Return to index...
St. John, New Brunswick
What I have come to value as much as anything in a location is character. Any town - every town - has shiny restaurants and shiny buildings and shiny streets and shiny people, and for the most part it's what towns aspire to. But it takes a history, an earthiness, and a time to develop character. Truthfully character can be found in most places, though sometimes it must be diligently sought. In other locations it clings to its buildings, its streets, and its people as obvious as wearied eyes to youthful beauty.
St. John, New Brunswick, where I work this week, is such a place. Its character floats like fog throughout the cobblestone streets of this working class harbor clustered about the bay, its downtown hung with carved, hand-painted signs, disturbed periodically by the long, low belching of foghorns off the obscured water.
It is August, yet it is not warm. The mist lies heavy, the town fog-bound for several days, the air clinging to your skin like a cold sweat as I trudge down to the waterfront to find my perfect place to eat. I'm after seafood, of course. One of the finer pleasures of this job is treating yourself to the various local culinary flavors; in Montreal it's frog legs and snails, in Louisiana it's Cajun crawfish by the platter and beer, in Maryland it's the chaos of the crab house. I notice that the weather deters few of these hardy Canadians, the waterfront crowded with people. I had inquired as to a good seafood restaurant and was directed toward Grannons, and when I enter I thank my traveling God for places such as this.
It exudes character; quaint, small, crowded, and the bartender's in a bad mood. It's not necessary to chat with him, which is good. I turn in my seat and observe the junk hanging from the ceiling, lobster traps and nets and the varied paraphernalia of the seaside village, all of it crowding down upon the plaid-shirted working class clientele hovering noisily over their glasses of beer.
Seafaring men enter, one settles next to me announces he is from Newfoundland, working the tankers up and down the coast. He tells me he likes Boston, but the Combat Zone disappointed him, such was the depth of his traveling curiosity. He disappears, and I look at the menu.
It's expensive here, but the character of the place overcomes this. I wander away from the bar to claim a window-side table, and order mussels in white wine sauce, and fish chowder. And a beer.
Outside the window, to my morbid fascination, I observe a stage with two, two foot high stools placed upon it. A moderator/referee/master of ceremonies stands behind, ringed with young people. As I sip my beer I see that it is the Canadian version of gladiator as young, testosteronially-overwhelmed guys don hockey helmets and clubs, then climb up onto the stools and proceed to beat each others brains out. Whoever falls off his stool first loses.
It's a perfect setting, excellent food, cold beer, the working class ambiance, and the slightly absurd carnage outside my window. I'm enjoying myself - and then I see the newspapers. Plastered on the walls of the tavern are a series of newspaper articles, one headline in particular attracting my attention, 'Blue Jays Trash N.B. Bar.' Of course we know which bar, and I saunter over, my curiosity aroused.
It seems during a preseason visit to New Brunswick the Toronto Blue Jays had descended upon this place after an exibition game, and - if I get it right - one of the white bartenders objected to one of the black ballplayer's object of affection. Which reminds me of a David Bromberg line in a song about Jerry Jeff Walker: "He propositioned the right woman at the right time in the wrong place, and her husband the bartender..."
The fight, by all accounts, was fast and furious. When it was over, the poor bartender had suffered the worst of it at the hands of Toronto's star outfielder, George Bell.
And I marveled at the defeated pugilist's words, quoted in the home town newspaper and plastered on this wall for all to see. During a week when Vince Coleman of the New York Mets has been sued by several people in the United States for tossing a firecracker, in an era where people sue McDonalds for spilling hot coffee on themselves, as my moody bartender gripes about being tired and hungry, as the testosteronially-overwhelmed dudes beat each other's brains out outside my window, I read this poor guys response to his own friends suggestion that he pursue the deep-pockets strategy and sue George Bell. And his response strikes me as very working class, very honest, loaded with character and very, very Canadian - "Hey, I got clobbered by the American League MVP. Who could ask for more?"