Archive for April, 2008

Pass Not These Doors, Part 2

April 25th, 2008

Griffin’s lower signAfter walking past three dive-looking bars between my place and Doyle’s for many years, I visited them this week. I have one son of drinking age, but two at home of pizza eating age. So, while the trio of dark and virtually windowless joints was not that foreboding, they did suffer in contrast.

My fellow lover of IPAs, John, agreed to join me in a Washington Street/Hyde Park Avenue stumble one late afternoon. Two are across the avenue from the Forest Hills station. Like being on a moving sidewalk in an airport, Washington Street pulls a Z around the top of Forest Hills Station, for that one block becoming New Washington, while Washington inexplicably dips a full block below the 203 overpass. Stay on the street and it suddenly becomes Hyde Park Avenue — another Boston trick.

bar mapPic Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail image for a larger view.

On the map, the three run from the top, the Drinking Fountain (3520 Washington), Griffin’s (3698 Washington), and J.J. Foley’s Fireside (30 Hyde Park). None calls out or even whispers, “Enter, yuppies!” Of course, that’s a major point, eh? From external, and as we found, internal, appearance, this are purposeful potable places. Drinkers welcome.

Like all good drinkers, I planned logistics while sober. We’d meet at Green on the Orange line and go from a block below Doyle’s south. We’d end up less than a mile walk to my house and across from the T so he could head back to North Station and Winchester. That would also give us the option of a known quantity to finish the session. Dogwood has a decent bar with a couple of really good beers on tap amongst their ordinary ones. If we still had it together and could feign thirst, we could end the afternoon there.

Drinking Fountain

With its stone fortress exterior, the Drinking Fountain was simultaneously the cleanest and coldest looking for the trio. Across from the lower corner of the English High track field, it is cluttered. It is on a corner with a huge laundromat and car wash. Its block has a motorcycle shop, bodega, the Midway Cafe (a music dive in its own right), and a take-out BBQ joint. Drinking Fountain sign

Its sign almost disappears in traffic lights. Yet, it has small American flags left and right.

Inside is both plain as dirt and excellent of its type. First, you have a great shot at a seat at the bar, which runs 35 or 40 feet. Plus, the southern wall has some seats and the middle of the room has a long table with many chairs running nearly the length of the bar. They clearly want you to be comfortable enough for a beer or two or more.

The eastern end of the room has two full-sized pool tables, clearly lit. We didn’t shoot, but this looks like a good place to play. In that vein, they are also set up for petty gamblers, with lottery terminal and vending machine, and multiple keno screens.

Now, to the matter at hand, they offer an adequate but uninspired tap selection. A sign read that they had ‘gansett for $2.25 a pint. The drafts we saw included Bass, PRB, Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Sam seasonal (that summer lemony junk this time), and Blue Moon wheat. We got a Blue Moon and a Bass pint for $7.25 — not bad and quite a bargain over downtown or Cambridge prices.

We didn’t want to geek out with questions, but we did find out a few things, like:

  • The robust bartender looks like she can knock most men down easily
  • The silver helmet above the bar is an artifact of her boyfriend, who recently retired from the Boston Panthers
  • The brothers who own the place live a block or two away and have run it for 30 years or so
  • Despite the LUNCHEON on their sign, food is limited to bags of chips and nuts, but apparently they don’t mind if you bring in some BBQ from the other end of the block

At a little after 3 p.m., there were six stool sitters. Most seemed to know each other casually. We fell right in and were welcome.

Griffin’s

My snootiness in walking past these bars cost me and experience, albeit perhaps an unpleasant one.

Griffin’s front
On the way up to Green Street, I had snapped the bar exteriors. The open door at Griffin’s was not inviting. It was dark inside, with the light on the bar stools coming from the open door out the back. A single patron sat bent to his task. It looked like a tough joint.

Moreover, it played to my childhood memories with its glass block on the front. We always called that VFW brick for the common decor of the vets’ and men’s animal bars. They favor dim, diffused light and drinking early, long and in private.

