by Hugh Gilmore
“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.”
– Emily Dickinson
The day before New Year’s eve, a Friday, was warm and mild and the Avenue was filled with people who seemed happy to be alive and enjoying the sunshine.
While I walked up to Chestnut Grill to meet and have some lunch with Greg Welsh I wondered if I should first walk down to Ardleigh Street and see my friend Richard. On Wednesday night, or Thursday, I wasn’t sure, Richard’s 55-year old daughter died unexpectedly in her sleep. She lived in another town. Preparations were being made.
Richard is a fairly private person, and I wasn’t sure whether I should just pop in on him when he might not be ready for someone to stop and pay respects. I decided I’d wait and see if the spirit moved me after lunch.
I know Greg Welsh from the Chestnut Hill Book Festival, which he founded as head of the Chestnut Hill Business Association. He also owns and operates the Chestnut Grill, which is where I met him for lunch. Greg is a fun person to share a beer with. He’s filled with energy and ideas, likes to laugh, reads books, and doesn’t mind getting into “heavy” conversation. It’s also fun for someone like myself, who hardly knows anyone and seldom goes anywhere, to see him in action with the wide and interesting bunch of people who come over to say hello. I’m the fly on the wall at such times.
Today, however, Greg has gout. His toe is throbbing. Hesitation is hobbling him. But, it’s a beautiful day, warm enough to open his outside tables for al fresco dining, and he’s in a good mood. We both order and drink a single malt scotch and toast the New Year. I rarely drink anything before the crack of 5 p.m., but The Macallan is sweet and warm and before I know it I’m a bit “up.”
I told Greg about my friend Richard’s daughter. How unpredictable life is. You never know. Save a little, spend a little and hope for the best.
Oh, don’t I know it, he says. He tells me of the time he was with a dining party downstairs, right below where we sat right now when death came in out of the blue. Greg was being visited by a dear friend, one of his oldest friends, who had brought his bright, handsome twenty-something son along. Whap, out of the blue, the boy had a cerebral aneurysm and died at the table, almost instantly. Everyone present was devastated. None of their lives was ever the same.
“I’m intense about life,” Greg says, “but I really don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. The only thing that really matters to me is my family.”
We talked for a bit. Normally at this point I would go home. After all, I’d had lunch, and more work awaited me. Last work day of the year.
“Want to walk up and check out Iron Hill Brewery?” Greg said.
Sure, why not. I heard it was beautiful. But secrecy surrounded the place in that final week before it opened. Private invitation only. Politicians, businessmen, fellow restaurateurs. But with Greg to lead the way, even I could go in. So, sure.
We walked into the large bright, newly polished place and of course, who was the first person we saw at a table of people but Ann Standish, the world’s leading volunteer and bright spirit.
“Hugh,” she said, “look, I have your book on my iPhone.” She hit a few buttons and spun a wheel or two and showed me my book. Proof. Everyone kissed everyone on the cheek and saluted the table and we said good-bye and sat at the long, smooth, handsome bar.
Two scotches please. The bartender cracked a new bottle and Greg and I sat and talked some more about “life and lit.”
The old year was leaving us. The New Year, filled with bright promise and putting on new makeup, was getting ready to come downstairs and greet us. Work could wait, I guessed. I hadn’t been so lighthearted in a while. Greg turned to look around after a while and two people at the end of the bar waved to him.
He went down and talked to them. He pointed at me, explaining who I was, I guessed, so I got up and went down and joined them. They were middle-aged, she a small attractive blond, he a large guy whose salt-and-pepper hair was in a ponytail. He wore a Vikings T-shirt. Not the football team, “the” Vikings. He’s of Scandinavian ancestry. Everyone joked. Everyone was in a good mood today. The year was ending, taking its nastiness with it. A bright new year awaited us.
Greg and I returned to our spot and finished our whiskey. Greg told me the couple we’d just talked to had been at his restaurant, sitting nearby, the night his friend’s son died. She was a therapist and out of kindness had offered free crisis counseling to any of Greg’s staff who were psychologically upset by what they’d witnessed that night. Since then, they and Greg had been friends.
Amazing. How do you ever know who’s who, or what, when you look down the long sweep of a bar? Especially in a town like Chestnut Hill. The grim reaper, and those who clean up after him, seems to wait everywhere.
The talk changed. What a beautiful bar.
“Have you ever seen the bar at the Mermaid Inn?” Greg asked.
“No,” I said.
I really should go home, I thought. But I couldn’t think why. Habit. My wife would be out till dinnertime. I didn’t feel like going back to work. I said, “Sure, lets go. Jail break.” We started walking down the avenue.
Greg made as if to cross the street. “Let’s stay on the sunny side,” I said.
“I was going to get my car.”
“We can walk. It’s nice out.”
“Walk? It’s about three miles down to the Mermaid.”
“No, a mile, maybe. It’ll do you good.”
“My toe hurts. I have gout.”
“Let’s walk anyway.”
He looked at me as though he wondered how he’d hooked up with a madman, but laughed and came along.
“We’ll walk off the whiskey this way,” I said.
Every twenty feet we passed a person whom Greg knew and stopped to say hello with. It was like walking with the eighth-grade class president.
