‘Coal Was King’
It was coal country and there were bars on every corner. My dad came home from work, black face, sometimes unrecognizeable. I had to get outta there…and I did.” (A friend)
We had our second ‘bar night’ recently, my friend and I, leaving the house for a couple of hours of ‘senior bonding’. Two beers, this time. The choice, again, Guinness, and the setting, Thirsty’s, a small but vibrant ‘watering hole’ in the heart of Pittsford, NY, across from Starbucks and steps from the Erie Canal.
Thirsty’s doesn’t have a sign over its front door, doesn’t need it. On a week night in December, business was brisk, with patrons of all ages in good spirits, days before the Christmas holiday.
It was unusually mild weather for the start of a western New York winter and the crowded pub was warm. We arrived just as two barstools were vacated. With dark beers in hand, we raised our mugs to the other’s good health and the conversation began.
Personal stories that take us well back in time are often fascinating. Telling them with the background din of other ‘spinners’ and patrons reaching between us for their beers, added to our evening experience in this iconic village bar.
My friend’s narrative was no exception and the pictures he painted are still unfolding in my mind’s eye. He took me deep into the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania while offering a glimpse of a young man’s life in a mining family. All of this ‘time travel’ while perched on wooden stools, a beer in one hand and the other stretched out and anchored on the bar to mark our borders from the pressing crowd.
Coal was king in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1930s. The mines flourished while the earth gave up its mother lode of solid black gold, albeit reluctantly. Miners, often immigrants, worked tirelessly in an environment fraught with danger, scraping and shoveling, removing coal layer by layer, loading it into ‘cars’ to be hauled above ground.
In the shortest days of winter, workers entered mines in early morning darkness, leaving their frozen breathes at the ‘drift portal’, like a gentleman checks a coat. At day’s end, the pitch darkness welcomed them out, camouflaged as they were with dust, black coal dust, on them and in them.
“Another round, fellas?” The call snapped us back. Without a word, we threw down the last bit of beer, paid our ‘cash only’ tab and relinquished our prime seats. It was late, two beers down and our eyelids were heavy. I reached back for a last handful of bar snacks as we put another good evening behind us.
The streetlights cast feint shadows over the historic canal, empty now, reduced to a mere ditch in winter when it’s murky waters are drained. As we walked, I looked at my friend through tired eyes and thought about the different paths we’ve traveled. Life is an adventure and it makes for good stories, good bar stories.
Dedicated to my friend, Steve P, and story tellers everywhere.