March 19, 2005 Many moons ago, Ted Luscz's saloon-keeper father gave him some sage advice. "Build your business around your neighborhood," the elder Luscz advised, and his son listened.
You can't get much closer to the heart of the Frenchtown neighborhood than the late Bar Normandie which Luscz managed for more than a decade, until its much lamented demise in 1996.
While running the historic bar was an irreplaceable experience, that's not where Luscz started out. He arrived on St. Thomas in 1974 on the advice of a friend from New Jersey where he grew up. "I was headed to work at Lake Tahoe when John called and said to come to the V.I. instead. So, I did."
Luscz hit the island as a footloose and fancy free twenty-something. "John and I lived in the tower at the Old Mill," he says, "and there were jobs everywhere, in the bars, on sailboats."
It wasn't long before Luscz found his way to Frenchtown and the Quarterdeck restaurant where he wound up tending bar for more than five years before taking over Bar Normandie.
"Dick Stadlemier hired me to tend bar, and I couldn't get over how lucky I was. What a place to work, looking out over the harbor, the boats, the people, the sun. What more could you ask?"
Luscz's footloose days came to an end in 1975 when he took four stateside girls on a day sail out of Bolongo Beach. "I sent the other three back, and kept Becky," he laughs. Becky now his wife of 25 years went back to the states, collected her things, and moved back to St. Thomas to become a diving instructor.
By the time the mid-80s rolled around, the family had grown to include Andrew, now in his final year at Yale, and Emily, who just entered her freshman year at Dartmouth. Both attended Antilles School and both were valedictorians of their graduating classes. A wall at Hook, Line and Sinker now sports a Dartmouth pennant to accompany the almost 4-year-old Yale pennant.
Though Luscz loved tending bar at the Quarterdeck, when the opportunity to take over the Bar Normandie lease came his way, he grabbed it. "You can't raise a family on a bartender's salary," he says.
Luscz soon found the Bar Normandie was not simply a bar; it was an institution, one that had decades of history and tradition behind it. Soon he and Becky were up to their ears, just learning the ropes. First, there was Sebastian Greaux, who, standing tall behind the bar, had run the daytime shift for years.
"Sebastian was a surrogate father to me," Luscz says. "He guided me in the early days, told me what to do, how to get it done, and who to talk to."
"Right," agrees Becky, who filled in for lunch hours, usually holding the infant Emily on her hip. "Heaven knows, I couldn't be one minute late for Sebastian's lunch hour, or he'd simply leave and go home to have lunch with his wife."
An occasional tourist would wander in the bar, and be caught up short. Upstairs from the bar was Café Normandie, a fine dining restaurant, a far cry from the downstairs saloon. Once when the caféé was having a wine-tasting with the elite Chaine des Rotisseurs, a misguided couple wandered into the downstairs bar, and ordered white wine. "Our finest Chablis," said the bartender, pouring from a screwcap bottle over ice into a plastic cup. "Would the lady like a straw?"
The bar was the focus of Frenchtown celebrations birthdays, wakes, marriages, divorces, Father's Day, Bastille Day. And most of them saw Smalls and his scratch band performing on the outside patio where anyone could join in with an old brake drum or a gourd.
When a funeral was held at St. Anne's chapel up the hill, Luscz says, "The bar had a tradition of closing the doors and windows as the procession passed by on its way to the Western Cemetery. Then, about an hour or so later, we'd have a lot of the mourners back on their favorite seats, drowning their sorrows."
Then there were other traditions. "What we called the 'Frenchtown Christmas Choir' would start some time after Thanksgiving and carry on until Christmas," Luscz says, smiling at the memory. "The Richardsons, the Moby Dicks (Carnival troupe), and a few others would surround the little side window and sing their hearts out. As the evening grew longer, the voices got louder, more spirited, they said. Nobody complained. Anybody passing by was welcome to join."
After the Normandie closed, Henry Richardson opened a bar down the street where the tradition still reigns. In fact, the bar is called La Petite Fenetre, French for "the little window."
