Steve Harris, the beloved proprietor of Rosie’s and Ruski’s neighborhood pubs in Portland, passed away last weekend at the age of 63 following a prolonged struggle with diabetes. Granted, his lifestyle didn’t make that struggle any easier, but is a life without smokes, booze and Spam really worth living?
I agree with Steve: Hell, no!
Harris did more to make Portland an enjoyable place to live than any mayor or city manager in modern times or, for that matter, any private citizen I can think of. No offense to the memory of P.D. Merrill, but Harris is just as deserving of an 80-foot-high public art installation. How about a giant bottle of J&B placed outside Rosie’s on Fore Street, where that saw-toothed abomination Tracing the Fore currently sits like a series of silver dog shits in high weeds? Or a smokestack painted to resemble a cigarette that sends clouds of real tobacco smoke in the direction of Portland City Hall and Augusta? Or the world’s tallest tower of Spam cans? I’ll leave it to the artists to decide.
Steve and his wonderful wife, Rose — who survives him, as do a son, a daughter, and a large extended family — owned and operated Ruski’s in the West End from 1985 until 2005, when they passed it on to Josh Whaley, a regular who they knew would keep its spirit alive (he has). Rosie’s recently celebrated its 20th anniversary as the only neighborhood pub in the Old Port, and it continues under Rose’s guidance with the help of a staff who, for all intents and purposes, are part of the Harris family.
Until his health declined several years ago, Steve was a fierce and tireless foe of the ninnies and nannies in Augusta and Portland City Hall who’ve sought to crush nightlife with laws, taxes and fees aimed directly at drinkers and smokers. In many respects, he lost those battles, too, but he relished the fight and never passed up an opportunity to get a laugh at the bureaucrats’ expense.
I learned of Steve’s passing at Rosie’s last Saturday. While sitting at the bar thinking of him, I heard a state-sponsored radio ad in which a woman whose voice sounded suspiciously artificial cooed about how Maine’s beaches are now smoke-free. Fuckin’ beaches?! Steve wasn’t buried yet, so I pictured him rolling off a slab in the morgue. Then I went outside and made clouds of second-hand smoke in his honor.
The irony is that while buzz-crushers like the Portland City Council have been tying themselves into knots for years trying to figure out how to keep bars peaceable, Harris knew how to do it all along. It’s quite simple: kick assholes out of your establishment and don’t let ’em back in.
Steve once told me of giving someone a triple-lifetime ban. When asked by the offender what he meant, he said, “You’re barred, your kids are barred, and if they have kids, they can’t come in here either!”
Simple. Effective. Hilarious.
This was, however, just one side of Harris’ personality. Though he wasn’t a cuddly, touchy-feely kind of guy, he had an enormous amount of compassion for the less fortunate and put that compassion into action year after year after year.
Steve and Rose started Harris Charities, an organization that raises money and collects items for the needy in the West End and elsewhere through auctions, cruises and other fun events. (Steve also did charitable work through his membership in the Eagles Club and Elks Lodge.) This wasn’t a successful business owner cutting checks to charities for a tax break. This was Steve and Rose and their employees and friends driving around at Christmastime delivering presents and personally soliciting donations from the bars’ loyal patrons. They made a difference in people’s lives and had a blast in the process — how do ya top that?
Steve’s charitable work and advocacy on behalf of bar owners and patrons are laudable, but the establishments themselves are his greatest contribution to Portland and his lasting legacy.
The prudes will scoff, but it is no small thing to have run neighborhood pubs like Rosie’s and Ruski’s for as long as he and Rose have. I think back on all the good times I’ve had at both places over the past 11 years: all the laughs with old friends and interesting conversations with new ones met at the bar; the great food (breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served late — huge portions at reasonable prices); all the times I brought a date there and how comfortable we always felt.
I’ve been to Rosie’s and Ruski’s hundreds of times, and I’m just one person. Multiply that by the 100,000 locals or more who’ve had similar experiences over the past two decades, and you’re talking millions of good times all made possible thanks to this man and his wife. (And that’s not counting God-knows-how-many tourists who’ve found Rosie’s and had a more favorable impression of the Old Port as a result.)
That’s what I mean when I say Steve did more than anyone I can think of to make Portland an enjoyable place to live. His contributions to our city and its social life are incalculable. He was a truly great man who lived life to the fullest, encouraged others to do the same, and fought for their right to do so with gusto.
So what are you waiting for? Get down to the pub and raise a fuckin’ glass to the guy. He’d have done the same for you.
A reflection on Steve Harris’ life takes place Sat., July 18, at Jones, Rich and Hutchins, 199 Woodford St., Portland, from 10 a.m. to noon.