Apparently that Griffin’s of my imagination is gone. The place is fairly bright once you sit inside. The bar, maybe 15 feet, is a newly refinished wood. The long mirror is a pretty impressive Art Deco piece with rounded corners on top.

Griffin’s smelled strongly of shellac. We asked the bartender, Jerry, and sure enough, it had recently gotten an overhaul, which was still in the works. The owner had died last October and the place was closed for several months, just reopening a few weeks ago.

“If you’d come in here before,” Jerry told us, “you wouldn’t have come in a second time.”

When the work finishes, the plans include a working kitchen to spit out meals. There are six round, tall tables away from the bar.

On tap were only a few good brews. We each got a pint of Smithwick’s Irish ale. John pronounced it much better than the bottled version. It was $8 for the pints, still a relative bargain.

The inside didn’t offer much yet, no games, for example. Also, like the other two, it has a fairly sparse selection of basic booze beyond beer.

Customers were mildly remarkable. There were four, including two Black men, who weren’t together. I hadn’t thought of it, but as it turns out the other bars didn’t have any Black patrons. The Drinking Fountain got a couple of Latinos while we were there. The Fireside appeared to be middle-aged Irish American men. I suspect the demographics of the bar had to do mostly with the local mix and the fact that we were drinking about the time when blue-collar workers end their days. Sociology may require evening visits to all three.

I seem to have missed Griffin’s in its bad times.

Fireside

As the other two Foley’s bars, the Fireside has its fans, lots of themFireside front. It also looks like a real dive outside, but is modestly better behind the door.

The exterior is in the class that the Irish American realtor who sold us our house called Irishized. That’s vinyl siding and a stark exterior with fake wood paneling as required.

The substantial horseshoe bar was the busiest of the afternoon. There were eight to start and they kept arriving. The guys knew the barkeep and each other by name. It was not their first visit. You can’t say they were jolly, but this clearly was a socially important part of their day.

A little visual joke is the Fireside’s fireplace. The tiny electric fake fire is a non-functional symbol. It’s been a lot of years since the clean bricks have felt any flames.

The bar had an odd frieze. I thought it was some fancy wallpaper, but John figures it was hand-painted bad Western art. We’ll have to ask on the next visit.

Another question will be why there’s a cuspidor on the counter next to the cash register in the well of the horseshoe. Maybe I don’t need to know that story.

No one was playing the single game, Silver Strike Bowling. That must be what substitutes for pinball nowadays.

To the important business, we found Guinness, Harp, Bass, PBR, Bud and Bud Light on tap. We had pints of Bass and Guinness. The latter was a well drawn and slow pint of the right temperature. That was in the right price range again, $7.75.

This was the most clannish of the three, but still a pleasant enough experience. The other bartenders chatted us up and made up welcome, as did some of the patrons. These guys knew each other and let that color the intrusion of newcomers. That’s fair enough. It’s their local.

Home Again

We certainly had no harm from our slight broadening experience. For me particularly, I don’t have to wonder what’s behind the doors and feel vaguely bad about not trying local places. I think I’ve been to every bar and restaurant on Centre Street. Now my mental map includes more from home to Doyle’s.

I suspect there’s more reason to visit the Drinking Fountain in particular. After all, it’s in the Mutiny (oops, consolidated into the Boston Militia) season and it will be the Panthers‘. Both play at the English field. I suspect the barkeep has good stories for both.

We did end up at Dogwood for a final. It has a lot more taps and two pints ran $9, more typical. The bartender was also inventing, so she gave us samples of her raspberry/latte cocktail she was refining. It was surprisingly not too sweet and fairly good, the sort of soft drink that could sneak up on you.

So, when the boys want pizza or burgers, none of this week’s visits to new-to-me bars will do it. Then again, all three are for real drinkers.

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Pass Not These Doors

April 25th, 2008

Drinking Fountain JP Squeamishness comes with city life as surely as an urban provincialism.

A lot of years ago, a dear friend from high-school days and I used to walk Manhattan. That’s 14 miles tip to top, and about 10 miles from my West Village hovel.

Some days we walked…and drank…and walked. The sordid oases of McCann’s bars gave us a tad of rest, the sense of adult pleasures, and more personal contact than swapping gazes on the avenues.

