The world keeps spinning.

And since the mid-1960s a group of socially conscious Chicagoans have met for dinner at the city’s soul food restaurants to talk about  politics, food and moving forward against strong winds. Many are gone now:  the restaurants and the members.

The survivors call the group “The Round Table.”

The unofficial leader of the group is Gene Barge, who was a spry 87  years old in November, 2013 when I was early into research on my book “The People’s Place.”  Barge has a remarkable pedigree. He was  arranger, producer and sax player at Chess Records, 2120  S. Michigan from 1964 until 1967, when Chess moved to a bigger space  at 320 E. 21st St. Barge continued with Chess, shaping Little  Milton’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries” album as one of the first hits out  of the new space.

Barge left Chess in 1973 to head the gospel music division at Stax Records in Memphis, Tenn. Director Andy Davis has cast Barge in the  edgy films “Stony Island,” “The Fugitive,” “Above the Law” and others. Barge was also leader of the late 1960s Operation Breadbasket  Band, the pre-Operation PUSH effort formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Gene Barge (L) at Pearl's Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Gene Barge (L) and Rudolph Brown at Pearl’s Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)

“When I got to Chicago (in 1964 from Norfolk, Va.) it was turbulent,”  Barge said over a 2013 Tuesday night Round Table dinner at Pearl’s Place,  39th and Michigan. “Dr. King had been in Chicago in 1963 and ‘64 and  declared Chicago as one of the most racist cities in America. There  was a revolution in society. When I started with the group (in ‘64), most of the guys belonged to the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership  Conference), various community groups. Some guys were dealing  with housing over on the south east side.”

Early members were late Breadbasket saxophonist Ben Branch, who was  with Dr. King when he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine  Motel in Memphis, late Bobby “Blue” Bland guitarist Wayne Bennett, who  also played in the Breadbasket band, Chicago police officer Howard  Brookins, Sr.  and Chuck Bowen, an administrative aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The discussions were hot and heavy.

“The soul food restaurants were scattered around the south side,” Barge said over a plate of fried catfish. “Army and Lou’s (gone),  Captain’s Table (gone). The civil rights preachers would have a whole  table. Some guys would drink coffee and have a sandwich. Other guys would be in the bar getting high. Entertainers would order cobbler from these restaurants and have them sent to their hotels. Edna’s in Garfield Park (still standing as Ruby’s) and Helen Maybelle’s  restaurant on Stony Island (gone, as is the one on 22nd and Cermak.)

“Helen became Jesse Jackson’s caterer. She would look out for him no  matter what. She would send food to his house, she would send food to  the meetings. Because when he was trying to start Breadbasket this  (Helen’s) was one of the places he would meet. There was no  Breadbasket. We would solve the problems of the day. Every once in awhile others would drop in, Dorothy Tillman, (future Chicago mayor)  Harold Washington went to every soul food restaurant in this city.  Branson’s. Bowman. The west side.”

Helen Maybell Anglin died in 2009 at the age of 80.

She was a coal miner’s daughter from Edgewater, Ala. Her mother Sarah cooked mixed greens, black-eyed peas and string beans for neighboring  construction workers in Alabama. Helen opened her first restaurant on  East 51st Street in Chicago in 1947 with her first husband Hubert Maybell. They called it the H & H Cafe.

When Helen opened the Soul Queen in 1976, she made sure everyone had the regal touch.

All waitresses wore gold paper crowns.


“I always try to see past what I think I see,” Helen told me in a 1994 conversation at Soul Queen at 9031 S. Stony Island. “I’m not  looking to find something. We’re not born equal, but we’re all  created equal.

“Everybody has soul. It’s just that it doesn’t always  come forth. If it hits you and gets to you, you’re going to respond.”

So “The Round Table” took its hits and bounced around. The group even met  at the now-defunct Wag’s, a diner that was part of a Walgreen’s drug  store on 35th Street east of old Comiskey Park. Rudolph Brown  remembered, “When they did away with Wag’s we had to leave. We went  to Sauer’s and that closed when they put up McCormick Place West.”

According to Barge, the Round Table was at its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s at Sauer’s, 321 E. 23rd St. Sauer’s, ironically was a building constructed in 1883 to hold a dancing academy for Chicago’s  hoity-toity, including Marshall Field. About a dozen “Round Table” members met weekly, today the number is half that many. Almost everyone is over 60 years old.

Sauer’s had considerable cultural weight because it was next door to Paul Serrano’s recording studio. The jazz trumpet player-audio engineer recorded politically charged artists like Jerry Butler,  Donnie Hathaway and Oscar Brown, Jr. on East 23rd St. 

Oscar Brown, Jr.

The late, great Oscar Brown, Jr.

Barge said,  “Army and Lou’s took over this place (Pearl’s) and then it was run by the wife of  (Chicago blues guitarist) Jimmy Johnson.”

