Up Our Way
  1  Everywhere Starts at the
    Spiegletown Tavern

 Something Is Lost in
    Getting It Right
3  Fiona’s Hair Fantasy
4  
Abandoned Orchard Apple Pie
5  Necessities
6  Chickens and Clothes
    on the Line
7  God Help Me and the     Peonies
 Making Do
9     Spider in the
       Water Shoe
10  Swinging Tenders 
11  The Barn Up
       the Road
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  Winter 2023 Nonfiction Issue
by Mary Cuffe Perez
 

Everywhere Starts at the Spiegletown Tavern

Word had it that if you asked someone for directions in the vicinity of Spiegletown, a rural burg just outside of Troy, upstate NY, they’d unfailingly begin with “Starting from the Spiegletown Tavern …” Even if your destination was Sri Lanka, your starting point would be the Spiegletown Tavern. Everyone in town, and for a good bit outside of it, could direct you to the Spiegletown Tavern. It was the fulcrum from which all destinations emanated. As long as you knew from where to begin, and where to return to, life was comprehensible.

I never entered the Spiegletown Tavern, but I knew where it was. The tavern I knew well and frequently return to in my mind is the eponymous Maple Point in the town of Poestenkill, NY, where I lived with my husband (before he was an ex), Owen, and our three-year-old daughter, Kim, about ten miles from Spiegletown. Two giant sugar maples stood as sentries in front of the entrance to the farmhouse turned tavern.

The Maple Point, it turned out, was just up the road from the trailer we rented (or upstreet in the local vernacular). Except for a neon logo for Genesee, a humble handmade placard advertising burgers and clams, it could have been just another farmhouse with the welcome of a broad porch. The name of the place, as well as the fact that it was a bar, was left to local intelligence.

We wanted clams, beer, or maybe a hamburger and a Coke. The place looked as innocent as grandma’s kitchen (if there truly is an innocent grandma). We stopped in.

As the screen door slapped shut behind us, it appeared, instead, that we had walked into a grotto. We stood in the doorway trying to adjust to the glaucous interior as the room’s dimensions and inhabitants surfaced. Blue tails of smoke issued from six or seven men bent over the bar like wind tortured trees, their conversation low as subterranean waters. A single overhead bulb illuminated the pool table at the far end of the room where two more spectral figures stood, frozen in mid shot, cue sticks poised. All turned to register our presence.

Owen and I slipped one another “let’s get the hell out of here” looks, but a group of men had come in behind us, making for an awkward exit. As we mumbled apologies for our very existence on this planet, a burly man and equally burly woman, like a team of twin Belgians, came out from a room behind the bar, barging through the turgid atmosphere with booming good cheer. After clattering down plates of clams in front of the men at the bar, Russ and Rose Hansen, the owners it turned out, came around to greet us. The men at the bar dove into their clams, the pool game resumed, and we grinned meekly at the two who beamed back at us as if we were long lost relatives who’d finally found the way home.

“Come to misspend your youth?” Russ bellowed, wiping his hands on a dish towel. He bellowed, we were to learn, because he’d worked all his life with heavy, eardrum-shattering machinery. “Then you came to the right place!” He surveyed the three of us, as if sizing up the scope of our hunger. “No menu here, but name it and we got it. If it’s clams and burgers, that is.” He squatted down to Kim’s level, gave her an elfin grin. She returned the same. The place, it was clear, intrigued her. She was not a fearful child.

“Hamburger?” Owen inquired sheepishly.

“Three then?”Russ announced to Kim. Her entire body bobbed Yes, yes, yes. And a pickle!

He disappeared somewhere behind the bar, where we guessed the hamburgers and clams came from, while Rose showed us to one of the three round tables clustered at the far end of the bar. We took our seats tentatively, surveying the patrons, who had dropped their interest in us except for an occasional sidling glance.

