We're gonna soothe away the rest of our years We're gonna put away all of our tears That big rockin' chair won't go nowhere. -- "Rockin' Chair" by Robbie Robertson, The Band
From the street, you wouldn't even know it's a saloon, that there are men inside at formica tables, in queasy light over 45-cent drafts, who can tell you about George S. Patton and Black Jack Pershing and the time a top-kick got hung by his shoulder blades in a meat locker.
There is a man here who once played fiddle with W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys in Fort Worth. That is something. His eyes glisten. There is another who once played football with the Old Chicago Cardinals. Well, it really amounted to a try-out. But he had the uniform on.
This is a holiday story. It's about men, most of them retired, some inform, who won't necessarily be having themselves a merry little Christmas this year. But they don't pity each other. Not most of the time anyway.
They've not pitying themselves at the moment. "So I called my girl-friend," says a guy named Eddie, talking to the room. "She's a stripper on Georgia Avenue. I invited her over to the Christmas party tomorrow right. She said, Do I hafta wear my clothes?'"
Eddie cracks up. Clicks his head sideways, takes a drink.
This isn't your ordinary part of beer-lubed, gin-swollen dreams. The name of the bar is Kenny's, though Kenny departed a long time ago. There are two other bars close by, but this where most everybody comes. Airmen's Home.
Two gold eagles perch at the main gate. Up the hill march rows of stolid buildings, where a couple thousand men who served now serve a different hitch. Wouldn't it be nice to see the folks/ Listen once again to the same old jokes But that big rockin' chair won't go nowhere . . .
It isn't much of a bar for looks: a few tables, two jukes, an electric bowling game nobody plays, a color TV nobody watches except in the lull of morning when quiz shows are on. There is green tinsel hanging from the ceiling and gold tinsel scapled around the windows. You can get a meat loaf sandwich. And plenty of talk.
Elvis is singing "blue Christmas," Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Lockin' (What You Got Cookin'?) was just on.
The place opened at 8 o'clock this morning, as it always does. There was a line outside, as there always is. Sometimes, says a waitress named Elaine, some of them are shaking so bad you have to pour the first bit in a double-shot glass. She says this without contempt.
"See, the biggest part of them just don't have anyplace to go. I've spent my whole life at sea And I'm pushing age 73 Now there's only one place that's meant for me
"You want to know about this bar?" says Ted Pash. Ted is a huge man, over 300 pounds, with flared John L. Lewis brows and a way of giving the needle to anybody. He's had three wives. The last one died in a car crash. He is now 60, got a girl 24. He got out in '65, he says: infantry. Did 21 years.
"I'll tell you what this bar is: Its broken-hearted derelicts."
"Now wait a minute," says Eddie. Eddie is at the same table. His full name is Edward Knoud. He is in a brown suit, a red holiday tie without a knot, a gold chain.On his lapel is a little gold-bordered badge that says,
"Mr. Dummy." His buddy Ted gave it to him.
I'll tell you what this bar's really about. Its about memory and compassion. Most of these guys have lost their wives from death or divorce. Most of these guys have kids who want nothing to do with them. Most of these guys are 40 years older than the waitresses in here. There're reliving memories. And if they're lucky, they get a little compassion."
"You see that old guy over there?" Eddie says. He points across the room.
"Whenever some 90-year-old ex-soldier's getting a kiss on the cheek and a little neck massage from a waitress, well, then you . . ."
Ted cuts in.
". . . that it's a hell of a lot better than sitting around in some dead room across street."
Yeah, Eddie says a little later, "some of these guys come in here, spend their whole month's paycheck, nothing for them to leave a $10 tip. So what?
"I've seem them," he adds.
The man Eddie pointed to is sitting alone. He's name is Tony, but everyone calls him "Pussycat." The waitresses named him five or six years ago. Sticks to himself mostly, everybody says, though he's got a sense of humor. Like when he wants more cigarettes. He'll say to Terri the waitress: "Gimme another pack of Mary-wanna."