A visitor looks around the table and listens to the stories from a not-so-distant time. The mind cannot make sense of the things the Round Table veterans have seen, the bitterness they have tasted. How  deep does the soul reach? How does soul really feel?

What is soul food?

Brown put aside his po-boy and answered, “It is the food my grandmother fed me on.  The greens, collards, chitlins from the south,  things that were basically given away because they didn’t think it had nourishment. Barge added. “I’m the oldest guy here. My  grandfather was a butcher in Fayetteville, North Carolina. People ate  to survive in the 1920s and 30s. Black folks were  just a few years  out of slavery. They couldn’t enjoy what was afforded to others. Even the plantation owners ate soul food themselves, the corn and the vegetables what we could get out of the ground, the slaughter of  the  hogs–but we ate what they threw away. We ate the feet of the hogs,  the ears. You understand?

“The expression was, ‘You’d eat everything from the snoot to the root.

Brown said, “We came up with a lot of original things because of   necessity. My (African-American) pastor said that when he was a kid  in Virginia his mother worked for some white folks. They would eat  the greens, but they didn’t want to eat the pot liquor (the term for liquid left in a a pan after boiling greens). So she would take the pot liquor home and they would have cornbread and pot liquor. We knew  pot liquor was more rich in nourishment than greens themselves. 

That’s how she was able to feed her children. That happens throughout the south.”

Pot liquor was even used as a remedy and stored in Mason jars in the back of a refrigerator.

“My grandmother in Georgia had 16 kids, of which nine of them reached 80,” Brown said. “The oldest one now is 100.”

Barge interrupted, “Soul food won’t kill you.”

The Round Table enjoyed a healthy laugh before Brown continued, “It was a form of life. Somebody might have raised a cow.  You got the milk, you got the beef. We’d smoke it. I had corn, beans  and peas. I would trade that off for a piece of that cow. That’s how people survived. Poor blacks and southern whites are the same thing. If only one house had food, they would share with the other two houses. Color didn’t matter.

“Soul food was survival.”

Hilda Whittington was the only woman in the group of six at the Round Table. The 63-year-old Hyde Park attorney said, To me, soul food is  a throwback to the time of slavery. Our ancestors were cooking in the kitchen and given essentially, scraps. No one else ate chitlins, for  example. Our ancestors took them, cleaned them and seasoned the food. When I think of soul food, I think of spices, someone taking food no one wanted and making a delicacy.”

Helen Whittington at Pearl's, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)

Biamani Obadele listens to Hilda Whittington at Pearl’s, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)

She stopped and continued, “Soul food was served at the White House.”

In unison her comrades asked, “What?”

She answered, “Jimmy Carter was the first to bring chitlin’s in the White House. And then the price of chitlins went up! Who knows about  Barack (Obama)? Maybe he goes down to the kitchen at night and asks  for some chitlins.”

You can always learn something at the Round Table.

Long time Chicago soul orchestra leader-saxophone player Willie Henderson (Tyrone Davis, Donny Hathaway, Barbara Acklin) and Round Table member added, “The  menu today is basically the same. We’re all eating cornbread now.  Turnip greens. Butter beans.”

Pearl’s Place desserts are baked daily. 

They include red velvet, carrot and German Chocolate cake as well as banana pudding, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.

Biamani Obadele had the most diverse take on soul food on this particular Round Table gathering. At age 41, he was the youngest  person at the dinner. I didn’t come to the table eating soul food,”  he said over a plate of fried chicken and spinach. “Not that I’m against soul food. I come here for the political discourse and  community conversation. The food is a plus. What’s happening today is  a new generation has become more health conscious.

“Traditional soul  food restaurants are changing. You see more variety, fish, tilapia. Turkey products. My grandmother, god bless her soul, would cook ham  hocks and beans. We started convincing her to use smoked turkey.”

Barge reminded his peers that many observers put African-Americans “all in one boat.”

He elaborated, “It is not true because we are all culturally different. The islands on the coasts of the Carolinas, they call African-American geeches (or “Gullah,” Sea Island Creole; descendants  of African slaves). They eat a lot of rice. African-Americans who come from South Louisiana are very mixed blooded; Spanish, French and  their version of soul food is entirely different. They eat more sea  food. Inward, away from the ocean, people lean more towards animals,  the hogs. They go hunting and eat other animals, squirrels.”

Brown nodded his head. He has eaten squirrels. Of course he said they  taste like chicken.

And chicken wings are soul food, too.

“When I first came to Chicago there were no wing joints on the north side,” Barge declared. “White people never ate chicken wings. Wings,  chitlin’s and ribs became universal. Soul food is a blend of  cultures. Chicago is the end result of all these cultures coming  together.”

