Thursday, November 11, 2004

Package store veterans day

My period of employment at the “old” Scoreboard Liquors in downtown New Albany lasted from 1982 to 1988. Scoreboard’s front door opened onto West Spring Street, facing the courthouse, and it was within spitting distance of numerous bankers, lawyers, title abstractors and others feeding at the government trough.

In the back part of the building was the famous Cadillac Lanes bowling alley, so named because in quaint times previous, the liquor store’s retail space in front was an automobile dealership. No one then or now knows why the store was named Scoreboard.

In figurative terms, to be taken “out behind the bowling alley” meant to be blindfolded, stood against the wall and shot. In retrospect, the phrase is tactless, but it certainly was used quite often, especially in conjunction with car salesmen from Coyle Chevrolet a few blocks away. I always wondered whether the Caddy people of old were as relentlessly obnoxious.

In the summer of 1988, I took a week off from my “real” job to help Jim and Ed move the store to a worse but cheaper former Night Owl food store location on the largely inaccessible corner of Spring and Beharell.

In fairness to the owners, business had declined at the old site owing to competition and changing tastes. The lease expired, the building was slated for demolition, and there were few good choices. I continued working evenings off and on until 1992, but it never was the same for me at the “new” store.

More than a decade and a half later, I think back to the downtown stalwarts who were older, and it occurs to me that many of them have died. Here are my memories of a few of them.

Gin Lady.
At first Gin Lady was of indeterminate age, maybe 50, probably closer to 60, but when it finally was determined that she walked to the liquor store from the bar-none, ugliest, Communist Bulgarian-designed senior citizen housing tower in the metro area -- two short blocks away -- she came to be at least in her seventies.

Originally she was known as Mother Gargle, from the “Born Loser” comic strip. As a typical day progressed and she’d visit for the second or even third time, her breath would grow increasingly foul, and her hair would become more and more frizzy. Eventually, by late afternoon, her hair would be standing straight up almost like an Afro.

Gin Lady wasn’t black.

In spite of any presumptions to the contrary, which we’d be reminded of each time she came into the store, the Seagram’s Gin was never for her; rather it was for her gentleman friend Charles, who’d be calling that particular morning, or afternoon, or evening, or all three.

Charles was never seen then or any other time, and neither has Gin Lady since the store changed locations in 1988.

Chemical Man.
Another regular customer was Carl, otherwise known as "Chemical Man” for the spectacular lack of nutrients in his bloodstream and our certainty that the only thing keeping him alive was formaldehyde.

If not raw preservative chemicals, then the processed variety sufficed: Kessler whiskey and Sterling beer … and keep ‘em coming. Early on, when I’d just started working at the store and hadn’t come to understand the subtle nuances of alcoholism, it struck me as senseless that Carl would visit the store three times a day for a half pint of Kessler.

Why not buy a liter first thing in the morning? After all, it was a far better price.

To this comment, Chemical Man sputtered indignantly that my college education had taught me absolutely nothing, because any fool knows that if you start the day with a big bottle, you’ll just go and drink it before lunch – and then what?

Later, in the waning days of the store’s tenure downtown, Chemical Man grew too weak to carry the daily case of Sterling to his house, which was no more than fifty yards from the store’s front door. I’d carry it over and put it on the porch for him.

A year or so later, I read Carl’s obituary in the newspaper. I’d have bet money that he was 70 or older, but he was only 59 at the time of his death in 1989.

In later years, after Jim sold the liquor store and the new owner promptly closed it for good, Snake started coming by my pub to pick up the cardboard.

For two decades he kept a series of decrepit pick-ups alive long enough to run a regular route through New Albany, collecting cardboard and taking the stack to Riverside Recycling for a few bucks, which went into the jar and paid for season tickets to the Louisville Redbirds games at the Fairgrounds.

Beginning in the late 1980’s, I prepared Snake’s taxes every year - not that I know much about the tax code, but he and his wife (who worked at the New Albany Box and Basket factory until it closed in 1998) didn’t make much money, so it wasn’t really hard when the numbers weren’t that big. He always wanted to pay me, and I never let him, because I considered myself fortunate for having made his acquaintance.

Admittedly, there always was a thinly veiled bitterness to the testimony offered by Snake, although he generally kept it down beneath a cheery façade. His nickname came from a tattoo on his right arm, the one that ended just below the elbow, that part removed by a small town Eastern Kentucky doctor after a hunting accident in early youth, when Snake was just plain Curtis.

Snake’s life was never really easy, but it could have been worse. In a time preceding consideration for the disabled, he worked hard as a bartender, and drank just as hard until swearing off the bottle in the early 1960’s. He didn’t drink again for the rest of his life.

For a number of years he bartended for a fellow named Smitty, until Smitty died. Snake’s tenure at another hole in the wall tavern down the street ended after a dispute with the late owner’s woebegone son. He turned to cardboard full time, and occasionally filled a shift at the liquor store when it was downtown.

Years later, in 2001, Snake’s last truck died for the last time, and since those unmentionables at Riverside weren’t paying squat, anyway, it was time to get out of cardboard. He’d already gotten out of baseball, having decided that ballgames were too expensive and the team’s management too arrogant.

In February of 2003, Snake stopped by to pick up his wife’s taxes. She’d found another job and simply didn’t want to quit working. It was the last time I saw him, for he died later that year on the day before my birthday.

The timing of Snake’s death meant that he was unable to make good on a final, cherished wish, something he’d been talking about for years. In no uncertain terms, Snake hated New Albany’s newspaper, the Tribune, but grudgingly continued subscribing to it because his wife insisted.

“When she dies, you know what I’m going to do first thing? Nah, I’m not calling the doctor, and I’m not calling the hospital, and I’m not calling the relatives. I’m gonna call the Tribune and cancel that god-damned newspaper for good!”

Like Snake, Duck had a bum arm, shriveled at birth and only barely functional, and also like Snake, he bartended and did odd jobs. Eventually he landed as the manager of Scoreboard Liquors, working for the people who owned it before Jim and Ed, neither of whom had any idea how to run their purchase, so Duck stayed on. When moving time approached in 1988, Duck announced that he was retiring to Florida. I’ve not seen him since.

Those seeking a dictionary definition of “crusty curmudgeon with a heart of gold” would find Duck’s (birth name, Lloyd’s) photograph. He could be masterfully dry with the drunks, who of course never knew he was toying with them, and just as quickly be spotted committing an act of kindness that he definitely did not want to be reported to the outside world.

An evening at home with six to twelve Schaefer beers might result in Duck becoming “blow’d completely out of my mind.” Requests for the time of day might be greeted by “am I a clock?” or a disgusted glance at a far-off horizon, silence, and a left-hand index finger pointing at the clock on the wall.

One time the front door opened and a well-dressed stranger entered. He looked at Duck and asked: “Is it okay if I go in the back room and change my pants?” Duck responded with vigorous one-armed threats and loud obscenities, and the man retreated headlong onto the sidewalk.

I would have suggested he go out behind the bowling alley.


jon faith said...

Stunning, my friend, a Runyon, Breslin or Liebling taking the hard stare at the former Grand, whistling en route to Little Chef for biscuits and gravy. Sorry about the typing yesterday

The New Albanian said...

Thanks. I neglected other denizens of the NA streets, like the long departed Action Jackson, whose summertime home was an appliance box in the alley by the Grand (winters were spent in the library); Duck's crush object, the School Marm, and her daily sparkling wine double play; and of course the late and lamented Gene Lind, the kindest and most genteel shyster in the reddened shark pond. Maybe later, their times will be recorded.