The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


And Other Springfield Adventures

Today I took the bus to Springfield. At the holdover at Holyoke's Veteran's Park I saw that yesterday's torrential downpour had been too much for somebody's bumbershoot.

In downtown Springfield I paused to look in the window of the former Luva restaurant, whose owner was a friend of my father.

What was weird was that looking in the window it looked like the place was untouched since the last night it was open, with booze behind the bar and everything. It was as if the door was locked on the last night it was open and no one has ever returned.

Not far off is the also defunct Cafe Manhattan. I remember nights of partying there that seemed like they would never end.

Well at least good ol' Smitty's and Theodores are still open.

That reminds of an essay I wrote about Smitty's that needs to be transferred here from Geocities.

I saw on one of our local TV News shows that Smitty's Pool Hall has turned one hundred years old. That doesn't particularly surprise me, although frankly it had never occurred to me to wonder just how old the place was. There is a timelessness about Smitty's that's sorta like a person whose age you can't guess, who never look young but never seem old. Smitty's is like that.

Then again maybe I don't know what I'm talking about since I haven't actually stepped foot in Smitty's in years. But from what I saw on TV it looked pretty much the same. I'm not talking about the decor, which was dark the way pool halls should be, and therefore too dark for the TV camera lights to capture much. But it did show the customers, and they looked like the same sort of people I used to see there, so maybe it hasn't changed.

Back when I was a student at the noble High School of Commerce, back before Phil Sweeney retired and the Democrats ruined the school system, me and my friends used to skip school on occasion and go to Smitty's. The proper name for the place is Smith's Billiards, but I've never heard anyone actually call it that. It's on Worthington Street and was where we usually spent the afternoons when we played hooky. Does anyone even use that term anymore for skipping school?

Our illegal absences usually began elsewhere. The first stop was always the Seven Kettles in Baystate West (now Tower Square). It was a glorified diner with cheap coffee and pastry, the kind of place that attracted a lot of bums. In other words it was a perfect place for truants to hang out. I think that's where I first got addicted to caffeine, hanging out in the Seven Kettles.

On our way downtown from Commerce we would walk without a pause right past the main branch of the City Library. Yet ironically the next stop on our itinerary after the Seven Kettles was usually a reading room of a different sort. I'm talking about the old Phoenix Newsroom near the Arch, which had an indifferent management that would allow you to peruse at your leisure their magazine section. Not just the front section, which featured dull publications like Time, Newsweek and U. S. News and World Report. I'm talking about the back section, which was out of view of the casual customer, and which featured easy reading material of the sort that had lots of pictorials featuring the mating habits of human beings.

After tiring of that educational environment, we would then cross the street to that infamous temple to misspent youth, the Playtown Arcade Gallery. We'd play pinball there, but usually only briefly, because that was not our real intent in going there. What we wanted was marijuana, and we all knew that the young black dope dealers that passed through Playtown at irregular intervals always had the best weed. You could even make back the day's expenses by rolling part of what you bought into joints and selling them singly at twice the price. This illicit teenage capitalism was as sophisticated as anything you could learn about supply and demand in Junior Achievement and many times more profitable. It was also pretty much risk free. The only authority in Playtown was a fat bald guy with a cigar and suspenders whose sleepy eyes saw nothing as long as you weren't mistreating the machines.

Once we scored the weed we would leave Playtown and go under the Arch, through the Peter Pan bus terminal (a good place to find customers for your joints) and then go behind the Springfield Newspapers and beneath the overpass, where there were some scattered woods that you could follow all the way down to the Connecticut River. There we would smoke joints, goof around on the riverbank, commune with nature and eventually wander back to Playtown. Once there we'd play games with names like Gorgon, Snow Devils and Aces Wild, whose colorful lights and carnival sounds were just perfect for when you were stoned.

But finally it would be time to go to Smitty's to play pool. All previous adventures were but a prelude to this phase of the day. At that time Smitty's was the only place I knew of that had a security camera in the stairwell so that the bartender could see in advance who was coming in. In those days such security measures were unheard of, and that Smitty's was a place that needed such equipment was part of its mystique. Whether they needed it to warn of the arrival of unwanted rowdy clientele or the arrival of unwanted law enforcement personnel was uncertain. From what I saw it was needed for both.