Whittington grew up in Opelousas, La. “There was boudin,” she said. “And there was blood sausage. I know a lot of soul food came from the  black kitchen. But the Germans make a blood sausage almost the same  as we made with boudin. You have all kinds of food that came out of  one little pig. Very little is said about how we grew up. I grew up where my neighbors weren’t all black. Some were white. We lived  together. This was before the 1960s.”

Barge said, “In the ‘70s the south was more integrated than the north. I’m just being honest.”

Brown said, “The movement north was for economics. There were more  job opportunities.”

Barge continued, “Boston, Chicago: segregated. Supposed to be free, but segregated. In the south we had white folks across the street. We  were segregated, not by sections of town (as in the north) but by the  system.”

Whittington chipped in, “Even the churches were segregated.” Brown smiled and added, “Still is. Eleven o’ clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”


Obadele retorted, “I know the stories my family told me and they are  nothing like this.”

Barge said, “Don’t get me wrong, now. We suffered from severe  racism. But the point was that we lived closer to white folks.”

Obadele put down his fork and said, “This city is still segregated. We’ve never had this kind of conversation. I’m only going by the stories  I’ve heard from my grandparents and great grandparents. Black women were domestics, but it was really difficult for the black male.”

The Great Migration of the 1940s brought black workers from Georgia,  Louisiana and Mississippi among other southern states to Chicago. Young men found work in the Union Stockyards, between 47th St. and Pershing Avenue. Brown recalled, “My grandmother would take us to the stockyards and get a hog head. There was Armour and Swift. You’d buy the whole head, yeah! Armour would  throw the chitlins in a barrel. People could come and get the chitlins for free because they saw no  commercial use for them. They saw all the black people coming go get  them and Armour became the first to come out with commercial chitlins, they were in buckets.”

The migration fed the Chicago blues and jazz scene, it fed the restaurant scene. “Soul food can be anywhere,” Barge said. “It depends on the quality of the cooking. I’m in Paris in 1982 and I’m  asking Mick Jagger, ‘Where’s a good place to eat?’ And he mentions a soul food restaurant. On his first visit to Chicago in 1963 (to record with the Rolling Stones at Chess) he had gone to soul food  restaurants in (Chess songwriter-bandleader) Willie Dixon’s neighborhood on Lake Park. And sure enough, an American went to Paris and cooked in a soul food restaurant.  He used to order the greens from America every week.”

Obadele asked, “Was he black?”

Barge answered, “Yeah, but the guy who owned the restaurant was white.”

Whittigton continued to take it all in. When there was a brief opening she looked around The Round Table and said to anyone who was listening, “Wherever you find blacks talking about looking for better solutions, you will find soul food.”


Allen Toussaint’s elegance and humility informed the beauty of all his music. Look no further than his recent cover of the late Jesse Winchester’s “I Wave Bye Bye” available on “Quiet About It,” from Jimmy Buffett’s Mailboat Records label.
I refrain from posting archived stories, but this one is almost 10  years to the day of his passing. From the Sun-Times.
Sail on Allen.
Nov. 20, 2005—
Allen Toussaint has taken New Orleans music all over the world.

He wrote New Orleans R&B classics such as Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” LeeDorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Southern Nights,” popularized by Glen Campbell. His “Whipped Cream” was recorded by Herb Alpert and became the theme for “The Dating Game.” There are many others, and you’ve heard more of them than you might realize.

 Born and reared in New Orleans, Toussaint, now 67, started playing piano at 7. His
father, Clarence M. Toussaint, was a railroad mechanic and a weekend trumpet
player. His mother, Naomi Neville, was a homemaker; Toussaint later would use
her name as a songwriting pseudonym (Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart”).
The songwrirter-producer-vocalist never left for Los Angeles or New York. Toussaint sacrificed business for the heartbeat of his hometown.
For years, Toussaint has lived in the shadow of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
fairgrounds. This is like Ernie Banks living across the street from Wrigley Field. But
his house was gutted by Hurricane Katrina at the end of August.

“All my stuff downstairs is destroyed,” Toussaint said last week from his temporary digs in New York City. “My Steinway piano. Equipment. My filing cabinets–with loads of handwritten music — is gone as well. It’s a disaster zone. But I’ve resolved it’s the rearview mirror. I’ll move back in the same neighborhood, but I will no longer depend on my lower level. I’m optimistic about the future. The city will be better.”

During the storm, Toussaint held out until the last minute, which for him, was Aug. 31, two days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Early reports had Toussaint missing and/or an evacuee in the Louisiana Superdome. He did leave his house and checked into the Astor Hotel on Canal Street.

 “By that time the water was seven feet high,” he said. “There was no hope. I was able to get on a charter school bus that night and get a ride to the Baton Rouge airport. I was safe at all times. The next morning I boarded a plane to New York.”

