The Real Thing
By Lynne Viti
My father's tavern, a shot and a beer place, sat on the corner of North Kresson Street and Fairmount Avenue, though Fairmount was no avenue, but merely a wide cinder swath flanked by Mr. and Mrs. Hall's gritty brown house and the corner building, the one that housed the tavern, the last in a row of Highlandtown houses. This wasn't one of those blocks with the pristine white marble steps you see in the Baltimore postcards. Kresson Street wasn't that pretty and never had been. The row house steps were mostly wooden, and in various states of disrepair. To walk into the tavern, or "The Place," as my father always called it, you had to walk up one concrete step, push open the heavy door by half leaning on it, half thumbing down the latch, and walk into a narrow room with twenty-foot tin ceilings.
When I remember it now, I never imagine it as empty, the way it was early on Sunday mornings when I went to do the books. Instead, I envision a half dozen regulars sitting at the long bar with its dark reddish brown wood and brass rail. The men are leaning over their drinks, it's early morning. There's a grayish light coming in through the front windows over the Hotpoint grill, and only a couple of the men are drinking beer or whiskey. The rest are having coffee and breakfast, white oval platters of grilled ham and scrambled eggs, white toast. The black and white tv provides background noise, the Dave Garroway show. The customers ignore the television, on its shelf high above the bar, over the pay phone.
The scents of cooking ham, stale beer and diesel fuel of Blue Diamond trucks mingle. My father walks to the side door, limping in his heavy leg brace, to take a delivery of beer. One keg is wheeled to the tap behind the bar, at nearly dead center; the others are rolled down to the cellar, by the bulkhead entrance on the side street. I was never allowed down there. It's almost a certainty that there were rats living side by side with those cold kegs. Sometimes my father lets Freddy, the mentally retarded guy with the peaked cap who mops up, supervise the unloading. Freddy is full of weird stories about monsters and people who scare him. Don't pay any attention to him, Daddy says, He's not right in the in the in the head, you see.
The middle room, the next one after the bar, has a large poker table with a felt top, always covered up except for Friday and Saturday nights. I realize now that it disappeared after a few years; it must have been leased, sent back, or perhaps repossessed. There's a juke box, with Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis numbers. And there are several square tables, and in the very back, an upright piano, long out of tune. Above it, there's a black and white sign announcing No Dancing. Really, though, no one ever even tried to dance there. The sign is decades old even when I am just learning to read its words. Through the door from the middle room lies the kitchen, with deep stainless steel sinks and work spaces, a hamburger press (which will eventually become obsolete in the 1960's when portion control, pre-made hamburger patties emerge from the food industry's laboratories), a well-used stove, and dozens of large pots and pans hanging up on a pegboard that fills the wall. This is where my father makes chili, bean soup, pea soup, and the piece de resistance, the ham, with the bone in, dotted with cloves, patted down with dark brown sugar and dry mustard, and bathed in cheap white port wine. Years later, at a bar clear across town in Parkville, miles from Highlandtown, someone will say to my father, "Nobody could make a ham like Charlie Schmidt." And my dad will reply, "Do you know who you're talking to?"
At the end of this stunted block, little Fairmount Avenue, is a junkyard, a scrap metal yard, and abutting it, the Blue Diamond Truck dispatch station. From the curb where Daddy parks his car at the tavern's side entrance, I can hear the two-way radio static and buzz. Some of the men who work on the Pennsylvania Railroad drive their cars in to Fairmount and angle park them, but most customers just walk here. Forty houses, in one block, are bookended by our tavern on one end, and on the other, by Wishnow's bar and packaged goods store. The city bus stops up there on its way to Dundalk. I am never allowed to walk past Wishnow's, and my mother, who would prefer that I never go down to the tavern with Daddy, doesn't want me to play with Kresson Street children. There is one girl older than me, with a harelip. We play step school with some others, and she appoints herself the teacher. I have a photograph of us on the steps, but I cannot remember any of the other children's names. My little sister is with us, in white dress with a red collar. It must be spring, because we're not wearing coats.
As I grow older, when I go to work with Daddy, I spend most of my time reading in the big armchair next to the jukebox. More than one customer calls me a bookworm, a word I grow to hate. I sit in an easy chair my father has installed near the juke box in the long second room because he needs to get off his bad leg as much as possible. I read biographies of Presidents and naval heroes, mysteries, adventure stories a book a day. I have no idea why I am here with him or where my sister or mother are. When Dad and I return home, we have to shower and change our clothes because they smell of smoke and beer.
The regulars were not necessarily regular, nor were they faithful customers; there were about ten of them, but the cast changed weekly. The one I liked best was Howard Canary. Everyone called him Hats. You may wonder if he wore a hat, and indeed, he did in the summer, a straw hat, perhaps a fishing hat. He was slim, brown-haired, and wore glasses. From time to time his wife Miss Bea tended bar for my father, but she was slow and she probably stole from him as mostly all his bartenders did, skimming cash in the busy times. So often as not, she was a customer, and since women never sat at the bar, she usually brought in a half gallon pickle jar. My father would fill it with draught beer, make up a price, and Bea was off to drink at home. By the time I was in high school, Bea resembled a caricature of Rosie the Riveter, hair poking out at a forty-five degree angle from her forehead in a helmetlike pouf, and protruding from the back in a dime store hairnet. She always smelled clean and of cheap perfume, and she was always nice to me. Eventually I began to feel sorry for her. She grew fatter and fatter with each year, still wearing those tight orlon sweaters, straight skirts and seamed stockings that must have looked so fashionable fifteen, twenty years before. The Canarys had some kids, but I can't remember ever seeing them. In my mind, Bea and Hats were a childless couple caught in a 1940's time warp.
