A little over two years ago, when I was in the middle of a December baking frenzy, I went to the local grocery store to replenish my supply of flour, sugar and butter. When I got my change from the cashier, it included a red quarter. She said, “I’ve never seen a red quarter before.” I was a little startled to see one myself, it had been years. I told her I had seen one before and asked if she would like to hear the story? The last time I saw a quarter like this was probably late summer of 1968, although I used to see them on a regular basis. Jack had a roll of quarters that were painted with red nail polish on both sides. They were used to prime the pump, as it were, to encourage customers to also play songs on the juke box. Not unlike bar snacks, it encouraged participation.
It was great for me, because I could ask him for a red quarter, almost whenever I wanted, and he would give me one. It was a bonus to be able to chose my own music, since living there forced me to listen to everyone else’s music. The other benefit was that when the owner of the juke box came to collect the money in the coin box, he not only returned the red quarters to Jack, but he would give me the records that he was changing out. It was a nice way to build my collection of 45’s, and even if it wasn’t all my kind of music, the price was right. I hadn’t thought about red quarters in a long time. You can be sure this one is staying with me.
ALL THAT AND A BAG OF CHIPS
There is a slightly awkward story, that I am going to share with you anyway. It is awkward, somewhat embarrassing and true. There was a potato chip rack at the end of the bar that held small bags of potato chips and other similar items. I remember the vendor coming in, the metal clips that held each bag in place, and no, I did not get leftover potato chips when he came with new ones. I am not sure I ever ate potato chips at the Villa, especially when I could have pasta and pizza any time. But for some reason that I credit with living at the bar, or visiting all those other bars before my parents bought the Union Villa, I love the smell of potato chips, especially when a new bag has just been opened. It is very seldom that a bag of chips comes into this house without my getting to open the bag, and inhale the aroma before the dispensing begins. See, I told you it was somewhat embarrassing, but it is also true.
I don’t know if “décor” is the right word for a bar, most of the decorations were neon lights advertising the selection of local beer. There was a player piano, off to the center and a stage area for the band. There was a brass ship’s bell on the wall behind the bar next to the shelves of whiskey. That, of course, was a slight nod to Jack’s career at sea. In addition, there was a wooden sign above the porch that read, “The Union Villa” and above those words were added the words, “Jack’s Port O’Call.”
The first winter they replaced the orange and green wooden booths with “new to them” booths and tables that had bought in a restaurant sale. The booths were wooden, brown, highbacked booths with light ivory colored padding. They also bought black metal tables with silver stripes on the side and standard wooden bar chairs with seat backs and seats that Maggie re-covered. To all this, they added light colored paneling in both the bar room and the pool room. If you do not know this, paneling was all the rage in the 1960’s. Mom had just had the living room paneled in our house in Point Independence a year or so before we moved to the Union Villa. As a side note, that paneling salesman must have gotten around because our retirement home is paneled, and I suspect it too, was done in the 1960’s, but that is another story.
Although the quality of the pictures is very poor I want to share these with you. The picture on the left is Jack and Maggie, my dad and mom. She must have come out of the kitchen to have the picture taken and they are clearly, standing behind the bar. At least, it is a close up. These pictures, as old and beat up as they are, are the only ones I have of Jack and Maggie at the bar. The pictures are held together with love and plexiglass and a picture on the other side that I am afraid to move, lest they all fall apart. The picture on the right was taken from the other end of the bar. You can see the old metal cash register on the left, Jack is behind the bar in a plaid flannel shirt. You can also see the faded hand of someone pouring a beer and one of the customer’s smoking a cigar. If memory serves me correctly, it was one of our regular musicians.
The television in the corner was a very big deal because it was color t.v. That television traveled up to our apartment for the winter, where the three of us could enjoy it. That must have been a big deal to Dad, because he would even watch “Bozo the Clown” because it was in “living color.” That of course, was something he would only do in the apartment. The television traveled back downstairs to the bar by the April 1st opening, so the patrons could watch the game in color or whatever else they were interested in watching. When it wasn’t busy, I could sit at the bar and watch Star Trek Episodes. The original.
While it may sound odd for a bar, they did their best to keep it a family place. That is if the noise of the juke box, clinking of glasses when the bottle of beer hits the side of the glass were sounds you might expect on a typical family night out. You would not hear the sound the foam makes as it bubbles up to form a head on the beer. You would hear instead, the shouts and cheers that came from the pool room and the sound of the cue ball breaking up the recently racked billiards. You might have heard the clatter of someone stepping heavily onto the wooden pallet at the bottom of the steps and the sound of the screened swinging doors being pushed open. Jack or one of the regulars at the bar, would call out a greeting to whoever came in, if that could be heard above the laughter that occasionally erupted from “The Dirty Corner” (see Life at the Union Villa). And maybe, if you were lucky, you would hear an old roofer named Lou exclaim, “Merciful heavens” as though he were laughing the words.
I am always interested in learning how or where people learned how to do the things they do, whether it is in earning a living, doing a craft, playing an instrument, installing anything and repairing equipment. It seems that the combination of Jack’s early life as a rabble rouser, a young seaman, a boxer, being an officer on a merchant ship, in charge of crew, placement of cargo and other things, and being a life long social drinker prepared him for the occasional work of being his own bouncer. He would not tolerate lewd behavior, or language, and he had no problem shutting someone off who had too much to drink, or was otherwise out of line. On rare occasions, the local police came to the rescue. While it would be an exaggeration to say that he flew across the bar as needed, he could move pretty quickly around the bar and out front for a fifty-something stocky guy.
SATURDAY NIGHTS IN THE SUMMER
Saturday nights in the summer were “All hands on deck.” There was one waitress, Jack behind the bar, plus an additional bartender, Maggie in the kitchen, plus one additional cook. For reasons that I can’t quite explain, I played hostess. I spent Saturday afternoons with my hair in curlers and sometime after supper, took the curlers out, brushed out my hair, donned my favorite dress and went downstairs to the bar. I greeted customers and on occasion when it was busy would ask some folks to share a table, if I knew that they knew each other. I could help take pizza orders and just visit with people. No one asked me to do it and there was no expectation that I had to work. Although, pizza boxes, that might have been an expectation that I fold pizza boxes. Even though my parents were way too busy to talk, it was much less lonely downstairs in the crowd than it would have been upstairs in the apartment, watching “Saturday Night at the Movies” on the black and white television alone.
The most difficult thing about Saturday nights was the smoke. With so many people smoking cigarettes, cigars and occasional pipes, the smoke was thick enough to burn one’s eyes. I would end up going into the restroom several times in any given Saturday night, pull some brown paper towels from the rack, soak them in cold water, wring the water out and hold the cold, damp paper towels over my eyes. Then I would go outside for some fresh air, and back into it all over again.
Every night at the bar would end the same way, whether it was a busy, hopping night, or just a slow evening. Around 11:45, Jack would stop wiping down the bar, walk over the where the ship’s bell stood, grab the rope pulley and yank it against the side of the brass bell. After the bell sounded, he would lift his voice above the din, and call out “Last Call for Alcohol!” He called it out as if each word had extra syllables, and while it was not musical, it sounded as though there were a crescendo to it, with a drop off on the last syllable.
When our loved ones have fought the good fight, battled cancer and other demeaning and debilitating diseases, we could not wish them back to suffering. But I tell you, I would love to see those sights and to hear those sounds again. To see Maggie in the kitchen again, decorating a pizza with slices of onion and pepper and other things; to hear the background noises, the conversations, the juke box, the ship’s bell, and Jack once more raising his voice above the din, “Laaaaast Callll for Al-co-hallllll”
Not holding back the tide,