The move has not slowed him down. In the weeks since Toussaint relocated to New York, he’s become acquainted with Elvis Costello. Last week, they began recording an album together. Costello is following the lead of Paul McCartney, the late Robert Palmer and Paul Simon, all of whom have collaborated with Toussaint.  Toussaint is also the centerpiece of “I Believe to My Soul” (Rhino/ Starbucks Hear Music, Work Song), the Joe Henry-produced project that also features Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, Irma Thomas and Billy Preston. The album is a fund-raiser for Hurricane Katrina victims.

Toussaint plays piano throughout “I Believe to My Soul,” which was recorded in a week at Hollywood’s historic Capitol B studios, and contributes four new compositions to the project.
 “Joe gave me a call, but I had never heard of him,” Toussaint said. “I said yes
because of the way he described what he wanted to do. He’s also working with me
on the Elvis Costello project.”
Toussaint’s spiritual ballad “We Are One” closes the record. “It was a piece that I
had written to do at the end of New Orleans Jazz Fest a couple of years ago. I
never planned to record it, but for some reason it came up this time,” he said.

On “I Believe,” Toussaint even revisits the disco beat in “Mi Amour,” while his fellow Crescent City songbird Irma Thomas offers one of the most powerful pure soul tracks by wrapping her voice around Tom Jans’ “Loving Arms.”

 Toussaint cut his chops under the spell of Huey “Piano” Smith. At 17, Toussaint
was recruited to replace Smith in the late Earl King’s band for a show in Pritchard,
Ala. Smith went on to have hits such as “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and  “High Blood Pressure,” but in 1970, he banked the proceeds of a Coca-
Cola commercial and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Smith, 71, is now a preacher in
Baton Rouge. Rumors of a comeback appearance always float around before Jazz Fest, but nothing has ever materialized.
“He’s consistent,” Toussaint said. “He never looked back. He had a magical touch on the piano. When he was on Earl King’s 1955 hit ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights,’ he played fills on the piano that sounded like he was in a a saloon. His writing? Sheer genius.  If he stayed in the business, he would have come up with more magic. It flowed out of him.”

Toussaint has embraced all kinds of music throughout his life. The Gilbert O’Sullivan 1972 hit ballad “Alone, Again (Naturally)” is one of his all-time favorite compositions.

“When I first heard it, I loved the melody and the way he told the story,” Toussaint told me. “It was touching. The bridge went up to a nice level and came back to sit in a very good place. I liked that.  I know there was much more where that came from, but I don’t thik we heard many more things from him.”

Toussaint admitted he wrote the upbeat instrumentals “Whipped Cream” and its
predecesor, “Java” (a 1964 hit for Al Hirt), while trying to be humorous. “Al Hirt
came out with ‘Java’ while I was in the military,” said Toussaint, who was stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas.
“On weekends I played in a small band off-base. The other members knew I wrote that, and they thought that was outrageous. They associated me with R&B and K-Doe’s 1961 hit “Mother-in-Law.’ So  I wrote songs like ‘Java’ for that band to play, kind of like, ‘Well, take that.’ And ‘Whipped Cream’ was one of those songs.”
 Just before Toussaint was discharged, Joe Banashak at New Orleans’ Minit
Records took the band into the studio to record the Latin-tinged instrumentals.

(Toussaint had played on almost all the Minit hits before joining the Army in 1963.)

Toussaint later branched out to write the horn arrangements for the Band’s “Rock of Ages” album, and in 1983, he worked with New York percussionist Kip Hanrahan’s free-form group Conjure on “Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed.”

“When I write, I don’t usually hear a plot without a melody,” Toussaint said. “I might hear two people talking and that will inspire a story. But a little melody always comes with that. Always.”

Rookies Overhead

Wisconsin Wiffle Ball Field (Photo courtesy of Steve Schmitt)

MAZOMANIE, WIS.—Every kid who grew up playing Wiffle Ball  understands how the game shapes your imagination. You can create a field anywhere. For me and my brother it was a Cul-de-sac in suburban  Chicago. For others the game was played under the blue heavens of a soybean farm.

You can play the game by yourself. The plastic ball is light and can easily be tossed in the air with one hand while swinging a plastic bat with the other hand. Flying solo it is difficult to swing and miss ( “a whiff”), which is how the game got its name. The batter narrates the action with the scat like voice of his or her favorite baseball announcer.

thI still have a Rick Sutcliffe- endorsed Wiffle Ball and there’s eight perforations in the plastic ball, about the size of a baseball. The box says, “It’s Easy to Throw Curves with Wiffle Ball.” And it is spelled “Wiffle,” not “Whiffle.”

Wiffle ball is about escape and improvisation.

It is the jazz of the toy world.

Many years ago on a long night at the Old Town Ale House in Chicago,  jazz bassist John Bany told me, “Jazz is the idea of human freedom  applied to the laws that govern music.” That is a metaphor for Wiffle Ball.

Nov. 5 is Election Day.

