Bridges

There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them.

The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller

In a real way, an era of my life can be defined by novels I read with the word “Bridge” in the title.

This period started in the back half of my senior year of high school, when I read Richard Bach’s The Bridge Across Forever, a book (and author) with which I have a long and mildly complicated history:

But back to that afternoon in the bookstore: the last Bach title on that shelf was The Bridge Across Forever: a lovestory. Like One, its back cover copy consisted of a single, brief item:

If you’ve ever felt alone in a world of strangers, missing someone you’ve never met, you’ll find a message from your love in The Bridge Across Forever.

As a Romantic at heart, that single blurb caught me. I bought the book and proceeded to read it pretty quickly. Without getting into too many details, my love life in high school was non-existent; I didn’t go on my first date until about a month before I graduated, and I didn’t have what I could by any reasonable definition a “girlfriend” until I was in college. (I always suspected my general high levels of geekiness and my general low levels of good looks as being prime causes of this, but I digress.) There was something about that bit on the back cover of that book that really captivated me: Missing someone you’ve never met.

As I recall, I read The Bridge Across Forever over the course of a week or so.

The Bridge Across Forever started an almost literary obsession during which I read everything Richard Bach wrote over the next year or two, and I ranked him among my very favorite authors for a while afterward. There is something to be said about hitting particular authors when you are most susceptible to their own unique magic, and maybe it’s a bit judgmental of me, but I do think you can tell something about a person by which author hits them between the eyes in those formative years between, say, 17 and 19 years of age. A person who gravitated to Richard Bach–weird mysticism and refusal to deal honestly with the details of his life aside–is more likely to be a person I can groove with than someone who discovered Ayn Rand at that same time.

Bach lasted for me through college, though my fascination with him did start to wane a bit as other fascinations came to the fore. (During summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I found an old copy of John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in the basement that had belonged to my sister, and that single book launched me into a fascination with Arthurian legend that has also blown hot-and-cold, but never died, to this day.) But then in 1992–either toward the end of my junior year or at the beginning of my senior year, I don’t recall exactly–a new book with “Bridge” in the title hit the world. The author was a guy who actually lived and taught at another college, the University of Northern Iowa, just twenty miles away from my own school. His name was Robert James Waller, and the book was called The Bridges of Madison County.

This book was a colossus at the time, a hugely successful nationwide bestseller that catapulted Mr. Waller to enormous fame, giving his next few books instant best-seller status that eventually faded. Bridges was even bigger, though, in Iowa, for obvious reasons: a hometown writer hit it big with a story set in the backwaters of Iowa, a state no one ever thinks of as “exotic”, with a story of passion and forbidden love. A nature photographer comes to small-town Iowa to take pictures of some covered bridges for National Geographic, and while there he meets a farm wife whose husband and kids are off at a state fair someplace. In the space of about 48 hours, they have an affair and decide that they are the love of each others’ lives…and then, because she cannot bring herself to leave her family, their relationship ends and they never see each other again.

This story was huge in 1992, and as all such things do, it led to a movie, starring Clint Eastwood as our photographer and Meryl Streep as our farmwife. General consensus seems to have decided that the film is actually better than the book, and it probably is. Like lots of folks back then, I bought a copy of Bridges and read it in about a day. It’s a really short book, actually, and it was attractively published in a small-sized hardcover. The cover is a pleasant aged-paper color, with an inset sepia-toned and weathered photograph of a covered bridge, and the words “A Novel” present in a stylized postmark stamp.

Each chapter heading has a photograph from a covered bridge–the work of our hero photographer, Robert Kincaid–and the book itself is set in a typeface I honestly don’t recall seeing again anywhere else. It’s a nice bit of book design, in all honesty.

As for the writing, well…it’s complicated.