Then, a shot of well whiskey was 60¢. We’d walk three or so miles (the rule of foot was 20 blocks of streets to a mile, and 10 blocks of avenues). Like leprechaun magic, a McCann’s would be in always in the middle of a block. It has a green sign and shamrock images. The bar was pitted but clean and okay, as were the johns.

The patrons knew each other but not us. The moment we took a stool though, we were fair game for chats. When they heard we walked up from the Village, everyone had a story from any of the past five decades about our neighborhood. As we had gone to high school in New Jersey, there were more stories.

We’d walk, talk, toss back a shot or two of bourbon and walk some more.

By the time Paula and I got to Washington Heights and the Cloisters, we were ready to see some filigreed fingers (relics) and hop on the A train for a stop at Victor’s (when it was still up on Columbus) for some black bean soup.

To my admitted failing, I have passed three JP dives for nearly 20 years, never entering. During that time, a friend from our Inc. magazine writing days, John, and I have met ever week or two to regale each other with wisdom and lies, and always beer.

I’d think as I’d walk by the locals that I had to try them, but did not until this week. Instead, we did the predictable. When we first moved to JP, we asked where to eat and drink. The strong consensus was invariably, “Doyle’s,” and “Doyle’s,” and “Doyle’s.”

I admit feeling uncomfortable there only twice, both times when I arrived after a died-in-the-line-of-duty cop’s funeral. Our boys in blue were there en masse. They were angry. They were armed. They were drunk.

Years later, Centre Street was pocked with yuppie food palaces and the Forest Hills Stretch of Hyde Park Avenue got fancy pizza/beer joint Dogwood Café. Meanwhile, at the request of various of our boys, we went to Doyle’s or Dogwood frequently.

I continued to bypass Foley’s Fireside, Griffin’s and the Drinking Fountain…until this week. John agreed to join me in likely the first of several pub staggers to the neglected stools of Washington Street/Hyde Park Avenue.

The first door we opened with the Drinking Fountain’s (above). More in the next post.

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Not Paranoid Enough?

April 22nd, 2008

There’s a lot of JP, both in length and diversity. Maybe I misdirected my comfort yesterday.

I walked with a newly met woman about 10:30 a.m., assuring her that the Lallement bikepath on the Southwest corridor — tracking the Orange Line — was safe. At the Forest Hills end, she asked whether it was okay to walk then. I told her that yes, in the daytime, but maybe not at night.

She had eyed the seedy sitters and I recalled the late-night bike bandits who’d knock riders down and take their wheels.

I tend, not surprisingly, to bike on that bikepath. When I do walk it, I like to follow the stick figure signs, keeping the bike side for cyclists, even though they are few. I recall the many oblivious strollers often blocking the whole bike side while risking their infants or looking and listening to phones. Don’t be that guy, Mike.

Oddly enough, I was on foot because of my road bike. I finally admitted that those scraping sounds meant I could no longer pretend my brake pads would last forever or regenerate. The Shimano 105/Ultegra pads are hard to come by. International over in Newton had sold me the wrong type already. I was delighted to call at 10 a.m. on Patriots Day and find that Community Bicycle Supply at the far reach of the South End would be open.

I headed up, both to get the right pads and to do a cardio session. That’s about five miles. We live at the very bottom of JP, kind of the pendant on the chain of the long, narrow neighborhood. We’re a mile below Forest Hills in the last couple of blocks of JP.

The woman walker, Wanda, and I headed north. She had dropped her car off in Dedham for repairs, taken a bus to Forest Hills and figured to get a warm-up for her workout at Mike’s gym, a mile or so up the corridor. She is bookkeeper for the Mass Public Health folk and works in JP. She was just not used to walking over to Mike’s.

I’ve biked and walked that path for many years. Quickly she and I got past any thought of evil en route. We spoke of our teenagers, school, sports and gyms.

So that evening, my JP-ness got a jolt reading about Luis Troncoso, the 20-year-old gunned down on a basketball court on the corridor at about 4 p.m. yesterday. That would be the court next to where JP Wakes Up the Earth, the court one half block beyond where Wanda and I parted.

