Last Call: 37 Years Behind a Bradford, Vt., Bar End Tenderly

  • Tom Hall, 75, pours a drink during his last shift at the Colatina Exit in Bradford, Vt., where he has tended bar for 36 years, Wednesday, March 7, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bartender Tom Hall, admires a baseball signed by former Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg given to him by patron Neil Oakes, of Piermont, N.H., left, during his last shift at the Colatina Exit in Bradford, Vt., Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Hall is retiring after 36 years behind the bar. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • An old pitcher used for flushing lines sits under the taps at the Colatina Exit in Bradford, Vt., where Tom Hall, 75, has tended bar for 36 years, Wednesday, March 7, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Seven thousand five hundred. That’s the number of shifts Tom Hall, the longtime bartender at Colatina Exit, clocked in over his 37 years at the Bradford restaurant. He did the math himself.

“Not math. Arithmetic,” he said on Wednesday, as he set up the bar for his last-ever shift before retiring. “Math is a language. Arithmetic is arithmetic.”

He glided around his workspace with a fluid, practiced grace: distributing stacks of plates, folding and setting out napkins, flipping on the light above the blackboard, hauling buckets of ice up the stairs.

“I keep careful record of everything,” he continued. He also calculated that he’d worked at Colatina for just about half his life, “almost to the day,” he said. “I find that interesting.” (He turned 75 the next day, and the restaurant threw him a birthday-retirement party that, he said on the phone this week, was touchingly well-attended.)

Staff confirmed that one of Hall’s roles at Colatina was as record-keeper. Garrett Cook, the manager on duty Wednesday night, described him as a “human almanac,” and said he often turns to Hall for his take on how busy they might be on a certain night, based on historical patterns.

But the information Hall stores goes beyond numbers: He has seen Colatina — and, in some ways, bar culture in general — go through several waves of change.

“It used to pretty wild and rowdy here,” he said. “Now it’s more of a civilized place.” He’s proud to have survived more than 1,000 shifts on karaoke night, for which he is also an almanac: The most popular song over the years has been The B-52s’ Love Shack, he said.

Eventually, open mic nights replaced karaoke, and now live music is a fixture. But the biggest change to Colatina’s atmosphere, Hall said, was the ban on smoking indoors.

“You wouldn’t believe how smoky it would be in here,” he said. “It was horrendous.” Hall quit smoking decades ago, on his 40th birthday; he likes to make his life transitions at ages that are multiples of five or 10.

He’s lived in his house in Fairlee, at the north end of Lake Morey, for 35 years — exactly a 4.5-mile trip each way, Hall said — but he hasn’t always been a creature of consistency. As a child in the 1950s, he spent time in Damascus (his father was Lebanese), “did all the drugs” at art school in the ’60s, and spent his young adulthood traveling through the Middle East and northern Africa, hitch-hiking and “free-living,” he said.

He eventually found his way to New York City, where he worked as a cab driver, among other jobs, but he got tired of the city. His mother was from Hanover, and he’d visited the area enough as a boy to know he wanted a life that moved at Upper Valley speed, he said as he rhythmically sliced up the citrus fruits for the night.

He moved to the area in 1975, and married his wife, Mary “Muffy” Hall, in 1979. He and Muffy raised two children, now 31 and 28.

“She was a great parent, and a great person,” he said. She died in 2003.

The citrus wedges are mostly for waters these days. He might use eight lemons in a night, a small harvest compared to decades past. He sees the decline in lemon usage as one of the indirect side effects of a cultural shift away from cocktails, and toward what he called the “craft beer revolution.” Most of the beer he sells is on draft, from breweries such as Switchback and Magic Hat, though there are still some Budweiser loyalists in Bradford yet.

“I can’t keep up with it,” he said. “People have all these questions about the flavor, what do you call it, the flavor profiles of all of them.”

Before he gave up alcohol — on his 50th birthday — he was never a big beer drinker himself. His drink of choice, both to make and imbibe, was the Manhattan.

The key to a good Manhattan, he said, is that “they should be strong,” with the ratio of rye whiskey to sweet vermouth around four- or five-to-one. “And it has to be ice cold. That’s the most important thing, more important than the ratio.”

A few minutes before the bar opened, at 4 p.m., he hit the music, a ’70s playlist he liked, despite the disco. The strains of The Things We Do for Love, by 10cc, drifted in through the speakers. He disappeared into the back for a minute, and when he came back out he was dressed in a sharp black T-shirt and pants. He combed his hair in the bar mirror, peering between glasses and bottles to tame any stray hairs.

While getting ready to open, Hall had been friendly, but reserved. When the first customer of his last night walked in, though, his face lit up.

“Hey, Kenny!” he called out in greeting. Kenneth Keating, of Topsham, Vt., had been coming to Colatina since he was old enough to drink — which also happened to be Hall’s first year on the job.

“He’s smart,” Keating said of Hall, over the beer he’d ordered. “He knows when to fade back and when to step in. And he’s a good golfer.”

As more customers trickled in, Hall’s hands were in constant motion. They knew where everything lived, without guidance from his eyes. They straightened and tidied. They adjusted the thermostat. They fanned out stacks of paper napkins, using only a glass.

“There’s nothing to it,” he said, noticing raised eyebrows. “You anchor it with your thumb, twirl (the glass), you got it.”

Though the nuances of a beer’s flavor profile escape him, Hall does see some upsides to the beer movement: With people consuming less hard alcohol, especially in the form of shots, he’s noticed he doesn’t have to cut people off nearly as much as he used to, and physical altercations have become few and far between.

He almost never uses his Bartender’s Guide anymore — a thick, spiral-bound book with yellowing pages — and doesn’t consider himself much of a bartender. But other patrons raved about his drinks. Bradford’s Bob Valliant, usually a Coors Light or Pabst Blue Ribbon man, ordered a golden margarita in light of the occasion. He closed his eyes when he took his first sip of the drink, named for its use of gold tequila and Grand Marnier.

“Tommy’s golden margaritas,” he sighed. “He makes ’em good.”

But making them good isn’t all there is to being a bartender, Valliant added. It’s also about “being loved and respected … and the fact that he’s still alive after all those karaoke nights is pretty incredible.

“He’s just an incredible individual.”

Far from karaoke night, Wednesday was trivia night at Colatina, an activity at which Hall shines. He attributes this to his love of reading, especially history, but he’s also a vault of information on sports and geography. He might not know off the top of his head which Australian state capital has a suburb called Payneham, but he was the only one on the team who thought to guess Adelaide.

“I haven’t missed one yet,” he grinned, a few rounds in.

Hall plans to use his time to focus on golfing at the Lake Morey Resort, and on painting.

Two of his paintings hang downstairs at Colatina, over dining booths. One is of a railroad bridge in town. The other depicts downtown Bradford from the rooftops. He wants to pick up the pace, though: One painting takes him around three months to finish.

“I like to be deliberate,” he shrugged, adding that he favors oil paint over watercolor in part because it’s easier to correct.

His careful approach to the canvas comes through in the details of his paintings downstairs: In the one of downtown Bradford, he not only paints the storefronts and rooftops with great precision, but also each individual tree in the hundreds that fade into the distance behind the town.

Thirty-seven years, 7,500 shifts and countless empty glasses later, Hall is grateful for what the job has taught him about people’s inherent kindness.

“People are so nice to each other,” he said. “I leave this job with great faith in humanity.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.