While some seek sleek lines, bright lights, and austerity, Dave and I love the warmth of well-worn wood, a fireplace tarred with the soot of centuries, a bar bearing the imprint of innumerable elbows and pints, and the welcome of a friendly barkeep. With his deep-set eyes and hollow cheeks, Larry seemed the living incarnation of every guardian to have held this post in the tavern at The Beekman Arms.
We were in Rhinebeck, N.Y. for a two-night get-away. I’d been delayed in our room by a phone call, and by the time I arrived at the tavern, Dave was ensconced in jovial conversation with Larry and Howard. A shared interest in music and sports had already done their work, forging bonds just as they’d no doubt done for the earliest travelers. Had the three men been younger, no doubt wenches would’ve been covered too.
Like Dave, Larry plays guitar and the two had already discussed artists they admired and Epiphones, Martins, and Fenders, the guitar brands they favored. We told Larry he looked like James Taylor — a comparison that pleased him — but Willie Nelson was his guy. “The way that man plays…” he shook his head in awe as he wiped a glass and glanced down the bar in case someone needed a refill.
After introducing me to his companions, Dave turned back to Howard.
“What can I get you?” asked Larry. I ordered a Malbec and mused that this might be a long evening of Red Sox chatter as a postseason game against the Houston Astros played out on the TV at the end of the bar.
“Enjoying your stay?” said Larry as he set my wine before me. How often must a kindly bartender ask the same and listen patiently to repetitive tales of local wanderings? I filled him in on ours, a visit to Olana, the home and masterwork of artist Frederic Edwin Church. I mentioned my love of historic graveyards, the comfort I feel in the resolution of all those lives, and our stop at the Red Church.
There, the sextant, again, a relic of another age in his stooped posture, wispy hair, and bug-eyed gaze, had fumbled with a set of keys and allowed us a glimpse of the interior. It was spare, unheated, and for now, lacking a congregation. But, “George Washington worshipped here,” the sextant assured us.
Together Larry and I mused on the rise and fall of farming, shipping, and industry along the Hudson River, and the impact on the towns that lined its banks. During our drives to and from Olana, Dave and I had witnessed the decline in rusting warehouses and abandoned homes. We’d also seen (literal) signs of HOPE, and the evidence of the pendulum’s swing in one such building’s renaissance as an antiques market.
When Larry shifted his gaze to check on other guests, I said, “Go! Don’t let me hold you up!”
“It’s a short bar,” he said. “I can hear them if they need me.”
Howard waved good night as he rose to leave, and Doug from Marblehead took his place. He joined Dave in whoops when the Sox scored a run. By then, Larry and I had delved deep into our brushes with cancer, God’s grace, unfinished business, and lessons learned in this life, possibly, as foundations for the next. He said, “I read this book ‘Many Lives…’
“Many Masters!” I exclaimed, finishing his thought. “Yes! I read it years ago.”
“A life changer for me,” said Larry. “I’m not a great guitar player, but I want to be, so I practice a lot. Maybe not in this life, but who knows?” he added with a smile.
The tavern closed at 10 o’clock, and the game had ended with a Red Sox win. It is the way of traveling and meeting strangers that one can feel close to a person, and then just … leave. Sometimes we exchange contact info, and there’s always an intention to touch base, but only occasionally does that happen.
“Larry? Can I hug you?” I asked as I gathered up my purse and jacket. In this time of Covid, the answer’s not a given, but he came around the end of the bar and hugged me tight.
Dipping into the lives of others — be they Frederic Church or Larry the bartender — is the joy of travel. Living in New England, one needn’t go far to find that. Music, kids, causes, and cancer often provide the opening to a person’s story. And fine, yes, sports too.
For over a year, Covid confined us to our own centuries-old hearth, a blessing of a place to be, but this fall we’ve been able, once again, to pack our overnight bags and venture forth to connect with those tending the inns and taverns where the Founders filled their bellies and fueled their yearning for independence.