Russ’ skills in the kitchen were particular and masterful. I have not since had a better hamburger done to such pinky perfection, oozing juice, topped by a fresh, lightly toasted bun with a hint of greasy patina, and this culinary wonder was accompanied by homemade fries, coleslaw and pickle. We had intended to eat and flee but the inch thick burgers had a mollifying effect. The earlier dismal atmosphere lifted like a weather front, lights came up and the room began to judder with energy as the screen door squawked open, slapped shut with arrival after arrival. Everyone, it seemed, was part of an extended family of sorts, greeting one another with inside jokes and obscure obscenities. Here was a culture new to us as its colloquialisms. We watched with barely concealed awe as orders of beer, clams, burgers flew around like the darts intended for the dart board. Men, women, kids, all vied for a turn at the pool table or punched out tunes on the pot-bellied relic of a jukebox. There was none of the pretentions of the Albany bars Owen and I had known. People laughed, sang, danced without inhibition, or quietly nursed some rue over a beer. As the night wore on, well past Kim’s bedtime, the three of us were drawn into the bosom of the Maple Point, Owen and I to seats at the bar and Kim to the pool table where one of those spectral figures was teaching her the game.

The downstreet hair salon may be the news center of most rural towns, but taverns, or “dives” as they happily refer to themselves, are where you’ll likely tap into the marrow of a place. Each has its own take on local news, more gossip than news, more story than fact. The barkeep establishes his own ethos, or code of conduct, and there is a tribal idiom, endemic humor and genre of storytelling. Each bar is its own animal, with cycles, habits and character traits, all having their strut and say.

Our introduction to the Maple Point was during down time, which could not be better described. Just after the bar opened, around 3 pm, was the hour the seasoned drinkers gathered. No doubt these guys were alcoholic, but part of the Maple Point code was that no hard liquor was sold, just bottled or on-tap beer, so theirs was a logy drunk, the conversation a buzzy commiseration, broken by a phlegmy cough or a beleaguered laugh over the absurdity they found their lives to be. It wasn’t until around 5 pm that the Maple Point came awake with the arrival of others — regulars and semi-regulars — hungry for food, a laugh, a dubious story, a game of pool, and an old darling on the jukebox.

Russ’ code didn’t dissuade a little friendly debauchery. One of his own tired lines, which he repeated ad nauseam to Sally Crow, was: If I tell you that you have a beautiful body would you hold it against me? This line never got more than a you-poor-sad-son-of-a bitch snort, which was just what Russ was looking for, followed by a thunderous laugh. Now-a-days Russ’ remarks, shriveled old chestnuts that they were, would not only be considered “inappropriate” but he’d probably be brought up on charges, his establishment closed.

Sally Crow, a locally renowned pool shark, or “sniper” as she was better known, was not one to be bothered by a sexist pitch. She could knock it out of the park. How they hangin she’d call out to John Rogan, as he rammed through the door, wielding his own cue stick in a leather, initialed case, determined, in his own words, “to knock Sally off.” John was the only regular stupid or stubborn enough to challenge the sniper to a game. Sally loved besting the newbies — some mere innocents, others cock sure they could take down any woman, as if pool required some sanctified maleness — but her prowess feasted regularly on the likes of John Rogan, the most satisfying challenger of all. He was a muscled-up trucker who prided himself on being able to drive a semi straight through from Albany to Tennessee without a wink of sleep and, until Sally showed up, being the best pool player in Rensselaer County. Sally was barely five feet tall, but she could fill up a room with her presence. She beat John every time and every time he would slam down his pool stick along with another beer. His feverish desire to win one game from Sally was legendary.

No one ever bested Sally at pool or put downs. First, she was a genius at backspin. She could make two balls kiss and then regret it. She never scratched. “That takes grounding,” she used to say. Hers came from a tiny waist and broad hips (wide as a semi, John used to mutter to his buddies at the bar) which gave her extra stability when leaning into a shot. “The most important shot,” she confided to me one night — since I was no threat to her reign — “is the break. Guys go head on, smashing into the rack like a wrecker ball. The secret, she whispered, narrowing her dark eyes as if lining up a shot, “is for the cue ball to tickle the tip of the triangle just left of center. You have to sweet talk it. But the real trick,” she added with an elbow nudge, “is never drink more than two beers.” I don’t think any of her challengers ever figured that one out.