Finally we crossed the street and walked up to the door of the Mermaid.
“Yikes,” he said, ” I forgot they don’t open till sundown.”
We stood there for a while and Greg told stories of the legendary Mermaid Inn and then we turned to go back up the hill, feeling like two schoolboys who’ve bunked school to go to the movies and found the theater closed.
Not so fast, though. A pebble’s toss from the Mermaid, right where Mermaid Lane meets Germantown Avenue, is a large memorial cross. I’d never passed this place on foot, so I’d never read its inscriptions. We went over and walked around the base. What a wonderful thing I’d have missed if we hadn’t walked down here.
The cross marks the memorial spot for Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy men who died in the First World War, mostly in France. Their names are inscribed, many of their surnames still carried by some of our neighbors today. Their dates of death are inscribed. Many of them were winter deaths.
More touching still, their place of death, their final battlefields, were noted – many of them places of now-legendary fame: Chateau-Thierry, the Argonne, Belleau Wood. So far away. So long ago.
We crossed over to the little park across the street and sat on the cold stone benches near a wall of Chestnut Hill fieldstone, a substance that has long preceded and long shall outlive us – till it, too, turns to dust. What a sight. What a great way to end the old, nasty year of 2011.
Except we weren’t done yet. We walked back up the Avenue, heading home, I thought, but Greg said, “Have you see Chestnut 7 yet?” I hadn’t. We went in. We’d walked off half the afternoon’s whiskey and had the other half blasted away by the death memorial, so we ordered final farewell scotches.
Chestnut 7 is another handsome addition to the local scene. I told Greg that I’d proposed to my wife, Janet, here, back when we courted, and it was named Albrecht’s. Right out on the back porch. (Actually, what I’d really done was say “I love you” for the first time, but this was boys’ night out and not the time to get sappy.) “Here’s to second marriages, the happy ones,” he said, and we clinked glasses and drank some whiskey.
A third man walked up and began kibitzing with Greg. I was introduced to Jack McGann, who owns the building we were in. He goes to Cuba eight days of every month. That sparked me. I love Cuban culture and I’d just read “Hemingway’s Boat.”
“What do you do in Cuba?”
“I’m a businessman.”
That’s it? A man of secrets. Maybe I could get a little more. I asked, “What kind of business?”
“Import/export.” Back to his drink.
Oh boy, that told me to stand back. In academia, where I come from, the problem works the other way: trying to get people to shut up about every little detail of their work.
It was dark out by now. The place was filling up and getting a bit noisy. It was exciting for me. Other men came and joined us, we stood in a circle talking, titering our drink input, feeling good but staying away from sloppiness, laughing. I noticed that not once had anyone looked at a cute waitress or pretty woman. Those days of seeking a date or a mate were over. This was the old boys’ clubhouse. Very liberating.
Oh my gosh, I thought, this must be what they mean by “Happy Hour.” I guess it’s okay. Was my wife home yet? If so, she wouldn’t mind if I stayed out. A fellow who knew me from my columns sent over a drink. Holy cow. Shades of Hemingway coming into Sloppy Joes!
A good friend of Greg’s, Frank DePace, came in, looking for Greg. Introductions all around. The conversation turned to Billy Murphy, a man I never knew, who ran a popular tavern in East Falls, where “everybody” stopped by – sports figures, politicians, businessmen, bookies, newspaper guys, you name it. “Yeah, died in his car. Heart attack, driving home.” They all talked with respect about Mister Murphy for a while and what a grand old-style gent he’d been.
“Let’s go up to my place,” Greg said. We traipsed in the dark up to the Grill and stood near the crowded bar. Another round for everyone. I was feeling incredibly happy. I’d shucked off the tyranny of my self-assigned duties for the afternoon, hung out with the boys and was feeling free as a bird, my spirit lifted from having laughed more in a day than I usually do in a week.
We were laughing, despite the terrible news that my friend Richard’s daughter had died, and that Greg had told me about his friend’s son, and that we’d gone up the Avenue only to run into the nice therapist who’d helped with grief counseling at the restaurant, and then walked away from that to go down the Avenue and wind up at the war memorial, and then back up the Avenue to Ch 7 and learn about Billy Murphy’s heart attack. What’s to do? You pay your respects, you listen to “Taps” and you have some fun talking sports or joking.
And just as we’d settled in at the Grill, Greg took a quick phone call and then turned to us and said, “I’ve got to go.” His mother-in-law had stopped breathing and was being rushed to the emergency room.
2011 was mean that way, wasn’t it?
The other two fellows and I talked a bit more and then said goodbye. I can’t describe the way I felt as I walked home, but I can say I haven’t felt that way since I was a boy. I’d met a bunch of fun kids and we’d all rolled around in a sand pile for a while, and now I was walking home. Like Wally Shawn in “My Dinner with Andre,” I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my “girl” all about my night out with Andre, and Greg, and Jack, and Frank, and all the boys.
Postscript: I want to dedicate this column to my wonderful friend, Ned Coale, who died peacefully in his sleep beside his loving wife, Joan, on the very next night, the last night of 2011.