I don’t think I lied to her, not intentionally. I still know the bikepath is safe. It appears his murderer targeted him specifically, so the place and time of death have little implication for the rest of us. The young father is dead still.

I also know that, geographically, fancy folk Pond Side and even Brookline are closer to this violence than we live. Somehow though, as disparate as the various JPs are one from another, the neighborhood link is powerful. I might well have led Wanda right into a scene of death, had timing been slightly different. That’s not what any of us want in our neighborhoods.

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Moody Bonsai

April 18th, 2008

Hmm, a fine name for a comic detective or perhaps a ballad singer might be Moody Bonsai. Instead, I dubbed this opportunistic tree-to-be in a Waltham garage.

bonsai11.jpgFor centuries, a preferred Japanese method of finding naturally dwarfed trees, bonsai, was to visit cemeteries. Such volunteer plants might grow from a seed in a mausoleum roof or cornice. With just enough blown soil and rainwater to barely survive, those trees became stunted, without human torture to their miniature ideal.

A form of this has been occurring in the city parking garage behind the Watch City Brewing Company (I recommend the FNA, a very hoppy ale). A seed insinuated itself in a seam on top of a wall and the resulting evergreen shows the sculpting by the wind off the adjacent Charles River.

Pic Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail image for a larger view.

bonsai2.jpgAlas, some city worker may decide to save the granite from this interloper and pull it. Otherwise, it may simply die on its own from lack of nutrients. We can’t say it didn’t try.

If you have reason to visit either the pub or plant, be aware that the ticket dispensers are still hosed. The garage provides the noble service of enough space for the lunch crowds at the many and varied Moody Street eateries.

park.jpgIt’s cheap at 25¢ an hour and allegedly self service. You:

  • Enter the garage or parking lot
  • Walk up to the ticket dispenser
  • Push a button for one, two, three hours or all day ($1 for the works)
  • Insert your coins
  • Put the resulting ticket on your dash so the constabulary can see what you pay for and fine you if necessary

Last month, the dispenser would just eat the quarters and offer nothing in return. Yesterday, it produced this ticket, which as you can plainly see…nothing.

Actually, if you want to the booth on the far side of the open lot, the dispenser in the shelter there may be more functional, but less amusing.

I had a long lunch meeting and had put in 75¢, not so you could tell that. I really doubt the enforcement agent will bother until they fix the box. I’m sure I could have used a single quarter and saved an entire 50¢. I hope Waltham uses my largess to help with repair.

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The Precipitous End of Ed Mattar

April 14th, 2008

Time to call the FBI special agent or U.S. Attorney in Denver, as I have every six months. I won’t have to anymore. My guy leapt to his death.

Mattar and BallTwenty-seven stories to the concrete, breaking a small tree on the way down, don’t belong in the cry-for-help class. Edward Paul Mattar, III, J.D. had something more definitive in mind on Friday, November 2, 2007.

Ed is left in this picture and I’m on the right. That was inside the jacket of the book we did together 22 years ago. It was McGraw-Hill’s Handbook for Corporate Directors. He was editor-in-chief, which in this case meant that he identified 61 subject matter experts and topics for his assistant to acquire a chapter from each for the book. I was coordinating editor, which meant that I edited, wrote or ghosted the chapters. Also, I am an absolute freak about indices, so I indexed it, a task that generally falls to a contractor who knows little or nothing of the contents.

I, Me, Mine

The Ed I knew was always working the edges and middle simultaneously. He’d do anything to ensure an advantage and a favorable outcome…for himself.

A college chum of mine who had moved to Worcester called me up laughing about Mattar a lot of years ago. Ed was the lead on the front of the local paper’s business section. The article featured the handbook, but did not mention me. The accompanying staff photo showed Ed sitting at his desk holding the book. He expertly covered my name without obscuring his own at all. I too thought it pretty funny, as well as classic Ed.

Ed had earned a solid reputation there for turning around Worcester College. They brought him in as a consultant in 1977 to close it down. Instead, he convinced local businesses to send employees there and rescued it financially. He became president of the renamed Central New England College.

