I grew up in an atmosphere of stale cigarette smoke, cheap beer and cry-in-your-drink old time country music.
In other words, I was damn lucky.
My dad owned a neighborhood tavern in West Rutland for more than 40 years. As a kid, I’d hang out there all the time, learning the lessons of people who had their problems, were never fancy, but had a sort of rough grace.
Officially, the business was called “Marble Valley Restaurant,” but everybody called it Red’s Place, as everybody in town knew my father as Red. (He used to have red hair.)
That’s dad, in the photo, standing in the bar not long before he finally sold the place and retired back in 1991.
The photo, taken by my brother-in-law David Jenne, wound up as the cover art on the CD “Red’s Place,” by the Starline Rhythm Boys, an excellent Vermont honky tonk band.
The title track of the CD is a song about my father’s bar, but more largely is an homage to the neighborhood honky tonk bar.
The song celebrates the convivality of a honky tonk bar, the great old music and the characters that you inevitably find in a bar.
The Starline Rhythm Boys help me recall the soundtrack of my youth, which includes drunken men mispronouncing the Polish words for “To your health ” and the clink of Genesee beer bottles behind the bar. Through it all, the heartbroken songs of Tammy Wynette warbled from the jukebox, as she stood by her man or regretted her D-I-V-O-R-C-E, which became final today.
Red’s Place is the main reason why I’m rarely afraid to meet new people, even if those people are the type that most others ignore. I guess that’s why some people say I’m a weird person magnet.
I don’t have any illusions about a tavern like my dad’s. Some of the regulars were alcoholics, depressed, lonely, misfits, oddballs. But dad treated them all well, as long as they behaved and respected others. They were human. They were kind. So what if they smelled like stale beer and cheap cigarettes?
Since dad seemed to have things right, I try to do the same with people I meet. I’m sounding holier-than-thou here, but I have to say you limit your experiences if you avoid people who seem a bit “off.”
And you end up getting weird stories to tell as result. For instance, my lack of fear of odd people is the reason several summers ago, I had a daily encounter with a strange young man in Burlington’s City Hall Park.
That summer, I’d take a lunch break and go to the park. Every day, at precisely 12:15 p.m., the same curly haired young man would mumble some jibberish about Jesus and hell. He’d walk up to me, press his index finger gently onto my forehead, snap his fingers, then turn and walk away.
He’d only do this with me. Maybe I was his god, who knows?
This continued into the fall. One glorious day in early October, a pleasant couple from New Jersey – tourists – stopped me in City Hall Park and asked for directions to Shelburne Farms.
As I started to explain, mumble jumble man came up.
I told the couple to excuse me for a moment.
Mumble jumble guy did his routine . He push his index finger into the middle of my forehead, he snapped his fingers and walked away. All the while I smiled benevolently.
I turned to the couple. “Anyway, take Route 7 south into Shelburne…..”
“Wait a minute, what…???” the male half of the couple asked.
“Never mind. Route 7, south….”
The couple just stared. I don’t think they ever did comprehend the directions I gave.
I let mumble jumble guy to this to me because, as I learned in my dad’s bar, what’s the harm of making the guy happy? The guy disappeared later that fall. I haven’t seen him in years. I miss him.
But, rest assured, I will continue to meet more interesting people.