For all the love The Bridges of Madison County received back in 1992, in the years since Robert James Waller has sadly become something of a literary punchline. It’s not hard to see exactly why, though I do think it’s a little unfair. For one thing, when you read Waller’s descriptions of Robert Kincaid–a lanky fellow in an old denim shirt and omnipresent orange suspenders–and then you look at a photo of Robert James Waller from around the time he wrote Bridges, it’s honestly not hard to envision this as a “Mary Sue” story in which Waller is basically writing himself into an erotic tale. I don’t know if there’s any biographical genesis for the story Waller tells in this book that would make it a de facto confessional piece, but I rather doubt it, for the most part. Surely that would have become common knowledge afterwards, and he did have a long career after that. (Waller died in 2017.) Still, I wonder if Waller’s wife read the book and wondered if he was trying to say…something. The marriage ended five years after Bridges came out…probably right around the same time that Richard Bach and Leslie Parrish were deciding they weren’t soulmates after all.

I didn’t love The Bridges of Madison County when I first read it in 1992, but I did like it just fine. For a story set in as down-to-earth a place as you can find, there’s a kind of mysticism that underlies the story, and my impression as I read it was as if Robert James Waller was coming from the same kind of place as Richard Bach, albeit with less overt New Age mystical mumbo-jumbo. Waller’s world is still a place of magic, where lyrical spells are cast in the golden haze of the sinking Iowa sun, particularly if you’re on a covered bridge over a lazy Iowa river (all rivers in Iowa are lazy, and if you don’t believe me, go to Cedar Rapids and look for the rapids sometime). Waller’s magic turns erotic in a way that Bach’s does not, once he moves us from the bridge to the candle-lit kitchen of a lonely Iowa farm house whose wife’s family is out of town. Bridges reminded me of Bridge, with less astral projection and more removal of clothes.

Reading the book again, I’m struck much the same way.

Also, reading the book again, I’m struck by Robert James Waller’s writing style. It’s…well, look…he’s not a bad writer! There are some really good passages in here, and he sets a scene very, very well, often choosing details that matter (such as when Francesca works to dig out the coffee cups that don’t have chips in them). But he also does some really strange stuff, mostly in the form of words he puts in Robert Kincaid’s mouth. This very odd bit of self-description, for one example:

I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.

I do not pretend to have the slightest idea what that means.

And Robert has other speeches about manhood and how he is one of the last of the real cowboys and such. This snippet comes in the middle of a long (several pages long) speech about the loss of the cowboy or some such thing:

Eventually, computers and robots will run things. Humans will manage those machines, but that doesn’t require courage or strength, or any characteristics like those. In fact, men are outliving their usefulness.

OK, I guess. I was discussing this stuff online with a friend of mine recently who suggested that this was part of the whole “Iron John”, Robert Bly movement about masculinity that took place in the years around this novel’s publication. I don’t know enough about the Bly movement to assess that claim, but Waller’s constant description of Kincaid as more force-of-nature than human being always strikes me as odd. Richard Bach doesn’t even go that far.

Waller writes poetically, and his scenes work from the standpoint of the descriptive stagecraft, but it’s hard to home in on either of these two characters. Francesca is a bit easier to sympathize with, since I suspect we all have our “Am I living the correct life?” moments, but it’s not easy to buy her insta-romance with Robert Kincaid because it’s just not easy to buy Robert Kincaid. He doesn’t feel like a character to me; he feels like a device. And when their romance ends, in a moment that I know we the readers are supposed to find deeply sad and moving, the person who gets my sympathy is Richard, Francesca’s husband, who gets home at the end to a wife who will never love him again, if she ever did. Richard can sense something is wrong, something is amiss, something has shifted in his beloved wife. He is riding around with her, running errands, and Robert Kincaid drives past her one last time, on his way out of town forever:

Richard took the truck across the intersection heading north. She looked for an instant past his face toward Harry’s [Robert Kincaid named his pickup truck “Harry”] red taillights moving off into the fog and rain. The old Chevy pickup looked small beside a huge semitrailer rig roaring into Winterset, spraying a wave of road water over the last cowboy.

“Good-bye, Robert Kincaid,” she whispered, and began to cry, openly.

Richard looked over at her. “What’s wrong, Frannie? Will you please tell me what’s wrong with you?”

“Richard, I just need some time to myself. I’ll be all right in a few minutes.”

Richard tuned in the noon livestock reports, looked over at her, and shook his head.