That seems to have been his career’s high water mark. The Rocky Mountain News published a litany of his failures, replete with multiple accusations of fraud and swindling. They cite a trail of educational then financial institution collapses attributed to him in Maine, Rhode Island and Colorado, as well as Worcester. He resigned from Central New England, which somehow was suddenly $14 million in debt and described kindly as having financial irregularities.

People who dealt with him in Denver had unpleasant eipthets for him — a total jerk, abrupt and rude, very arrogant, strange in a lot of different ways. A bank consultant said, “He gave you this gut feeling that something wasn’t right.” Likewise, our mutual McGraw-Hill project manager said, “I don’t know what it is. He always makes me feel like I just peed in my suit.”

College to Court

On that handbook, we got along fine, largely because his assistant did the actual acquisitions work that he credited himself with doing. As a former newspaper reporter doing his first book, it never entered my mind that we would miss any deadlines. I had a full-time magazine job, but did this work evenings and weekends. When I turned it in to McGraw-Hill, Bill Sabin, the head of the division said that he had never gotten or heard of a handbook coming in on schedule. These are honking big books. I suppose if you don’t know any better, you can just do something.

In the two-year project, I did not become attached to Ed, but did and do feel an emotional tie to the handbook.

I saw a news article that briefly mentioned Mattar’s being under indictment in Colorado for bank fraud and conspiracy to do all manner of nasty things. That inspired me to ask around and connect with the U.S. Attorney’s and FBI offices there.

I was amazed at the timeline. See the BestBank history in brief at the Boulder Daily Camera‘s Banker commits suicide. Accusations started in 1995, a $30 million mystery loss and forced bank closing in 1998, a grand jury investigation in 1999, federal indictment in 2005, convictions in 2007, and sentencing for Mattar last November.

According to the agent and attorney, this is not unusual in fraud cases involving large amounts of money. Lawyers know how to drag things out and just maybe get a better deal or a reversal.

That was not in the works for Ed. He had escaped from the Northeast, but not Denver. He and his convicted co-conspirators were found guilty of 15 of 95 original counts. Two got 10 years each in federal prison; another two got 7½ each.

Ed was forever the big shot and this time he was the centerpiece. He could plan on 14 to 30 years in prison. Prosecutors asked for the 14 years for the 68-year-old. In addition, while he likely still had a few million, they asked that he forfeit $4.7 million, plus make restitution of $134 million.

He did not have that kind of money and had no way to get it. He was looking at possibly whiling the rest of his impoverished life in prison.

Scrubbing Ed

In what is apparently a standard sentencing procedure, prosecutors are certain to drop his charges eventually. The concept seems to be that even though he was convicted and cut deals on some charges, he would no longer be able to help in any appeals. So the others will have criminal records and likely never be able to work in finance again. Because he died between conviction and sentencing, he would be the only one with a clean record in the end.

Instead, 11 hours before his sentencing, at about 3:30 a.m., he took a sledgehammer to his window. I immediately wondered whether he bought or stole that for this purpose or perhaps had a sledge for work in some vacation home. It is an odd image to think of the always business-suited Ed lugging such a blue-collar implement in the elevator of his rich folk’s high-rise in the middle of Denver.

He had no spouse, but his older brother, Norman is an attorney in Buffalo. Apparently no family members attended any hearings or trial sessions. However, his brother defended Ed after the fact:

He thought he was wrongly accused because he had hired all kinds of people from the banking industry to be present and make sure they were following all the regulations. He wasn’t really a banker himself. He thought everything was perfect.

Ed was singularly nonathletic and grew increasingly eggplant shaped. There’s a bit of drollery in his using a sledgehammer to break his picture window so that he could leap. The intensity of sensations he had to feel in his last instants was not what I would have imagined for him. He seemed to have been more a sleeping-pill sort. Then again, in a bizarre way, throwing himself from the window must have given him a sense of control at the very end.

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The Other Tom with a Wattle

April 8th, 2008

Yes, wattle (caruncles), but not Menino. This tom is the big guy over at the Boston Nature Center.

