In an ever-changing city, the bar’s an institution. And Cambridge is all the better for it.
BY CHRIS WRIGHT
ONE SULTRY AFTERNOON in mid July, a guy named Craig walked into the Plough & Stars in Cambridge with a large pink dahlia protruding from his top pocket. Tall and rangy, with a muddle of gray hair and a trim mustache, Craig is a happy-go-lucky man — a habitual smiler. On this particular day, he was beaming so broadly he seemed to be wearing molars for earrings. As Craig took his place at the bar, Maurice the bartender set a small glass of water before him, into which the dahlia was placed and where it remained — a little freeze-frame firework — for the rest of the week.
A few days later — another muggy, drowsy afternoon — Cambridge city councilor (and former mayor) Ken Reeves sat at one of the Plough’s small tables chatting with Darryl, a Plough regular given to wearing cravats and wide-brimmed hats. Reeves sat there, bespectacled and bow-tied, while Darryl bobbed over him, an accordion strung around his neck, his head at a 45-degree angle to the floor, shoulders cocked in a perpetual shrug. A tattooed, leather-vested guy hovered nearby — he, too, sporting an accordion.
It was a perfect Plough moment: Craig’s flower sitting on the bar as Darryl shot the breeze with the former Cambridge mayor, rolling his eyes at his own witticisms.
The television show Cheers had it right. You need somewhere you can call home, away from home. You need a place where you can get away from it all for a while: the bills, the laundry, the TV — the grinding conventions of domesticity. And you need a place where you can get away from yourself. There are dozens — maybe hundreds — of neighborhood bars just like the Plough in the Boston area, and yet there really is no place like it. It’s not that the booze is any cheaper, or the décor any nicer. It’s the people — on both sides of the bar — that make the Plough what it is: a cross between Cheers and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an extended family full of kooky aunts and opinionated brothers-in-law. It’s a place where Craig can walk in and treat the whole bar to a taste of his homegrown tomatoes, where Darryl can feel at ease sitting in the corner, squeezing away at his accordion.
Darryl has been a familiar face at the Plough for so many years he’s become a fixture, like the mirrors and photographs that adorn the walls. George Crawley, the Plough’s owner, recalls when he had the bar’s floor redone, back in the early ’80s. Shortly afterward, the nattily attired Darryl walked in, took one look at the new floor, and said, " I think I’ve got some things in my wardrobe to match this. "
George, meanwhile, is not what you’d call a fashion plate. On the day I talk with him, he’s wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt, green shorts, white socks, and sneakers. At 54 years old, he is a solid guy, with a boxer’s build and a fading tattoo on his left forearm. Originally from Dublin, George started working as a bartender at the Plough in 1973. In 1982, he plundered his savings account and bought the place. One of the first — and only — modifications he made was to install an air conditioner. Before that, employees kept water pistols behind the bar, which customers squirted at each other when things got too steamy.
When I first set foot in the Plough, back in 1976, it was the middle of July, but I don’t remember the bar being particularly hot. I was a David Cassidy–haired 13-year-old, thrilled to be rubbing elbows with bona fide barflies (even if my elbows did only reach their knees). My father, a Plough regular, had brought me in to show me off to the locals. I remember I told a ribald joke. People laughed. I felt grown up. And now I am grown up, and I still go to the Plough, and I still tell ribald jokes there. I told the one about the two nuns just the other day.
The Plough represents continuity, and this is why I treasure it. In the time I have been going there, I have changed apartments, changed jobs, changed lovers, and changed my mind about almost everything. Yet I know I can still go to the Plough. There will always be that crossword puzzle to do, that game of cribbage to play, that pint of Newcastle Brown to knock back.
And there will always be those familiar surroundings. Walk in to the Plough today and you will see what I saw 25 years ago: the same tables and chairs, the same bottles lined up behind the bar, the same huge windows, the same tiny restrooms, the same customers. I have been a regular at the Plough since the mid ’80s, but to many of the devotees who rest their elbows on its mottled bar top, I am a fledgling, a pitiful rookie. On any given day, there will be a good half-dozen regulars who have, between them, put in a couple of lifetimes at this place, who have drunk a Quabbin’s worth of booze, who have smoked enough butts to blot out the sun for a year.
One recent afternoon, a decidedly less-than-solvent regular took the unusual step of ordering lunch. After he left — and left a tip — Jan, the Plough’s long-serving and long-suffering waitress, rolled her eyes and said, " Times they are a-changing. " And they are. In the past 25 years, the stretch of Mass Ave between Harvard and Central Squares has been revamped, rebuilt, re-priced. Where we used to have Jack’s rock club and the Orson Welles Cinema, we have FleetBank and Relax the Back. Instead of communes and crash pads, we have impossibly expensive condos. And yet the Plough remains right where it has always been, just as it has always been. The Plough is one of the last vestiges of the old Cambridge still standing, and in your darker moments you wonder how much longer it can endure. George says business isn’t what it used to be, but you chalk this up to the condition of publicans everywhere: the propensity to grumble. You have to — the alternative is too grim to contemplate.
" There are a few places without which you couldn’t have Cambridge, " says Ken Reeves. " The Plough is one of them. You appreciate them more and more as you see less and less of them. "
Issue Date: August 30 - September 6, 2001