And then, later on in a letter that Francesca has left for her kids once she has died–a letter in which she explains to her son and daughter just why Mom seemed emotionally distant for the rest of her life–there’s this:

I think Richard knew there was something in me he could not reach, and I sometimes wonder if he found the manila envelope when I kept it at home in the bureau [containing a compromising photo that Robert Kincaid had taken of Francesca]. Just before he died, I was sitting by him in a Des Moines hospital, and he said this to me: “Francesca, I know you had your own dreams, too. I’m sorry I couldn’t give them to you.” That was the most touching moment of our lives together.

I can’t lie: I hate that. I hate that at no point does Waller give us any sense that Francesca anguished in the smallest measure over the fact that she denied her husband the emotional intimacy that is supposed to come with marriage. She let him carry the knowledge that he had lost her, somehow, some time, all the way to his death. I hate that.

Waller structures Bridges in flashbacks: Francesca has died and her two kids are seeing to the final dispensation of the estate, when they find the box of stuff Francesca left behind to explain her choices, which end with her request to have her ashes scattered where she herself scattered Robert’s, by the bridge where they first met. We don’t even get to delve very deeply at all into how this affects these two people, now adults, who are learning that their own mother had emotionally wed herself to someone else.

Ultimately The Bridges of Madison County is a story that tries to put a happy gloss on adultery, by assuring us that the affair really was true love, and that it ended quickly, and that everyone lived…well, ever after, anyway. I find it a hard book to love and a hard love story to be captivated by. But once upon a time, it captivated a lot of people.

Robert James Waller returned to Bridges some years later, with an “epilogue” titled A Thousand Country Roads. This is a really strange book that feels to me like a cash grab, an attempt by an author who had lightning in a bottle once to try and grab that market again, this time with a book that purports to tell “the rest of the story”. Problem is, Bridges already assured us that there is no “rest of the story”: Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson had their affair in one weekend, he left town, they never saw each other again, end of story.

A Thousand Country Roads revisits Robert Kincaid after the affair, and we see Francesca a little too, but they never meet. They can’t, after all. The only thing this book can do is give us a scene where Robert and Francesca visit one of their covered bridges, but an hour or two apart, so they don’t meet. There’s a manipulativeness to A Thousand Country Roads that rankles, and it’s odd to have this book that calls itself an “epilogue” to the original book when the “epilogue” book is actually longer than the original!

But anyway, the period of my life when I was open to “mystic love”, that began when I read The Bridge Across Forever, almost certainly drew to a close when I read The Bridges of Madison County. I came to see love as more of a practical thing between two people, and less of a union of two luminous spirit-beings, or the fate-driven intersection of a woman and “a peregrine and all the sailing ships” Last Cowboy. I suspect this transition was driven by another fictional entity, a sitcom that showed up a year later called Mad About You…but that’s a post for another time.

 

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Sigh

So, there’s a Person A, who is a writer and a blogger whose life and writings I’ve been following for a number of years now.

And there’s a Person B, who for some reason hates Person A and has been waging an Internet feud against Person A for years, to the point that Person B actually runs a blog devoted to attacking Person A. It’s some really creepy shit: the posts are filled with “anonymous” comments of support for Person B, each and every one of which is almost certainly written by Person B who is posing as their own crowd of supporters. The whole thing is just bizarre, and Person B is in serious need of help.

So, recently Person A posted something on social media about a particular challenge they were facing in their daily life, and I posted a reply along the lines of “Good luck, I hope it all works out!” Well, Person A’s stalker, Person B, saw my response and decided to come to my site to try to stir up whatever weird Internet feud shit is Person B’s thing. I have squashed this, but this also gives me reason to revise and update the comment settings here. For details, see the Site Disclaimer and Comments Policy page in the sidebar, over on the right. The short version is that as I did on Byzantium’s Shores, I have turned on comment moderation for all comments, all commenters here are now required to be logged in to a WordPress account, and comments close out on all posts after seven days.

I’m not in love with this policy, and I’m looking into ways of streamlining all this with a plugin or two, but for now, that’s the lay of the land.

And Person B, if you see this? Seek the help of a mental health professional. You’ve got issues, yo.

