The Card Catalog as Schindler’s List

(This is the third and final part of a series of essays by Rafael Alvarez. Please read the first and second parts of the series.)

In the kabbalah, the sages maintain that the universe in its entirety  – olam mullay – spins within the soul of each and every one of us. Thus, the most poetic of wisdoms: He who saves a single life has saved the world.

But what of the man who rescues that beaten high school copy of “Look Homeward, Angel,” from the nickel and dime bin at a suburban yard sale?

I am here to argue, with the fervor of the false messiahs found in the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, that if the cosmos exists in each of us, then an infinite library lies between the lines of each story told: by mouth, in the hieroglyphics of ink on paper and the rivers of light pushing pictures across silver screens.

A library to dwarf the lost palace of papyrus scrolls back in ancient Alexandria; bigger by four score than the one Jefferson launched; stacks upon stacks supporting more shelves than all of the hexagonal rooms in Borges’ Library of Babel.

Once, when teaching fiction workshops at an East Baltimore gin mill known as Miss Bonnie’s Elvis Bar with, the guy I was teaching with said: “Only two things last: love and stories . . .”

Radiation has a half-life, but turn your back on narrative for five minutes – particularly in the hands of a trusted confidante – and it starts to rise and twist like pizza dough in monster movie.

Writers may tear off a piece to bake a cupcake here, a loaf of raisin bread there, temporarily containing its force with shape and heat, but the dough keeps growing.

As does my on-going soap opera of the luckless lovers Orlo and Leini (Woodholme House Publishers, 2000) in which the couple’s ritualistic assignations paint a history of 20th century Baltimore.

[As for the power of real soaps, my Italian, legally blind grandmother loved her “stories,” and would put on her thick eyeglasses from the Wilmer Clinic at Hopkins and sit an inch or two away from the screen to follow, “As The World Turns.”

How beautiful it is to summon her voice and hear her tell a lady friend over the wire fence in the back yard that it was time for her stories.]

We lost Grandmom over the summer of 1976, not longer after I graduated high school and went to sea not to learn how to splice line but how to braid sentences.

Thirty years later, I have placed her – Frances Prato Alvarez and the life she carried with humility and grace for 70 years – at Leini’s side as the Greek beauty’s best friend.

A fictional altar to display all of her: the blindness, the siblings who didn’t care quite as much as they could have, the hard-headed husband who came from the West Virginia of Spain to make a home with her in the house where I live today. Every little thing.

And while the Baltimore of my stories will always be the Baltimore laid out in street maps and the morning paper, I have set my grandmother – known in the tales as Francesca Bombacci Boulossa – upon a broad stage she would not have recognized.

Think of non-fiction, the facts and anecdotes of my grandmother’s life, as a gallon of crystal clear water. Think of fiction, the long summer nights Francesca sat with Leini as pale clouds sailed past the moon above the Patapsco – as a single drop of blood.

In the diffusion, see scarlet pass to vermillion to pink to mauve to wisps too subtle to name as Leini gives Francesca the dignity of being able to write her name at a church carnival on the other side of town.

At times, I have knelt by the side of the bed and prayed for my characters; that they might do what they were fated to do and not be coerced into what I want them to.

I did not dream up the scene in which Leini teaches Francesca how to escape the humiliation of making an X in place of her signature. It arrived one afternoon as my daughter Amelia Manuel interviewed my father for an oral history project. I had interviewed my Dad many times – he was always cooperative, always thorough – but somehow the story of how he’d taught his mother to sign her name when he was 15 never came up.

“We traced it over and over,” he said.

“Like learning a dance step,” said Amelia.

And I had a new Orlo and Leini story, one more in a sweep of narrative that I have come to see as a mural.

The O&L tales were written out of order, beginning with Orlo’s death in 1988 before jumping around between 1922 – when the 13-year-old Leini discovered she’d been traded to a barren couple in America for 14 sewing machines – on through Leini’s own passing in the early 1990s.

Each story is grounded in a different part of Baltimore, each new panel invigorating the ones on either side of it, sometimes fitting tongue in groove with those already in place, sometimes anchoring an expanse of white.

As I concentrate smaller amounts of information into each telling, reducing a relationship of some 60 years down to the sharing of an orange on a city bench, the panorama becomes exponentially larger, each tile amplifying not only what has come before it but what’s been left unsaid.

A few years ago, the mural metaphor became literal (interpretation as the impregnation through which literature procreates) when the Baltimore artist Minas Konsolas was asked to contribute an image for a wall of Greek themes behind St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in the 500 block of South Oldham Street.

He chose to portray Leini in the prime of her beauty, the apex of her suffering. She now broods over passersby just a few blocks from the rowhouse on Ponca Street where she lived all of her adult life, across from the public transit bus yard and a few blocks from her friend Francesca.

For years, Leini took those municipal buses to meet Orlo with a basket of food on her lap. Though she never ventured far beyond the city line, the stories documenting her journeys have traveled the globe, photocopied pamphlets of the lovers’ heroic adultery given away in Budapest, Shanghai, Beijing and Montreal in addition to dots on the American map from the Chesapeake to Monterey.

I like to imagine people – old men and little kids, folks who don’t speak English – happening upon Leini’s 10-foot tall visage and, knowing nothing of her, imagining her story anew: Leini alive!

“Very alive,” said Konsolas, who immigrated to Baltimore from Greece as a young man. “Her story stirred up things inside of me, things I went through myself. As I read the stories, I found myself putting in my own conversations.”

It’s hard to imagine that the street drunks with their shorties of Mad Dog and junkies scoring methadone from Johns Hopkins Bayview campus a half-mile away give a shit about the woman on the wall.

The bar on the corner below Leini – O’Connors, where my Spanish grandfather sometimes went for a draught beer after Grandmom passed – has the mural trumped when it comes to succor.

But perhaps, in the proper narcotized haze, pupils rolling back as their heads find the curb, their eyes meet Leini’s and the only exchange that matters in this world is made: “I know how you feel . . .”

A mural no frame can hold.

(Feature photo by Caryn Coyle: Three different paintings by different artists, but Leini  (far right) was done by Minas.)