November 10, 2017
I am now in the same situation as the woman in the song Those Were the Days, immortalized by the singer Mary Hopkins in 1968.
The story in the song, with its old Russian melody, is told from the vantage point of an older woman looking back in memory to a tavern where she and her friends once met, sang, and celebrated being alive. I celebrated it, too, when I was young, healthy, confident, arrogant, and gave no thought to how fast “the future” would come and go.
There were more than a thousand taverns in St. Louis in the 1950s. Today most of them are boarded up or vacant lots or converted to some other use. Once-popular brands of beer like “Empire” and “Green Tree” survive in fading ghost signs on the brick walls of a few of those buildings, remnants of a vanished civilization. Those taverns were neighborhood focal points at a time when cities had not yet been blasted by the disintegrating effects of the motor vehicle, “city planners”, and do-gooder schemes like “urban renewal.” They helped to solidify neighborhoods. Friends met friends there, neighbors met neighbors, and conversations flourished.
Somewhere in the years 1953-’57, my mother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, and I spent many hours on many Friday evenings in the dark and smoky interior of the Golden Oak Bar at the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Juniata Street in south St. Louis. It occupied the first floor in a red-brick, two-story building that had once been a grocery store. At ground level on two sides of the building were doors that opened into the basement for receiving cases of bottled beer. The Golden Oak Bar was a family tavern. It was run by Tony Sokolich, a man I never knew.
We usually sat at a table near one of the posts that held the second floor up. The grown-ups talked. I sat there with them and watched in amazement as the lights on the jukebox changed color and as an invisible being caused a mechanical contrivance to pull a record from a slot and place it on a turntable, and then do the whole thing in reverse when the record stopped playing.
“…Where we used to raise a glass or two…”
On such nights, the women raised a bottle of Pepsi-Cola. The men raised a bottle of Stag or Schlitz or Pabst Blue Ribbon or Falstaff beer. I raised my bottle of Squirt or Seven-Up. I was five years old. What did I know? At times it all seemed rather mysterious to that little boy, and then hopelessly boring.
People walked to the Golden Oak Bar from their houses or flats on surrounding streets. It was a peaceful, orderly neighborhood. Men sat at the bar or at tables and smoked cigarettes. They talked about the Friday night boxing matches or “pollytix,” whatever that was. Clouds of smoke drifted upward and hovered in the darkness overhead. Toward the back of the room, men played pinball or shuffleboard. People fed coins into the jukebox to hear songs by Patti Page or Frank Sinatra or Doris Day or the Ames Brothers or Gogi Grant or the Four Lads or Joni James.
Working-class men kept the Golden Oak Bar in business from 1945 to 1971. I would swear under oath that those men could talk more sensibly than “well-educated” Americans do today. The brutal reality of World War II was still fresh in their memory. Because of that, liberty and an orderly society were not things they took for granted. Nor did they burden themselves with nonsense like “multiculturalism” and “non-discrimination”. They would have thought such ideas preposterous, which of course they are. If they could see them now, they would not recognize their neighborhood or their nation.
Occasionally men got drunk and knocked at the wrong door, expecting to be let in. When advised of their mistake, the realization dimmed upon them and they turned and walked away toward their intended destination.
“…Oh, my friend, we’re older but no wiser…”
Only half right; older, yes. But if I am not wiser at 68 than I was at 19, then I have no right to exist. Only after many years went by did the treasure of those times with those people become painfully evident to me, as did the moral debt I owed to them, things no 19-year-old could understand.
In his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles wrote:
“…..Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…..”
I have always found that passage rich with meaning, especially for people in the September of their years.
Do people still watch the moon rise? I wonder. They did…..once upon a time.
Can you remember the first time you saw the moon? The stars? The night sky?
Only vaguely can I remember those moments at evening twilight somewhere in the years 1952-’54 when my mother and I sat outside on the back porch after supper. We did not sit in chairs; there were no chairs. It was a wood porch with steps leading down into the back yard, and we sat at the top of the stairs. She would point to a blimp that had floated into view in the eastern sky. It was a huge and mysterious thing, way up there in the air and with no sound whatever. Or she would point out the moon or the magical moment “when the stars come out”. Can you see the man in the moon?, she would ask me. Years went by…..decades went by…..before I realized that those moments meant much more to her than they did to that little boy. And by the time I realized it, it was too late to tell her I realized it. My mistake.