Comments are closed on this post.

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My car, the drama queen

We’re in the midst of quite the cold snap here in The 716, but…let’s get a grip here, shall we? My car’s dashboard thermometer yesterday morning:

 

No, it was not that cold. We’re in Buffalo, not Minneapolis.

Sheesh!

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“Rock City”

In my old hometown of Olean, NY, there is a small tourist attraction called “Rock City”. It’s a park at the top of one of the highest hills south of the city, where a region of gigantic rocks sits. I’m not sure how the rocks got there–many think that glaciers pushed or pulled them to the top of the hill, but there are similar (but smaller) areas of gigantic rocks in New York’s Southern Tier that are actually sedimentary remnants of an ancient seabed, believe it or not, so I’m not sure if Olean’s Rock City is one of those as well.

From the Rock City vantage point, the view of the valley below is honestly a stunning one. That part of New York is deeply beautiful to my eyes, particularly when I could go atop one of the hills and look into the distance.

I found this video yesterday of drone footage in, around, and above the Rock City park, and I found myself just a bit homesick for the Southern Tier. A bit, anyway.

(The fact that the Rock City Park entrance is flying a flag for our 45th President goes a long way to explaining why I don’t live down there anymore, if I’m being honest.)

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Something for Thursday

The other day I saw this joke on Facebook and shared it:

That’s a funny bit about how easy it is to disappear oneself into a rabbit hole…plus, for an 80s kid like me, it’s a fun reference to one of that decade’s iconic pop songs!

And then a friend commented in reference to a slow acoustic version of the song.

Now, for reference, here’s the original (with the equally-iconic video, with comic-book style animation):

“Take On Me” is an 80s kind of bubblegum song: up-tempo, cheerful, and loaded with 80s synthy goodness. It’s ear-wormy as hell; everybody knows this song and it’s impossible not to hum it after hearing it.

But…that slow acoustic version. I had to hear it.

And now, so do you.

This is definitely an interesting take on the song (by the original artist!). The band, a-ha, has a reputation for being a one-hit wonder group in the 80s, but that’s only true if you think of the American pop music scene exclusively. a-ha was actually a big group in Europe for a long time. The band formed in Norway in 1982, and has been active ever since (with a few “break-up” periods here and there, never lasting for more than a few years). a-ha has recorded more than a dozen albums, and they parlayed their pop-cultural cachet from “Take On Me” in 1985 to performing the title song to 1987’s James Bond movie, The Living Daylights.

This live recording, by the way, was recorded in 2017. Thirty-two years after the original song hit MTV like a pipe-wrench through a plate-glass window. (Watch the video of the original, if you don’t get the reference.)

 

 

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Shiny!

Let’s talk about flashlights!

I’ve written before–wow, that post is more than ten years old–about flashlights that I use regularly at work and such. And all of those flashlights from that post are still around, except, sadly, the one with the laser pointer on it; that one died a while back. But my love of flashlights lives on! Every day at work I have a flashlight on my person, and of course I am never happy to own just one daily work-horse flashlight. I now have four such flashlights, and I rotate through them all. Here’s the current lineup:

Cool, eh?

Here they are, each shining in a different lighting mode (except the one at left, which only has one mode):

I don’t rotate these daily. Rather, I use one for a few weeks at a time and then I use one of the others. For daily-use pocket flashlights, I tend to prefer roughly the sizes seen here, though there is a bit of variance. Here they all are, from a higher angle, switched off:

Aside from the red one at left, they’re all roughly the same length. Let’s run them down, left to right!

First up we have a flashlight by Amprobe:

This is the most obscure light in my kit. I don’t even know where to buy these; I got this one through The Day Job, where for a time this was the brand flashlight that we could order. This one is longer, but it’s also thinner, which is a nice trade-off. The red brushed-metal casing is lovely, and the light is very bright, powered by two AA batteries. I like this flashlight a great deal.

Pluses: Bright light, pocket clip and a wrist strap; AA battery use.

Minuses: Only one light setting, and the light cannot be focused.

Next is a flashlight by Klein Tools, which is one of my favorite tool companies.

