Nights Out. Continued.
It’s time for the Thanksgiving potluck, so the wife and I excuse ourselves, pay our bill at CJs, and then we’re out and walking. My mind is on that idea, “maybe you’re the villain,” and I wonder if Ken Halberson has the self-awareness to consider that sort of thing.
We stop by the apartment and get the sweet potatoes and banana bread from the oven and then it’s south a block on Brown, over a block to Center, and down another block or so to 10 Mile, which markets itself as a “Heart of Texas Wine Tasting Room.” They have excellent wine by the bottle or the glass, and beer on tap. On this night the owners have set up a large table at the entrance and it is already loaded with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, and all the usual Thanksgiving fixings. Thanksgiving isn’t until next week, but now is a good time for a friend’s version at the bar.
There is a flurry of activity when we walk in as the ladies who own the place rush to make room on the already full food table for my wife’s dishes. This happens again several times over as more people arrive with food, and eventually another table is brought out just for the desserts.
It is an interesting thing, watching this all happen and noting that in the book, back in the 1950s, it was common for bars and cocktail lounges to provide free food for drinkers. Just like that first night with Ken at The Brick when the waiters would come around with trays loaded with oysters on ice and other food. Back then food was inexpensive, and there was some competition among establishments to keep drinkers occupied and happy so they wouldn’t leave to go to a restaurant to eat… a restaurant that often also served drinks. I remembered reading in a Jack Finney book set in the early 1900s how the men would come out of the businesses and there was a neighborhood bar on every block. The men would go into the bars and there were small beers, about seven ounces, and you’d buy a beer and there would be a table full of sandwiches and finger foods. You could eat your fill and maybe have a second small beer before going back to work or heading home. But it was a common thing that bars had food available for drinkers. In the 1980s and 90s, bars that catered to the business set had happy hour and there would almost always be free food, nachos, hot dogs, or something of that kind available.
In our new century, food is relatively expensive, and although most bars may have snacks available, chips and salsa, or a limited kitchen menu where you can order food you pay for, the era of buffets and free food is largely past. Las Vegas was built on free or cheap food, and it is only in the last couple of decades when that era has very close to ceased. Anyway, it occurred to me as we loaded our plates that what we were experiencing was very close to what Ken Halberson would have experienced at The Brick in 1954.
This meal is a great one of friendship and conversation and after some jokes and laughs and a few too many desserts, we say our goodbyes, and some of us walk down the block and across the street to Stone’s Grove, a cocktail lounge that serves, in my opinion, the best martinis in Brownwood, Texas.
Back in 1954, Ken and Verne are full of spaghetti and meatballs and way too much red wine, and when Ken tries to pay the bill he is rebuffed by Mama Ricci who tells him that John Lee Danner is the owner of the restaurant and he has warned every employee in all of his establishments, at the risk of dismemberment or termination, that Mr. Ken Halberson of LIFE Magazine is not to be allowed to pay a bill of any sort.
Ken wants to tell Mama that the only person benefiting from all of this is a certain Sir Edward Kramer Thompson, Esquire of LIFE Magazine, but he knows that Mama Ricci doesn’t want to be fired from her namesake restaurant and doesn’t care who’s paying, so he doesn’t argue.
From Papa Ricci’s, Ken and Verne walk the few blocks to the Bistro District to Las Lunas where they are spotted by a doorman and escorted past the line of chatting customers waiting in line to be seated. The maître d removes a RESERVED placard from a table just a few down from where Ken and John Lee sat the first time Ken was there. A small trio plays dinner music, and Verne orders two gin martinis and tells the waiter he can clear the table of plates and silver since they may never eat again ever after their over-consumption at Papa Ricci’s.
“I take it you aren’t playing tonight?” Ken says.
“No sir,” Verne says. The full orchestra, tux and tails, will be set up at Bix’s tomorrow night for the big shindig, so we’re all off tonight.”
