Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Smell of Cigars, the Sound of Shuffling

An intersection that is locked into my memory made the news today. The item - on - mentioned a new apartment building to be constructed next to an existing building from 1925. They are to be called The Gotham and The Gotham Annex. "Holy Renovation, Batman, let's check 'em out."

What got my attention was the location of the new Gothams. It's the intersection of Hamilton and Delmar Boulevards, in St. Louis where the city meets the eastern edge of University City. Not a nice neighborhood these days. Definitely on the low end of a long losing streak. 

But back when I was a little kid, Hamilton and Delmar was alive with retail stores, apartments, shoppers, and restaurants. It was also the site of Chester's Pipe Shop. Keep reading, because this is not about pipes and tobacco and old men puffing on their Meerschaums. Chester's is where Dad would head on many a Sunday afternoon. He would tell Mom "I'm going down to the store, check the receipts." (He owned a shoe store on Cherokee Street, with a big Red Goose over the doorway.) Or he'd say "I'm going to visit Minnie and Goldie." Those were two of his five sisters, all of whom had come over on the boat from Russia 30 or more years prior. And, frequently, he would do just that: the shoe store or his sisters.

Frequently he would do neither, and head to Chester's Pipe Shop for an afternoon of gin rummy with several friends. He took me with him once. I walked into the store, looked around, and was surprised that it was dark and empty. Just lots of pipes and cans and pouches and things I didn't recognize. Dad didn't smoke a pipe. He didn't smoke anything. We headed to the back of the store, through a doorway, into a lighted room filled with smoke. Cigar smoke. I remember the smell. It filled every corner. I was afraid to take a deep breath. The center of the room was dominated by a large round table. 

Around the table sat a lot of men, maybe 5 or 6 or 7. It seemed they all were puffing on  stogies of one length or another. I recognized three of the men. Sid Ginsberg and Jack Golberg and Nat Kornblum. I called them Uncle Sid, Uncle Jack, Uncle Nat, though none of them were related. But that's how I was told to address them. I also noticed lots of black telephones in the room. Very unusual, I thought, until I found out a few years later it was a big bookie operation. Mom didn't like these men. Worse than that: she hated them, thought Dad was too good for them. They not only smoked but drank whiskey and used bad language. Mom was better than that and thought Dad was too. 

But gin rummy with his buddies was important to Dad. That one time he took me, he stayed for only a short time. He told me to go look around at the pipes while he "took care of some business." I sat in the front room, listened to the chatter, heard lots of dirty words, the shuffling of cards. They told jokes with words I didn't understand, came to the punch line, and the room would explode with their laughs. To this day, the pungent odor of a cigar takes me back to Chester's. I wish I knew some of those jokes.

When we got home, Mom said, "You've been to Chester's." Dad claimed he just stopped by to drop off a pair of shoes. She said, "I can smell it all over you. That doesn't happen in two minutes." Dad mumbled some response, offered no argument. It was part of their ritual. That was my only visit to Chester's. But every time I passed it, over the years, the neighborhood in decline, Dad long since given up gin with his pals, I recall - fondly - how he had found this haven of friendship and recreation, and a place to display his awesome gin rummy talents. I don't even know if the building is still there, but I somehow suspect the Sunday afternoon games still go on in another dimension, cigars and all.

I was never able to beat Dad at gin. To this day, when my wife and I play gin rummy, she invariably mentions how good a player he was, how quickly he played his cards, and how impossible it was to beat him. I would have liked one more visit to Chester's with him, and some insight into how to win at gin.


  1. I love this story. I love it. I can smell the cigar smoke, I can see it in my mind. Wonder what he'd be playing these days? Do they have gin rummy on iphones?

  2. Oh....and they'd have to step outside to smoke their cigars! :)

  3. You have such a way with words, Gerry, but I'm sure you know that! :-) You set up the scene and described it so well, I felt as if I were there! What a great memory of your dad!

  4. Alright, now I reek of cigar smoke and want to play gin rummy. Gerry why aren't you a best selling author? Your words tap dance on the senses. This is incredible writing. Maybe Reminisce or The Good Old Days.

  5. I know-I know, you ARE a best selling author, I meant to say memoirist.

  6. That store was owned by my Dad and I worked there much later, when they sold beer, and cigarettes and cashed checks. I'd heard about the old bookie days, but it was before my time. I was kind of proud of it, my Dad doing some illegal things, since he really wasn't a tough guy or anything like that. He just liked to think he was. Great story, I wish there were pictures of the back room, but I'm sure they would have frowned on that.