Saturday, August 13, 2011

End of the Road


The floor space wasn't the only echo of a bygone era for Casey's Place, the first hint of commerce for those driving into town from the Pliocene Ridge Road. Its weathered sign suggested a twenties roadhouse; it had a rolling boardwalk running the length of the building enclosing it as well as the neighboring building; and said neighboring building had a human fixture on a bench, a sixty-something toothless mine pensioner named Claude who chewed and hocked disgustingly into a rusty Hills Brothers can all day, spoke like Dr. John sang, wore a tattered wife-beater and stained khakis, and was almost immediately dubbed Claude Balls by my family for his persistent itch.

Although the logistics of Claude's building remained a mystery for the two years of our residence, those of our building quickly became familiar. To the left of the bar was a slightly smaller room with a refrigerator and a coin-op pool table whose pockets tended to be cloth-stuffed afterhours, as well as a long-abandoned fountain counter and fixtures. To the left of that, a drafty bedroom where my father slept. Behind it, an equally drafty bedroom occupied by my brother when he was on leave, and by me when he wasn't. Sandwiched between that bedroom and the back half of the bar was our fairly cramped kitchen, with a fairly antique stove, and weathered institutional sink, basic built-in glass-fronted cabinets and drawers, and one of the ubiquitous tubular steel-legged, bowling-ball-pattern top tables of the era, the pattern here and there worn off from hard use. The landlocked kitchen was the access point to the claustrophobic stairways down to the basement and up to the attic. Behind the kitchen, an apparent afterthought projecting out from the rear and supported by pilings, was a service/sun porch through which you'd walk to get to the non-bar bathroom; the porch and bathroom sloped down and away from the rest of the building at perhaps a three degree angle, a fright for the vertiginous, and a standing joke for the residents.

For much of the time, my sister, mother and I slept in a pair of slant-roofed rooms in the attic on the bar side, a relative luxury in winter given some heat migration from the bar below to help the space heater's paltry output. A wall divided that space from a traditional cobwebbed attic with typically enchanting leftovers, a nineteenth century cash register, a moldy trunk, some fixtures. (The dirt-floored basement had even more exotica, a 78-rpm jukebox being the crown jewel of the castoffs.) But to sleep consistently on a Friday or Saturday night, it was necessary to relegate the sounds of revelry below to the same kind of status the hourly train rumble was given by those whose apartments adjoined the tracks in a city. I was only partially successful at this strategy; I still know most of the lyrics of Bobby Bare's "Detroit City", Johnny Cash's "Five Feet High and Rising", Ray Charles's "Born to Lose", and dozens of other favorites of the regulars that provided us little joy.

Some mornings before the bar opened, before my father was involved with the morning news and a drink, I would go into the bar to investigate it. It had a game that was like a blend of a bar-style shuffleboard and a pinball machine that my father would occasionally turn on coin-disabled for us, a fairly obvious attraction for a 13-year-old. But it also had some quite skilled caricatures of the local color rendered in watercolor, including a phlegmatic miner named Snuffy coming home from work, an Irish-American man and his wife of Italian heritage in Casey's, both of mercurial temper, she twirling a cat by the tail overhead, he hiding under a stool, depicting accurately a real event not long before our arrival according to most. And I'd look to see if anything of interest got added to the jukebox, "Peppermint Twist" being a case of a single not subject to too much wear. And, of course, there was the occasional coin, and I had developed scavenger's instincts in the years before, never failing to check the coin return on every handy pay phone.

But mostly, especially if school was not in session, entertainment was somewhat hard to come by for a non-adult. Some caught hellgramites for bait and fished in nearby Kanaka Creek, though the swimming was just fair. Some made ill-advised explorations of abandoned mines as I did a couple of times. You could shoot BB guns at the abandoned cars at the edge of town. You could see what comic books had arrived at the store, even if you didn't have the requisite money to buy.  Or (at left) there was a minimal hoop available in front of Casey's which at least had the advantage of few automotive interruptions. But reading Ian Fleming and sci-fi was as likely to occupy most of my summer days as anything.

(to be continued)

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