One time Don Vennell dropped his pants and mooned the security camera, and we got mad at him because we thought that would mean the bartender wouldn't let us in. It was important not to offend the bartender, because if business was slow, and the coast was clear, we could send whoever was the oldest looking of us up for a pitcher of beer and the bartender would pretend not to notice that some of the guys at the table hadn't had their first shave yet. As it turned out he never said a word about Donny's mooning.

Smitty's was the kind of place where nobody much noticed you and what you were doing as long as you didn't notice them. People went to a place like Smitty's not to be noticed, and lots of them had better reasons than being truants for not wanting to be. It was a very adult world, part of the side of life they don't teach you about at home or in school, a world which many might ignore or disapprove of, but one which we boys were drawn to like moths to a flame.

But maybe I'm romanticizing the place. Certainly I was disappointed the last time I went there with Jay Libardi. We couldn't believe how the joint had changed from our high school days. This was during the era when the yuppies discovered pool and transformed the game into some kind of high-class leisure activity, with players bringing their own pool sticks in velvet-lined cases and everything. They had even installed a no smoking section! Good grief, in our day had some wuss ever suggested anyone put out a cigarette they would have been beaten-up on the spot.

Some of those yuppies even had their wives and girlfriends with them. Women in Smitty's? Except for the occasional angry housewife who would storm in to drag her husband home by the ear, or the rare prostitute who would sashay into the joint hooking her trade, women never went to Smitty's. We left disillusioned. It's true what Thomas Wolfe said - you can't go home again. It will only spoil your memories.

I later heard that after the yuppies lost all their money or moved on to other things, that Smitty's deteriorated back into its old self. I hope that's true. At least that's the way it looked from the dark images I could see on the TV screen in the piece about Smitty's centennial. There will always be a place like Smitty's. There will always need to be.

Happy 100th birthday, and may you rack 'em up for a hundred more.

I took the bus up to Pine Point where I went to see some friends and relatives at Saint Michael's Cemetery, whose shrubery calls on airplane passengers for prayers.

By Duggan Middle School (forever a junior high to me) I saw that they have a new electronic sign across the street with the date and the time and temperature and everything. How many students do you think stare at that sign during classes?

It reminds me of my Duggan reading teacher Mr. O'Neil who once put a sign by the clock in his classroom that read, "Time will pass, will you?"

Heading down Riverton Road I saw that it actually had a sidewalk. Pine Point really has entered the modern age!

Heading up Denver Street, I passed the infamous Walker House where I lived much of my twenties. Oh God, if those walls could talk!

I passed the house where Jay Libardi died.

At last I arrived at beautiful downtown Pine Point!

Oh well, it's always good to visit the old stomping grounds. On the bus home I made this video out the window on Chestnut Street.


Anonymous said...

Jeez Tommy, sometimes I think we both lived the same childhood. My school skipping days from old Tech High were exactly the same, except we bought dope right in Smitty's. And you're gonna love this... not only has Smitty's been renovated, but they have a friggin DANCE FLOOR in there now. Please Mister Wizard, take me back to the Nutty Goody. Richard

Michaelann Bewsee said...

Benny's Diner, Nutty-Goody, Cunningham Books and Playtown! For a while I'd blow $15 buck a week out of my $60 a week salary (minimum wage $1.30 in those days).

sodafixer said...

Tommy, you hit the nail on the head. My days of skipping Tech were exactly as you said, except added to that routine for me was a stop at the Hour Glass (local bar) where my fake Tech Id (that I made with rub on letters purchased at Johnsons)was good enough to purchase a draft (Schlitz if I remember correctly)

Anonymous said...

LMFAO Tommy, you bring back so many good memories to similar like minded people. Personally I was a Trade HS truant. There was an old bum who wore an Army uniform who would buy us booze for a small fee. Also we used to go up to Mattoon Street to buy dope from the PR's. Never got burnt by them guys. BTW, is the Apiary still open on Wilton Street? I got their business card, but I have no idea where I got it.

Anonymous said...

How did Jay Libardi die? Seemed too young to have lost his life. Sorry to hear you lost what seemed to be a great friend so many years ago.

Anonymous said...

I can remenber skipping Classical and my brother from Tech. We would head to all the places you mentioned so many years ago. Our only problem was our dad was the downtown bike cop and we were always running so he would not see us. Just when we thought we were safe he would pop out of an alleyway, god I wish I knew how he did it. Many great memories hanging around downtown when it was safe.