On line voting concludes for the National Toy Hall of Fame, located at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. Wiffle Ball is one  of 12 finalists competing for induction, including Super Soaker,  Twister, the American Girl doll and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–really?  Wiffle Ball is something we all can take a swing at.

To drum up support for the Wiffle Ball I recently drove from Chicago to Rookies  Sports Bar & Grill on U.S. Highway 14 in Mazomanie, about 25 miles south of Madison. Owner Steve Schmitt built a huge Wiffle Ball field behind the bar and people can play 365 days a year, weather  permitting. The field is 105 feet to right field and 85 feet to left field.

I asked Schmitt to talk about Wiffle Ball on my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal show.

Schmitt is also owner of the Madison Mallards baseball team in the collegiate Northwoods League and the Shoe Box, the Midwest’s largest shoe store just up Highway 14.  His inventory is  750,000 pairs of shoes including the beloved Hush Puppies I can’t find in Chicago.

Schmitt has the go going.

He opened Rookies in 1998 when the Governor’s Bar was put up for sale at the corner of Highways 14 and 78.  Schmitt built the field at the  same time as he opened the bar. He owns the rolling farm land that  is the southern backdrop for the field.

An enclosed dining area overlooks the field where customers eat pulled pork pizzas and grass fed burgers with organic ground beef from Black Earth. The cedar ceiling is plastered with baseball cards and posters.

Steve Schmitt and his field of.....(I won't say it) Dave Hoekstra photo.

Steve Schmitt and his field of….(I won’t say it) 

Rookies features more than 6,000 baseball cards, seen throughout the complex  including the men’s bathroom.

Downstairs, the entrance to the field includes  an original turnstile from Comiskey Park in Chicago.

“I wanted a safe family place for kids to come,” Schmitt said during  a rainy afternoon tour of the Shoe Box, Rookies and the Wiffle Ball  field. “And be able to hit the ball over the wall where it wouldn’t  land in the highway.

“I wanted guys or gals be able to come out here  at the spur of the moment and have a ball. It’s  the only artificial infield Wiffle Ball field in America. We light it  up at night like a Christmas tree so you can play all night long.  We’d play in the snow if people want to. People have had birthday and  bachlorette parties here.”

Rookies deploys a plastic 12-inch ball, larger than the 9-inch traditional size most kids grew up with. “That’s a perfect size because it doesn’t carry over too often,” he said. 

It’s always the notes you don’t play.

Schmitt, 68, grew up playing Wiffle Ball in neighboring Black Earth. His parents Bill and Janet Schmitt ran a shoe store in downtown Black Earth (pop. 1,400) where they sold guns, lures, night crawlers and sporting goods on the side. Schmitt bought out his parents in  1974 and specialized only in selling and repairing shoes.


You’re in baseball heaven.

“Growing up we did our sandlot thing six against five,” he said. “We had a little Wiffle Ball stadium in a field. Then, in 1960, the back of our house we found the porch and dimensions were a  perfect fit for a ground rule double, the home run. My buddy and I would play.

“He was a big Milwaukee Braves fan.  I was a Cardinals fan  and was (St. Louis announcer) Harry Caray of course. I’d lead off  with (Julian) Javier, (Curt) Flood, Joe Cunningham. I’d mock Bill White’s stance. I was fascinated. I was up  29-26 games that year, but my buddy beat me 32 to 30 games. We played  a full nine innings, foul balls and everything, day and night. Those  games probably lasted two hours at least. Off the porch was a ground  double.

“It was the best years of my lifetime.”

This was before Game Boys.

During the baseball season every team that visits the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League also visits the Wiffle Ball field  at Rookies. Schmitt explained, “We’re obligated to feed them  pre- game and post- game, put them up in a hotel and do their laundry. A  lot of those guys come out here and burn themselves out.”

Schmitt smiled like a Wisconsin fox. He continued, “It’s the  ego thing like they gotta hit the Wiffle Ball out. It throws their  timing off for the Mallards game that night. We say, ‘Go out there  and have fun and swing for the fences!’ The ball doesn’t travel out of here too many times unless the wind is coming from the north. It’s  also in a hole (flood plain).”

Rookies Wiffle Ball Field

Wiffle Ball history also exists at Bethel College Park in Mishawaka, Ind. where a Wiffle Ball field was built in 1980 complete with six- foot high home run fences. In August, 1980 the First Annual World  Wiffle Ball Championships debuted in Mishawaka, where they remained  until moving to Skokie, Ill. in 2013.

But the magical reach of radio across the central Wisconsin farm fields is what made Schmitt a Cardinals fan.