Dressed in jeans and a Dartmouth T-shirt, the now graying Luscz leans back comfortably in the Hook, Line and Sinker booth, as he and Becky contemplate. "Oh, we can't forget Paulie, never Paulie," they agree. Luscz says, "He was the biggest pain and the biggest delight."
Paulie is Paul Greaux, another tradition. The diminutive Paulie lived all his life across the street from the bar and had a proprietary interest in it. "He thought he owned it," says Luscz. "He loved to dress up. He'd come over in his cowboy outfit and demand an Old Milwaukee from anyone at the bar. He'd tell people, 'I Johnny Cash; buy me a drink'. Sometimes he'd go upstairs to Caféé Normandie in a bikini and a blond wig, and pull the same act," Luscz recalls, "but, with different results."
Of all the parties at the Normandie, Luscz says, two stand out. "The happiest was probably my 50th birthday party. I wore a white dinner jacket and everyone dressed in '40s style Rosie the Riveter, cigarette girls, zoot suits, and '40s music. The saddest was the day the bar closed, June 23, 1996, the Bar Normandie 'last call.'"
When Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995, the bar became Frenchtown central. Most shops in the neighborhood were closed. "Everybody came by to leave messages, find out what was happening, who needed help, where everybody was. They would stay and have a warm beer," Luscz says. "The bar was a lifesaver for the FEMA workers who couldn't figure out the addresses. They aren't consecutive they don't make sense.
"One Sunday afternoon the National Guard band came to play I don't remember how that happened. They just appeared and set up. It was great to have the music; everybody had been so down, no lights, no water. People just poured out to listen, to pick up the spirit."
While Luscz enjoyed his new role at the Normandie, his heart was never far from the Quarterdeck, his first love. In the mid-'80s he got an unexpected blow when he heard Quarterdeck had been sold. Luscz had been in the states at the time. "When I came back, my heart was broken," Luscz recalls. "I had wanted it for so long."
However, fate intervened one day in 1987. The new owners had bailed out, and Luscz grabbed it, changing the name to Hook, Line and Sinker. Luscz says he enjoys a good relationship with landlord Bill Quetel and a good lease. The Quetels, in fact, attend the many celebrations Luscz throws on the dockside, the biggest of which was probably Sebastian's 50th wedding anniversary a few years ago, where most all of Frenchtown danced and danced.
Our interview is interrupted time and again by people wanting to buy ice or the local fishermen "Hey, Ted, need any yellowtail today?" and by the "boaties" stopping by to pour themselves coffee, though the restaurant isn't officially open yet.
"You know, Becky and I went to the states a few years ago to check out a restaurant business. With the kids in school and getting ready for college, we thought we'd look at it. But when we got back here, we just looked at each other and said,
'No way, this is our home.'"
He has been rewarded for that sentiment. His blue eyes brightening, Luscz says, "The best thing has to be when we were asked to speak at the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. And we're not even French, and Becky gave her part of the address in her college French. I was so proud of her."
"Little did I know I'd be using my college French in a place called Frenchtown," Becky says with a laugh.
In a business that has one of the highest employee turnover rates, Hook, Line and Sinker is a rare exception. "We've been so lucky with our employees," Luscz says. Lisa Berger has been the face behind the bar for about 18 years. Chef Harry Ralph, red-headed waitress Barbie, and tall, blond Jackie all have between 10 and 15 years too, Luscz says.
Right after this out of the kitchen bounds line cook Glenette DuPorte. "Hey, dont forget me I've been here seven years."
And the customers stick around too. On any day of the week you will see the same customers, many from old Quarterdeck days. "We should have plaques in the booths for them," Luscz says.
Though the hair and the beard are showing gray, Luscz, at heart, is still the guy from 30 years ago, happily tending bar at the Quarterdeck. "I still can't get over how lucky I've been," he says, with a glance at Becky. "You can't beat the view, the boats, the sun, the moon coming up over the water, the people, the same ones always who come back."
The Lusczes look up at the college pennants on the wall. "We've been very lucky," they agree.
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