Death flew in on bird's wing

Dan Rodricks

September 24, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Friday at dusk, with summer slipping into the west and the first fragrance of autumn in the air, I found the door to the Whistling Oyster open and the bar full. The name Harry Reynolds was on every lip beneath the beer foam. Harry had died the night before, and judging from the way his name ricocheted about the bar, he must have been a man of substantial stature in Fells Point society.

So much so, in fact, that Sandy the barmaid and a few other patrons were ready to accord special significance to the presence of a sparrow in the Oyster Thursday night.

Wild birds inside houses or barrooms are said to be portents of misfortune, and Harry's disciples were certain the bird had foretold the death of the patriarch.

"The bird flew in here the same night Harry died," someone yelled across the bar. "Hey Sandy, tell him the route the bird took!"

"The bird flew in here and circled the bar," Sandy the barmaid said, describing the flight with her free hand, the other hand on a bottle of rum. "Then he stopped, and he seen himself in the mirror behind the bar, got scared and flew toward the door. But he hit himself against the door frame and went right down. Then he got himself up and flew out."

"And Harry died the same night," someone added, connecting the omen to the heart attack that finished the life of Harry Reynolds at 72 years. Only men who lead semi-mystical lives die such semi-mystical deaths.

Harry had spent his last evening at a familiar spot -- on one of the benches in the brick square at the foot of Fells Point, a few yards from the door of the Oyster. He had been there most of the day, as usual, holding court, as usual, with old friends and acquaintances. In fact, dozens of people had gone to the oracle for advice on his last day. Sometime after 10 o'clock, Harry wandered home and collapsed in front of his house on South Ann Street.

And a few minutes later, a bird flew into Peter's, another bar directly across from Harry's house.

"Is that something?" asked Turkey Joe Trabert.

"It's semi-mystical," I said. "Tell me about Harry."

"Oh, he was a great guy," Ellen Karp said.

"Wonderful man, my first customer when I opened the Oyster," said Robin Stevenson, who owns the joint.

"He always wore a big plaid shirt and sat on that bench, with his cane. Great guy," said Turkey Joe Trabert, who used to have a Fells Point joint of his own.

So did Harry Reynolds, of course. It was known as Harry's Bar, but Harry never had the "Harry's" part of the sign made. So the sign above the door said only, "Bar." It's still there. Walk down Lancaster Street and you'll see it.

"We used to call it Generic Bar," said Irene Pula, Harry's longtime companion. "All kinds of people went in there."

"A very eclectic mix," was how Ann Dix, another friend of Harry Reynolds, described the clientele of Bar. "As a matter of fact, the day he died, Harry said, 'You know, when I owned that bar, I guess I was like a paternal figure to a whole generation of people.' He said he never thought of himself as that, but you know something? That's exactly what he was."

"Patriarchal," said Irene Pula.

"Curmudgeonly," said Ellen Karp.

"He was a very gracious curmudgeon," said Ann Dix.

"Harry was non-judgmental," said Irene Pula. "You could go talk to him about anything. He'd be frank but kind. He loved people. He said he found true happiness when he moved to Fells Point."

"You could absolutely trust him and confide in him," said Ann Dix. "People would tell him very, very personal things they would tell no one else. He'd stay there on the bench and talk till 10, 11, midnight, 1 or 2 in the morning. He was a mentor to a lot of young men but a lot of women adored Harry."

And, at one time or another, they'd all sit on the bench and tell Harry their problems, and he usually had a consoling word or some smart advice. People kept going back, too. "A thousand times," another friend said. "A thousand times I went to Harry with my troubles and he listened -- right there on that bench. A lot of human history was worked out on that bench, with Uncle Harry."

That's a legacy any man would want.

Irene Pula made the arrangements for Harry's funeral. At the wake, the casket was open. Harry wore a green-and-black plaid Maine guide's shirt and a pair of corduroys. "I wasn't gonna put him in a dude suit," Irene said. "I wanted him to go out the way everybody remembered him."

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