Oakwood owl querying
Pilgrims at the journey gate,
Whooo will pass this night?

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Town Talk Round Table

The Algonquin Round Table, or the Vicious Circle as they called themselves, were a group of New York writers and actors that met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s. As near as I can determine the only thing that differentiated them from groups that gather at tables in small town cafes all over the country, was that they wrote what they said in their newspaper columns. The only member of the group that I am really familiar with is Dorothy Parker. She was a sharp-tongued sarcastic bitch - and I love her, especially her snappy little poems.

I never see that prettiest thing-
A cherry bough gone white with Spring-
But what I think, "How gay 'twould be
To hang me from a flowering tree." 

The Round Table at the Town Talk Cafe back in The Grove when I was young was actually round. It was fairly large and situated in center of a large room populated by other smaller, empty tables. The Round Table was a communal table. The table would seat six comfortably, but often there was a second row of late comers who just had enough room to reach between shoulders to set their coffee cup and sweet roll on the table, so you could squeeze in a dozen or so. (Aside: The sweet rolls were made by actual Danish ladies in ruffled cotton aprons with white flour smudges on their rosy pink faces. The rolls were never called 'Danish', because all rolls were Danish.)

Because of the ongoing political debates, there were a couple of articles written about the Round Table in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Tribune, which ran the headline, The House of Knowledge.  The locals took that to heart and a small House of Knowledge sign was soon hung on the support column next to the table. In The Grove political baiting and debating was considered a sport - almost a contact sport. For any politician running for local or statewide office a session at the Round Table was a required stop. While the political bent of the town was decidedly right leaning, the members of the Round Table were equally aggressive with hopefuls of either party. They particularly liked to ask the questions that make candidates squirm, the ones they don't like to answer. The poor candidates would field questions for a hour or more, usually with a reporter off to the side taking notes on every misstep. Now they call them 'Town Hall Meetings', questioners are planted and they're scripted for the media. That is too bad, something has been lost.

There was a lighter side of the Round Table. There were a lot of stories and laughing. The Grove had two or three larger than life characters. Maybe my Old Man when he was young, certainly Kepple, who as a night carrier pilot during The Big War spent his days reading and memorizing all of Bill Shakespeare's plays among other things. Ol' Kepple was an orator and a master of quotation. But the majority of the actors were life size - a few even smaller than life. I lived in a world populated by eccentric characters with appropriate nicknames - Wild Bill, Crazy Bill, the Dutchman, Timber Carl, Fuzzy Larson, Big Donald, Little Joe, and on and on. 

I don't have the time nor inclination to flesh out all the characters is much as they deserve, but there are a couple I just can't pass up right now. At the time I was in living in The Grove, the Dutchman, sometimes called Bill the Dutchman, was a middle-aged, rough-hewn working man. He 'boarded' with a single lady, and when they had a falling out he would move five miles to the east to work in Hollandale. The work there was seasonal so he always moved back to The Grove when he needed work again and/or for female companionship. The Dutchman had a strange speech pattern that was complete gibberish unless you had sat across the table from him for a few years. At first I assumed it was a really thick accent, but John Ravenhorst, who also spoke Dutch, said he was just as unintelligible in Dutch.

Another one I have to tell you about is Crazy Bill. Craze had a Lincolnesque look about him, tall and bony, Lincoln without the beard, and wearing a bill-up baseball cap perched precariously on the back of his head. Craze stepped off of a passing railroad freight when he was already middle-aged and lived in The Grove until he died. He was interesting in a give and take conversation because he was always three or four subjects behind and he was aggressive about it, which made it difficult to move the conversation forward. No one knew much about his past. He claimed to have been in Barney Oldfield's pit crew, which as I recall would have made him about three years old at the time, but we didn't know much else. 

L.P., Bob Horning and I carpooled to work in Albert Lea and on the way home we usually stopped at the Town Talk for one last cup of  coffee and to catch up on the local news of the day. One evening we walked into the Town Talk and there were a couple of suits sitting at the the Round Table. Without giving a second thought to the empty tables, we beelined for the Round Table and sat down with them. Soon the rest of the regulars straggled in and sat down, Little Joe the banker, Craze, Peter a heavy equipment operator, and Kepple, his nemesis who owned the implement dealership - sometimes referred to by Peter as 'that f***ing plow jockey'. Peter also had his way with the language. The two strangers were were still trying to talk about selling tools, with Craze occasionally joining in, but they were surrounded by these odd people having perpendicular conversations across the table in front of them. I could see they found the situation ... uncomfortable. Then the Dutchman came in. He sat down, leaned to the salesman on his left and asked, "Whasda virone und balternut, yo bleeb dat?". The strangers were not threatened, we were not even unfriendly, but the look on the man's face was utter terror. The Dutchman's question had tipped the balance. Immediately they got up, paid their bill and left as fast as they could. The Dutchman shrugged, "I bauthneck lutnido tham?".  No one else seemed to know either. 


Oldfool said...

I knew the same people but in another dimension and time.

Gunnar Berg said...

Maybe everyone who grew up in the fifties knew these people.

Margadant said...

Thanks for memorializing "The House of Knowledge." It was a valuable addition to the Grove because of its diversity. Larger metros have simialar hang-outs, but they're invariably dominated by myopic local chamber of commerce types. The conversation sucks.

Gunnar Berg said...

Damn. I forgot about the 'House of Knowledge' sign. It was the headline from the Minneapolis Star/Tribune article.

Johann Rissik said...

Thank you, that lightened a dark day for me.

Anonymous said...

Every small town has, (had?) them. I grew up in Yardley, Pa. in the 50's and 60's..back when, as my old man used to say; "Every house was still painted white". It was dairy farm podunkville then...now a cutified swank commuter village midway between New York and Philly. I recall sitting in the old drugstore watching the likes of Junior, Tex, Dirty Bill, Jack Robinson, Bear, old Louis Seplow, (Holocaust survivor) and many other characters, ne'er-do-wells, and misfits. It was a fun place and time to be a mischevious, curious, and observant kid. I sometimes privately mourn the fact that my two kids have missed out on such "opportunities" in the little Massachusetts town we reside in.


Rick Moffat

Tom G. said...

There's still a few of these places left out there, although they have become few and far between. In my hometown, it's the Pok-A-Dot.

It's still kicking http://www.andoll.com/POK.htm

Anonymous said...

Argh....sorry for that last "Anonymous" post with the impossible link and the cheapshit Proust reference. Kill that sucker off, please.

My town;


Rick Moffat

Gunnar Berg said...

I've been thinking about Margadant's third comment. All of the other small tables were empty. Part of what made things click was that every social and economic class(but only men)were seated shoulder to shoulder around one big table. At lunch time they would spread out to the other seating, then re-cluster again after eating.

Anonymous said...

The crazy Dutchman's name was Bill Verduyn! I don't remember his landlady's name, but I remember my parents - John and Lou Ravenhorst - referring obliquely to his living arrangement ...
Dad's 89 plus and in failing health - but he could still translate the Dutch Christmas card that came from relatives in Holland a few weeks ago!
Peace to all ...

Gunnar Berg said...

It's been a long time. I hope you're doing well. Take care and greet A.J. for me.

Gunnar Berg said...

Lily Rasmussen? I'd better be careful 'cause it could of been someone else.

Anonymous said...

You make my heart grin, sir.


Anonymous said...

You're right! Lily Rasmussen. It's amazing what you can dredge up from the ol' memory bank.
I see this with my dad; he can't remember that I visited him 1 hour ago, but he sure can remember who he delivered tile to 60 years back and where the farm was located.