`And then he got the idea --'

City Diary

March 01, 2000|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

OVER LONG YEARS of studying the once-abundant species of "Characterus Baltimorensis," in its native habitat along the Patapsco, I have discovered sewing machine repairmen who thought they were Franz Liszt; charity clowns who spent all contributions on blackberry brandy; and collectors of antique fire sprinklers.

Now, as sure as marinas have replaced manufacturing, I am confident that Baltimore will never produce another character like Chester Rakowski.

There may be a few like him swearing in nursing homes, but there ain't none squawking in nurseries.

Times have changed. People have changed. And Chester -- who created and destroyed more enterprises with a seventh-grade education than most people do with an MBA -- is dead.

On Jan. 25, while shoveling the first snow of the new millennium, Chester fell like a cold bag of hammers in front of his South Baltimore rowhouse, his heart shot through with 72 years of schemes, greed, ingenuity and sea salt.

"I've been in more gin mills than I've seen lighthouses," he said a dozen years ago. "And I've seen many a lighthouse."

This is a man who built a 26-foot cabin cruiser -- one section at a time -- in the parlor of his East Gittings Street rowhouse but kept the ceilings from caving in by propping them up with 2-by-4s.

Who could butcher a pig and turn it into souse -- whose sour beef and dumplings were the rival of any German from Sacred Heart of Jesus -- but subsisted on bologna sandwiches, cheap beer and cigarettes.

Who treated underprivileged kids to Halloween pumpkin rides on his beloved work boat, the Gertrude, but was hard-pressed to name all of his grandchildren.

Who used the Gertrude to spread the ashes of barroom comrades across Inner Harbor swells but was not afforded the same courtesy when it was his turn to depart this mortal port of call. Looking around the wrecked and ransacked house on Gittings Street where he and his four brothers grew up sleeping in the unheated attic, Gary Rakowski said: "We don't understand it, but this is how Dad lived."

I didn't discover Mr. Chester, he came as a birthright. One of my earliest memories is watching him paint the metal garage behind my family's house on Daisy Avenue in Lansdowne in 1961.

A good bunky of my father's on the old Baker-Whitely tugboats that tied up at the Recreation Pier on Thames Street, Chester was an around-the-world seaman who survived Japanese torpedoes in World War II and sailed the Baltimore harbor as cook and deckhand on the tug Progress.

My old man begins most stories about Chester the same way.

"And then he got the idea -- "

When such visions took hold -- like ferrying divers to the North Atlantic to scavenge treasure from the Titanic -- Chester would quit or be asked to leave secure jobs. Upon completion of more realistic work, building a deck or finishing a club basement, he'd sometimes take payment in a side of beef, a freezer or both.

The namesake son of a Castle Street crabber, Chester Michael Rakowski was an accomplished mason, carpenter, plumber, welder and roofer.

He built boats, piloted them, used them to drive piles and build piers and let the vessels sink when he had no more use for them. A photographer and amateur filmmaker specializing in images of modest boats and immodest women, Chester captured honky-tonk scandals and old-world delicacies brought to Mobtown by his Warsaw-born mother.

In the end, slowed by bad legs, ulcers and colds that clung to his nicotine habit, Chester was reduced to tending lines for a derelict hospital ship and repairing supermarket shopping carts at a small yard he kept on Towson Street in Locust Point.

When a can of his ashes was placed upon the grave of his brother Frank at Holy Rosary Cemetery, none of his countless drinking buddies, few friends or the priest hired to say the magic words showed up. Only four of his sons, a sister and the cold wind of January.

He left behind debts, regrets and an unmended friendship with my father that broke over words chosen unwisely in a South Baltimore saloon.

His house was a jumble of meat slicers, plastic cups, a few hundred dollars in pennies, marine fuel pumps, welding rods, barrels of rusted nails, primitive darkroom equipment and broken radios.

The house itself is now worth more gutted than it was when Chester built his wife a beautiful kitchen in penance for the many months their narrow nest was clogged with the ribs of a boat named in her honor.

He took with him a brilliant mind, a great hardy-har-har laugh and more untold stories than Studs Terkel could have preserved with 20,000 leagues of audiotape.

Today's writer

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun. His e-mail address is rafaelalvarez@sevarez.com.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods.

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