Calendula, the (Deceptively) Humble Pot Marigold

Calendula Wellfleetia
Calendula Wellfleetia

It’s a warm, springlike day when we arrive at the cottage on the Friday before Thanksgiving, But one glance at the garden lets us know that in the three weeks since we’ve been here, the plants have suffered a frost. The last zinnias are withered and dried, their gray foliage stuck flat against the sticks that on our last visit here were living stems supporting pink and yellow blooms. The four o’clocks have died, too, as have the sturdy black-eyed Susans and the once-lacy leaved cosmos. The dahlias are brown and sad-looking, their stems mostly rotted away. We dig them up and stow them in the basement for the winter. The last of the small Japanese maple tree’s leaves have dropped. The nasturtiums have given up, too, and their seed pods are hardened. I pick as many as I can, to dry, for next year’s container gardens.

What’s left of our flowers is the calendula. Bright yellow, or deep orange, with lush green foliage, they line up in a row next to last crop of spicy arugula and four stunted-looking rainbow chard plants. Aside from the last half dozen carrots and the deep green parsley, everything else is either asleep for the winter—the garlic—or gone by.

Those calendula—now in a Beatles coffee mug on the dining table in the cottage, are the last blooms standing. We can’t bear to leave them behind when we go back to town, so they will have to come home with us tomorrow, and spend the week on our kitchen counter.

A cold rain fell steadily all day here, and tonight, the scattered leathery oak leaves are soaking, the first stage in a long process of decomposing. The calendula give us one last bit of summer 2015 in a Made in China mug.

Anti-inflammatory properties, useful as a dye, acne remedy, edible leaves for salads or tea infusions—is there no end to the talents of this humble flower?

Come next March when the Flower Show comes to Boston, I’ll be right back at the Hudson Seed Library booth to buy more packets of seed to grow more of those resilient, faithful ladies.

Crabbing On Isle of Wight Bay

 At an old footbridge we set up  —
Tied the chunks of eel to twine, threw the lines
As far as we could, so the crabs
Might think they’d chanced on a choice breakfast.
Pull the lines gently, my father said, draw
The string in slow and steady. We stayed for hours,
Not much to do but test the lines, nibble sandwiches
A half at a time, drink grape soda from the can.
We gazed down at the current, saw
The lines drifting away from where we sat, Continue reading “Crabbing On Isle of Wight Bay”

The Place, Part 3

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There was a parade of  barmaids and bartenders over the years: Mr. Oscar, whom Dad inherited from the tavern’s previous owner; the aforementioned Miss Bea;  Miss Vi, a sweet, fortyish woman who moved to Florida after she got married;  Hilda, a short,wide-hipped  plain woman who wore glasses and had no sense of humor at all. I never saw her smile..She stuck around a long time, but when she quit, she just up and left—I never heard anyone speak of her after that. George Scout tended bar on some of his layovers from the railroad, and he bunked in one of the rooms upstairs, two beds on ancient iron frames with grey sheets, and night tables littered with cigarette ash and tattered paperbacks, mostly Mickey Spillane crime novels.

The best bartender my father ever had was Whitey. Mr. Whitey to me.  I never knew his last name. Whitey was an outstanding bartender because he had three unusual qualities that any bar owner give thanks for, every week at Mass: Whitey was always on time and always stayed late; Whitey knew his trade; and Whitey was unfailingly honest. Bartenders skimmed from the cash register for years, but  my father wrote it off as a cost of doing business. Once Whitey came on board, the skimming came to a screeching halt, as Dad liked to say.

He found Whitey by way of our next-door neighbor in Hamilton, Miss Angie. Whitey had boarded with Miss Angie’s family for a few years before the war, then he was drafted into the Army. When he came out of the service, he went back to Miss Angie’s parents and asked if he could board there again. He  lived with them for the rest of his life—they became his family. Miss Angie put Whitey, who was looking for work,  in touch with my dad.

The customers liked Whitey. We liked Whitey. My father loved Whitey. Whitey never took a sick day. He never drank on the job. He never complained about his salary. He was happy that my dad paid into Social Security for him. My father stopped worrying so much about what was going on at The Place when he came home. He started showing up for dinner by 5:30 on weekdays.

One school night, well after my  younger sister  and I had fallen  asleep, the phone rang. Kresson Street, or the police who called. The Place was burning. My father quickly dressed and drove off to Highlandtown. The fire was extensive. The old wooden bar was ruined. So were all of the wooden tables and chairs in the bar area and in the Ladies’ section. The whiskey was ruined, too. I assume all those bags of Utz chips and the pretzels and Slim Jims clipped to their tall racks  were gone. .The claw machine and the Bally pinball machine, the jukebox—all were burned up, useless. 

