A big man in beer
People loved him like a brother
He came to say goodbye. When I realised that he was there, standing behind me, I wondered how long he had been waiting. I was seated at a table, autographing my latest book for visitors to the Great American Beer Festival. There was a line.
When I sensed his presence at my shoulder. I broke away for a moment, and turned toward him. Richie Stolarz was a very big man -- in physique as well as personality. He was tall and heavy-set. Big, wide face, crumpled somewhat by wear and tear. Broad shoulders. Chest like a barrel of porter. Despite his heftiness, he could at times be surprisingly unobtrusive. In those moments, he had a quiet way of speaking, as though he were imparting information that was confidential.
Against the noise of the festival, I could not quite hear what he said. He repeated it. "I came to say goodbye." I was surprised. It was the last day of the festival, but it was mid evening. Everything was in full swing. "You're headed back East ... now?" Obviously not. "In the morning, but just in case I don't see you..."
We shook hands. Did I give him a hug, or at least an affectionate pat on the shoulder? Now, this question assumes an importance that the memory cannot satisfy. This happens when you suddenly lose someone about whom you cared. I remember saying that I would probably see him in the check-out line at the hotel. Or the check-in line at the airport. I hope that did not seem dismissive. The insufficient memory will not itself be dismissed. That should have been a minor exchange, but it turned our to be last words.
I couldn't get Richie out of my mind. I don't suppose I wanted to, but his presence in my thoughts was a reminder that I would never again have a beer with him.
I did not see him next morning. I boarded a flight to Monterrey. Mexico. Richie got on the plane to head East, and breathed his last. When I arrived in my hotel room in Monterrey, and logged on, there were three messages from friends telling me the news. I wanted to deny them three times. Next day, I kept addressing my travelling companion as "Richie." He looked nothing like Richie. I couldn't get Richie out of my mind. I don't suppose I wanted to, but his presence in my thoughts was a reminder that I would never again have a beer with him.
A month later, I was having a beer with a friend in New York and there was a longeur. My friend stared into space for a moment and each of us knew what was on the other's mind. We remember the departed by their effect on the rest of us. They leave - with little pain, if they are very lucky - and we feel depleted. Ritchie's departure leaves a hole in many lives. Others have lost much more than I have, so these thoughts may seem a selfish indulgence. They are about me, and the Richie I will remember.
When we are young, we imagine we can plan our life. When we have sufficient years to contemplate, we realise how much its direction is determined by others, and often by chance meetings.
I don't suppose I would have stayed on the west coast for the rest of my life, but that was where the renaissance of beer in the U.S. started. I spent years appearing there before I began to work in the East. My first full-scale tour on this coast was arranged by George and Pat Saxon, of Phoenix Imports, but Richie made me a fixture here.
With George and Pat, there had been a very successful night in Washington, D.C., at the Brickskeller, a bar I already knew well. This was followed by a nightmare evening somewhere in Baltimore, where the sound system did not work. Next day, George and Pat said I had a booking in Jersey with someone called Richie Stolarz. If I had heard of him before, didn't remember. I certainly did not know how much he would become a part of my life. I was used to appearing in bars, but this event was in an hotel. I was accustomed to having some control over my appearances, but that evening I encountered this big guy who insisted on telling how the event would proceed. Perhaps I looked anxious as to whether it would go well. That's how I remember it.
There was another sub-text in Richie's mind. It went something like this: all Europeans are naturally cultured people. The British are snobs. How would a person who had probably been educated at Oxford react to a Holiday Inn in New Jersey, and to Richie?.
What he perceived as my "shocked" expression on meeting him was recalled every time he reminisced about our first meeting, which he did at every opportunity. It was a story he loved to tell, laughing along as he told it. The culture gap was imaginary. This became apparent over the next 12 years. There were no aristocrats in my family. My uncles and cousins had names like Anapolsky, Hertzman and Starkowitz, so I was hardly likely to be fazed by a Stolarz. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in a mill town, and never went near Oxford.
My childhood and Richie's seemed to have been pretty similar. When I was a kid, most of our neighbors were Catholics, from Poland or Ireland. My best buddy. Timmy O'Brien, told me about being beaten by the priests at his school as a punishment for talking in class or some such infraction. When I was ready to leave school, someone suggested that I become a barber: it was a safe job; fancier ambitions were not encouraged. Forty-odd years later, Richie told me about being beaten by the priest at school. The job suggested to him was as a tollbooth clerk. He would have made us want to ride toll roads just to meet him but, like me, he had other ideas. He was the proverbial man of many parts. He once showed me a book he had written, a manual on wine. That was a precursor to Beers International.