There was no shortage of bluster and histrionics passing through the doors of the Maple Point. Don Horstman, a volunteer fireman, who Sally dubbed the Big Dong (the genesis of this handle was an ongoing source of speculation), would bang through the doors announcing another breakdown of his rogue 1952 Chevy like it was a house fire. “Bitch shit the bed!” he’d bellow. The volume never altered, nor did the story. Seems his truck was always shitting the bed in one form or another. But a vivid storyteller was rare and revered. Dick Waller, or Needle Dick, as he came to be known, was the best, though he was not a vivid man. Dick was of wispy stature and except for a glass eye, had no distinguishing characteristics. He’d show up at 5 pm sharp, in neatly pressed khakis and sport shirt, and assume his customary position at the corner of the bar like a pigeon returning to its roost. He didn’t say a word to anyone until his third beer, then he’d expel a portentous sigh on a stream of cigarette smoke, the signal he was ready to break out a gem. He might start off with “I’m not one to say anything but…” This line never failed to snag Russ as he wiped down the bar, set out the jars of pickled eggs and pigs’ feet and pepperoni. Dick would let the line drift, wiggling its lure until Russ snapped … “But what?”

Dick never rushed into a story. He’d look around, shake his head as if loathe to disclose his nugget. It was often about someone with someone they had no business being with, but other times, he aimed higher, or lower, depending on your point of view. “That commotion down at Clemente’s quarry? You seen the cops there, right?” Russ hadn’t. He’d frown in response, swish glasses in the brush glass washer. “They’re making out that it was a deer or horse fell in, got buried there. But word is …” Dick would always cite his sources — something dropped at the Elk’s Thursday night meeting, or passed among hunters waiting out a chill morning in a deer stand, or gleaned from the turkey dinner fundraiser at the Baptist Church. Dick didn’t belong to the Elks, didn’t hunt and was not likely to attend a church dinner; still, he claimed to have sources from all corners of town and beyond. “Word is … it’s the remains of that Rheinhart girl that disappeared last year…”

His stories would end with the listeners following the last line like the drift of smoke. When it finally dispersed, Don would slap his palm on the bar with the indignation of one who had been taken in once again. “You’re full of shit, Needle Dick!”

Needle Dick was short for: Needle Dick the Bug Fucker. That’s how Dick, thanks to Sally Crow, came to be known around the Maple Point. Though he customarily kept to himself, only venturing from his corner stool to stagger to the men’s room, one night he made an unfortunate detour to pinch Sally’s amply grounded ass as she attempted a bank shot. Needle Dick the Bug Fucker he was from then on.

Dick took no offense. Having his own title conferred status. His life beyond the Maple Point had little of that. He was on disability from injuries suffered during service in Viet Nam, and lived with his mother in the family homestead, a two-bedroom ranch, half a mile from the Maple Point. It was his mother who pressed those sharp creases into his shirts and khakis.

Things never got hot at the Maple Point. Russ was kind, but neither he nor Rose hesitated to quell the rumbles of a brawl. Any show of violence was out the door without a warning. Everyone knew the rules. This is a family place Rose huffed, though I can’t think of a family today that would see it that way. But it was for the three of us, and even after Owen left for more sun-drenched pastures, Kim and I remained Maple Point faithfuls for as long as we lived in Poestenkill.

I’ve ventured into other rural bars in Poestenkill and beyond, and no two have the same vibe. Most are found by chance, following a battered sign down a logging road; others are no more than back rooms in farmhouses, a supplement to a farm family’s income. Then there are those that have weathered themselves into the landscape along with their owners. The Creekside Inn was one of these, owned by Olm Jensen since it opened somewhere in the mid-1930s. It was not an inn at all, and I never found evidence that it catered to anyone but logging crews. The structure was perched on the bank of the Poestenkill Creek, its cinderblock pillars holding it just above flood waters in the spring. It looked to be a hunting cabin that had become one with the towering hemlocks that humbled it, the plank siding having taken on the mossy green tint of hemlock bark. Nothing clued you in that it was a bar except, perhaps, the rusted Coca Cola sign out front, old as the bar itself. I was intrigued when I spotted it one day driving up Plank Road on my way to Eva Flint’s General Store in East Poestenkill. I had never noticed the bar before, and it did not appear to be open for any kind of business. I learned from Eva that it was still in operation and had a “certain” clientele. “Usually opens at sunset,” she said, “and you can get a beer if you can raise Olm.”

Hard to find a true to the bone dive anymore. After we moved from Poestenkill to another upstate town, Russ passed away and the new owner turned the bar into a strip club, which was finally shut down in 1990. I don’t know what it became after that, if anything. I make a point of not going back to where I once belonged. Most rural bars have become what they never were meant to be: trendy, homogeneous and antiseptic. You can hardly misspend your youth in such a place.

 

end

  © Mary Cuffe Perez, 2023

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