He was out, about, strutting and warning with his insistent gobble. Unlike the nasty Brookline feathered foul fowl, this one made his noises, but never charged or nipped or clawed. In fairness to his tom-hood, I’d note that he is a good moocher, spending part of each day at the nature-center building and earning grain from the staff. He doesn’t necessarily see humans as enemies, although he didn’t see see as a food giver.

Strolling tom

I walked the short wooded trails at the Audubon’s sanctuary in Mattapan just across American Legion Highway from JP. He was the wildest thing about and let me know early and often that he was watching.

Click the gobble link (new window or tab) for what this tom sounds like:

Tom turkey gobble

Pic click trick: To see a bigger image of the tom, click a thumbnail.

Fox trail signI found him on sendero del zorro (the fox trail). There is copse of wee trees with stands of bushes. My chum clearly had an Adam-and-Eve moment. By his pacing and sounds, he seemed dismayed at his exposure. None of the trees or bushes offered foliage to hide him. When he stands with neck upright, he would come to my waist. He must have sensed that a few canes of brush didn’t hide him.

There are several trails there, including rabbit and snail. This is a place that is easy enough for small kid, with only the fox trail long enough to make them complain.

The sanctuary is on a marshland abutting Old Brook, a tributary of Stony Brook. I’d love to see a map of how they are connected. I think I’ll look for one.

The parts that flood and become swampy have boardwalks over them.

The center is not that crowded, because it is mildly inconvenient to find. You can drive to it, but don’t. That isn’t very nature friendly. It’s a mile and a half walk from the Forest Hills Station. You can also take the #14 bus that runs from Dudley to Rozzie Square and get off a few hundred yards away at Walk Hill and American Legion.

It’s across Walk Hill from the Mt. Hope Cemetery. It’s quiet and peaceful. You get to pass the huge community vegetable and flower gardens too. There’s a small center building where they answer questions and arranges tours, as well as give classes in birding and such.

Trotting tomBack to the tom, he has a great beard of feathers running off his sternum. He has a number of hens who follow him, but they were not visible today.

He let me know with that gobble that I was on his turf and he paralleled me on the trail. He stopped when I did, withdrew if I walked into the brush toward him, but always kept me in sight.

When I rounded the hard turn, he took his chance to stride with his neck out and much faster than his stroll. He crossed the trail close to me, turned to watch, maybe to make sure I was leaving, and then he flew across Old Brook. On foot, he didn’t look very aerodynamic, but he was over the brook in a second or two.

I realized then that is probably where the hens are nestling. He likely had wanted to make sure I didn’t head over there. Clever these turkeys.

Even when you don’t run into this great feathered fellow, it’s a fun visit. There are places to stop and sit and picnic. The summer and fall have great displays of wild flowers. The frogs and creepy crawlies are out starting in the spring.

There are city parks and country parks, city turkeys and country turkeys. This is Mattapan in the country.

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Vestiges of Blue Laws North and South

April 7th, 2008

In many ways, including marriage and booze laws, Boston and South Carolina have long been kin. While blues laws may actually have originated with a Connecticut minister, both other provincial places ran with them.

They mandated Sunday rest and worship. They heavily regulated drinking and anything else most people consider fun and adult.

There are some other associations that visitors to both notice. For example, a tour of Charleston’s UU church shows a graveyard salted with Boston ministers. After the 1772 church switched to Unitarian in 1817 and got its first Harvard minister two years later, it has a series of Yankee preachers. They settled, traveled to Massachusetts in the summers, and when they died in either place, their bodies ended up there.

On marriages, we had similar laws and customs for many years. They didn’t have our unique anybody-can conduct a marriage system, but otherwise, we both had civil contracts with a wide range of solemnizers.

My wife and I married in South Carolina, when we both worked for the Savannah newspapers. The solemnizer list was one step looser than Massachusetts’. A bank president who was a personal friend and news source to both of us performed the marriage under his power as (ta da) a notary public.

Very recently, we had another big legal split. We went for marriage equality and they went for both a constitutional amendment and a law forbidding same-sex marriage and civil unions. They’ll have a lot of backtracking to do.

