West of Charles Street

My Old Man

Manuel Alvarez preparing bean soup on a Saturday morning, 1972. Photo credit: Macon Street Books.

Manuel Rafael Alvarez

One of my dearest friends was a man named Chuck Donofrio, a Baltimore mystic who moonlighted as an advertising executive and passed quiet hours watching for birds. Of the many things I learned from Chuck — usually as we sat on a curb downtown somewhere like a couple of kids — is that truth can be found in our earliest memories.

I have two abiding memories from way back when: One with my mother from the age of three (she was crying and wouldn’t tell me why) and, two years later in 1963, a moment alongside my father.

In honor of his passing this past August 8th, I share the truth embedded in my earliest memory of Manuel Alvarez.

G&A Chili Dogs bid Highlandtown a farewell

Andy Farantos, third-generation owner of G&A Hot Dogs, at the grill in Highlandtown one last time.
credit: Jennifer Bishop

Albert Joseph DeFelice, a 93-year-old drummer born and raised in Highlandtown, was enjoying a couple of hot dogs with chili, onion and mustard last month in the old neighborhood. He sat at a green, Formica-topped booth near the back of the G&A, the Greek diner at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Eaton street famous since 1927 for wieners of the Coney Island variety.

The narrow storefront was standing-room-only, a mid-July gathering filling every booth and stool. Such crowds were common when DeFelice was a teenager between the Great Depression and World War II. Business pretty much stayed that way through the 1970s.

Hi Ho Pimlico

Donnie Rideoutt, 68, has spent his life around racetracks, and is skeptical about planned renovations at Pimlico. Credit: Jim Burger

When Donnie Rideoutt was 12 years old, he stood in the winner’s circle at Pimlico with his Dad and a horse owned by his step-mother. It was late November, 1964 and the triumphant steed was KI-D-KA, named for Rideoutt and his sisters: Kym-Donnie-Kathy.

“I didn’t get into this business because I wanted to,” said Rideoutt, 68, feeding a carrot to a bay filly named Ask Nicely last month at Pimlico. “I got into it because my father owned horses. He came up with horses and I came up behind him. There wasn’t a choice about it.”

Donnie has been around racetracks all his life and began doing stable chores when Eisenhower graciously stepped aside for Kennedy. He’s still at it, doing whatever needs to be done at tracks around the state.

West of Charles Street: Big Daddy Stallings and a society of blues in Baltimore

Charles “Big Daddy” Stallings plays the blues. Photo credit: Jennifer Bishop

Today is the birthday of the great blues and ragtime guitarist William Samuel McTier, believed to have been born this day in 1898.

The world knows him as Blind Willie McTell and it’s possible more people are familiar with the Bob Dylan song honoring Willie than the Georgia native’s own music.

“Them charcoal gypsy maidens, can strut their feathers well

But nobody can sing the blues like blind Willie McTell…”

“When I first heard Blind Willie, I thought I was listening to two guitarists,” said Westminster blues musician Chris James, 44, of McTell’s “Piedmont” style. “There’s a lot of bounce to it.”

Adept on guitar, mandolin and banjo, James is a longtime member of the Baltimore Blues Society, which is strutting its feathers in celebration of the organization’s 35th anniversary, established in Crabtown in March of 1986.

West of Charles Street: A church changes; a sister’s service remains

Sister Pat Dowling stands in front of St. Martin’s Church at Fulton and Fayette street, slated to become affordable housing. Photo credit: Jennifer Bishop

Back when Richard Nixon was telling a skeptical nation, “I am not a crook,” Patricia Ann Dowling was a rookie in the hospitality business. Right out of University of Massachusetts, Amherst and into the Holiday Inn corporation, managing a front office and keeping the books.

Cheers to Baltimore’s Irish Heritage: West of Charles Street

The Irish Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Credit: Jennifer Bishop for Baltimore Fishbowl

To the truly Irish — whether in America, the old country or the global diaspora of Eire — St. Patrick’s Day is about something quite different than you may find tonight in Fells Point.

“A very traditional affair in Ireland,” said the muralist Patrick John Harnett, 49, who immigrated to Baltimore from County Limerick in 2011. “Religion, heritage and family.”

Of course there is a toast or two at the local pub — a day when children are allowed to run in and out of saloons with little admonishment — but few abide Root Boy Slim’s encouragement to “Boogie ’til You Puke.”

In West Baltimore, a food desert and also a hope desert

Pastor Duane Valdon Simmons, who said he has preached 6,000 sermons since he was a boy. Credit: Macon Street Books

Good food — the stuff that isn’t shot through with salt and sugar and starch and sold in plastic — trickles through the West Baltimore food desert at Pennsylvania Avenue and Cumberland Street.

Hot meals are served several times a week from the kitchen of Simmons Memorial Baptist Church, and hundreds more arrive each weekend with volunteers from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a Roman Catholic Church in Ellicott City.

Hope, however, is another thing altogether, difficult to find outside of the Gospels preached by Pastor Duane V. Simmons, Narcotics Anonymous meetings held in the church hall and a kind word from the staff.

Along the 2400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in 21217 — where parishioners have heard shots ring out during Sunday morning services, a body on the sidewalk outside the church doors — hope is even more difficult to secure.

“This community represents extreme marginalization, it’s the bottom,” said Simmons, 60, said to have been “preaching prodigy” while growing up on Oswego Avenue near Druid Hill Park. “This neighborhood isn’t just a food desert; it’s a hope desert.”

“But even when we don’t have hope,” he said.  “We have resilience.”