Sipping martinis at Stone’s Grove and the gin is good even though I ordered just the ‘well’ gin. I’m not a big enough gin drinker to care to order a more expensive brand name. I know the brands: Aviator, Beefeater, Bombay. Someday I’ll try, but this is not that day. A big, bearded guy tries to lead karaoke but he’s the only one singing right now. He keeps encouraging someone to come up and sing, but no one does. Too early for anyone to be drunk enough to get up there. This place is known for the quality of the drinks, and they are good and strong and I tell people when they come here to take it easy and plan on sipping one because the drinks are robust and well-made. This cocktail lounge is a quirky one, with a kind of mismatched modern eclectic furniture scattered around in little groups and a lot of cool art and some neon on the walls. I like it. We sit and talk and we’re full from the meal and happy.
I’m thinking about the differences between my night and Ken Halberson’s. I’m wearing a T-shirt and jeans, while Ken is debonair in a light suit, dark shirt, and tie. Halberson wears a hat too, at least while walking from place to place. If the weather were to be more seasonal, he might be wearing an overcoat. Every establishment had a coat and hat check.
Things were more proper, if not formal, in the 1950s, and too casual now. Hats would remain a standard for men into the 1960s. I wish we had a “dress up to go out” culture, and maybe someday it’ll come back in style. I note that service workers were more ubiquitous in 1954. Labor wasn’t as expensive, and everyone wanted to work. Married women were generally at home keeping house and raising the children most of the time, so most of the women working in the service industry were single. It’s just the way it was. The Great Depression was still very much in people’s memories, and you didn’t have ‘self-serve’ anything because people felt the need to have a job. None of the establishments we’ve been to thus far in my time, except Teddy’s Brewhaus, has had waiters or waitresses. Teddy’s is more of a restaurant and people generally order the meal of the day there. In modern times many bars have a walk-up bar, and you don’t have someone serving you at your table. In Ken Halberson’s time, every business had ample service staff doing everything from parking cars, opening doors, seating people, bringing drinks and food, etc., and often they survived on tips. Workers circulated constantly, encouraging people to buy more drinks. In places where cigarettes weren’t free, there were cigarette girls who had trays with all the most popular cigarette brands and gum, perhaps playing cards and cigars.
Life was different.
Only one drink here, because two of these martinis would be too much too
fast. We say our goodbyes once more, pay our tab, then walk hand-in-hand down past 10 Mile again. We look in the windows and there are still small groups of five to six people sitting around, drinking wine and talking. It’s getting dark and since this is the main entertainment and shopping area downtown, the city has already decorated the streetlamps and posts with Christmas decorations, even here before Thanksgiving. The street buzzes with energy as people walk from place to place. A big tree is up in the middle of Coursey Park, and it’s brightly lit, resplendent with white lights.
Across Central and to the right and down another block past more shops and windows ready for the holidays and we’re at The Turtle Restaurant which has a cocktail bar called Enoteca.
Verne and I are joined at our table by a heavy-set, jovial fellow named Carlo Rocca, a former drummer for the orchestra who no longer plays. Arthritis. He owns a sweet shop on Crow and sometimes does standup comedy here at Las Lunas and other venues in town. Carlo pumps my hand with his large, twisted fists and pulls up a chair. He orders the table a round of drinks and tells Verne how much he wishes he was playing tomorrow.
“I sure do miss it,” Carlo says. “Especially the formal affairs. But we play the hand that is dealt with us. Hey, so a soldier is called to the front and bawled out by his sergeant major. ‘Soldier!’ the sergeant-major says. ‘I didn’t see you at camouflage training this morning!’ The soldier says, ‘Thank you, sir.’”
We laugh and Carlo slaps Verne on the back. Then we chat some more about the big dance tomorrow night.
“I sure do wish I was playin’,” Carlo Rocca says again, “like in the old days. Before my hands got twisted and my elbows started hurtin’ so bad. But I like the candy business, as you can tell.” He laughs and pats his belly.