On booze, we had similar laws that bifurcated in odd ways. Both states had funky extensions of blue laws that meant drinking ended at midnight between Saturday and that Lord’s day. Eventually we loosened those a bit, although in both, our bars close earlier than those in many states and cities.

With city options on licensing, we still end up with oddly 19th century restrictions. Boston may be the worst. It’s a rare grocery, and a grandfathered one, that allows beer and wine sales.

S.C. liquor storeIn South Carolina, liquor stores and beer/wine stores were different, hard alcohol being the province of state controlled ABC stories.

Comically and mnemonically, they have long been red dot stores to the locals. Until 1997, the law required that they not advertise with signs. They had to have at least one red circle, up to three feet across. They could use the ABC for Alcohol Beverage Control, but everyone did and does know what a red-dot store is about. Even after repeal, this visual shorthand is still in play. Sleazy backroad booze stores have a red dot. Fancy mall parking-lot ones have a few. Big ones in middle-class and poor neighborhoods may be heavily dotted, so no one misses the point.

South Carolina also was one of nine states that had a minibottle law. That may or may not have been a step up from the brown bag days when you could bring a concealed bottle with you to a restaurant and buy mixers. The alternative decades ago was paying a couple of dollars to belong to a restaurant’s “private club.” With that, you got a key to your mini-locker where they kept a bottle or two of your own booze and brought it out when you dined there, again buying overpriced mixers or even just ice.

Both have been repealed, although you can still serve minibottles if you choose. There is tiny irony there, in that minibottles are heavy shots — 1.75 ounces instead of the 1.25 typical in airline minibottles. By restricting it to a full minibottle per drink instead of a shot pour, South Carolina ensured more booze per drink. The stated intention was to protect people from the horrors of free pours out of what are still called large bottles there.

This all came to mind this week as big news hit that South Carolina had repealed its prohibition of beer and wine sales on Sunday. Boston sort of beat them, but not really. Considering that virtually any food store can sell beer and wine down there, we are way behind.

I can remember blue laws down there from many years ago. Friends with babies complained about the absurdity of some — cloth diapers were okay on Sunday, but diaper pins were not. The beer air-curtain coolers and wine shelves had police-style tape across them reading that Sunday sales were prohibited.

WIS, a major TV station in the capital , Columbia, featured interviews with pre-drunk college students. A grocer also noted, “Our first customer at about 7:15 this morning. We have had 200-300 that have made alcohol purchases and it could have been more than that.” The major daily, The State, made it news likewise. It quoted two 24-year-old students who bought a case of beer. “We’d usually have to get up and rush over here before midnight. Now we could relax, finish the game and take our time.”

The change may be bittersweet to some. The rush to buy beer (and usually matching ice) before the stores closed Saturday evening was part of the game, as was estimating, in your diminished capacity, where you had enough beer for Sunday activities. That sport’s gone.

Likewise, I remember an eldery fellow I lived next to in Columbia one year. He grew up. as many mill workers did. familiar with bootleggers. These weren’t moonshiners, just entrepreneurs who stocked up for those who missed the sunrise to sunset red dot hours.

The modernization of the states drinking laws also eliminated the seasonal variance by changing the red dot hours to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Before that, in poor neighborhoods, you could see old guys hanging around socializing until the official sunrise time.

My neighbor had trouble walking and used a cane. Still, he didn’t ask me for a ride when the red dot stores were open. He waiting until later for the simple thrill of asking me to drive him to his favorite bootlegger. He paid maybe twice the going rate for a half-pint on Jim Beam. That was not much extra money, but apparently well worth the jolt of knowing he could still do something illegal and by implication vaguely dangerous.

Cross-posted at Marry in Massachusetts.

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Water Heater? Not for You!

April 7th, 2008

Word is that the standard water heater in Europe is on-demand. I lost a second time in my effort to get one.

Heater Naysayer

forbidden signSeven years ago, when our water heater dumped 40 gallons on the basement floor, I tried, as I did at the end of last week when the replacement tank was leaking heavily.