Richie, who was a little older than me, had been to some of those bouts. He even knew the great Emile Griffith. When he told me things like that, I became a short-trousered kid in awe of an elder brother.
As a child in Britain, I got up at 4.0 in the morning to listen on a crackly old radio to fights at Madison Square Garden. Richie, who was a little older than me, had been to some of those bouts. He even knew the great Emile Griffith. When he told me things like that, I became a short-trousered kid in awe of an elder brother. I wonder how many people have uttered the cliche, and meant it: I loved him like a brother.
When he would manifest himself out of nowhere, I felt I was being revisited by a long-lost sibling. Once I was appearing in another city when, through the spotlight, I suddenly noticed a hat that announced GIANTS in iridescent type. Underneath the hat was a beaming Richie. It suited him.
We shared our pasts on traffic-jammed drives from my hotel in Midtown to Teaneck, or wherever in Jersey Richie had planned what became my annual gig. If he gave a ride to anyone else, however enjoyable their company, I resented their presence. I wanted him to myself, so that we could gossip and confess. Soon, there were two tastings a year. At the peak, 500 people attended, when the venue was the Mile Square Brewery, in Hoboken. Most seemed to be members of the owning family, and not necessarily interested in beer. I couldn't hear myself speak.
However much we discussed an event, matters would eventually be resolved Richie's way. Despite my protests, the number of beers exceeded ten and began to head for 20. In the middle of one such marathon, I needed to take a leak. "Can I call an interval?" I whispered to him, discreetly. Richie grabbed the mike and boomed: "Michael is going to the john now. Talk among yourselves" The arrangement of events involved a lot of phone calls from Richie. When I was away, my partner or daughter would check the voice mail. The calls from tv or radio stations might sound impatiently opportunistic; those from PR people could be irritatingly syrupy; then, suddenly, a warm voice, a Jersey accent, and a real person, usually with a wisecrack. They loved listening to Richie - so much that they would play and replay his calls. We considered making a tape of voicemail messages: The best of Richie Stolarz. Eventually, my partner flew from London to attend one of the events.
Richie, along with Tony Forder, did everything he could to help me visit breweries in Jersey. He introduced me to one of my all time favorite pubs, Andy's Corner, in Bogota. Through Richie, I met Father Mac, who donned his vestments to perform a blessing of my work at a book launch in the Belgian consulate. Not to mention Cynthia Soboti, whose neckties somehow became one of my trademarks. More recently, Richie set up the meeting that led to my Real Beer Tour on the internet.
For the tenth year of our Jersey events, the Rogue brewery bottled a limited edition labelled with his image and mine. The designer had asked Richie and I to send portraits for him to copy. We both supplied likenesses that were flatteringly youthful, but Richie's looked so young that no one recognised him. That was about the time that he retired, but only from his day job. He worked harder than ever for Beers International.
He began to attend my annual events in Philadelphia, too. When my tenth appearance there was scheduled, a roast was announced. The invitation indicated formal dress. Richie wore a black shirt. Over it was a black necktie. "It's a black tie," he protested. That night, he looked like a mobster of Jersey's finest vintage.
We would also see each other each year at the Great American Beer Festival. This year, I was greeted at the festival by his wife Elaine. Most years, I would at some point visit their home. I have never known a family so supportive of one another. if Richie could not pick me up in the city, one of his daughters who arrive, most often Lisa. On those long drives, I heard about the family's emotional relationships, triumphs and disasters.
One of our Jersey tastings took place the night one of his daughters was due to give birth. "She'll wait," Richie assured me.
Later, a Stolarz daughter would feed me at an Italian restaurant where she waited tables. When she no longer worked there Richie wanted to stop at a pizza restaurant, or buy popcorn. Like me, he had been told by his doctor to lose weight, and tried -- but fought an endless battle with his appetite. One of our Jersey tastings took place the night one of his daughters was due to give birth. "She'll wait," Richie assured me. He hosted the event, made sure everything was tidied, then headed for the maternity ward. Only then, well after midnight, did the grandchild dare to appear.
At the events, the extended family were always there to help. So were enough friends to form a second family, equally loyal and attentive. I was privileged to be part of that second family for a dozen years. Occasionally, I would suggest to him that the tastings had run their course, and that we should quit while we were ahead. He would go quiet, and I would realise that such a move was out of the question. Big brothers are for keeps.
Or so I thought.
Published Online: FEB 12, 2001
Published in Print: DEC 1, 2000
In: Ale Street News
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