Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Barely Revised Neighborhood Christmas Eve Story

 Note: Some readers may recall this story from last year. I thought it was worth a revisit.


                                              The Nuart Theater today, gone is the Lucky-U

     All my father (RIP) could remember about the poem published in the now defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner was that it began, “T’was the night before Christmas and all through the….” That’s about as much of the poem as anyone in the neighborhood could remember, but the incident rang as loudly as the bells at St. Sebastian Church, about a half-mile away. 

     Indeed, it had been the night before Christmas, and on Santa Monica boulevard (the old Highway 66 that started in Chicago, Illinois and ended at Palisades Park in Santa Monica) was a notorious beer joint known as the Lucky-U, where the heartiest, and mostly, Chicano spirit-enthusiasts spent many a day and night, after work, and on weekends.

     Since the Lucky-U was located two blocks from the Veterans Administration, many disabled WWII and Korean veterans lined their wheelchairs along Santa Monica boulevard, where the Lucky-U competed with a couple of other bars, one famously known as the Vet’s Bar.

     Seeing as it was barely ten years since many of these men had returned home from battles in the Pacific and Europe, some fresh from Korea, they numbed their ailing bodies and minds in the local beer joints. Of course, the government denied war had anything to do with their mental maladies, including all manner of substance abuse, family disruptions, unemployment, and absentee fathers. Even those who didn’t go to war, had a difficult time understanding many of their relatives and neighborhood friends would not be coming home. At the time, there was no Dr. Phil or Oprah to help out.

     Inside the dark, musty room, the Lucky-U reeked of booze and spicy food. After 5:00 PM, the end of the work day for many of them, it was rare to find an empty stool at the bar. The men played pool, sat at the few tables scattered about, but most stood around, drinks in their hands, laughing and talking boisterously.

     All of the men knew each other, had been raised on Los Angeles’ Westside, and, many were, in fact, related, their parents, refugees of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Behind the bar, was a kitchen of sorts, serving an assortment of Mexican quick-meals, burritos and tacos. Some claimed the weekend menudo the best in town, or it was just an excuse to arrive early for the first drinks of the day. Everybody knew the owner and bartenders, so it was what Sly Stone would come to call “a family affair.”

     Actually, a few men claimed to have seen Door’s lead singer Jim Morrison knocking back a few brews; though, nobody, at the time, knew who the long-haired kid was. Morrison verified his presence in the Lucky-U to one of his biographers, years later.

     Getting back to the story, I will only use the protagonist’s first name, Joe, seeing as his children and relations might still live in the area, which is highly unlikely, since increased taxes and property values have driven out the old paisano families, as John Steinbeck might refer to them. Yet, Facebook is a mighty weapon, and who knows how many friends may read this, remember the name, and pass it on to unsuspecting family members.

     As noted, t’was the night before Christmas, the bar had closed before midnight, seeing as even serious drinkers needed to make it home to their families on such a blessed day, our savior’s birth. Apparently, Joe had something else in mind.

     He hid in the bathroom and waited for the bartender to call out he was locking the doors. There wasn’t much need to search the premises. Who would want to stay in the Lucky-U after it closed, anyway?

     So trusting was the owner, he left the cash register full of money until opening the following day when he would empty the till and collect the prior night’s earnings. My father once told me, “Who would rob the Lucky-U? It was like a second home,” a displeasing admission to many wives and children in town.

     Eventually, Joe came out of the bathroom. He called to make sure everyone was, in fact, gone. He walked straight to the cash register, opened the till, and started cramming the bills into his pockets.

     Joe was a long-time Lucky-U customer and not a thief, by nature. Surely, he thought long and hard about the course of action on which he was embarking. He considered the Lucky-U’s owner a friend, who was known to give patrons credit to partake in the establishment’s delights.

     Joe must have had good reason to abscond with the cash. Here is where the story gets a little murky regarding his motives. He might have been out of work and didn’t want to return home broke and with no gift on Christmas eve for his kids. Maybe he had bills to pay and found himself more desperate than ever. Or maybe he saw an opportunity, and he took advantage of it. This, he never confessed to his friends, but either way, he now had his pockets lined with enough money to do whatever needed to be done.

     As he made his way to the back door, which led to a dark alley, the neon lights of the Nu-Art Theater glowing across the boulevard, a thought came to him. Why not just one drink, on-the-house, before making his getaway? One drink, how could that hurt? Booze always tastes better when it’s free.

     Sure enough, he sat down and poured himself a drink. Once he finished, he figured it was time to leave, but then, he thought, hey! Why not one more? He had his money and one free drink. That should suffice. But now, with his whistle wet, the desire for another became overwhelming. So, he took advantage of the open bar and poured himself another. Well, you know what happened from here. He couldn’t stop, and he just kept pouring and drinking.

     The next morning when the owner opened to collect the prior evening’s “take”, he found Joe slumped across the bar. Of course, the owner was confused as to how Joe had gotten in, seeing as there was no apparent break-in. Complete confusion, until he looked down and saw dollars spilled on the floor beneath Joe’s bar stool, and greenbacks of various denominations peeking out of Joe’s pockets.

     I can only surmise how the Hearst newspaper reporter learned about the break-in. The owner must have called the police, as the precinct was just down the street behind the old library, to report the robbery, which generated buzz from an otherwise listless Christmas Eve news desk, sending the reluctant reporter from his warm cozy desk in downtown Los Angeles out to the Westside to check-out the minor criminal infraction.

     After conducting rudimentary interviews with people at the scene, the Herald’s reporter, his creative juices flowing, decided against writing a mundane piece about a neighborhood drunk serendipitously breaking into a local bar, chose instead to  memorialize Joe’s escapade in verse, borrowing the elements of prosody from a Christmas poem published anonymously in 1823 which began, “Twas the night before Christmas/ and all through the….”

1 comment:

jmu said...

I've read this piece before here in la bloga. Are you now recycling?

Anyway, how does the rest of the "poem" go? I've been wanting to know for years.

But more importantly, was Joe ever welcomed at the bar again?