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The heyday of The Rummy JointPosted Friday, September 28, 2012, at 6:29 PM
By ALVIN L. PHILLIPS JR.
Author's note: Some time back, there were a series of articles that ran in the Marshall Democrat-News about the Marshall square being the "heartbeat" of the community. Though a few of the spokes need repair, the wheels in my mind started turning and churned out a few memories of my childhood on the Marshall Square.
My grandpa used to operate what was known as The Rummy Joint, located in the basement of what is now Tom Bolling's Law Office.
I say "operate." The truth is, I have no idea who owned the place. If memory serves me correctly, the curator of the Rummy Joint was sort of an earned honor. The keys were simply passed from honoree to honoree. When I was 5 or 6 years old -- around 1979 or '80 -- that honoree was Alvin A. Phillips: My grandpa.
An old timer retired from International Shoe Company and an early coal hauler, Grandpa didn't have the money to own the building, but he carried those keys with pride.
A typical day with Grandpa started with a wake-up at 3:30 a.m. We'd head "to the office," as Grandpa would always say, stopping for a donut twist and a chocolate milk on the way.
Just north of the Rummy Joint on the next corner was a bakery right there on the square. I was always excited to go to the donut shop. You could smell the sweet, sticky perfume of fresh pastries and glazed confections all the way outside, intermingled with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee -- long before the days of decaf, half-caf and Starbucks.
A good hour would pass in the donut shop while grandpa joked with the lady at the counter and complained about the politicians; swapped stories with his coffee shop comrades and always stopping for just a moment before we left to brag a little on whichever of us grandyoung'uns that was with him that day.
I particularly liked the conversations Grandpa would have regarding politics. He could put up a fierce debate. My dad always joked that Grandpa would vote for the devil as long as he was a Democrat!
Just further north of that donut shop across the street -- in the spot where the "Jim the Wonder Dog" Memorial is now-- was the old building where "Tom and Cal's Barber Shop" resided, complete with the whirly red and white and blue barber pole hanging outside. Cal Taylor gave me my first hair cut there when I was a toddler. And he gave me almost every other haircut for the better part of twenty-five years thereafter.
By 4:30 or 5 a.m, the whole town still dead asleep, Grandpa and I were making what was to me the long and treacherous trek to "The Dungeon."
Old concrete steps with a rusty handrail led to the bottom of the darkest place I had ever been in all of my 5 or 6 years. I can still see the old red paint on that wooden door flaking off in the dim of the street lights. Grandpa would turn the key, and then give a little kick at the bottom of the door. With a subtle "thud" in the dark and excitement building in my chest we would enter this perfect thing of ours.
I did say 'perfect', right?
This was the kind of room you see in the mobster movies; that secret room where the "made" men would meet to discuss the "family business."
A flip of the switch illuminated both light bulbs in the entire place. Single bulbs that just dangled by a cord from the busted plaster ceiling, they didn't seem to do much to allay the half-fear in my mind.
The first smells to hit my nose in a barrage were odors of an old, wet, musty, concrete floor and leftover stale smoke from the previous day's business.
In the center of the room was a lone round table surrounded by chairs of a lot of shapes and sizes. (Looking back, I think I can safely say interior design was not a priority.)
There was an old service counter just inside the door to the right that housed boxes of bootleg cigarettes and cardboard cans of Skoal. Back on the table, you couldn't miss the overflowing ash trays and spittoons with thick, brown, half-dried ooze dripping down the sides of them.
This was the center of what I call now the "Geriatric Mafia's" business: the Rummy table. Hand upon hand of quarter-hand Rummy had been played at that table for years--so much so that there were places in the table worn from the elbows riding in one place for so long.
I recall there being a back room. But I was six years old and it was further back -- and a LOT darker. This many years later in life, I don't really remember the bath room in the place at all. Thinking back to the décor I do remember, it's probably a safe bet you would never find that particular bathroom in "Better Homes and Gardens" Magazine.
I would take my post on a little stool near the counter.
By 6 a.m., the other "hit men" started to arrive. And they were loud! Sometimes it felt like these old-timers were faking it. You know, like they'd sit around the house with canes and walkers as big scowl-faced grumps. But they could hit the top step of that stairwell to The Dungeon and they were mysteriously transformed into youngsters. It was as if someone had dropped an alien cocoon into their swimming pool. They would almost run in there! I remember thinking and laughing to myself, "last one in's a rotten egg!!" And cuss? Needless to say, my vocabulary expanded in the wrong direction by a very early age--and provided Grandmother with ample opportunity to exact some redirection on more than one occasion.
For all the fun I used to poke at them for their enthusiasm (quietly to myself, that is), I recall each of those men as strong, stately men with their own brand of dignity and character. Some of them were hard men, war veterans, life-long laborers. And I remember each of them as well-groomed. Silly as it may sound, it was as if there was a dress code to be part of this "club," just like the mafia.
With the chairs pulled out and the cards stacked neatly on the table, these partners in crime, in one simultaneous fluid motion, would extract the change from their pockets and place it on the table as they squatted into their seats.
It was beautiful; choreographed, if you will. Early masters of multi-tasking, these men would set about the business of arranging coins on the table in front of them while at the same time digging for the cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco from their shirt pockets.
