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.
Up through my birth in the late 1950s, my Spanish grandfather made wine in the basement of his Highlandtown rowhouse as did many of his Italian neighbors, like Uncle Ernest Adornato down the alley. By the time I was in first grade, the crushing of grapes had moved to 2614 Daisy Avenue in Lansdowne, my parents’ first home.
A week or so before Christmas of ’63, I was with my father in Grandpop’s basement, next to the coal-converted-to-oil furnace that sent hot water through the radiators upstairs. I’m pretty sure that my younger brother Danny, then 3, was with us. He doesn’t remember.
Dad was kneeling to pour our wine into a clay jug, the kind you see in moonshiner cartoons, beige on the bottom, shiny dark brown around the mouth and finger handle. Vino at the dinner table, including a few sips in juice glasses half-filled with Lemo-Nizer for the kids, is something I’ve been familiar with since birth.
It was what Dad did next that glows warm like neon in my memory. With a fat Magic Marker (I believe it was red) and in his distinct “maritime log” printing, he wrote “Alvarez & Sons / 1963” on the jug. I can see his hand moving, slow and sure, as the words glided across the smooth clay, one capital letter at a time.
I can still conjure the pride that enveloped me while reading the words on both sides of a symbol I did not yet know was an ampersand. Generations of fathers and sons. And knew that I — little Ralphie, just a kid — was an indelible part of the inscription.
“I’m proud to say my name is Alvarez,” said Danny, who guided the family through my father’s care this year. “I have a very strong sense of our history going all the way back to Grandpop and Spain.”
Dan said that when he looks around at the larger American culture, he sees “families with no traditions, parents and their kids just plodding through. The biggest part of life for Daddy was a homemade meal on the table with a glass of wine and a roof over your head in a house you owned. Continuing those traditions honors Daddy.”
Danny and I never made homemade wine like my father and his brother Victor once did. For years, however, Dan has ground and spiced pork butts and shoulders for chorizo sausage shared at cookouts in my backyard, the house with the coal furnace converted to oil converted to natural gas in the basement.
Long before Dad became ill, Danny honored him and his father before him by hosting our annual Christmas Eve feast, once a seafood-only meal with red snapper in the place of honor
on the table.
Each New Year’s Day, having learned at Dad’s side the way I watched him write our name on the wine jug, Danny makes a Spanish peasant stew of beans, cabbage, potato and ham
called cocido. Simmering in the clear broth are slices of his homemade chorizo.
Like Christmas Eve, the first day of the year tradition began at our grandparents’ house on Macon Street where the wine was first made during the Great Depression.
“Tradition,” Dad once said as he cleaned a rockfish he’d caught for a family meal, “is nothing but work.”
And, as the generations become further removed from the Old Country in pursuit of questionable reward in this land of opportunity, there doesn’t seem to be time for the work that
preserves those traditions.
“It just dissolves,” said Danny, who embraces the words on each side of the ampersand as his sacred obligation.
Among the unforgettable people I have met in my years of running with Chuck Donofrio’s crowd — believers in more incarnations of God than can be found among the Hindus — was a former South Baltimore street drunk.
Once, he happened upon a baby abandoned near a busy intersection and, though delirious from cheap wine, turned the infant over to a beat cop with whom he was quite familiar. Soon after, he claimed a seat in rooms where people sip coffee and tell stories about the way it used to be in order not to return to the horror.
The people in these rooms, he said, “loved me like a butterfly.”
The closest my father ever came to telling my brothers and me about his spiritual beliefs (and he only said it once) was: “My thoughts are my thoughts.”
My own time in the rooms of folding chairs and bitter coffee led to the practice of sitting in my kitchen before a figurine of a woman in a sky blue gown and a row of votive candles, praying as plastic beads move through my fingers.
It’s Grandpop’s house, the house Dad grew up in and through the window where the votives flicker is a gate a friend fashioned out of scrap iron. One of the images welded into it is a tugboat in honor of Dad, who worked the Baltimore waterfront for more than 30 years. The tug is shown floating along the bar of the letter A.
The day after Dad died, I took my place in front of the window, lit the candles and began a lap around the beads. Halfway through, a black and orange butterfly alighted on a spike at the top of the gate.
“Hi Dad,” I said aloud, smiling. I continued my prayers and I didn’t see it anymore, thinking it had flown away when I wasn’t looking. When I was on the last bead, the butterfly opened its wings and flew away.
“Bye Dad,” I said, happy like a kid as I blew the candles out.
The next day, when I described the butterfly to a friend, she said it could have been a Baltimore Checkerspot, both rare and endangered.
I’m no Nabakov when it comes to fiction or lepidopterology but I have chosen to believe that it was a Checkerspot. As I choose to believe that Pop decided to pass by his old home on the way to God knows where.
Before Chuck Donofrio died in 2017, he wrote a letter to be read at his memorial. It said that once he was gone, “If I can help you, I will…”
I have often thought of this extraordinary man’s promise and, remembering it again the other day at my grandmother’s kitchen window, wonder if my old buddy is with angels who sail on butterfly wings.
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org