I also love the tactile feel of this light, with that rubber Klein grip (well known to anyone who owns any of Klein’s screwdrivers). It’s a stubby light, but it’s not heavy and its orange brushed-metal look is also nice to look at. This flashlight, as well as the other two below, uses three AAA batteries, all inserted into a cartridge that is in turn about the size of a standard C battery.

What’s really cool about this light is its double nature. If you look to the photo up top, you’ll see what looks like five LEDs on the flashlight’s side. That’s exactly what those are, which means that the Klein flashlight can also be used as a worklight in tight places. This functionality is helped along even more by the fact that the flashlight’s bottom contains a powerful magnet so you can stick this light someplace and have it shine on what you’re working on! That is cool.

Also, the main light is encircled by a rubber ring that glows in the dark. This means that the flashlight’s ring will, after use, be all glowy for a bit. This looks kind of cool, but I have to admit that I am not totally sure how useful this is.

Pluses: Size and comfort of use; orange casing looks great. Two light modes: standard flashlight and work light. Magnet in base so the flashlight can be stuck someplace for use as a work light.

Minuses: Only one light setting on the main lamp; No ability to focus the beam.

Next up is a flashlight by a company called Coast.

I don’t know a great deal about Coast, but their flashlights are carried by Home Depot (at least in my area), and I actually own several lights by Coast. This is the only one that I ever carry around with me. It’s a nice flashlight with a black “tactical” look, even if this is probably too small to be a tactical flashlight. The knurled casing looks great, and the light is again a nicely bright beam, powered again by three AAA batteries.

The Coast light also adjusts for focus by twisting the lens piece one way or the other, which is great. There’s a nice big belt clip, too. I use this one a lot.

Pluses: Bright beam, two light settings, nice clip.

Minuses: Mine has started getting a bit touchy about if it wants to turn on and stay on.

Finally, the one I’ve owned the longest (I actually wrote about this light in that original post linked above), my MagLite Mini. This wonderfully bright flashlight has three settings: full brightness, half brightness, and a pulsing “signal” mode which I expect would be useful if you’re lost in the woods and are singaling help. The beam also focuses, though not quite as well as in the Coast light.

I used to keep up with Maglite a lot, but I don’t see their products at Home Depot very much these days, so I hope Maglite is hanging in there!

Pluses: Light-weight; three light modes. Shines very brightly; I can illuminate spots on the high ceiling at work with this one.

Minuses: No clip or strap of any kind. This flashlight has to live in my pocket when I’m carrying it around. Sometimes the flashlight “forgets” what mode it’s in, so when I click the power switch, it…hiccups.

The MagLite flashlight has been in my collection for over a decade and is still going strong (in fact, it’s my pocket-flashlight of the day as I write this), and I’ve owned each of the others for a while too; I’ve had the Klein light for four or five years, and the other two a couple of years each, so these flashlights are quite durable. Durability is important in a flashlight. I’ve bought many a spiffy flashlight over the years that I thought would be keepers, only to have them die quickly.

I do also have other flashlights like pen lights and work lights with magnetic bases and there’s a larger version of the Coast light which I use for brighter rooftop or ceiling inspections. You really can never have too many flashlights, in my opinion.

In fact, maybe this week I’ll stop by Home Depot or Lowe’s and see what’s new in the wonderful world of flashlights!

 

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Tone Poem Tuesday

What do you do when you’re a prestigious university and you award an honorary doctorate to one of the greatest composers of your time, and the composer deems to respond with a nice “Thank You” letter? Why, you tell him that won’t do, and that protocol demands that he respond with a musical offering!

And what do you do if you’re said composer and you suddenly find yourself oddly obliged to write a piece for this particular school? Why, you write a sardonically humorous concert overture that collects several drinking songs and the like.

Or, that’s what you do if you’re Johannes Brahms. And if you are Johannes Brahms, the piece you write as almost a joke still becomes–because you’re a genius and your base level is higher than that of most other composers–one of the enduring concert overtures of all time.

Here is the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms.

