After emerging from a long winter, as the days get longer and the evenings get warmer, some people in Portland’s West End know where to go on a Wednesday night.
They head to Tar Beach, a long midweek gathering in a driveway outside the home of Jim Ohannes and Elizabeth McGrady.
Ohannes and McGrady have hosted friends and neighbors for dinner every Wednesday from Memorial Day to Labor Day for nearly a decade. The couple welcomes anyone and everyone they meet in their community to join them, and the couple prepares a simple meal each week to share with their guests.
“We eat anyway, so we thought we might invite everyone too.” McGrady said.
In anticipation of dinner guests, Ohannes and McGrady often grill meat or fish and assemble the accompanying salad. They don’t expect guests to serve a plate to share, but extras are welcome. Oftentimes, someone shows up with a dip or something sweet to share with the group.
“There is no price to accept. I just say to everyone, ‘Bring yourselves first!”
She says she got inspiration from a friend who many years ago started hosting a casual cocktail hour outside her garage in Cape Elizabeth. She would bring six cans of beer and a bag of potato chips to her open garage to share with whomever comes across.
McGrady loved the idea of creating a space for neighbors to mingle and get to know each other without the stress of planning or pre-committing to an event.
Before their retirement, McGrady used to own a small business called Angel Files that helps people plan for the end of life, and Ohannes worked for Texas Instruments.
They live in a former convent that they have converted into their home. The backyard is basically a parking area that easily accommodates ten cars. Barely needing all of that parking space, McGrady and Ohannes provided more than half the cement for the dining room.
Using fencing and plants to split the lot in two, they transformed the side closest to their home with twinkling lights, awnings, tables and a mismatched set of chairs – an inviting space to spend time with friends, old and new.
Ohans said Tar Beach is what people used to call Philadelphia Roofs. He spent many similar nights hanging out with friends on those rooftops when he was in college. In a city where many people do not have access to the nearby lawns or parks, the rooftops of apartment buildings and houses have become urban oases, where people can gather to enjoy the sun or enjoy summer nights above the noise of the streets.
Tar Beach is in a completely different place, but it still serves a purpose, he said.
“Maine would never know its warmth. Unlike the hospitality of the South, all we have is the coolness of the North,” McGrady said of both the weather and how some people characterize typical moods. “Everyone here has back porches or yards. There is a culture of privacy. … I wanted to bring more of the front porch community into the neighborhood.”
Ohannes and McGrady invite anyone and everyone they know from their area, as well as old friends in the area and acquaintances from other parts of their lives. Among the usual crowd is McGrady’s childhood friend from her hometown of Warren, Kim Gilhuly, a writer who recently moved to Portland, and a neighbor who had her first night in Tar Beach on Wednesday in June 2016 when he moved in.
“I moved into the house next door a few months before my wife Beth came in, and while I was going home, Liz called from her house where she was staying,” said Jarrod Timbriol, a physician at Lincoln Health. “She invited me to dinner and I had nothing else to do, so I came. It was amazing to have a place to go when I first got here and meet so many of my neighbors who are now a big part of my life. I had never met most of them before, And I probably wouldn’t feel close to my community without Tar Beach.”
The pandemic did not stop Tar Beach. Somehow, the gathering took place at a time like this. It was already outdoors, the safest place for socializing. TChairs and chairs were spread farther apart. On a typical Wednesday night, Stephanie Vanburg, a rheumatologist at Maine Medical Center who lives an apartment block away, made cloth masks for all guests.
“This was the only place I saw anyone outside my house,” Vanburgh said. “Tar Beach was a saving grace.”
Flexibility comes easily To Ohannes and McGrady, who are used to adapting to the weather. They are dedicated to holding Tar Beach rain or shine. When it rains, they simply bring dinner inside.
Usually, about 15 to 20 people come to Tar Beach every week. Sometimes their number is less than five. They say the numbers don’t really matter to their hosts. Tar Beach is all about creation A place where community meets – even if it’s just a community Both.
When people flock, they meet familiar greetings or a surprise welcome. Tar Beach regulars snap next to each other, summarizing the week since they last gathered around the same tables. Newcomers and those who visit less frequently are quickly caught up in the conversation, finding their place within the crowd as McGrady shakes up cocktails and insists everyone try the cranberry sauce Vanberg brought to share. As the sun sets, sounds fill the warm air, mixing with smoke from the grill.
“It can be difficult to have a regular social life, especially here where the culture is not the culture of going out and socializing like in somewhere like New York,” McGrady said. “But if you can plan something that works for you, even if it’s once a month or once a week, and if you can take someone else with you – at least I have Jim here – and you know you’ll have dinner there for whoever attends, that’s perfect. When Have a party, don’t spend a second thinking about people who didn’t come, and go down that rabbit hole: Why didn’t they come? What were they doing? Do they like me anymore? You put all your energy to whoever attended. And that’s all that matters.”
Ohans said, so will carry on. Tar Beach has become a fixture in the neighborhood.
“We paved heaven and set up a parking lot,” said Ohans, referring to Joni Mitchell. “But this parking lot was a really special place. I hope we can continue to host Tar Beach forever.”
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