Bypassing Fells Point on way to a new year Bars: Why is this night different from all other nights? The regulars are absent from their stools.

December 31, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Any day of the week you're apt to find Butch Grantham at the Cat's Eye Pub on Thames Street, his regular spot for a little beer and conversation. Any day, that is, but New Year's Eve.

"No sir, I try to stay away from Fells Point on New Year's Eve," says Grantham, a 50-year-old bricklayer from Glen Burnie.

This year he's going to be far away. After the sun sets on the last day of 1997 he'll be in Ocean City, celebrating with his family. He'll be that far away when the suburbs disgorge their youth to descend on Fells Point, where it doesn't necessarily have to be Dec. 31 to feel like New Year's Eve.

"It's another 'rookie day' like St. Patrick's Day," says Grantham. "Drunken idiots breaking things, fights over nothing. And a dollop of vomit here and there."

To look at Thames Street on Dec. 30 you'd never know. So peaceful on a weekday mid-afternoon. So quiet you can walk down the quaint streets past dozens of bars and practically hear the barkeeps hauling bottles out of storerooms, stocking up. So quiet you can nearly hear the weekday regulars taking their last sips before departing for a brief hiatus.

"I don't come anywhere near this place," says Cyrus Horine, a property manager in Mount Vernon who makes his home away from home at the Whistling Oyster on South Broadway. "It's like a college weekend."

New Year's Eve will find him in the building he manages, watching "200 people get drunk."

Jim Joyner won't be around either. The 63-year-old artist has done New Year's Eve. He's done it when it was Dec. 31 and when it wasn't, and he's sworn off New Year's celebrating altogether, no matter what time of year it might beckon. He marked nine years of sobriety this Christmas, so it's been at least that much time since he curled up in a booth at John Steven Ltd. and slept off a New Year's Eve.

"I always wound up here at 4 in the morning" and the bar owner, Joyner says, "would wipe me up."

That would be Charles Doering, who has seen 20 New Year's Eves come and go since he has owned John Steven, at Thames and South Ann streets.

"It gets blurry," he says, when asked to remember the ghosts of New Years' past. Who can tell one from another? For years the bar had a Christmas tree by the window and one regular customer made a habit of losing his balance at some point in the New Year's Eve festivities and falling into the tree. Sometimes he fell face first. Other times backward.

Then there was the time Doering had to throw out a regular customer for drinking too much and trying to take a swing at him. A regular customer, a decent fellow. Was that a New Year's Eve?

"No, but it might as well be," says Doering.

He crinkles up his green eyes and laughs at this thought. Doering, a 54-year-old former art teacher with a philosophical inclination, seems to suggest that New Year's Eve is a state of mind as much as anything else. A compulsion to excess, a consuming need to consume, to give yourself up to forces beyond your control for reasons that may remain unclear. Doering's not recommending it; he's just noticed, that's all. It's what you see after 20 years owning a bar in Fells Point.

You can see a New Year's Eve arrive on a Saturday night in summer or on Halloween, St. Patrick's Day or during October's Fells Point Festival. In Fells Point, New Year's Eve is merely redundant.

Doug Woods, who owns the Admiral's Cup Bar & Grill on Thames Street, remembers one particularly cold winter when a fellow in his 20s ran from the bar and dove into the harbor, through a thin skin of ice. He bobbed back up through the hole in the ice and was eventually arrested.

"Pretty much a dumb thing to do," says Woods.

That was New Year's Eve, as Woods recalls, a night where the crowd jams in about 9 p.m., drifts out to watch the midnight fireworks and jams back until 3 or 4. Except when a cloud of mace drifts through and clears the place. That happened about 3 a.m. one time when the police had to stop by to break up a little scuffle near the door. Mace was the quickest solution.

"I had about 100 very irritated customers," says Woods.

Mike Jackson, a bartender at the Whistling Oyster, lives above a gallery on Thames. He plans to spend the night at a party across the harbor in Federal Hill. He figures on coming home by water taxi, hours after the madness has subsided. The bartending shift that night belongs to a more senior man. Big tips notwithstanding, he says if he could have the job he'd turn it down.

"It's crazy," says Jackson, a graduate student in history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It's loud, it's smoky. You don't know what's going to happen."

Bill Packo, who owns the Green Turtle on South Broadway, says he once saw a fellow climb atop a 55-gallon drum filled with restaurant kitchen grease to get a better view of the New Year's Eve fireworks. The barrel lid slipped and the fellow fell, one leg immersed in grease, one leg out.

A new year and an old scene for Fells Point. The people who live here suffer with the noise and the vandalism and the public urination, with life in a sort of New Year's Eve theme park.

"I used to live here," says Packo, who moved to Timonium with his wife in 1990. "I can understand both sides of the coin. Some nights you'd be wanting to go to bed. It's certainly boisterous. But it goes with the territory."

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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