The fresh drinks arrive and Verne excuses himself and says he’ll be right back.
“Hey Carlo,” I say. “I don’t mean to pry but you probably already know I’m here kind of… experiencing Nowhere. Trying to get my mind around it.”
“Yeah,” Carlo says. “I heard. Everyone’s talking about you. Big-time writer. But don’t let that worry ya, people talkin’. We’re the worst gossips. Speaking of gossips, did you hear the one about the military vet who goes to see the doc about his sore back?”
I shake my head.
“Well, this vet goes to see the doc and says, ‘Doc, my back is killing me.’ The doc says, ‘When was the last time you had sex?’ The vet scratches his chin. ‘Well, that would have been around 1945.’ The doc shrugs and says, ‘Well, it’s only 20:15 right now so give it some time.’”
I laugh. “I get it,” I say. “That’s a good one because it’s military time.”
“Well, don’t explain the joke, Hemingway,” Carlo says. He pulls the last cigarette out of a pack and puts it in his mouth, crushing the empty pack with his crooked hand. “That’s about all I can crush now,” he says. I strike a match and he leans in while I light his cigarette. “I used to could crush a can of beans, full and sealed in my bare hand. I used to slap the skins for eight, nine hours straight, no problem. Boy did we used to jam. I played with Paul Whiteman back in the day. This was twenty-five years ago. Hottest band in the country. Played with him when Bix and Tram took on Fletcher Henderson at the Roseland. The greatest night of my life. But now I sell candy my wife makes. But we’re happy.”
“How did you come to Nowhere?” I ask.
“Just like a lot of the musicians here. Even ex-musicians like me. John Lee brought us in when he knew we was havin’ tough times. He hooked us up with Mr. Copeland at the bank and we got a loan for our little shop. Best thing we ever did. If I can’t play the drums. I can still do other work, and I like to come here and listen to the old tunes. Hands are all curved up like an old tree trunk, but I can still work. But that’s not what you want to ask me, right? You askin’ everyone how Nowhere came to be? Is that what you want to know?”
“I do,” I said. I tapped a Chesterfield out of my pack, and I leave the pack in the middle of the table since I know Carlo’s out of cigarettes. I light mine and puff on it before setting it in the ashtray. The smoke curls up slowly bending through the mood lighting and I hear the piano player on a solo and the smoke seems to curve itself toward the music.
“I’ll just come out and tell ‘ya,” Carlo says, “this whole place is a spy joint, and I don’t care. Not Las Lunas, but the whole town. It’s a charm school for training Russian spies to send to America.”
“Send to America?” I say. “Nowhere isn’t in America?” I think maybe Carlo is following John Lee’s idea of implying that Nowhere is on a different plane of existence or something.
“Nope,” Carlo says. “The way I got it figured is we’re in Bulgaria somewhere. A friend of mine who I worked it out with says Bulgaria, though, near Sofia or some shit. I don’t know, maybe southern Bulgaria. A Russian satellite state. We were drugged to get us here. In my story, John Lee is a high-up Russian spy. Like this close with Kruschev. This place is a fake U.S. town, built after the war and set up to train Russians to act like Americans. Speak the language and whatnot. They kidnap Americans or they come here willingly. Volunteer. I don’t know, and I don’t care though. Don’t give a shit. I gave my pound of flesh to the good old US of A and if I’m being tricked into training Russian spies, what do I care? Find me guilty. I got a good life here. Making candy and fudge and whatnot. Hey, did you hear this one? I think Bob Hope told this one, but it’s great. I’m not above stealing a joke. Anyway, did you hear ol’ Joe McCarthy has a list with two million communists on it? Yeah. He stole a Moscow phone book.”
On that one I didn’t laugh because I didn’t know the joke was over.
“Well, they’re not all gems, but I like that joke. Must be the way I told it.”
“So, you don’t think we’re dead,” I said. “You think we’re in Bulgaria?”