Soon, a blanket of thick flavorful smoke would permeate the room just about head high -- my head, roughly 3 feet 4 inches off the floor.
Then the moment they had awaited like children coming up on a Christmas morn: The Deal.
Cards sprayed around the table like a lawn sprinkler, each one landing exactly where Grandpa aimed. The hit men would scoop them up, fan them in their hands like a freshly watered flower blossom, and then settle their elbows into the places many card-tossers before had prepared for them.
And then all got very, very, eerily quiet.
Nary a word was spoken mid-hand; just an occasional grunt of displeasure at the cards dealt or a soft, mischievous giggle. But not Grandpa. He was always quiet as a church mouse, silent and calculating each and every move. His steely blue eyes wandered the table continuously keeping close count of all the cards that had been played. It was legend for the longest time that my grandpa could count into a two-deck stack with very little error. And he didn't lose...much. For that time, that game was his life. And he concentrated every effort into it.
Occasionally the game would suffer the interruption of an underworld cigarette customer looking to score a carton at a discount price. One of the old men was always happy to oblige -- after the hand ended. Most customers were patient enough to wait. No one really wanted a gang of irritated old Mafiosos coming after them.
Remember I made specific mention of Skoal in a cardboard can? That stuff would be dirt dry right off the store shelf.
The funniest thing I can remember in that dark, dingy hole was a bottle of brandy that sat in the back corner of the counter. That was NOT sippin' booze, and if you wanted a good butt wuppin' from a geriatric card shark, just get yourself caught taking a nip out of that bottle. That was a special bottle of brandy: It was used to keep the Skoal wet!!
By mid morn and the lunch hour approaching, and with the donut twists now completely digested, the old gangsters would leave one by one to head out into the life the rest of the world knew to exist. Back to the rockers and the front porches; home to their wives and retired way of life.
At least, that's what my young mind envisioned. For Grandpa, that meant home to Grandmother and the rest of the grandkids and re-runs of "Gunsmoke" -- with a pocket full of fresh quarters. And at sometime in the afternoon he would yawn, talk briefly about what a hard day he'd had "at the office," and head in for a nap.
I was always in awe of and admired how this sweet old man I knew as "Grandpa" could spend hours in conversation rivaling a sailor reunion, then step back in the front door at home and immediately return to "Yes Ma'am" and "No Ma'am" when addressing Grandmother.
I didn't follow his example well, as evidenced by Grandmother's eventual instructions to me to "go cut me a switch." Regrettably, it took me more than one occasion to learn what every man eventually resolves: What happens at the office STAYS at the office! But I digress.
With the same resounding "thud,",Grandpa would jerk that old red door closed and lock away the secrets of the Rummy Joint for the day.
I remember every time we would leave that dungeon at mid-day, having spent nearly the entire morning in what felt like complete darkness, my eyes would squint tightly as the mid-day sun hit them for the first time. And the town had come to life!! What had been so empty and barren at four in the morning was now completely devastated by the hustle and bustle of a typical business day in Marshall.
The lumber company just down the road would have cars and trucks rolling in and out. The courthouse was surrounded by local business men and women just getting in, just getting out, or stuck just somewhere in between. Every parking spot was taken, and every business door was open. The cars would honk and (most of them) were smoking as badly as those gangsters had been.
Depending on the time of day, one might even hear the loud horn sounding off for coffee break at International Shoe blocks away. We'd round the square a couple of times ... Wood and Huston Bank ... the clothing stores ... Hacklers Shoe Store ... Rose and Buckner.
Grandpa knew I liked counting the parking meters and looking for those that had "expired." To this day, when the whiff of a bad exhaust system catches my attention, I immediately reflect back on circling the Marshall Square with Grandpa in that old green LTD. It's funny; the things that bring a memory back to life.
After a few laps around the courthouse, we would spin off of the square at the southeast corner headed toward Odell past the old Farmers Savings Bank. That old building is gone now, of course, and the newer Bank of America building is there. Every time we came to a stop at the light by the old jail, Grandpa would sing the same song at the top of his lungs:
"Have you ever seen a cockroach big as a whale?
Have you ever seen a cockroach big as a whale?
If you ain't never seen a cockroach big as a whale,
Then you ain't ever been in Saline County Jail."
That's another story altogether.
If you're ever on the southwest corner of the square, look at the staircase to the basement of Tom Bolling's law office, and visualize for yourself an old red wooden door busting open, a dozen old men coming up out of there virtually unnoticed, parting ways with slaps on the back and handshakes--congratulatory of a battle well fought, and patting a six year-old boy on the head as they left. Look right up the corner at the antique store that used to be the best donut and coffee shop anywhere around. You might even smell the sugar if you close your eyes and ears tightly enough.
Those were Grandpa's days.
Those were the days of my youth. Counting the parking meters on every block and doing the sum in my head for Grandpa.
When I was 6 years old, and all of my real friends were retired. And every door on the Marshall Square was open...
... Even the basement doors.
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Various members of the community, current or past residents, occasionally submit essays recalling the people, places and events of the past. We'll post them here. Also, reminisces sometimes emerge in other web forums. This will be a place those conversations can continue.