The Irish and the Inventor

At first I thought I'd come upon some sort of urban fishing experiment. I was in an alley off Grant Street, walking toward the Irish Bank, when I saw two men in suits flinging fishing rods and casting their lines. I guess they were just practicing for the real thing. They were so absorbed that I didn't want to interrupt them. Also, I didn't want to venture too close, as I've always had a deep fear of fishing poles. In a past life, I must've had an eyeball yanked out by a hook. Or jeez, maybe I was even a salmon. That would explain why I am always swimming against the current in the dating/spawning department.

I kept walking past their peaceful arcs, and now I will never know what the heck was actually happening. And that's okay. I can just see weird shit, appreciate its offbeat beauty, and keep on truckin'. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, so why spoil it with analysis?

I walked past the Irish Bank's outdoor seating area and sat at the counter. The bar doesn't hit you over the head with a shamrock when you go inside. Sure, there are the requisite Irish pub pictures covering every square inch of wall space, with JFK and circus animals also portrayed. There are also creamy pints of Guinness in mid-sediment-cascade being set down in front of people. But I've never walked into an Irish bar and heard the title track from Billy Joel's The Stranger being played. Plus, the bartender had an American accent, not a Dublin drawl. At least, I think she did. She didn't say much, and she didn't smile. When I sat down, she promptly walked to the other end of the bar and started talking to another employee.

Eventually she moseyed over and I ordered a drink. I made a crack about the Billy Joel B-side she was rockin', and she ignored me. I was going to have to get my entertainment from someone else.

It didn't take long to focus on the guy sitting to my right. He had a journal open that had words on one page and sketches on the other, and was talking to a woman on his right about trestle tables. The guy seemed to have an inordinate interest in furniture; I took him for an antiques enthusiast. He was wearing a nice suit with no tie and was strikingly handsome. He looked like he could've been a J. Crew model about 15 years ago. "It's never been done before," he said to her. "In a few years' time, it will be worth about $17,000."

Well, gentle reader, I'm sure you are on the edge of your seat here, just as I was. What, pray tell, will be worth that much in a few years? Why, America's — nay, the world's — first drop-leafed trestle table. It starts as a six-seater and can become a 10-seater. I scoffed at the idea that this specific design hadn't been created before, until I actually joined the conversation.

The dude knew his furniture. He wasn't a dealer, he was a carpenter, and his name was John. As soon as he revealed his profession, I saw all the scars on his hands. His left thumb was black and red under the nail from some recent mishap with a big block of wood. And wood was his game. He took it very seriously.

I asked him whether his invention would be made out of mahogany. He said he wasn't sure, but that we had to clarify, because when you're talking mahogany, you're really talking about dozens of different kinds of woods. You got your Cuban, your Brazilian, your Filipino. You got your old growth and your new growth. He then went through the whole bar, pointing at every surface, and told me which variety of tree had been used. Painters see the world through light and color, photographers see the world through exposition, and this guy sees the world through wood.

The lady on his right was getting somewhat frustrated with me, because I'd shifted the conversation away from her. She was a bit soused, middle-aged but attractive in a mutton-dressed-as-lamb kind of way, and obviously thrilled at her good fortune. She'd plunked down next to a smart, handsome man who worked with his hands in a spiritual way and wasn't wearing a wedding ring. She tried to lure him back with talk of teak, but I was determined to finish discussing the trestle table he was so excited about. He explained to me how the leaves would go in, and how the trestle underneath would expand neatly with no seams — this was very important to him. It must look like it was originally built to be a 10-seater, with no sign of its innate six-seatedness on display.

I enjoy talking to people who are passionate about something, even if that passion doesn't make a lot of sense to me. And he was passionate about building. "Do you put your mark on the stuff you make, so that in, like, 100 years when it appears on Antiques Roadshow, folks can say, 'Wow, what you have here is a genuine John ___?'" I asked.

"No," he said firmly, as though he had actually thought about this before. "I just want to make something that will endure. The piece itself is what interests me, and the fact that many people will have good experiences around my table over the next hundred years." A thing of beauty, it would seem, is indeed a joy forever.

As I left, I told him to have fun creating his table. "Oh, I will," he said, in a darn-tootin' kind of way.

Outside, the anglers were still sending their lines across the alley in what looked like slow motion. Fishing line has a way of taking its time.

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