“I don’t know. It sounds silly when you say it like that. I know I’m not dead because if I was dead I wouldn’t—”
He paused and I could see his eyes moisten and narrow.
“If we was dead, I wouldn’t still miss Connie.”
Carlo let out a muffled sob, and I could tell something painful had suddenly occurred to him. As if a trauma had overtaken him.
“Connie… Connie was my daughter. She got taken from our street in Hackensack. Out playin’ and she just disappeared one day. Cops found her body.”
He sobbed a little, hand over his face, shoulders slumped. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything yet. A minute passed and I smoked my cigarette.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said.
He nodded, dabbed at his face with a napkin, then blew his nose. Everything was fine again.
“Sorry about that, friend. Sometimes it runs up on me and I can’t see clear to stop it. But nothing like… that… ever happened in Nowhere. I couldn’t see it ever happenin’. That’s why I’m ok with us helpin’ the Russians if that’s what we’re doin’. Don’t care so long as this place is good and we’re safe.”
“I get that,” I say.
“So, did you hear that the Russians found a mummified body when they were digging over there by the Kremlin? Well, Khrushchev calls the KGB and says, ‘I want to know how old that mummy is.’ The KGB leaves and they come back later that night. ‘The mummy is 4,000 years old, Comrade,’ the KGB
Colonel says. ‘How do you know this?’ Khrushchev asks. The Colonel says, ‘He confessed!’”
The Enoteca bar is part of the Turtle establishment, which is a high-end restaurant, gelateria, and bar in Brownwood. The restaurant itself is a long, narrow building that has a nice courtyard in the rear. A fine restaurant with eclectic menus and well-trained staff. Next to the restaurant is the second unit which is the Gelateria—a gelato shop. The third unit in the establishment is the Enoteca bar. All three have the turtle as a mascot, and turtles are well-represented in the art and decorations. The courtyard in the rear covers the width of all three units and is a wonderful place for drinks and entertainment. We enter the bar and I order a scotch and my wife orders a specialty drink that I cannot recall. Something sweet. We sip our cocktails and when the bartender, who is also the waitress, comes by we ask her if we can go sit out in the courtyard.
“Sure enough,” she says, “and there will be a cool jazz duo out there in a little bit.”
We’re seated in the courtyard, and it’s a wonderful space with a vine-covered gazebo-style roof. The tables are mostly occupied now, and the size of the crowd surprises me. We recognize some friends here and there and wave as we take our seats. A huge, impressive grapevine stretches over the entire space, and its branches and tendrils sprawl all across the ‘roof,’ ranging the entire width of the courtyard, hanging down near the ground in several places. In others, it is tied up with wire or string and you can see where some of the grapes were not harvested but have dried into raisins hanging in bunches. A waiter comes and we order more drinks. The weather is fine and it’s not too cold, even for November, the week before Thanksgiving, and the string lights and decorative touches lend to the place an awesome vibe. A couple of younger guys emerge with instruments and start playing 40s and 50s era jazz and standards. The American Songbook. Both play numerous instruments, so they ably cover a wide variety of songs with just the two of them and the help of technology. From a Sinatra-esque version of I Get a Kick Out of You, to a Diana Krall song, and from Nat King Cole’s styling of L.O.V.E and Paper Moon to Cole Porter and Let’s Fall in Love, the little duo entertains wonderfully. Meanwhile, I continue to consider the differences between Ken Halberson’s night and my own. Music performances have undergone a massive transition between the 40s/50s and today. In the 1940s the Big Band and the huge Swing orchestras were the popular music of the day,
and even into the first half-decade of the 50s, Jazz and Swing standards were commonplace at the top of the charts. If you went to a ballroom in the 1940s you would have likely been entertained by a band of somewhere between fifteen and thirty pieces, all comprised of the finest musicians in the world. By the end of the 50s, there were a lot of four-piece rock-and-roll groups, many who could barely play their instruments. We went from Benny Goodman and Sing, Sing, Sing, to Elvis Presley, usually backed by studio musicians who were a dime a dozen. This is not a condemnation of 50s music, which was very popular and catchy. It was more of an economic phenomenon and a change in both the audience makeup, and the tastes of the record buying public. Here, on this night, we had a wonderful mashup of the two realities. A two-piece band playing some of the big band standards of the earlier eras. It all makes me think.