Brahms himself called this overture a “potpourri a la Suppe”, referring to Franz von Suppe, the composer of popular operettas and light music whose work is mostly forgotten today except for the always-scintillating (and often featured on this blog!) overtures to said operettas. The degree to which Brahms towers over Suppe is quite something to behold.

 

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And now, cats.

For lack of anything else to post today, here are Remy and Rosa fighting over the heat register. This particular heat register is the only one in our house that is set into the floor. All the rest of them are set into the baseboards, so this one has particular cachet for the cats.

That register is also right behind where I sit at our dining room table to do stuff, so on cold winter mornings when I’m just trying to warm up, having a cat absorbing all of the heat from the heat register closest to my position is just great.

Cats, I tell you.

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For Mr. Teachout

I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every day, because hip is short-term. Earnest is long-term.

–Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture”

Terry Teachout died the other day, at the age of 65.

Mr. Teachout was a critic, playwright, and commentator on the arts, primarily for the Wall Street Journal, but he was also a blogger from the early heyday of the format until his last entry, eight days ago. His blog was a daily read of mine for a long time, but as blogging went from Hot New Thing to Quaint Old Pastime in less than ten years, I regret to say that I lost touch with his work. A few years ago I suddenly remembered him not randomly, but when someone re-tweeted something of his on Twitter. I immediately followed him there and started reading his blog again, and my life was better for it.

Better writers than me have talked about Terry Teachout’s skill and perceptive criticism, and his enthusiasm for the theater and his other interests. Teachout was not the kind of critic to constantly hurl verbal knives and barbs at objects of his disdain. No, he was the kind of person to talk with endless and infectious enthusiasm about the things that moved him, the things that he loved. This is not to say that he loved everything, because he most certainly did not; but Terry Teachout was the kind of critic who even after his many years of doing the job, still seemed to approach each and every new thing he encountered as if it would be the next thing to change his life.

Teachout was also known for keeping a wide view of the theater world. He could have simply focused on the New York theater scene and left it at that; after all, the New York theater scene has riches aplenty for an entire life. Instead, Mr. Teachout would regularly travel and report on what he found in regional theater companies, in other cities, in places beyond the limits of Broadway and its environs. Even though he often wrote about things that I know very little about (if anything at all), his erudition and infectious curiosity and enthusiasm always shone through. His attitude toward the arts were a model for me.

Terry Teachout was devoted, openly so, to his wife, even through terrible health struggles that had her on the lung-transplant list for years. He frequently wrote about how they had to be prepared for them getting “the call” at any moment, at which time they would have to drop everything and rush to the hospital so Mrs. Teachout could get the transplant. This eventually did happen…but there was no happy ending, sadly; Mrs. Teachout died, and still, Terry Teachout soldiered on, taking in art and music and sharing the things that he found to try to keep some form of light in his life. It was the kind of poignant courage that often boggles the mind, even for those of us who have endured very awful things.

But then, just in the last year or so, Terry Teachout found love again. His life was again blossoming, and he wrote with new joy about the partnership he’d just found that was bringing light and love to him again. It really seemed like he was about to find some kind of happiness…

…but instead he died suddenly the other day. Word of his passing hit social media like a bomb, and the outpouring of love for him was astonishing. I am by no means alone in my admiration for Terry Teachout. Here is just one remembrance, from Alex Ross:

Terry had a great deal to do with the fact that I started this blog back in 2005. I saw him seldom in person, but he was a constant presence in my life nonetheless, through his writing and through social media. He was, as Ethan Iverson comments, an uncommonly generous soul who seemed incapable of holding a grudge. His inexhaustible attention to theater across the country was a model for me as a critic.

I like Mr. Ross’s initial point there: I forget it now, but Terry Teachout’s early entry into the blogging world did enormous good in demonstrating in an odd political time that blogs didn’t have to be about politics only. In the early 2000s, blogging was almost exclusively the purview of people arguing the merits of war in Iraq. Terry Teachout did something different, and he enriched the online world immensely in doing so. (Oh, and read the Ethan Iverson piece Mr. Ross links.)

