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Ware: Remembering The Tavern Owner

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The Tavern Owner grew up in north Baltimore, the second son of a family known for its swell house parties in the 19th century. In those days, guests would arrive by horse and carriage and stay for the weekend, to dance and eat shaved ice and escape the city’s heat. By the time he and his siblings came along, teenagers would pile into station wagons and drag the new road leading out to the reservoir. He went to Gilman and later boarding school, but his eyes were never really on the books or the corner office.

At 12 he constructed a covered wagon for his much younger sisters and towed them behind his bicycle.  As a 17-year-old in Connecticut, he scavenged used car lots, bartered with mechanics, and built a vehicle which he stashed in the woods beyond the sight of his headmaster. When the engine was running, he and his buddies would take it to New York for a cold drink. More often than not, though, his own head was under the hood talking to the same friends about why the car wouldn’t go, and he seemed to like those tinkering conversations as much as the drives.

Back in Maryland, he sold real estate for a while, but his soul was never really in the deals. He saved his passion for a used motorcycle and the bikers he began to meet on rides. He bought a house in East Baltimore and filled it with tools and warm conversations with people who had never even heard of the fancy schools he once attended. They shared frustrations and dreams, and if anyone asked for help, he always found a way. Like a magician, his solutions would appear out of thin air—the pipe you needed to fix a leak, the hinge for a 75-year-old door, the beer tap, the slop sink, the scuba belt, the life preserver.

And if he didn’t have it, he’d find it, or make it. One summer after surgery, the doctors at Bayview told him to stay off his feet except when he was in rehab. Not satisfied with their advice, he built a motorized wheelchair—not the kind you buy at the medical supply, but a real chair that he outfitted with wheels, connected to a car battery. He sat in it that August, rolling back in forth behind a push mower he used to trim his lawn.

The Tavern Owner had a huge heart, which was never more evident than in his decision to buy the Lucky Spirits bar and run it like an extension of his house and kitchen. The gift of hospitality really means something at the intersection of Lombard and Haven streets—whether you pulled up on a Harley Davidson or were dropped off from the suburbs by your driver, there was room in his embrace for you. Raised at Redeemer on North Charles, trained as an acolyte, he was by then not religious in any conventional way. The open road was his cathedral or the water near Dundalk his sanctuary, where he would put in a little sailboat and let the wind blow him here and there.

He would chuckle at the analogy, but the bar at Lucky Spirits was his welcome table, a place where strangers and friends presented their broken lives for solace and strength. No longer a drinker himself, the Tavern Owner drew out each person’s story, question by question. Deep in his bones he knew that conversation is a sacrament, that listening deeply and letting people tell who they are, what they’ve seen, where they’ve been, and what they need is the real communion that was modeled 2000 years ago, by another man who found his way among people who needed a second or third chance.  No wonder he called it Lucky Spirits.

The Tavern Owner departed this life just after the new year, an icon of the Baltimore I love. The young man to the manor born became, for a time, the daily host of a scruffy bar off 895, where pretense was dropped at the door, and everyone was invited to talk, where it didn’t matter what you looked like, or what you had, or who you knew. So, here’s to creating more welcome tables, the way the Tavern Owner did, at a time and in a city that sorely needs them, and to the humble altars we build whenever a tired friend or wounded stranger is invited to new life.

Rev. David J. Ware is Rector of the Church of the Redeemer