“I was walking around  Black Earth on a late evening,” recalled Schmitt, who was wearing Red Wing work shoes. “I had been listening to  Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd (out of WGN-AM in Chicago), Earl  Gillespie (another “Holy Cow” announcer at WTMJ in Milwaukee). All of a sudden KMOX in St. Louis raises their wattage at a certain time and  Harry Caray almost jumps out of the broadcast booth. Who the hell is this guy? So I send a letter to the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis,  Missouri. No address. No zip code. ‘I’m Steve Schmitt, nine years  old, I’m a Cardinals fan.’ They send me back four by sixes of Wilmer  ‘Vinegar Bend ‘Mizell, Al Dark, Bill Virdon, Stan Musial. I was hooked. 

“I’ve never said anything bad about that organization since.”

Besides Wiffle Ball, Schmitt has been involved in minor league baseball in Madison since 1994. The Springfield (Illinois) Cardinals of the Midwest League relocated to Madison where they became the Hatters. “I wanted to see baseball in Madison,” Schmitt said as he drove a  green Land Rover affixed with the Madison Mallards logo. “I wasn’t sure at first. The franchise fee was $125,000. I thought I’d try it. Now its a million bucks. My theory is if you don’t try it, you’ll  never know if it works.

“In 2000 I was involved with seven, eight  other guys who brought a professional hockey team to Madison. They  were the Madison Kodiaks. It was owned by the county so they took all the profit. We got out of it but I learned so much through the other owners. We could never come to a decision, we never did anything but I had a great time.”

Steve Schmitt and his own bobblehead giveaway.

Steve Schmitt and his own bobblehead giveaway.

“So I brought in the baseball team: first five games, 174 people then  250 people. The last game of the year it was 2,000. It jumped to  4,000. Now we average 6,285 people. We have a good front office. We  treat it like a state fair. You come in the front gate and it’s a family thing. There better be something for you to do every 20 seats.”

In 1996 the Hatters became the Black Wolf of the  independent Northern League. Jimmy Buffett was a part owner of the team during its inaugural season.  When the Hatters left in 2000 for  Lincoln, Neb. Schmitt struck a deal with the Northwoods League. The wood-bat league runs from June to late August.

Former major leaguers such as Ferguson Jenkins, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers  have played in charity alumni games at Warner Park in Madison. Late greats like Robin Roberts and Andy Pafko visited the Shoe Box.

Jazz pianist Ben Sidran is from Madison. I bet he likes Wiffle Ball. In 1997 my pals The Skeletons closed out their fine “Nothing to Lose” CD with the love ballad “Whiffle Ball.” (“Anyplace..someplace..”)

Schmitt made many of his baseball connections through the late New York Yankees -Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ryne Duren, who was from Cazenovia, Wis.


“Ryne was a buddy of mine,” he said. “I was with him when he died in hospice in Florida. They called me down. He’d take me to the BAT (Baseball Assistance Team) dinners at the Marriott Marquis in New York. There was a ballplayer at every table. Then he’d have Pat Maris (Roger’s wife) call me. There’s no end to it. I just saw Maury Wills, what a good guy. Ron Kittle just bought a couple pairs of shows. He was on his way to Minnesota to see  (Hall of Fame pitcher) Bert Blyleven and then on to Sturgis (South Dakota).”

“The day (Packers receiver) Robert Brooks decided to get out of football, he went AWOL. Nobody knew where he was. He suddenly walked  in the Shoe Box. Someone asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘My family, my life… I  had to go somewhere. I was in the  parking lot of Lambeau Field (about 160 miles north of the Shoe Box) and just went for a ride. By the time I got to the Shoe Box I decided to retire. We love all these guys.”

What’s not to love about Wiffle Ball?


In the early afternoons of late autumn days, the shadow of a fading  sun creates a path from the cemetery driveway to the plot where my parents are buried. A little less than six weeks separated the deaths of my parents this spring.

My Dad died first and in the time my Mom  had left I would take her to the cemetery.

Every chance she got.

I pushed her wheelchair through tall grass to the gravesite where  seeds were waiting to sprout. Mom never got to see the headstone she was so curious about, but she did fire off a zinger to the headstone salesperson as we picked out the marble bookmark.

Although she was battling dementia, Mom said, “The next time you see me I won’t be here.”

My Mom never said much when she got to the place of her gravesite. 

She never wanted to stay too long. Was she thinking of the 65 years of marriage she spent with my father. Die she wonder where she was going? Was she in a hurry?

Sense of place is an important component of books I have written; soul  food restaurants on the civil rights trail, supper clubs and even minor league baseball in small town America. But place has grabbed my attention in the five months since my mother’s death.

Place seems to be all over the place.

This week we are getting an appraisal for the house I grew up in. My parents are buried within walking distance of my high school and the chapel where I was once married. On Sunday I sat on the back porch and saw red-breasted robins I do not see in the city.

My Mom loved birds, for their place is everywhere.

