'The journalistic equivalent of GM'

December 12, 2008|By LAURA VOZZELLA

So the newspaper where you toiled for more than two decades gives you a mention - and misspells your name.

If that doesn't say something about the sorry state of journalism, this does: Rafael Alvarez was actually happy that I'd goofed up his first name recently. He could use the exposure of a mea culpa column.

It's tough out there for a writer, even one who went on from newspapers to work for The Wire and network TV. Alvarez said he was making $7,000 a week as a producer on the NBC show Life when he went on strike with other Hollywood writers last year.

"The strike ends Valentine's Day '08," Alvarez said. "On Feb. 15, they let me know by e-mail my services are no longer necessary. And I've been hustling journalism ever since."

And he does mean hustle.

While Alvarez has two weekly Examiner columns, one about food and one about travel, he is churning out copy for lots of other publications to make ends meet. There are keepsake clips, like the essay he just did for The Christian Science Monitor on a pastime he shares with Louis Armstrong. (Collage, not trumpeting.) And there are less prestigious gigs.

The day after "I'm a brother in collage with Satchmo" ran in The Monitor, Alvarez had a freelance piece in The Baltimore Sun about the growing popularity of wood and feed-corn stoves. He's filed an article about barbecue for The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La., and stories on Christmas, Poe and the Orioles for Valley Times, a Timonium monthly.

That's on top of the literary stuff that Alvarez, a published short-story writer, still works on. On Dec. 21, he'll do a reading at the Highlandtown branch of the Pratt library about looking for the Ghost of Christmas Past on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.

"I will write about anything," he said. "I write about turnips. You name it, I have written about it. ... I see myself now as the kid in the summertime with the gas can and the lawn mower saying, 'Can I mow your lawn?' If they say, 'We do it ourselves,' I'll say, 'I'll weed.' "

It's a shaky feeling, especially for someone who counted on a steady paycheck from The Sun most of his adult life.

"From 19 to 41, from teen-ager to the vestibule of old age, every Friday I'd know a paycheck was going to land. ... It was cradle-to-grave, the journalistic equivalent of GM."

This week, as Alvarez's old employer filed for bankruptcy protection and Tribune felt the need to issue an e-mail announcing that, yes, thank God and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin J. Carey, paychecks are still coming, the GM metaphor fit in a less assuring way.

At least we can always freelance.

All aboard! We're headed for the mansion

It just wouldn't feel like Christmas without a look at some model trains and a word with the governor. You can get both tomorrow at an open house at the governor's mansion from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Martin and Katie O'Malley will share the spotlight with an elaborate train display created by members and friends of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department.

Yes, Arbutus.

Bob and Kendel Ehrlich first invited his hometown firehouse to do the honors when he was in office. After a year off last Christmas, O'Malley's first in Government House, the trains have returned. (Take heart, Bob and Kendel: Arbutian comebacks can happen.)

Working in the firehouse, Connie and Chuck Atkinson started assembling the train layout in mid-July, spending every night there, from about 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. They finished in September, took it all apart, carefully boxing and labeling everything so it could be reassembled in Annapolis.

Using a truck borrowed from a friend with a courier service, the Atkinsons and three other volunteers carted the stuff to Government House and put it up. Between the time they set up the platform and sprinkled the finishing glitter atop the faux snow, eight full hours had passed.

They did take a few minutes off here and there to hobnob with the first family, who came through a few times to check it out. One of the young O'Malley sons was particularly impressed.

"We got an 'awesome,' out of one boy," Connie Atkinson said.

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