Thursday, July 13, 2017

TWENTIETH CENTURY KIND OF GUYS


It was a hot mid-afternoon in July, 1965. I was standing with Bruce in front of the store, half a block from the Square on South Main in Lima, Ohio. When I’d first started working for the store, I had called him Mr. Sims. It had been my last few weeks of being fifteen. But now I was sixteen going on seventeen and a lot had happened in a year. I now owned a car, was a professional nightclub musician (for the time being, a relief drummer for any dance band that needed one), taught percussion to dozens of students each week, and had proven myself enough to earn being on a first-name basis with Bruce. After almost a year of working with him—part-time during the school year and now full-time in summer—he and I were friends. That wasn’t a strange thing among musicians. You got respect for what you knew how to do. If you played like a pro, you were treated like a peer. And if you worked like a man, you were respected as a man. You weren’t shunned by the adults in the music world because you were a kid. On the contrary, you got taken under the wings of the best in the business.
The store we were standing in front of was the B.S. Porter & Sons Music Company, better known to its regulars simply as Porter’s. It was the middle of the afternoon, a dead time in summer. This time of the year, high school band directors were on vacation and retail customers came in during the morning or more toward closing time, 9 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with Saturdays being a busy half-day that ran from nine to one. The only people filing in and out of the store at this hour were pretty much all students coming for private lessons in the cramped little lesson rooms that Porter’s maintained in the basement, down the hall behind the sales floor and office, and on the upper floor—more of an attic, really—that a couple of other percussion instructors and I shared with the guys in the electronic sound equipment repair shop. 
Downtown Lima, Ohio, back in the day...
Bruce and I had come out with the excuse of lowering the green canvas awning a little more to protect the instruments in the show window from the afternoon sun, since the store faced west. Bruce had brought his pipe with him, lit it with a kitchen match while I cranked the awning down further, and was now enjoying a smoke. We were in shirt-sleeves and ties, his, as usual, a short-sleeved white button-down dress shirt and slender dark tie, mine a long-sleeve Oxford cloth light blue shirt, cuffs rolled to the middle of my forearms, worn with a very-sixties paisley tie. He was short and solid and proportionate, with a head of thick, close-cropped, salt and pepper hair, the nose of a pug, but sharp, dark eyes that reflected his quick intelligence, mordant humor and equally quick temper.
Bruce was from the same neighborhood, the same block, in fact, in Lima’s then-notorious South End as my dad and his brothers. Bruce, now in his forties, still had a reputation, not for starting fights, but for finishing them quickly if challenged. My Uncle Bob, whose nickname was Red, had garnered the same sort of rep. But what was funny about Bruce’s being that way was that he was an accomplished classical musician.
Bruce’s most recent run-in had been with a big blowhard who was drunk and spoiling for trouble at the then-popular Milano Club downtown on Market Street. Bruce told the guy to hold it down and they guy told Bruce to make him, and that was about when Big Joe Guagenti asked the clown to leave.
I’d heard that the guy, who was almost twice Bruce’s size, had waited for Bruce in the parking lot out back. But he got more than he bargained for and ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw and several broken ribs. Bruce had walked away unscathed, except for skinned knuckles. One of the regulars at the store later said, “I know that guy. He’s big! What’d you do, kick him once you dropped him?”
Lima South High School where Bruce and Red studied together
“No,” Bruce said with a wry grin, “I jumped on him with both feet.”
I once asked Bruce, “How’s a cello-player get so tough?”
“If you lived in the South End like I did when I was a kid, played cello and had to carry it through the street to your lesson, you got tough real fast.”
How well had he known my dad and his brothers? “Real well. I went to school with Red at Lima South.”
“I understand he was a tough little guy himself,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Bruce, “they used to say the guys got meaner as you went down our block. I lived in the next to the last house and your Uncle Red lived in the last one.”  
Normally, while we took a break, Bruce would have been sharing some anecdote with me about one of the crazy and unique musicians he’d known over the years. The stories were endless and he’d collected most of them during his long years here at Porter’s. In a city the size of Lima, which had several music stores but only two major ones—Porter’s and Zender Music—just about every musician in the area was sure to happen through the store at one time or another. Many had become friends who used Porter’s as a place to kind of hang out and talk to other musicians, and before he’d gone to work for the Porter family, Bruce had also worked for a time at Zender, so he knew everybody in the business. But today, we were just standing there waiting to see what was going to happen at the bar across the street.
Just as we had come out, a Lima PD cruiser had pulled up across the way. Its two uniformed occupants had gotten out, but were now just standing there, expectant but relaxed next to their car, one with his hand on the grip of his nightstick, the other with his hand resting, rather casually, on the butt of his holstered revolver. From inside the bar, a dive if there ever was one, we could hear an ungodly ruckus—men shouting, furniture crashing, glass breaking.
There were only two major music stores in town and Bruce had 
worked for both.
The place was well known for nothing good. It had become a source of anguish for Dave Porter in his final years to have it across from his store. I’d only had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Porter very briefly, when I first started working at the store. He was in the latter stages of terminal cancer at the time. He had died shortly after I started working there. And when I met him, it already showed that he was heading that way. His suits hung on him as if from a wire hanger, as if the body inside could walk around in there without breaking the crease. But it was still plain to see that he had been an impressive man at one time, tall, straight-backed, immaculately groomed, with eyes that gazed frankly into yours through steel-rimmed glasses when you spoke to him. He was known for being honest, ethical and of high moral character. But he was also a man willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.