Dad had to close the business for a long time, until the insurance company could settle the claim, and the tavern could be gutted and refitted with new ceilings, floors, insulation, and a new bar. The rehab project expanded to include maintenance and esthetic work that was long overdue .

Whitey was on duty when the fire started . He may have been the one to call the Fire Department that night .  The stress of it all got to him. He suffered a heart attack not long after that, and then another one, and his doctor advised him to stop working, or at least to find a less stressful line of work until he could start collecting his social security.

Spigelmire’s  had a grand reopening, with a modern ceiling covering the old stamped tin one, and glass bricks in the wall along Fairmount Avenue. Dad bought a new meat slicer.  Mr. Poffel at Gift Novelty had his guys wheel in a new claw machine and a new pinball table.

But there was no new Whitey.

The Place lived on for another ten or fifteen years, when a series of holdups—armed robberies—on railroad payday, when there was lots of cash in the register—persuaded my father to follow Whitey’s lead and retire.   He sold the Place—and  with that deal came the  valuable Baltimore City liquor license—to his last bartender.

We don’t have nearly enough photos of the Place. We have a few church keys that were given out at Christmas time, and an ashtray that spells out  the words Spigelmire’s  and Tavern in an acrostic pattern.

A recent Google Search turns up El Estanko Sport Bar at the North Kresson Street corner where Spigelmire’s was a twenty-hour-a day business, 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., except Sundays. From the internet photos, the new operation looks pretty fancy inside, with state of the art karaoke,  new pool tables, and smiling customers. I wonder if those thirty-somethings sense ghosts of former patrons in the eaves of the building.

I recall the Place so clearly, how it looked, how it sounded,  how it smelled in the morning of stale beer and cigarettes: I’m eight years old, I don’t even reach the bar, it’s taller than me. Paddy Saxon sit nursing a beer in a small, straight-sided glass–he’s already emptied his shotglass of 4 Roses.  He leans back, looking up at the Muntz black and white tv sitting on a shelf high on the wall, watching  a heavyweight fight. The pay phone on the wall at the end of the bar rings, and my father lifts the 1940’s era  receiver  off its hook, leans into the microphone and almost shouts to be heard over the buzz of the barroom, “Spigel Marr’s. Jim talkin.

The Place (part 2)

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The menu–never written, always spoken but only when anyone asked first– consisted of  breakfast, lunch or dinner at any time of day. Eggs, ham or bacon, toast and coffee. Often, a special of the day–baked ham, roast beef with  mashed potatoes and gravy, meatloaf, corned beef. Or  my father’s specialty—hearty soups—navy bean soup, split pea,  beef stew—and on occasion, Maryland crab soup.  When he had time and the price of backfin was good, he made up two or three dozen crabcakes, which disappeared fast from under the glass domed cakestand that sat on the bar near the Hotpoint grills. Continue reading “The Place (part 2)”

The Place

Part 1

In  1951, my father bought a tavern  in Highlandtown, at the corner of  the East Kresson and Fairmount, from a Mrs. Mary Menniger.  Before that, the building was,  a tavern, when first built in 1900,  a confectionery and a bakery during Prohibition, and by the late 1930’s, a tavern once again. Dad installed an orange and green neon sign outside, a very long arrow that surrounded the very long name, Spigelmire and the word BAR underneath.

imgres-2We lived a 20 minute drive west of Highlandtown, in the northmost part of  Hamilton. We called  the tavern  The Place.

The first time I saw it, as a four-year old, I thought, this place is OLD. The side street it sat on was not paved with asphalt. Instead, it was black cinder, and it led to a junkyard and a long distance truck dispatcher office. Factories lined Kresson street when you looked west.To the east, two blocks of  row houses, not the kind with the famous Baltimore white marble stairs. These houses, all built at the start of the twentieth century, had worn wooden stair, formstone here and there, and a few of those fancy painted screens. Kids playing on the sidewalk in front of their houses. No trees within sight. The railroad bridge crossed over Kresson street at an oblique angle, and at Lombard Street, Hudak’s  stood on one corner, another bar faced it on the opposite one.

To the locals on Kresson Street, my dad’s bar  was  “Spigelmires,”  in Baltimore parlance, “Spigel Marr’s,” and that was how my dad answered the pay phone on the wall, at the far end of the bar: Spigel Marr’s, Jim talkin’.”

Like Cheers decades before Cheers, the Place was where everybody knew your name. If they didn’t, they asked. There were regular customers, and there were the daily customers, about a dozen, each of whom claimed his spot at the bar. And they were all men. Ladies did not sit at the bar. A woman might appear with a large, washed out-and-dried pickle jar and ask the barmaid to fill it up with draft beer to take home. Or  she might come in by the side door  Ladies Entrance on  a Saturday night with her husband or a girlfriend, and take a seat at one of the tables  in the large room adjacent to the bar…

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