When I first met Nelson Carey I was broke and unemployed. I had just finished working a summer job that had me traveling across the country during the baseball season but ended when the season was over. A mutual acquaintance referred me to Nelson, and mentioned that there was a Help Wanted sign hanging in The Old Vine liquor store on Falls Road. I turned in my application and Nelson called about a week later to congratulate me on being hired. I took an immediate liking to this charming gentleman. He had a very formal and dignified way of speaking and carrying himself.
The job was only one day a week, stocking wine on the shelves and ringing up customers at the cash register, but it was so much fun. I really enjoyed the company of my co-workers and Nelson. We tasted wine all day and took turns making or buying lunch for each other on designated days. In no time at all I wasn’t feeling so down on my luck anymore. A few months later Nelson informed me that he would be opening another shop in the refurbished Belvedere Square. I didn’t even know where it was but I agreed to make the move with him; he told me there would be some bartending involved. I had never worked as a bartender before but I looked forward to learning and I was glad to continue our working relationship.
We opened Grand Cru in November of 2003 and it took a little while for it to take off but when it did, it really did. The place seemed to be just what the neighborhood needed: a neighborhood bar, which is what we are to this day. The same familiar faces hold down our barstools day after day after day, we sometimes make analogies to the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," as many days feel the same as ones that have passed before. But I give Nelson credit for creating this comfortable and familiar environment.
Most of our staff has worked there from the beginning or near the beginning, and even though it may sound cliché we really are one big dysfunctional family. And Nelson was our patriarch, brother, nutty-professor, drunk uncle, and best friend rolled into one. He could be incredibly absent-minded and unorganized but the same things that we found frustrating about him were also his most endearing qualities. He ran a pretty loose ship; we could all come and go as we pleased and he’d always be there for us when we returned. Many work places are like the television program "Taxi," where everyone has a job working together but also aspires to a career doing something else. We have a lot of that at Grand Cru and Nelson was always encouraging all of our endeavors. If someone needed a month or two off to pursue a personal interest, it was given without question; your shifts would be covered until you came back and then you would resume your regular schedule. Nelson seemed to relish in the outside accomplishments of the people who worked for him as much—if not more—than the individuals themselves did.
When I first started working at the bar I was in the middle of writing a book and I felt like a bartender’s schedule was very conducive to my needs. I could write in the day and tend bar at night. I figured that I would move onto something else when the book was completed, but soon I found myself getting more writing done since becoming a bartender than I had before. I was even getting writing gigs as a result of connections I had made at the bar. I started to think of Nelson as my own good luck charm. He seemed to have a Midas touch. I often referred to him as “that lucky little leprechaun.” Whenever anyone would voice displeasure or frustration about any part of working at Grand Cru, I would tell them, “It’s Nelson’s party and we’re all invited to stay as long as we want.” None of us thought he would be the first to go.