This story begins, last summer, on the morning of July 22nd. I got an email from a friend: “Dear Steve:Bad news. Nelson Carey died at Greater Baltimore Medical Center this morning.” I was stunned. Nelson hadn’t been sick and he wasn’t old. I had just talked with him the previous afternoon.
Nelson was the owner of the Grand Cru wine bar in nearby Belvedere Square Market. We had become friends over the years while I enjoyed sipping craft beers at the bar in the afternoons. Not that I was special — Nelson cultivated friendships with most of the regulars. Although he could be difficult at times — when he wore a certain expression you knew not to strike up a conversation — most of the time he was friendly and engaged with the customers. He loved jokes. Bad jokes, corny jokes, it didn’t matter. Some afternoons, there could be dozens of jokes traded among the regulars.
As I mentioned, he wasn’t old. He had turned 50 the previous April. That afternoon at the bar, he opened several bottles of wine that were from the 1964 vintage (the year of his birth). He poured a small amount of each for those of us at the bar and we drank his health. These weren’t very fine wines that would be at their best at that age; rather, they were nice wines that were a bit beyond their prime probably. Nonetheless, it was a nice gesture and one that was typical of the man.
On the afternoon of July 22nd, as the word spread about Nelson’s passing, people kept showing up at Grand Cru. It was a wonderful, impromptu wake. Despite the shock and sadness, stories were told and there was laughter amid the crying. Fred Rasmussen, another regular, described the scene in the wonderful obituary he wrote for Nelson. Over the course of the day, hundreds of folks turned up to mourn, reminisce and generally process the shock.
After this sad event, Grand Cru opened as usual. Everything was a bit subdued but pretty much, as the saying goes, life went on. The bar closed all day on the day of Nelson’s funeral but, other than that, the bar opened and the regulars attended and talked. Nelson’s absence was palpable.
It was only a short time before rumors assembled themselves and circulated about the future of the bar. For the most part, I ignored the speculation, knowing how such talk promotes itself. In a way, the rumor mill was fueled by the silence of the staff who uniformly answered “I don’t know,” if presented with one of the many scenarios. I think that their reticence was likely a combination of genuinely not knowing and, perhaps, a request to try to squelch speculation.
A few months ago, a sign appeared in the window of Grand Cru alerting interested parties that a hearing had been scheduled take public comment on the pending transfer of the liquor license from Nelson’s widow to a new owner. The new owner proved to be John Unitas, III. Baltimore folks recognize the name right away: he’s the grandson of former Baltimore Colts great Johnny Unitas. Speculation ensued: “Oh no, it’s going to be a sports bar!” One thing was certain, though, the bar was being sold and, almost certainly, would change.
A few weeks ago, we learned that the ownership would transfer after business on March 4th. Now, the speculation was about where we would all go if the ‘new’ Grand Cru (will they change the name?) isn’t tolerable. Most of the staff — and the staff is a big part of why this bar is special — are moving on. There are a number of bars in the area, some of which I frequent, but none seem like the sort of place all the regulars could enjoy. Zen West? Too many TVs and college kids — although it’s a great place to sit and watch a sports event. Swallow at the Hollow? Not enough wine selection — although the food is quality bar food and the bar is very friendly. Ryan’s Daughter? Well, we’ll see.
I have had a beard for more than 20 years. My daughter, who will turn 21 in June, had never seen me without it. Regulars at the bar and the Belvedere Square Market all know me. Once, I was walking across the parking lot and a man came up to me and said “Hey, I’ve seen you! You wanna know how I know I seen you??” I smiled and said, “Sure.” He replied: “‘Cause there ain’t nobody who looks like you!”
One of the bartenders, Matt Kaufman, has asked me from time to time to shave off my beard. I always laughed because I’ve had it for so long. Some years ago, we were vacationing in the Caribbean and I expected to shave while I was there so that I could go snorkeling. It turned out, though, that there’s this goo you can buy to put on your moustache and beard to get a good seal around the mask. So, I returned from that trip with my facial hair intact.
A few weeks ago, when Matt asked again about the beard, I told him I just might if he’d buy me a beer. He agreed and I began putting pressure on myself to go through with it by eliciting promises of additional free beers. It also seemed like a fitting gesture — it was, after all, a way to mark the end of an era. So, I agreed that I would come to the bar on its last day sans beard.
Yesterday morning, with the thought of shaving looming, I felt some considerable anxiety. It’s OK, it’ll grow back. In the afternoon, I went upstairs to make good on my promise. First, I cut the bulk of the beard off with scissors. Anticipating the obvious question “Where’s your beard??”, I placed the hair in a baggie. When anyone asked, I could produce the baggie and say “Right here!”. It took much longer than I thought it would. About 45 minutes or so. I probably could have gotten finished sooner but it took me a little while to realize the disposable razor I was using was no longer doing anything. So, I got a fresh one and continued.
This is how I look now. This morning, I ran my hands over the comforting whiskerage that had accumulated overnight. I’m glad to know that it, really, truly, is coming back. Last night at the bar, literally the last night at the bar, was bittersweet. It was already packed at 3 in the afternoon and stayed busy until I left a few hours later. I got lots of compliments and surprised glances but, alas, no one asked me “Where’s your beard?”
I was very touched when Christy, Nelson’s widow, presented me with a page of composite photos from and about the bar and a beer glass with ‘Grand Cru’ etched in the side. She had thoughtfully put together these gifts for a number of us. Since life skittered off course for her last July, she deserves happiness and all the best that life can offer.
So, it’s the end of an era. Grand Cru is gone but long live Grand Cru. Perhaps the evolution of the bar and its new owners would be at least tolerable if not overall good. Perhaps we can all meet here at the same old place to talk and laugh and drink. Perhaps, as with the gradual renewal of my beard, we will find that the future overtakes us and that it’s good.