Nothing today brings those moments back to life in memory as forcefully as the serenade of insects at evening twilight in late summer. Such evenings now float in reverie amid memories of “sky songs” and “star songs” like “Deep Purple” and “Twilight Time” and “Moonlight Serenade” and “Allegheny Moon” and “Blue Moon” and “Dark Moon” and “Sonora Moon” and “Star Dust” and “Star Eyes” and “I’ve Told Every Little Star.”
Parents who do such things with their children and for their children ought to count such moments among the high points in their lives. Do parents still do those things? Why do I doubt it? Perhaps the Amish people do such things. Perhaps a few people do such things in rural Ireland or small American towns. But it appears to me that most other people’s lives are now too cluttered—by their choice or their default—with gadgets and beeps and screens and endless commotion and busyness.
“And yet it all seems limitless…..” And it did, didn’t it, when we were young? And isn’t that expression of youthful optimism precisely what we hear in the line in “Those Were the Days” about how “We’d sing and dance, forever and a day…..”
“Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me…..?”
Even when I heard it at age 19 in 1968, that portion of the song impressed me the most.
It was on cool evenings in the autumn of that year when “Those Were the Days” played in my head as I walked in the darkness along streets in midtown St. Louis and I could feel the melancholy suggested in those four lines. There I was, 19 years old, not a joiner, never a joiner, and in what is commonly said to be the prime of life, when many others my age were whooping it up or joining a cultural revolution and I had zero interest in whooping it up or joining a cultural revolution. But it was just a fun song, people will say. I don’t deny that. I deny that it was only that. Where others heard the joy, I heard the sadness. I never spoke about it to anyone. But I felt it. By 1968 I had become quite cynical about certain ideas that everyone was expected to accept and embrace, and a byproduct of that cynicism was an increasing awareness of the inevitability of sadness and tragedy. I was not your typical 19-year-old American.
The context in which all of that took place included a conflict, anger, frustration, uplifting discussions with newfound friends (not my age but older), and an evening spent typing letters while listening to a radio broadcast of Game One in the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers. All these things are linked inextricably in my memory with Mary Hopkin’s record.
I am grateful to Hopkins for what I have always thought is a hauntingly-beautiful recording. But this does not mean I welcome hearing it played in any place that panders to the lowest common denominator. I have heard it played in supermarkets—and turned around and walked out at such moments, not because I don’t like it but because I do.
If it were still there at the Gold Oak today, I could stand at that corner, remember those Friday nights now more than 60 years past, look into its window, hear the melody of “Those Were the Days” in my head, see a strange reflection in the glass, and ask: Is that lonely fellow really me?
But it is not there today. “Nothing seemed the way it used to be…..” There are no corner taverns there today or anywhere in that neighborhood, just as there are no corner grocery stores, corner confectionaries, neighborhood bakeries, people walking here and there, doctors who make house-calls, housewives hanging clothes in the back yard, men who deliver milk in glass bottles, Catholic nuns in schoolyards, grandmothers fanning themselves with handheld cardboard fans, white children playing on the sidewalk or in their backyard, families sitting outside at evening twilight and pointing out the moon and the stars to their children, or parents giving birthday parties for their children with innocent games like musical chairs and dropping clothespins into a glass milk bottle and pinning the tail on the donkey. I saw all those things.
You may say: Aren’t these the lamentations of someone who comes from another time, another place, another metaphysical realm? You bet they are: A pre-feminist, pre-moral relativist, pre-revolutionary 1960s realm—and a realm that was better for those reasons.
— Comments —
Stephen Ippolito writes:
Alan, such a beautiful reminiscence.
Whenever I see your byline I know we are in for something very special. You never disappoint.
My thanks to you for crafting that lovely essay and also to Laura for publishing it.
Posted by Laura Wood in Uncategorized