I close, as Mr. Teachout liked to close most nights on Twitter, with a musical offering. I honestly have little idea how he felt about Ralph Vaughan Williams, although this article offers a hint. I’m offering this, anyway, as a reminder of the need to seek out quiet beauty in a world of noise. I think he’d approve. I hope he would, anyway.

Here is The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams; Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with Iona Brown as violin soloist.

 

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Tony and Patsy

Two giants of my early eating and drinking life, Tony Marra and Patsy Collins, died in 2021.

Patsy ran a bar. Tony ran a restaurant.

Patsy’s bar was called The Burton Hotel, or The Burton for short. It’s located on a street corner in Allegany, NY, and it was one of my parents’ favorite watering holes for much of the time they lived down there. I spent quite a lot of time sitting in The Burton with my parents as they quaffed beers and I quaffed grapefruit soda right along with them (at least until I turned 21).

I suppose The Burton was what you would call a “dive bar”, though I confess that I used to think describing a bar as a “dive” meant something disparaging: it indicated a place that was kind of dingy and crappy, dirty and dark and not a very nice place to be.

Not so, obviously. A dive bar is an unpretentious bar, and might be quite a few years–or decades–old. A dive bar is the place frequented by locals, and often you can tell where a dive bar is less by the bar’s sign than by the neon (or, nowadays, LED) beer signs decorating the outside. The clientele of a dive bar tends to be the locals; it’s the kind of place where, well–where everybody knows your name, if you go there with any frequency. It’s not the kind of place where you’ll get the best drinks ever, or where you’ll find cutting-edge mixology where bartenders experiment with smoke and a dozen kinds of bitters and CO2 canisters–but it is the kind of place where the beer is always cold, where there are packages of Beer Nuts for sale, where the game (or a game) is always on teevee.

The Burton is apparently well-known for its burgers–very well-known, as in, “often cited on Best Burger lists” well-known–though I never had one when we were going there. Apparently back then their kitchen was not open very often. Nights at The Burton would often go longer than expected, and there were more than a few educational conversations directed at me on the way home after such nights. It’s a dark underbelly of such places that…well, sometimes bar talk in places that are fairly rural, completely white, and generally conservative can veer into unpleasant areas. I’ll just leave it at that.

But things changed as St Bonaventure University, the local college, stared developing a reputation as a party school. The Burton was–and maybe still is!–the bar closest to campus, and as such at some point it started filling up with college students. Patsy Collins had been running a successful bar up until then, but after that he was running a local institution. The Burton was, first and foremost, a beautiful bar. I mean, look at this bar!

It was hard to find photos of the entire bar, but these give an idea. It’s changed a bit since I was going there with my parents, but…not really a whole lot. I don’t recall any signage listing available beers at the time, when the bar was frequented by locals who knew what they wanted to drink.

And here’s a better look at the Art Deco lights that flank the main body of the bar:

Like all such lights, they’re more effective at night, in the dimmer light of the bar itself, but how bad can a bar be if it has Art Deco tasteful nudes as part of its decor? Not bad at all, that’s how.

The Burton is still chugging along, keeping synapses of the Southern Tier well-lubricated. Patsy Collins’s legacy lives on.

Patsy Collins himself was a kind man who laughed a lot–I remember well his rich baritone laugh, there was always lots of laughter in that bar!–and who by the time we knew him was tending bar less; his son Chuck had taken over the majority of those duties. But Patsy was there a lot, holding forth on various items of interest from one of the stools in his low voice. He did not have a long commute: he lived on the opposite side of the same street, a few doors down. His house was quite lovely, and his wife did a great job of converting it to a virtual “gingerbread house” each Christmas. (If I can find a picture of that online, I’ll post it.)

When Patsy Collins retired, he gave over the Burton to son Chuck and his daughter Crisanne. Just last year (or maybe the year before) Chuck and Crisanne decided it was time for them to get out of the bar game, so they sold The Burton to a couple of investors who are St. Bona alumni. From all reports, they are still running the place true to what it always was.

And I’m still wondering about those burgers.