None of this would be particularly important had it not been for what happened one day when I was helping out my dad. I was only seventeen, in my last term of high school. The law said you had to be twenty-one to serve beer or liquor in the city. I was supposed to be washing glasses and fetching things for my father and Whitey, Dad's latest in a never ending series of bartenders, but as it got busier around noon, I was pressed into service. I'd been watching my father and the others pull drafts for years, and it took me only a minute to master the art of filling a glass up to the top without spilling the head and making a mess. I was feeling competent, taking orders, pulling drafts or pouring shots, taking money. The number of customers dwindled a bit towards late afternoon, around four. The front door flew open and two guys in dark fedoras pulled down low over their faces started yelling. I was holding a ten and getting ready to put it into the cash register. All the time they kept yelling, though I wasn't able to distinguish what it was they were saying. I couldn't move. Everyone down on the floor, they said. They made Whitey take the money from the cash register. They were waving these guns around and yelling, Nobody move, this is the real thing.
Coke's the real thing , I thought. What the world wants today Coke is, it's the real thing. Jesus, it was railroad payday too, which meant extra cash in the register for cashing checks. Now I too was down on the floor, face down, my forearms under my chin so I wouldn't get my face dirty. They were calling now for the men's watches and wallets. I started to tremble a little. My legs were shaking nonstop. Stand up, they were saying, and I saw the regular Daddy had nicknamed Rabbi, Mr. Riley, with a scared look in his eyes, and Paddy Saxon, Bernie Dibilius and my dad shuffling towards the men's room. As I stood up slowly and shakily, the stranger nearer to me waved the gun at me, you too, he said and he herded us into the men's room. Don't anyone leave here for ten minutes, one of them said. Do you understand, you bald motherfucker? He pointed the gun at Daddy's head, really close, maybe six inches away. Daddy nodded, said nothing. Inside me there was a throbbing. I kept expecting to hear an earsplitting noise and see brains fly everywhere. To steady myself I tried to notice things. The toilet seat left up. The walls in need of paint. The sweetish smell of the room deodorizer, a twin to the one in the ladies room. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a tall white metal condom dispenser mounted on the wall. I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company, it's the real thing. The door to the men's room shut with a loud thump, but quieter than my heart's pounding. Paddy was helping my dad up to his feet. We heard the front door open and then swing shut and we waited. We waited for what seemed a half hour. Then we waited longer. Finally my heart stopped pounding then but I kept on trembling, couldn't stop. Somebody called the police on the payphone. They were there within minutes, the uniform cops, but it seemed we had almost nothing for them, nothing specific we could remember. Two guys, not very tall, not heavy, not thin. They wore hats and raincoats, or maybe topcoats. A couple of detectives showed up a little later and took statements from each of us. Paddy told them he knew the guns were German lugers. Anyone unusual in here lately, maybe casing the place, Charlie? one detective asked. My dad just shook his head. He was anxious to get me out of there and home, and he was not looking forward to facing my mother and her wrath.
At home the repercussions were worse than he may have feared. My mother was furious. There were many I-told-you-so's heaped on my father. She went up to their bedroom, he followed, and she closed the door tight. I could hear her voice, not yelling exactly, but very animated and angry. I strained to hear that day and many days after that, to find out what they were saying. There was the revelation that this was the third or fourth holdup, not the first. There were murmurings late into the night from their bedroom. On my way to the bathroom for my shower I might catch a phrase or two of Mom's "inside job," " cops on the take," "she could have been really hurt" but neither of them would talk about it in front of me. A few times the same pair of detectives came to our house with binders full of mug shots for me to look at. What could I tell them, every photo looked like it could be one of those guys, and yet none of them really matched my memory of them, all shouting and hats pulled down and black guns pointed at us. In the end they just stopped coming. I went back with my unsuitable older boyfriend, the one I had dumped a few weeks before. Having him back made me feel safer, and he was willing to listen to me tell the story of what happened over and over. Eventually I told it to him so many times I became sick of it. Spring came, and the senior prom and graduation, and then a summer job at Fort Holabird, where I translated petty crimes committed by GIs into code and got paid handsomely for it. The robbery faded more and more into my past. I only spoke about it once or twice, years later, to get out of jury duty. The boyfriend faded into summer, then slipped away, and I started dating a young soldier who was waiting to to get his orders for Vietnam any day.
That afternoon of the robbery was the last time I ever set foot in the tavern on a business day. My parents banned me from the premises, with one exception: until I left for college, I was allowed to go down early on Sunday mornings to do the books. Early Sundays were quiet on Kresson Street, people sleeping it off, or some of the men working overtime shifts at Crown, Cork and Seal. All the bars were closed, though they could have opened up at 6 a.m. if they'd wanted to, city laws allowed that. I only had to check the register tapes, run the expenses, record the receipts, and use the adding machine to do the rest. Most Sundays, as I now remember it, the sun found its way in through the glass bricks and spilled onto the grill and the shiny bar top. The din of talking, the curls of blue cigarette smoke and the clink of glasses were altogether gone. I would sit in Daddy's old chair, the one where I used to curl up to read when I was younger. Coffee mug in hand, I'd tune the radio to my favorite station, turn it up loud, and go to work with a sharp Number 2 pencil, scrupulously inscribing the numbers into the ledger book.
Bio: Lynne Viti teaches writing at Wellesley College.