Mom died peacefully in my old bedroom. Not long ago I was stuck behind an ambulance on Western Avenue in Chicago. Suddenly my  thoughts jumped to the April morning when we put my father into an ambulance to take him to hospice care in Barrington. He died three days after the ride up Route 59. He never returned to the place he  called home.

 I didn’t think I would be a cemetery guy, but every time I travel to the western suburbs I check in at the gravesite. When they were alive I didn’t know where my parents had picked out their plot. I did know Mom was happy that it was by the shade of oak and maple trees,  so beautiful in the autumn.

This 173-year-old cemetery is a new place for me.

I meditate there. I thank my parents. With the diversion of baseball  over, I look at th charcoal clouds and brace myself for my first holiday season without them. I think how fortunate I am that they lived so long. My Dad’s 95th birthday would have been Nov. 17; my Mom’s 94th birthday would have been Dec. 10. Damn, they did everything together. Why am I alone in this place?

Backyard of our childhood home, Oct. 25, 2015

Backyard of our childhood home, Oct. 25, 2015

Suddenly, I see my parents in all kinds of places; the cemetery, back at the house, in Section 242 of Wrigley Field and the LaQuinta  between the Cracker Barrel and Waffle House in Nashville, Tn., the  motel where they stayed to visit my brother and nephew. George Jones loved that Waffle House on Harding Place. My Dad loved Shirley Jones.

My brother and I told our folks how lucky they were. Some markers for their cemetery neighbors read:

A candle that glows twice as bright burns half as long.” Dead at 30 years old in 1992.

I will always be a dreamer,” 1949-1999

“Chatter & Tank” (Chatter 1946-2005; Tank 1944-2007)

“Our beautiful baby girl” (April 15, 2003-May 4, 2003)

Do not stand at my grave and weep/I am not here, I do not sleep/ God’s angels have carried me to heaven above/and now I watch over the ones I love.

I am not here, I do not sleep.

A tree by the side of the driveway was planted in honor of one of my high school classmates. His small marker says he left this earth at  age 37. A silver water pump sits not far from the tree. Last week an  older man parked his car near the pump.  He got out of his car, filled up a plastic jug with water and walked over to a gravesite. He emptied the jug in front of the headstone and stood there for less than two minutes. He then walked back to his car, got in and drove away. Leaves fell  in unison and they made a crackling, rhythmic sound that soon  will be stilled, only to return next year.

People count on defined places: church, the neighborhood diner, Wrigley Field, a  corner bar and a grandmother’s home.

But every place has a path that once was new.


NEW ORLEANS—This is a Big Easy encounter that does not involve alcohol.

Well, I did have one Swizzle with my tofu banh mi  at Latitude 29, a new tiki bar and restaurant tucked away near the Mississippi River. (The superb venue is named as a nod to New Orleans latitude on the map and has the same designer as Taboo Cove in Las Vegas and Le Tiki Lounge in Paris.)

After dinner I walked back to the Olivier House, my French Quarter stomping ground. A woman stood in the middle of Bourbon Street trying to hustle customers into an establishment. She wore a baseball cap that said “I Love Haters!” She had  it tilted on her head like Cubs relievers Fernando Rodney and Pedro Strop.

This made me smile.

I had to get this cap.

I found it on Amazon, but I had to have it immediately, I was afraid the idea of owning an “I Love Haters!” cap wouldn’t be so funny when I got back to Chicago.

After our Saturday afternoon “People’s Place” book signing at the wonderful Southern Food & Beverage Museum, book photographer Paul Natkin dropped me off on Canal Street. There’s dozens of mid-range clothing stores and cheeseball souvenir shops where I was told I would locate  the cap.

I found a silver and black “I Love Haters!” cap in the second store I entered. The Oakland Raiders color scheme made sense for such a fierce statement.

By the time I made it to the counter I was so fixated on the cap–which I still found funny—and the affordable price ($7.99)–I didn’t realize I was standing in line with a bunch of African American women buying blouses and lingerie.

The small woman behind me asked, “Do you have haters?”

Before I could answer, she continued, “We all have haters.”

I had to agree with that. Someone probably hates this post. I once had an editor who hated me for writing about “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.”

While holding her red undergarments, the customer lectured  me about how the “I Love Haters!” cap was a woman’s cap. I hated to disagree with her, seeing how the store was filled with women.

And men can’t love haters!?

Then she asked, “Are you a transsexual?”

This was when I thought I better not buy the cap after all. I may “Love Haters!” but I wasn’t sure of my stand on “Sassy Ladies!”

The next day I couldn’t get the “I Love Haters!” cap out of my head. On late night television I saw the flamboyant Joe Zee on a “Fab Life” television show talking about “trend adventurous.” I heard the clarion to man up. And why did I succumb to such playful pressure?  Perhaps the woman with the red underwear just hated the idea of me buying the haters cap.

I look like such a nice guy.

I marched back to the store the next morning and bought the cap. The same clerk was behind the counter. She smiled at me.

