The Archdiocese of Narrative

                                                              “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions . . .”

  – the Gospel of John


In  2003, I joined the writing staff of the HBO crime drama “The Wire,” the much-lauded story of American left-behinds filmed in my own backyard.

I’d made it all the way to Hollywood without having to leave East Baltimore!

At the same time, I labored to complete a manuscript proving to be much larger and more difficult than anticipated when I accepted the job over the summer of 2001: a history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore commissioned by Cardinal William H. Keeler.

Overbooked as usual, I began taking my lime, clamshell Mac i-Book to the set of The Wire. I’d sit in a canvas deck chair behind whatever director was working that episode and bang out boilerplate on parish after parish to shepherd 400 years of Catholic history on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay into a manageable text.

My goal was to leaven the history, long documented in scholarly work, with first person memories of as many everyday Catholics to be found on the streets of Baltimore as possible.

Every now and then I’d look up and make sure the actors were saying their lines as they’d been crafted, my primary chore as staff writer on set.

One day, David Simon, the Wire’s creator and my old ally on the City Desk of the Baltimore Sun, asked that I not take the laptop to the set anymore.

Simon didn’t much care, but Nina Noble, his fellow producer and the show’s chief wrist-slapper, did not like my already splintered attention span so flagrantly on display.

[Sort of like a short order cook scanning the sports page while flipping burgers. The mug who owns the joint knows the quality of the burgers isn’t suffering, he just doesn’t like it.]

So I began printing out pages of the Archdiocese manuscript, shoving them in my back pocket and taking them to the set, editing as many paragraphs as possible while making sure that the British-born Dominic West didn’t lapse from Balti-moron cockney into Limey cockney in his portrayal of Detective Jimmy McNulty.

The summer before I’d welded together a few Catholic chapters while coiling fathoms of trans-oceanic fiber optic cable below decks of the Atlantic Guardian cable ship. Between ships and scripts, I took the archdiocese manuscript to ballgames, holidays by the sea and out-of-town assignations that would serve as first drafts for short fictions written not for the marketplace but for me.

On and on it went, breaking big rocks into little rocks, arranging them in a way that compelled order upon the experience of thousands of souls shaped by several hundred Catholic institutions over four centuries.

In the end, my experience on The Wire – working amidst the 150 or so people it takes to get an American television show on the air – informed my Catholic history as my knowledge of Catholic Baltimore would inform The Wire.

Early on, I was assigned to write the Catholic scenes and needed to create a pastor for St. Casimir, the southeast Baltimore church where my parents were married in 1953 and the place where waterfront union leader Frank Sobotka went fishing for political favors upon which Season Two would pivot.

Virginia-based actor Tel Monks won the role of the Rev. Jerome Lewandowski and wanted to know why I’d created a priest from Poland, which was the accent he’d been working on.

“Not a Polish priest from Poland,” I laughed, channeling the spirit of my Polish grandmother, Anna Potter Jones. “A Polack from East Bawlmer!”

As this was something not to be found in the Olivier repertoire, we hopped into my car and headed for the far reaches of East Baltimore, over the county line into Dundalk – where my ex-wife had been reared among Polish and Italian and hillbilly steelworkers – to a stainless steel diner owned by a Greek who’d launched himself in America with a hot dog cart.

I scanned the diner, found my mark and led Monks to a booth behind a middle-aged woman who looked like Divine except that she wasn’t a man and wasn’t on a movie set. She was just having a hearty lunch – legs spread to get as close to the table as possible – in Crabtown, U.S.A.

I sat Monks with his back to the woman’s back, slid in the booth across from him and counseled: “Just listen to what she says and how she says it. Somewhere between bites of that open faced turkey sandwich she’s demolishing is the voice of your Polish priest.”

[This is what passes for a day of work in Hollywood.]

Monks nodded, intrigued that I’d so easily navigated a route to the soul of his character. I’d known people like this my entire life; was related to them, carried them inside of me. But Monks’ time in Baltimore was brief, his task of nailing the idiosyncracies of the local dialect nothing a day player could prepare for. His performance bore this out.

A few weeks later, The Wire filmed on board the S.S. John W. Brown, one of two Liberty Ships still operational out of 2,710 built around the country, including Bethlehem Steel’s Fairfield yard in Baltimore, to ferry World War II military freight.

In this episode, Detectives Bunk Moreland and Lester Freamon board the Brown, re-christened the Atlantic Light, to interview crew members about the deaths of 14 Eastern European women found asphyxiated in a shipping container.

As we filmed, volunteers who keep the Brown afloat sat in the galley, taking it all in. Hanging with them between shots, I mentioned that my father’s old tugboat buddy, the souse-making and cabin cruiser building Chester Rakowski, had done some welding on the Brown. Then I mentioned an interview I had the following day for a book I was writing on local Catholic history.

It was then that a quiet man in the corner spoke up. He said his name was Jay Tinker, a volunteer deckhand on the Brown and a devoted Catholic.

It wasn’t long before Tinker was sitting for a black and white portrait in the chapel of the Liberty Ship and telling of his devotion to the rosary, the Eucharist – from the Greek, meaning Thanksgiving – and the Knights of Columbus.

The result of so much research seemingly at odds with itself was “A People’s History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore,” published in 2006 by Editions du Signe of Strasbourg, France.

And a vanishing way life – the social culture of organized labor along an urban waterfront – preserved on film for people familiar with it and made real for those who’d never seen anything like it.

Stay tuned for the next installment.

One thought on “The Archdiocese of Narrative

  • May 7, 2013 at 8:38 AM

    Hello Rafael,

    That was an interesting read and brought back so
    many memories for me. I recall sitting in that corner and remember our
    conversation so well, almost as if it were yesterday. I have not been on the
    Brown for a while now, however I do miss it. The book “A People’s History of the
    Archdiocese of Baltimore,” is good and I am honored to have been
    included in it. You did a fantastic job and thanks to this particular posting,
    I know the beginning. My email is still the same. Take care my friend and thank


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