What a strange situation: Bertha’s, the very much beloved corner bar — the corner-est of bars of Baltimore, actually, if you consider its location — sits like a rock on Fells Point Square, still very much with us. The green walls are still bowed and glowing inside, but the occasion of its apparently imminent auction tempts me to wander into past tense as if this beautiful, above-surface submarine vibe of a drinking establishment is already gone.
But it’s not. You can go right now down to the bar, get a pint, and contemplate the 18th century derriere image hanging behind the bar, painted by the late great trickster/historian Bob Eney.
I have always been a contemplator of a building’s ability to hold some essence of the past, whether it’s the warbled glass windows of a vacant North Avenue hardware store or the lone marble step worn down by countless footsteps where Amy and I bought our Fells Point house in 1998 after we smashed that wedding glass on the docks of Henderson Wharf.
Nowhere have I felt this brush with the opaque mystery of time more than in Fells Point, where its history swirls around like tales written in autumn leaves dancing in the wind: Frederick Douglass learned to read on Aliceanna Street; privateers on Thames Street schemed to loot British ships; Baltimore political legend Barbara Mikulski helped scuttle plans to plow an Interstate 95 feeder through Fells so drivers could blow past Baltimore; and John Waters and his prankster crew filmed a lobster sex scene on Bond Street.
All these stories and more I heard while running around as a teenager in Fells Point, then a half-shuttered waterfront with boxcars left to be picked up later in the streets. It all came together at Bertha’s in 1984. Back then, I was a University of Maryland student and was stretching my urban studies assignment to do a story about Fells Point. It didn’t take long before I was standing before Tony Norris, who along with his wife Laura Norris owned this madcap tavern with lost-at-sea flotsam dangling from the ceiling.
Bertha’s saved us, so long as we stayed within the confines of this wooden hull of a bar. We were surrounded by its walls, lacquered green, looking at its nationally famous bumper sticker, “Eat Bertha’s Mussels,” modified into three-word limericks, social commentary and a kind of word game using the cut-up and scrambled letters: Eat Dante’s Inferno, Eat Yo Mama’s Grits.
These days, under the hand of Norris’ son, Andy, Bertha’s chugs along as Fells Point’s local bar, a way station for strangers and a cherished gig by an eclectic roster of local musicians crowding the corner by the bar’s immediately recognizable street-level doorway.
I met people with whom I would eventually collaborate on films, articles, and dreams. I met people who gave me advice and whose passing we would later mourn in toasts and wakes.
In 2009, I experienced Bertha’s mettle in the most personal way. That year, both my parents died — my father’s passing was expected, but my mother’s, three months later, wasn’t. At first, my Bertha’s experience was particularly poignant and painful, as I had always planned for my mom and Laura to meet. Like Laura, my mother was from England.
The meeting never happened. What did happen was me standing there with my guitar joining up with a biweekly hootenanny, featuring mostly locals, mostly guitarists, all playing three-chord tunes. I was able to substitute trying come up with an answer to “How are you doing?” with playing a tune like “Dead Flowers.” Not used to the long haul of playing for hours, I’d grab a seat at one of the few tables. Being alone is where Bertha’s works its magic, with its late-night glow.
So many nights I found myself in a nook, marveling at the light that glowed low like a late-burning fire placing people into relief, bent to each other at the bar, slow dancing by the door, the saxophonist lifting up for a solo.
Bertha’s was at its best during good snow, where its small side windows offered snow drifts on a side street, flex frosted on the glass.
Even back then, I knew I was faced with an inevitable loss one day. But now with the impending auction of Bertha’s, I know we are not ready to place her in the past. Where are we going to go? It’s just too hard to fathom Fells Point without this place.