Broadway & Commerce
Stoolie’s fills the northwest corner of Broadway and Commerce streets. The location sounds a bit pretentious, but Broadway isn’t quite so broad and Commerce is not much but a fading memory of booming days in the 1920s when cotton was king and Gainesville was the bustling seat of Cooke County. Today Broadway is the parallel to the real main street of town. That would be California Avenue which runs past the north side of the courthouse. Main Street isn’t the main street and it probably wasn’t preeminent even in the old days. Now Broadway is the bypass for locals who don’t want to get caught in the three or four traffic lights that run from the Interstate to Grand Avenue, past the courthouse and the old Turner Hotel and the post office. Grand ain’t that grand either, unless your idea of hot spots is a couple of shuttered gas stations, a not-quite bustling Taco Ole and a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet enroute to Wal-Mart.
Commerce deteriorates quickly once you turn off of California and away from the courthouse square; a sandwich shop, a cutesy “boutique” with some not-very-serviceable antiques, and then a series of abandoned store fronts which may or may not be trying to attract new businesses. By the time you’ve gotten down the two short blocks to Stoolie’s you’ve transitioned to a reasonable facsimile of a movie set for a depression era pot-boiler. Two story brick buildings in that aged red that probably wasn’t the original color but rather the result of decades of being downwind from the coal smoke of the railroad yard in the first half of the twentieth century line both sides. There’s a Mexican restaurant just past Stoolie’s and an abandoned blues/jazz club across the street. The second story windows are either broken out or boarded up in many of the buildings. It doesn’t take much to tell you that you aren’t headed to a fern bar in southern California.
Broadway and Commerce is a bit less than that fabled corner of “walk and don’t walk”—it doesn’t even have a traffic light. But, there it is. A sign hangs over the sidewalk in yellow and black announcing: “Stoolie’s: Hangout and Burger Joint.” That’s pretty much the idea. The bottom half of the sign offers space for three lines of marquee text, but there’s nothing spelled out there. No neon, not even a floodlight over the sign. Illumination is strictly whatever gets captured from the corner streetlamps. It’s hard to tell what the building original housed or even if it was purpose-built for a specific enterprise. My guess is that around 1940 it was a car showroom. Using the size standards established by the rest of the defunct enterprises of the neighborhood, the bar covers about two store-widths down Broadway and maybe four stores-worth up Commerce. Most of the frontage is dark-tinted plate-glass windows. There are three doors and if it’s not summer hot or winter cold, most likely they’ll be propped open giving the prospective client a glimpse at the interior. Conspicuously missing from the façade are the ubiquitous beer signs that fill every window of every bar everywhere else in this cookie-cutter country.
The surrounding buildings are mostly two or three floors. It’s hard to distinguish because of the varying heights of ceilings, windows and lofts. Stoolie’s however is a single level. First glance says new construction, but then you can see that the stucco has broken away over one window and the basic structure is very old bricks and mortar. It’s old. Maybe ninety, or even a hundred years old. Maybe more. It might even be an add-on to an older structure. It’s hard to tell.
Inside it takes a minute for the eye to adjust to the dimness. There are tables arrayed along the front windows and two pool tables on the left. A pass-through window behind the pool tables shows access to the kitchen where a short, thirty-something Mexican in a tee-shirt is busy with lunch prep. Above the window are four flat-screen televisions tuned to various sports and news channels. In the distance is the bar, which bends around to the left and continues down what is at first a hidden wing of the place. More tables along the back wall, and then far down the ell beyond the end of the bar are four more pool tables. Three more televisions are mounted above the bar. None have the audio on. There’s a well-dusted shuffleboard table along the Commerce street windows that apparently sees some regular usage. Ceiling fans dangle from the stamped tin, turn-of-the-last-century ceiling about every twenty feet. A couple of men sit at the corner stools where the bar bends toward the back section.
A cute girl is behind the bar, well beyond her twenties, but still looking pretty good in impossibly tight low-rise jeans. I take a stool a respectable two seats down from the current patrons. You’ve got to follow certain protocols when you’re a new guy in the bar and there is always the possibility of getting cross-wise with the locals and getting your ass kicked. These locals look to be a bit beyond sensitivity and ass-kicking age, but it never hurts to be polite. I scan the back-bar for a display of what beers are available. There’s the usual assortment of generic swill: Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Lite from Miller and MGD. Also they’ve got Heineken, Corona and Dos Equis. No Sam Adams, but I’ll still stay for a couple. I ask for a Shiner Bock, it ain’t Sam, but it isn’t all that bad.
The guy in the cowboy hat at the end of the bar checks me out for potential threats, then goes on with his conversation. He looks a bit like Marlboro Man meets Medicare; about seventy and what they used to call “wiry” or “rangy” in build. The hat has some years on it along with some dust and sweat. He’s got a working western shirt and Wrangler jeans. No effete snaps or mother-of-pearl on the shirt; simple buttons. Boots, without pointy toes or dogger heels. By my city-boy estimates he’s the real thing. When he stands he’s about six foot two or at least he would be if he didn’t have a slight stoop that reflects a lot of years of hard work. No butt in those jeans. It probably got ground off after decades in a saddle.
I drink my beer, watch the news and try to listen to the conversation. They are talking at friendly bar volume, which means they don’t mind sharing among the others at the bar who want to join the conversation. The problem is that I can’t understand half of what they say. Apparently there is something in the cowboy code that requires all speech to be accomplished without opening the mouth more than the distance it takes to put a cigarette in. Even with concentration and watching, I still miss most of it.
Marlboro Man looks my way and asks, “Y’allnewroundhere?” With a second or two of processing I realize he’s invited me to introduce myself. I volunteer that I’ve moved here from Colorado and living in a small town nearby. He’s Dolan. I’m still Ed. The bar-tenderess volunteers that she’s Becky.
With introductions out of the way, I feel better about saying something to someone, or for that matter anything to anyone. Since I don’t understand half of what Dolan says, I watch Becky for clues. If Dolan is smiling at the end of the statement, I nod and agree. If there’s a scowl, I shake my head and comment sagely, “ain’t that the truth.” It seems to work.
I decide that as long as I’m tolerated, it might be a good idea to check what the kitchen has to offer. Becky provides a menu and it meets my criteria for bar food, lots of fried and breaded stuff, heavy on cheese, bacon and beef. Any place that offers a chicken-fried steak has got a head-start in my book. Nachos grande, enchiladas, tacos and similar reflect the influence of the guy I saw cooking when I came in. A cheeseburger, however, is where a good bar is either going to succeed or fail when it comes to qualifying for my regular lunch stop. If it’s good enough for John Belushi and Lyle Lovett to make fun of it’s good enough for me. “Cheeseburger and fries, everything on it, American cheese…” Dolan nods approval and lights another cigarette.
“Awww, shit! Here comes Galen,” Dolan warns as though it could make a difference to me. Across Broadway to the south, an even older man in a cowboy hat is looking both ways before crossing the street and heading our way. He’s got a cane in one hand and a couple of plastic Wal-Mart bags in the other. His jacket looks dusty more than dirty and his shirt is red, white and blue in the huge geometrics of the Texas state flag. He’s wearing a red neckerchief and might be accused of bearing a slight resemblance to Roy Rogers, “king of the cowboys,” if Roy had lived to be ninety and Dale had routinely whipped up on him. This might be interesting.