The Better John Steinbeck Story
by Chris Norwood
It was the cold, foggy rain of February some five years ago and it was Murf’s.
Murf’s, with its rarely changed jukebox, the notorious darts game played by the door and the large double brick fireplace, original to the 1790’s homestead, and now used
to store cartons of Budweiser, was a cherished remnant of the distinctive bar scene that had prevailed in Sag Harbor until the inroads of gentrification. Back in those days—when Sag Harbor was known for having the most bars per capita of any New York State village—I was writing a lot and I appreciated the choice of place for refreshment and relaxation at the end of the day. A striking aspect of Sag Harbor was that, even though it was rough back in the day, it was well mannered in the reassuring way of small towns where people are known to each other. A woman could go to a bar alone and not be presumed to be someone just there to be hit on.
I recalled with particular appreciation, along with Murf’s, the old Mainsail and Spinnaker’s. Both had actual sawdust on the floor and served 50 cent beers. Summer’s arrival was marked by the arrival of the Michael Grady Band, a thrilling New Orleans country band—fiddle, bass and banjo as I recall. The three band members, accompanied by 4 dogs, arrived in a pick-up truck, and switched their evening’s play all summer between Spinnaker’s and the Mainsail, the dogs going to these performances and thumping their tails in time to the songs. I could hardly believe that you could get to hear that music for the price of a beer. People routinely danced on the tables, there being little other space in these packed places.
But there was one place I had never dared to go. That was the Black Buoy. I had seen, occasionally, the famous pool table that occupied the center of the Black Buoy when the bar door opened on Main Street. The Black Buoy was famous for fights and bloodied exits. Evidently the pool cues were just too handy when tempers flared.
This lore was regularly passed down in remaining Sag Harbor bars, especially during the clammy drizzles of winter when back in the day assumed the glowing patina of the past.
Chatting in Murf’s, I mentioned my trepidation of the Black Buoy to the man occupying the next stool. But, I said I’d heard a great story about the Black Buoy. This was that John Steinbeck would walk to the Post Office with his dog, instruct the dog to firmly bite the mail to trot home and himself stop off at the Black Buoy.
“I’ve got a better John Steinbeck story,” he replied.
I’ll bet he did. John Steinbeck had died before it had, by lucky chance, come to my attention that there was a once whaling village called Sag Harbor which was sitting apart, still itself and ungentrified, barely two hours outside New York City. I had already ascertained that my Murf’s neighbor had been born in Sag Harbor, one of the dwindling number of men and women who knew the village and its lore as a native endowment. I also knew that John Steinbeck had been very much a part of ordinary Sag Harbor life, even been a lead force in starting the village’s whaling festival. Actually, the desire of writers and artists to be part of its ordinary life had remained a special ingredient in the atmosphere of the East End. My Pulver Gas Man once told me that the highlight of his delivery rounds were the delightful conversations he had routinely enjoyed with Kurt Vonnegut before he died.
Meanwhile, the Steinbeck story I was told in Murf’s was this: The teller’s father had been a great roofer, but also a great drinker and, when re-roofing John Steinbeck’s house, had fallen off and broken a limb.
Like any proper home owner, John Steinbeck did not wish to wait months for his roof to be finished. There wasn’t much left to be done and he begged the son to finish it single-handed. The son, unfortunately, couldn’t. His last English paper, a major book report, was due for him to fulfill his high school graduation requirements.