Last days on Free Street
The other night at Free Street Taverna, when the monitor speaker ignited and burst into flames on the sidewalk outside the bar, it seemed like the end was quite near. Sure enough, a week later, they’re closed.
In addition to fire, there’d been other signs the apocalypse was nigh, like water. Last spring, when a heavy thunderstorm hit, water rushed down a brick wall upstairs just like it does in fancy restaurants; only rather than being recirculated, it rained down on the stage.
Also, the dead have been walking among the living. That, or people barred from Mathew’s across the street have been giving the Taverna a try. Either way, it was another bad sign.
I’d been going to Free Street since I moved here in ’98. Casco Bay Weekly’s office was 50 yards away, and the editorial staff was in the habit of hitting the Taverna every Tuesday after deadline.
Back then, the place would be packed at six o’clock. The kitchen was kicking out burgers and gyros and free sheets of pizza for the happy hour crowd. The owner, Pete Kostopoulos, a bear of a man, was always in the thick of it, talking and laughing, grabbing and hugging people, a satyr’s twinkle in his eye.
It seemed like everyone there was an artist. Ranged along the bar, pints and smokes in hand, were painters, musicians, photographers, poets. Even Dice, the hulking doorman who took no shit, could be seen writing verse at his regular table in the back.
These days, artists organize Creative Conversations and debate ways to spend state funds allocated to “incubate” what must, by inference, be Portland’s sickly, infantile arts scene. I say we just buy the Taverna.
I went to a Creative Conversation last week, at Space Gallery. Twenty or so people, including City Council candidate Ed Suslovic and city Planning Director Alex Jaegerman, sat in chairs in a circle with name tags on, discussing topics like the capricious scheduling of Planning Board agendas and the art of an effective resume. The little bar in the corner sat empty and neglected. After an hour-and-a-half of this, I began wishing Jaegerman were a shot of Jagermeister — which is odd, since I much prefer bourbon. It was time to go.
Former nightclub owner Kris Clark is organizing a series of similar weekly gatherings called Citizen Salons (see http://www.citizensalon.org) at Zero Station, a gallery on Anderson Street. The first one will likely take place late this month. I’m gonna try to make it – Kris said there’ll be beer.
The Taverna of old was an arts incubator, salon and conversation space all under one leaky roof. You could argue art and politics until you fell off the bar stool; find affordable studio space by waking up in it the next morning.
But this egg was fragile. No small number of artists I met at Free Street quit the place, or quit drinking altogether, for their own health. The party even lasted too long for Pete, who sold the business to Eric Murray and Steve Kesler in 2002.
Murray and Kesler tried to keep up appearances, but the place was falling apart both literally and figuratively. The old crowd had thinned out, cleaned up, or moved on. When the smoking ban took effect, it only made the bathrooms smell worse, which drove more people away. Hip-hop kids scrawled graffiti everywhere. The kitchen suffered. The zombies advanced.
Through all of this, I kept coming back — partly out of nostalgia and a fondness for cheap drafts, but also because Free Street still attracted interesting, creative people. Worthwhile connections could still be made, odd subjects could be discussed, and there were still plenty of laughs to be had. This publication took shape last winter during conversations on the back deck.
Aside from a new bend in the bar, Murray and Kesler didn’t change the Taverna much from the way it was in Pete’s day. If anything, Portland has changed around the Taverna.
However, the building’s new owner, Ted Arcand, proprietor of the Dogfish Café on Congress Street, seems inclined to remodel the bar physically and spiritually. I worry that to him, Free Street will be an investment, rather than a way of life. That can be a good thing, especially if it means there’ll be nachos on a late-night menu, but there are trade offs. Time will tell.
For now, it’s goodbye, Free Street. Keep the buck I gave you. You just might need it someday.
— Chris Busby
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.