Some suggested that these traits sometimes rendered him naïve. Naïve or not, however, it seems that when Mr. Porter had heard a couple of the guys at the store making wise cracks about the side business the saloon owner across the way was running, he’d asked Bruce what they were talking about. “Seems the guy’s added a cathouse upstairs to supplement his income, Dave,” Bruce told him. Mr. Porter was incensed. After mulling it over for awhile, it seems he marched across the street, into the bar, up to the owner, and to the guy’s astonishment, leaned down so that he was right in the man’s face and said, “You’re not an honorable man! And you know what I’m talking about! Do the right thing. Shut it down!” And then he turned on his heel and strode back across the street to his store.
Bruce said some of the guys in the store snickered behind Mr. Porter’s back about the incident. Who could be that naïve, right? But it would appear the power of Mr. Porter’s character had won out, because for all intents and purposes, the saloon apparently quit serving anything more inappropriate than watered liquor, warm beer and bad food on the premises.
Now a second LPD cruiser screeched to a halt at the opposite curb, and suddenly Bruce knew what the other two cops had been waiting for. “Get ready for all hell to break loose,” Bruce murmured around his pipe stem. “That’s Louie Hamilton.”
The mere mention of the name was sufficient. Even I’d heard of him. He wasn’t particularly impressive at first sight, no bigger than a middleweight, neat and trim in his summer uniform, with razor-creased dark uniform trousers contrasting with the neat short-sleeved white shirt to which his badge was pinned, the deep-black skin of his forearms contrasting just as sharply, peaked cap pulled low over his mirror shades.
A fellow drummer who worked with me at Porter’s—and had a father that was a local radio anchor who knew everything about everybody who was anybody in Lima—had told me a Louie Hamilton anecdote that was right out of an action movie. Seems that there was this ostensibly shy young guy who had been visiting a particular girl repeatedly over the course of several weeks at Big Ruth’s, down in the deep South End, an area that, rumor had it, even the police usually avoided. So anyway, this guy, who was clearly semi-delusional, decides he’s in love with this young professional woman at Big Ruth’s and on a certain Saturday night, he declares his love for her and asks her to elope then and there and marry him.
The girl thinks he’s kidding and practically laughs him out of the place. The guy leaves, but in a little while he’s back, drunk out of his mind, and down in the parlor, he pulls a .38 and starts threatening to kill the girl and anybody else who gets in his way. But it seems pretty clear right away that he can’t get up the nerve to kill anybody like that, in cold blood, so it turns into a sort of sad-sack hostage situation.
Now, according to this other drummer, nobody knows if somebody managed to call Louie or if he just happened to be in the neighborhood.  But all of the sudden he shows up, walks into Big Ruth’s front room, right up to the guy and says, “Okay, hotshot, party’s over. Hand over the piece.” And just like that, he reaches out to take the .38 out of the guy’s hand.
Whether by accident or design, however, the .38 goes off, and nobody’s more surprised than Louie, who takes a .38-caliber revolver slug pointblank in the belly. But according to this drummer, Louie Hamilton just sort of takes a quick step back, like as if he’d accidentally touched a hot stove or something, and then, to the surprise of the shooter, he strides forward again, growls, “Gimme that goddamn gun!” snatches the .38 out of the guy’s hand, knocks him to the floor with the butt of it, cuffs him, bleeding all the while, then jerks the guy up, bum’s-rushes him out the door and into the caged backseat of his cruiser, and off they go, siren blaring. Louie calls for backup—or so the story goes—to meet him at the hospital, and drives himself to the emergency room, where he turns his prisoner over to the cops waiting for him there. Then he signs himself in for treatment of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
How much of this is true, I have no idea, but what I’m about to see on this particular summer afternoon is going to make a Louie-Hamilton-believer of me. Because right now, as Bruce and I look on from the other side of the street, Louie motions for the other two cops to post themselves on either side of the door, and in he goes...alone, nightstick in hand.
All we can hear before he moves deeper into the fray is when he shouts, “Aw right! Ever’body up against it, hands on the bar where I can see ‘em.” Then there’s a tense silence, a break in the earlier chaos, before we start hearing new shouts and crashes and then, one at a time, four guys come flying out the open door onto the sidewalk—one on his chin, a second one on his side, the third on his back and the last one, a big guy, just kind of staggers out the door backwards and falls on his ass on the pavement as if he’d been pole-axed and was out on his feet before he ever hit the ground.
For the cops outside, it’s a lot like fishing with dynamite: They just gather up the stunned bar-fighters, cuff them and deposit them, two each, in the backseats of the two cruisers. Shortly, Louie comes swiftly out the door, all business, no swagger, re-tucking and straightening his uniform, climbs into his cruiser, and off go both cars, roof lights flashing, to the city jail. All in a day’s work for the legendary Louie Hamilton.
“Well that’s one way to liven up the afternoon,” says Bruce. “Time to get back to work.” But as he swivels right to go back inside, his eyes fall on another eccentric character heading our way, sauntering down the sidewalk toward us from the Square. Brown-mustard-color suit with extra-wide lapels, dark brown shirt with wide cream-colored tie, two-tone tobacco-brown and white shoes, a broad-brimmed tan fedora with a wide grey sweat band, an extra-long green-wrappered corona clenched in the guy’s teeth.
“Now what?” says Bruce with a chuckle, pausing to watch the man, who looks to be in his sixties, and who, to me, is beginning to look very familiar. “Who the hell is that?” he asks rhetorically, “Al Capone?”
“Nope,” I answer, “that’s my Great-Uncle Dale!”
To be continued...


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