Jan/Feb 1999 Nonfiction

In the Drink:
The Boathouse

by Bruce Bentzman

Just the approaching begins to calm me. This bar is twenty-one miles from my home, a distance that carries me out of dense suburbs and into the countryside. On this occasion I take a route along the scenic Delaware River with its panoramic moments. I am making my way to my favourite bar. My favourite doesn't mean I come often, but if it was not so far from home I would be a regular.

It is a week night and the little town of Lambertville, New Jersey, a small town up against the Delaware River, is quiet. The town is a center for dealers in antiques and art. Across the river is the more popular and rowdy New Hope.

Walking past the Phoenix Bookstore, closed at this hour, but otherwise a good place to browse among the secondhand books, I turn on to Coryell Street to be greeted by the mouthwatering smell of grilled meats. I pass the former movie theater, the New Strand. Thirty years ago it showed foreign films, multiple features every night for a low admission price. Goddard, Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini and others, they were my real education during those intellectually formative years, when high school hardly served. The theater changed hands, began showing pornography, caught fire, got gutted, and was eventually closed up and sold again. Today it is used as a warehouse by Finkle.

"Joe Finkle Hardware" reads the sign over the shop across the street. But more pertinent to this adventure is the decorative shingle that hangs over the sidewalk on my side of the street, a gold pig and the announcement "The Porkyard." The sign marks the beginning of an alley and does not indicate that in the distant darkness there is a bar. In former days this alley ran alongside a pig slaughtering house. The slaughterhouse is gone. Reaching the alleyís far end along a gravel path, there on the left is Hamiltonís Grill Room, the source of that delightful odor that wafts down the alley and up the street. I turn to the small building on my right. Iíve been told this structure once served as an oversized tool shed for the slaughter house, but now it is the Boathouse.

Step into the place and right away you are belly up to the end of the bar. Buzz, the bartender, stands soldier erect on the other side, very clean and trim, in a pressed white shirt and tie, pleated trousers, his hair worn short. He is competent, professional, and at your service with the decorum of a butler. By contrast, the other bartender, off this night, is a vibrant woman of wit and candor more given to casual dress, yet equally as capable as Buzz. They are both friendly, and it is easy to like them.

This small bit of bar is ell shaped and extends the width of the tiny building. I donít believe the place can be much more than twelve feet wide. There is nothing on tap here. I am drinking bottles of Samuel Smithís Old Brewery Pale Ale.

The entire ground floor is dark, paneled, and densely decorated with the theme of sailing and rowing. Ship, liner, and boat models; the subject repeated in posters, photographs, paintings, and related paraphernalia, occupy every inch of space. Rows of gray and silver mugs hang across the ceiling, from which are also suspended oars. This is not an old bar, but it has been very cleverly laid out to induce the illusion of a long collegiate tradition in sculling. There are trophies no one here has won.

A new painting - there is little new art in this place - at the far end of this room of small tables, is of an individual sculler. It is reminiscent of a painting by Thomas Eakins, but this time there is more light and impression. It is the work of an accomplished local artist, Gordon Haas.

Behind the painting is a wall of windows. And the painting is suspended above a tiny stage, now occupied with potted plants. Musicians and poets have been known to use it. I have even written a one act play [Pilateís Dream] intended for the limitations of this stage, which is only eight feet wide and three feet deep. It requires only three actors and very little histrionics.

There is a smaller painting that hangs in the window by the door we came in. This one is a portrait of the barís interior and is the work of Robert Beck. Bob has accepted my invitation to drink and stands beside me at the bar. I can never buy this fellow enough drinks. He has made a gift to me of a small painting of pumpkins, which hangs in my study. Bob is a new friend. We havenít known each other long enough to develop a dislike. So far our friendship is based on a mutual admiration. Bob, who generally doesnít like poetry, likes mine. And I, who generally do not like paintings, like his. He has seen my little drawings and wisely uses that harmless word, "interesting." I have read his poetry, and it is like he says, "Having tried my hand at writing poetry, I can tell you I feel very confident that I am a damn good painter."

Eventually Ms Keogh, my significant other, joins us. She brings Bob a small oil painting, on mahogany panel, of a clutch of quail eggs. Bob is buying this from her with an exchange of one of his own works. Ms Keogh has been at the gallery taking down her exhibition and loading the paintings into my car. She is my designated driver. Iím the designated drinker.

Despite the barís theme, it is not a sports bar and there is no television set. It is a bar that is attractive to professional people, and to people who have invested their lives into the sciences or the arts. It is designed for the art of dialogue. The recorded music is usually classic jazz, often torch songs, and it is never so loud as to drown out conversation.

I turn to Jim, the barís owner, a former history teacher, who is discussing with others the recent Spielberg film, "Saving Private Ryan," and together we praise the directorís accomplishment. We agree that D-Day has a significance for the free world that is often unimaginable to young people. It saved the free world.

Upstairs there is yet another room under the A-frame of the attic. There is more light upstairs and it has the appearance of a living room, with deep chairs and stuffed couches. As cozy as it is, this evening there is no one up there. All the conversation is taking place on the ground floor. We, as a species, have advanced communication beyond the needs of survival; we have evolved it into art. Alcohol, carefully applied, lubricates the exchange.


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