote it and went back to sea. In season two – 2003 – I was on staff, helping to shape the waterfront season, which hewed close to my childhood as my dad was a longtime Baltimore tugboat engineer.

Q: Has your writer’s voice been affected by your time spent on the west coast?

My time spent on the west coast was almost completely a financial endeavor. I had kids in college and traded my skills for a paycheck that paid the tuition. Like taking a job on a ship or an oil rig. The practice was okay and it may have allowed my prose to “move” a little more quickly — cut to / cut to / cut to — but LA had no influence on my voice. There are no stories there I desire to tell.

Q: Did the new environment bring new ideas?

I wrote one short story while in LA. It’s about taking a date to see Johnny Ramone’s grave at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. It’s called the ‘Sandman’s Pentateuch’. I also had breakfast with Frances Kroll Ring, who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last secretary (she took dictation for ‘The Last Tycoon’ in the early 1940s) and was in her early 90s when my daughter and Amelia and I had bagels and orange juice with her. That was the literary highlight of my four years (2004 to 2008) in Los Angeles.

Q: Do you feel pigeonholed because of your resume? Urban writing offers?

Again, my resume gets me work to pay the bills and subsidize my art. My true resume is the body of work I’ve created in 30 years — from a history of the archdiocese of Baltimore to short stories about a Greek girl and her American lover that spans virtually all of the 20th century. Work comes my way — sometimes stuff the world thinks is a big deal, sometimes an invitation to talk to 7th graders about Edgar Allan Poe.

No industry can pigeon hole me. I can only pigeon hole myself.

Short Stories : The Sandman’s Pentateuch, The Invisible Man, Rolling with the Seasons
Books: The Wire: Truth Be Told, Hometown Boy, The Fountain of Highlandtown, and Orlo and Leini

 

 

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