Today, Tony's in a black furry hat and a clean suit. He sits by himself in a booth with his legs crossed. Four inches of glossy, apple-white shin show. His left hand is propped on the Naugahyde seat. There is a lip of cigarette between his first two fingers. He sits; time slips.
What will it be like in here Christmas Day?
Right out, Eddie says: It'll be happy at first. In the morning, it'll be real happy. Then maybe 'bout 2 o'clock somebody'll say, "Hey play "White Christmas." 'then it'll hit. By 10 o'clock at night there'll be so many tears in here you couldn't wipe the floor with three mops."
He has said it with toughness. There is no bitterness in Eddie's voice. More a strange, fascinated acceptance, or at least tolerance. Tolerance of human conditions perhaps, or his condition and the condition of Kenny's saloon society where cold beer and hot stories are on tap.
Slow down, Willie Boy Your heart's gonna give out on you.
"A lot of us here aren't so healthy," Ted says, "Take me, I got cancer of the pancreas, phlebitis. In fact, I got so much wrong with me nothing's wrong with me. Y'know? Thats just how it is."
This is also how it is: Ted says his girl is in jail in California. Needs 600 clams to get her out. He'll get the money, somehow. "She's got a seat on the 50 with me."
Ted is fishing in his wallet. Here, he says, handing over a card. Take it. The card says, "Ted R. Pash, Precinet Captain, Third Ward, Eighth Precinct, 705 S. Grove Ave., City of Berwyn." That's in Illinois, he says. Course, the card's kind of useless now. But once it got him places.
"He's got letters in his locker from Elmer Leyden, wanting him to go to Notre Dame to play football," Eddie says, as if to cheer his friend. I seen them. You know who this guy used to look like as a young man?"
Eddie leans close, conspiratorially close.
Ted Push's 225 pounds shimmy with laughter.
At the next table a man is counting: "don Larsen. Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson," he says, going through the rest of an old Yankee lineup like he was in it, too. Later, this man, whose name is John, says that his wife is dead of cancer, that his youngest boy is in the army, "so here I am. I'm down here enjoying myself at Soldiers' Home. For the time being anyway. It could be just one stop on the big highway." I can hear something calling to me And you know where I want to be . . . Yeah, the home's a funny thing, Ted says. "We don't like it, and yet, we love it, too. We all kind of depend on it. You know, with inflation and all . . . if I was to go out and get myself an apartment, it could cost me $200, $300 a month. Here I pay 17 1/2 percent of my base pay. I pay $90 a month and I get all I want to eat. We got this brand new cafeteria. It's really something. You should see it."
In fact, chimes in Eddie, you should come back tomorrow. Tomorrow is the Christmas party. Two Christmas parties in the evening up at the Home, and one over here at Kenny's where the beer and booze is free from 2:30 to 4:30. That one may be a little quieter.
"I bet they got a 19-foot Christmas tree up there," Eddie says. "With, with . . . $2,000 worth of decorations. You come back."
The next day, Kenny's is cracking. Turkey-salad sandwiches on the house. Stacks of them on beer trays. And everybody in the place gets a Kenny's Tavern pop-up desk calendar. "At the Eagle Gate," the calendar says. "Home of Friendly Service."
Bing is on the juke again. Also the Eagles: "Please Come Home for Christmas."
Kenneth Hol, whiskered, pop-eyed, bug-grinned, is sitting alone. He has been here all day. He's from Winterset, Iowa. Last time he was back was 20 years ago. That's okay. Got two daughters; one of them he wants nothing to do with. Relatives? "Infrequent correspondence."
I just want to get my feet home again . . . again. . .
"I tell you how it is," he says, his voice a cracking roll above Crosby's crooning. "You always have a desire to leave, go back home. That's only human. But once you're back, what do you do? So you catch up with friends for a couple hours. Then there's nothing left to say. No, I don't think I'm going back at all anymore. Home is here, at Kenny's. I love this bar at Christmas. No place in the world like it."
His face is all grin.
"Course, you gotta be here a couple years to appreciate it."
Song lyrics from "Rockin' Chair" by J.R.Robertson