And that’s what I’m doing as we close out our night, during our beautiful walk back to the little borrowed apartment a few blocks over on Brown. I’m thinking about Ken studying an album cover featuring Dick Hager (who is now John Lee Danner,) and Dick’s orchestra from the war years.
Carlo has gone home for the night, Verne is back, and we’re not presented a bill, so we excuse ourselves, thank the staff we encounter on the way out, retrieve our hats and we’re walking up Chestnut. Verne leads the way, and we end up at John Lee’s place, a little walk-up on 8th and we do just that and knock on the door. John Lee seems like he’s expecting us, and he has Kentucky bourbon ready on a little bar and some snacks he’s prepared.
John Lee’s apartment is tastefully decorated for a single man, but not ostentatious. He has comfortable modern furniture and there is a nice coffee table with coasters and a little ingenious table lighter that uses a reusable match. There are cigarettes in a little brass tray exactly like the trays I remember being on the bar at The Brick.
We pour drinks and light cigarettes and John Lee and Verne reminisce and regale with stories of the big bands and who they played with during the war years.
“I played for a while with Red Nichols and the Five Pennies, and I tell you what, that man had a helluva band over the years. At one time or another he had Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Jack Teagarden, Pee Wee Russell and a bunch of other big names. You talk about a band! Yep, back in the day if you loved the trumpet or the cornet, it was Bix Beiderbecke, Harry James, and Red Nichols! I tell you! Then after that came ol’ Dick Hager, maybe. Way down the list.”
“Oh fudge,” Verne said. “You played with the best and you were the best!”
“After the war things weren’t the same. Folks came home and started families. We had the baby boom. People moving to the suburbs and buying tract homes. Nobody went and saw the old bands anymore. The crooners did alright with cobbled-together band made up of those who didn’t scatter and get jobs or go back to school. We’ll never have another time like we had before and during the war. But forget all that. I’ve had enough bourbon. Let’s get some wine! Do you want wine, Verne?”
Verne crushed out his cigarette. “I sure do, Dick… I mean John Lee.” He winked.
“How about you, Faulkner?”
I smiled. “I’m along for the ride, gents.”
“You stay here,” John Lee said. “Verne and I will walk down and get a bottle of red. I need to talk to Verne anyway.”
And they left, arms clasped around each other like they were embracing the memories.
I looked around and found myself thumbing through John Lee’s record collection. Most of them were the standards that you might expect. The Swing Bands, Sinatra, a lot of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson. And then I came across an album featuring none other than Dick Hager.
Dick Hager and His Mighty Men was the title.
There was John Lee, holding his trumpet, surrounded by a dozen musicians, Verne Powell, and there was Carlo Rocca with straight hands holding his drumsticks. I slid the vinyl out and put it on the record player and sat back to listen, holding the record cover. As the music started, tunes I knew like I knew my own heartbeat. I remembered hearing them when I was in Europe during the war, and in the hospital in France while I recovered from my wounds there when I was just twenty. I studied the cover, read the notes on the back, then turned the cover back over and studied the happy faces of the band. Those must have been the high times, I was thinking. The halcyon years. I wished I knew more about those times and the men who lived through them.
Nostalgia, they say, is an open wound, pain but blended with something else. A knowledge and embracing of the passing of life, like a friend grown old, or a place you once loved torn down and now vacant. It is a reminder that we’ve loved a moving target, and that what we thought was true is still back there, around the bend of the river. And that inevitability is a patient opponent, not given to sentimentality.