Plumbers think of water heaters as commodities. They break and you just replace them. When the tank’s glass liner goes, you can’t fix it. Around here, the new unit is $250 to $600, plus $150 to $400 for labor, extra valves and such, and in Boston fees for an inspection permit, an electrical permit and other occult documents.

Tank heaters are like a car’s muffler and exhaust system. You’re supposed to use them and just pay big labor and parts bills when they fail. Of course, there’s the additional joke with mufflers. They are under the car, exposed to moisture, corrosives and things that can puncture them. Sure, they fail.

As with auto mechanics and exhausts, plumbers shrug. What are you going to do? You need to take showers and wash dishes. With a pool around the heater and only cold water on tap, I was again at the mercy of plumbers.

I think they definitely do not want to install a water heater designed to last 20 or more years. They really don’t care how much energy you’d save.

Tempus Fugit (Lente)

Seven years ago, the game was supply. There were damned few plumbers who could get any on-demand heater. After numerous calls, I went back to the overlords of Boston plumbing, Trethewey Brothers. They brushed us off with no-can-do/no-can-get.

They are an amazing bunch over there. Behind their very plain storefront on Washington Street in Roslindale Square, they are a veritable SWAT team of pipes and toilets. When you absolutely need someone over quickly, they’ll do it and you’ll pay a healthy premium. Their work is solid, but pricey. They rescued us before when another pair of plumbers just disappeared halfway through a bathroom rehab.

The last time our water heater ridiculed us, other plumbers say they had no way to get an on-demand heater and had not installed them. TBros, as they self-lovingly call themselves, said they could get one…in three weeks. I imagined heading to the Y for 21 days for showers and shaves, and heating water on the range to wash dishes with, and taking the boys on a second personal hygiene trip in the evenings.

Bosch water heaterThis time, they had refined theater for me. Armed with availability and prices from the internet, I knew that even the local home centers now stocked these wonder boxes. Granted, they were $800 to $1,300 for the heater, roughly twice the price of a lame tank unit. So, I naively figured I had a shot at getting the 21st Century version.

What a fool I was, again.

This time, it was whining, moaning and poisoning the pot with installation woes and charges. Bob told me:

  • Each installation is unique (code for this is really gonna cost ya)
  • You’re certain to need an electrician and maybe a 240-volt special line…at extra cost
  • You’re certain to need a larger capacity, separate, new gas line run from the meter…at extra cost
  • You’re almost certain to need new gas and water lines run to the unit on a distant exterior wall (not the chimney) to vent
  • Oh, and you’ll need mounts and a hole through that outside wall…at extra cost

The cheapest the installation could possibly run was $2,400 and it might be a lot higher.

A couple of things became clear:

  1. TBros truly didn’t want to install this type of unit
  2. The Boston market is nowhere near mature enough to make this easy for consumers

Like a Funeral

The right times to do this are when you are building a home or rehabbing one. If everything is torn up or not installed, the incremental cost should be pretty low. The wrong times to do this are when you need the damned hot water or when you have a good tank system, which may last another three or six or eight years…you just don’t know.

Tankless is definitely the place to end up for water heaters. I ran across several comparisons. One that is biased because the company is selling on-demand units is here.

If installation was commonplace and the units popular enough to make plumbers savvy and eager for the business, the ROI might be fast enough to encourage getting one. As it is, I’m harrumphing again. The heater went on Thursday. I could have called more than the four plumbing contractors and gotten several in for estimates into this week, and done without hot water for a week or two. If I lived alone instead of with a wife and two kids, I might well have been cantankerous enough to do so.

I feel like I’ve been had again. If you have a tank water heater coming up on the end of its warranty period, this might be a good time to have a couple of plumbers over for estimates.

There are electrical units that are not as energy efficient and do require the high-power lines. Instead, if you have a newer home than ours, you might already have big enough gas lines. You may even have a boiler close enough to an outside wall to avoid the big costs of lots of water and gas lines.

Keep in mind, when your basement has a couple of inches of water on the floor is probably not the time to think about your options. I think this is what the morticians refer to as pre-need planning.

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