Then there was Tony Marra, who along with his wife Marilyn ran for many years a bar and restaurant on the same street as The Burton, just a few blocks down. Their place was called The Bird Cage. In retrospect, maybe it was a dive bar too–though it did have a beautiful dining room. We didn’t go in the dining room much, but it was a lovely place, decorated with all manner of avian bric-a-brac in keeping with the place’s name. Marilyn served and ran the bar; Tony did most, if not all, of the cooking.

We ate there pretty much once a week, every week, while we lived in the Southern Tier. We went on Thursday night most weeks, because The Bird Cage ran a special on chicken wings on Thursdays. I don’t remember what the prices were, but we’d get both breaded and Buffalo wings, along with some other deep-fried delight–Tony made “Irish Wings”, which were steak fries tossed in Buffalo wing sauce–and wash it all down with, well, more beer than we probably should have been consuming. (Our beer at the time was an ale called Red Wolf, which was discontinued a few years later, sadly enough. This may have been a good thing, though. Red Wolf certainly wasn’t a great beer, but it was smooth and very drinkable, especially in large quantities with deep-fried bar foods.)

Until we moved away from Allegany in fall 2000, we were weekly (or more than weekly) regulars at The Bird Cage. How regular? Well…The Daughter was born not long after midnight on a Saturday. The very next Thursday? We were at The Bird Cage, with our five-day-old kid along for the ride. This worked out pretty well, as there were plenty of folks among the bar crowd who were willing to hold a baby for a bit.

Before Tony and his wife, Marilyn, opened The Bird Cage, they worked for a restaurant down the way called Antonio’s. Antonio’s was a nice place that I remember fondly, especially its cocktail lounge section with plush leather chairs, low tables, and a sunken bar. Here’s what Antonio’s looked like:

It’s hard to tell in the photo, but those shelves are a massive collection of liquor bottles. I’m a bit fuzzy on the ownership of Antonio’s; I don’t think that Tony Marra actually owned it, but I may be wrong. Eventually Antonio’s changed ownership completely, becoming a place called Pasta Luigi, and Tony and Marilyn took ownership of a bar once called The Village Inn. This became The Bird Cage. The Marra family was once a major family in the Olean region’s restaurant community, but that dwindled until Tony and Marilyn were the last ones running a restaurant. All eras end, sadly.

As for Antonio’s/Pasta Luigi: the latter restaurant eventually closed too, and the building was demolished. Now, from what I can tell, a beverage-redemption place stands on that spot [that’s a store where you can buy beer and redeem all your cans and bottles for $.05 each, thanks to New York’s bottle law]. About a half mile up the road used to stand Olean’s once-beloved Castle Inn, which is also now but a memory.

I know that The Bird Cage actually moved some years after we left the region, shifting into a location across the street, and finally the place had to close entirely when Tony was diagnosed with cancer. This article, from Olean’s newspaper, indicates that Tony and Marilyn were holding out hopes of returning to their restaurant when Tony returned to health, but…it wasn’t to be.

Since we left the Southern Tier more than twenty years ago, we’ve never found a bar/restaurant to fill the same role in our lives that The Bird Cage or The Burton once did. That’s for various reasons: finances, family stuff, and later on, The Wife’s celiac disease. We’re just not “bar people” anymore. But I have a lot of great memories, some sharp and some that are admittedly pretty hazy (remind me not to write about “Pig Roast Weekend” at The Bird Cage any time soon, because let’s just say that if we didn’t manage to convince Annheuser-Busch to keep Red Wolf Ale in production after those three nights of consumption, nobody was going to do so), of the handful of years when we were bar people. Tony and Marilyn Marra also helped send The Wife and I off in the first place: Who else would we have trusted to cater our wedding?

I think that in 2022, though, I’m going to at least try to figure out how to make Irish Wings. I think that would make Tony happy. 

(Oh! And Tony was a Seattle Seahawks fan! At least he got to see his team win a Super Bowl!)

Photo credits: The photos of The Burton are from here and here. I found the photo of Antonio’s on a Facebook group called “Olean Memories Back In Time”, which is exactly what it says: a group dedicated to nostalgic remembrances of a once vibrant small city in a region that the world has mostly left behind. I wasn’t able to find any photos online of The Bird Cage in its original incarnation, the one I knew so well before we moved.

 

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