The old man at the end of the bar hung over his glass of Rock and Rye Whiskey like a wolf guarding its kill. Wearing tattered bib overhauls and an open crown fedora, he reminded me of GrandPappy Amos from the TV series, The Real McCoys. A steady spiral of smoke engulfed his nicotine stained fingers as it took to the air and filled the barroom with a cancerous haze. He sat stock-still, staring at me like a predator stalking its prey. I think he recognized me.
The curtains shrouding the entrance of the backroom abruptly drew open revealing a dark silhouette. It spoke, “What’ll you have?”
With head held low I cautiously approached the counter, reached up, and laid out twenty-seven cents on the bar.
”A pack of Lucky Strikes please.”
The next few moments felt like an eternity as the bartender mulled over my request. A quick glance sideways confirmed my suspicion; old Amos was closely eyeing me out. I was almost certain he recognized me.
“They’re for my aunt.” I nervously offered.
With that, a pack of Lucky’s helicoptered through the air, and landed on the bar in front of me. I snatched them up and bolted out the door before old Amos had a chance to finger me.
It was my Aunt Johanna who placed me in this predicament. She hailed me over from across the yard. “Eugene…come here sweetie.”
Sweetie! I was nine years old for crying out loud. What, did she think I was still six? Thank God the guys weren’t around to hear that. She wanted me to run down to Ann’s Wonder Bar and buy her a pack of cigarettes. Little did she know she was sending me back to the scene of the crime.
It was understood back then that a kid actually had to do what an adult asked them to do. So I reluctantly took the money and headed down the road.
Just the night before my friends and I caused a scene outside that very same tavern. Earlier that day two racetrack workers, (bums as we called them) disrupted our game of street ball by slowly walking down the middle of the road and refusing to get out of the way when asked. Making matters worse, one of them spit on home plate as he strutted past.
But as luck would have it, later that evening we were throwing knifes in the ditch across from the tavern when lo and behold, those same two bums stepped outside. Now inebriated after hours of drinking, they were no match for us. We pelted them with rocks as they tried to make their way back down the road. Paybacks are a…well they can be rough.
Exacting our retribution felt good, but it came to an abrupt end when the tavern door swung open and several not-so-inebriated patrons poured out and chased us off. I can’t say that I saw old Amos in the crowd that night but he sure acted like he recognized me. If he did, he kept it to himself.
A few days after our encounter at the bar, I ran into old Amos along the road. He gave me sort of a nod of approval as he passed by. Made me believe that he actually did recognize me—apparently we weren’t the only ones who didn’t much care for racetrack bums.
While many of the locals took part-time jobs at the track during racing season, some of us resented the pandemonium the track brought to our small tight-knit community.
Our typically quiet village filled with noise and heavy traffic on race days. The Illinois Central’s limited express, packed with trifecta hopefuls from Chicago, clattered through the heart of town on tracks that otherwise lie dormant. Strangers who patronized the local taverns roamed the streets as if they owned the place. They amounted to nothing more than trespassers in my eyes.
Washington Park’s ever encroaching footprint spoiled the character of our sleepy little town. Our starlit nights were compromised by the brilliance of what seemed like a zillion track lights. At times, the illumination reflected off of low hanging clouds and could be seen for miles around. Its candle power dramatically intensified along with the clamor of thousands of cheering fans as the horses made the turn into the home stretch. The glow resembled some kind of radiant atomic mushroom cloud.
But, I guess the park did have some visual appeal. The perimeter fencing along Halsted Street was lined with an impenetrable hedge of low-growing, interlacing willow trees. The thick shield created a fascinating atmosphere of intrigue, lending to tales of thieves, swindlers, and other shady characters.
Elm trees transplanted from Wisconsin adorned the boulevard entrance to the clubhouse and grandstands. There was ornamental shrubbery and flowering plants dotting the facility resembling a floral gem—if you liked that sort of drivel.
For me however, flowering blossoms could not compete with the stench emitted from the periodic cleaning of its thirty stables. On those days any hint of a south wind served up a sharp, pungent, hold your breath kind of funk that kept me indoors. I couldn’t wait for racing season to be over.
But now, I have to admit I really savor that time of my life. The time when everything seemed so simple…so undemanding.
I’d love to return to the era when it was easier to buy cigarettes at nine years old then it was at thirteen. A time when a pocket knife, a box of farmers matches, and a slingshot was considered standard wares for a young boy. When the biggest challenge a kid faced was having to wait for the street to clear before he could continue his ball game. A time when we didn’t fear strangers, we just didn’t appreciate them encroaching on our domain.
I can’t actually recall that rancid stench today…however, there are moments when I almost want to go back for one last whiff. You know, just for old times’ sake.
Occasionally, I find myself absorbed in trying to recall those Halsted Street willows. My memory taunts me with split-second flashes of images that vaporize before I have a chance to focus. Man, I wish I had taken photos.
Today I fear that I’ve forgotten more than I remember about those days…and my “Once Upon a Times” are in jeopardy of being just a generation away from oblivion.