Loving all haters is a good way to start the day.




NASHVILLE, Tn—The meat and three experience is as unique to Nashville, Tn. as the wigs on Dolly Parton. Despite upscale growth, the metropoliatan area embraces at least a half dozen traditional meat and threes, ranging from Arnold’s Country Kitchen to Wendell Smith’s (no relation to the late African American baseball journalist.)

Meat and threes are exactly that: meat (baked ham, baked or fried chicken, fried pork chop) with a choice of three vegetables such as cole slaw, fresh turnip greens, fried corn, squash, candied yams, snap peas, pinto beans, okra and more.

The meat and three is the country cousin of the blue plate special, where compartments on a china plate divided meat from  vegetables.
The meat and three is crossing over and out of Nashville. This fall New York chef Harold Moore (of the late Commerce) is slated to open Harold’s Meat and Three in SoHo, the first meat and three in the Big Apple.
“Meat and three, soul food and country cooking is bascially the same thing,” said Benji Cook, owner of Wendell Smith’s, 5300 Charlotte Ave. on the west side of town. “I’m a country boy, I have a soul food cook and we’re serving meat and threes.” A meat and three at Wendell Smith’s runs $8.07. Folks can order a meat and two, but it is only 50 cents less than a meat and three.

Benji Cook (all photos by Dave Hoekstra)

Benji Cook (all photos by Dave Hoekstra)

The stamped brick restaurant opened in 1952 on the site of a former open air farmer’s market . Wendell Smith’s was popular in the blue collar neighborhood where many residents worked at the nearby Ford Glass Plant.

“They also built a state prison (Riverbend Maximum Security Institution) down here,” said Cook, whose father and retired owner Benji Cook is Smith’s son-in-law. “That’s how West Nashville started. Now its transitioning into these hipsters. They’re tearing
down these little $60,000 houses.”
It’s okay to slip across the street for dessert at Bobbie’s Dairy
Dip, a vintage mid-century ice cream stand and sandwich shop. Don’t miss the ice cream cone with chocolate dip and rainbow sprinkles.

“Bobbie’s was originally Harper’s Dairy Dip,” Cook said. “My grandmother was good friends with the Harpers. They ran boats on the Cumberland River together. Claire (Mullally) was an attorney who did all this research and got the best ice cream, the best angus beef and it became the ultimate dairy dip. Then she sold it and it is still doing well.”
Meat and three is a big deal all over Nashville. Arnold’s Country Kitchen, 605 Eighth Ave. South is within walking distance from Jack White’s studio, Swett’s, 2725 Clifton Ave. is on the north side of
town and is popular with nearby Fisk University students and the Kleer-Vu Lunchnoette is the go-to spot in Murfreesboro 30 miles outside of Nashville.

“It’s the way we eat here,” Cook said. “There’s the Bible Belt so maybe we have the meat and three belt.” Due in great part to its industrial heritage Birmingham, Ala. has a modest meat and three scene and Cook pointed out, “Cracker Barrell is a meat and three but I’m not a food critic.”


Wendell Smith’s batting order

Wendell Smith’s holds about 110 people including 13 at counter stools. A hand scrawled sign at the front door declares “No Saggy  Pants, Thanks Management.” An adjacent liquor store sells Tootsie’s
apple pie moonshine. Steve Smith, co-owner of the historic Tootsie’s honky tonk is good friends with Cook. “He says he’s going to open a meat and four and put me out of business,” Cook said with a laugh.
Wendell Smith’s is a favorite stop of former Chicago songwriters John Prine and his brother Billy. In the late 1960s Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner would adjourn in the rear of the restaurant after
doing their WSM television show. Benji Cook was a golfing partner of Wagoner’s. Parton still orders out for the turnip greens.
The menu changes daily at Wendell Smith’s. Roast beef, baked ham and pit bar-b-que are served daily. “Roast beef is our number one seller,” said Cook, 50. “We serve it hot open face over white bread, wheat bread whatever. We make our own cole slaw. We sell a lot of turnip greens. We peel 10 to 12 five gallon buckets of potatoes by hand every day.”

What is not be part of a meat and three?
“Jello,” he answered. “We make it ourselves. We put fresh canned fruit in it. We sell a lot of it.”
Wendell Smith’s also makes its own cheese sauce for some killer macaroni and cheese. “We take 20 pounds of smooth melt (American) cheese, put four gallons of milk in it, put it in a double bowl and melt it down,” Cook explained. “We pour a little roux in, put it inthe cooler and pour it over the cold pasta. Then we bake it oven as needed.

With the name ‘Cook’ on the table, was taking over the family business inevitable for Cook?

“I was working on big boats and probably wasn’t going to do that the rest of my life,” he answered. “I was a deckhand on a private yacht. I was in Europe and the Caribbean. It’s a good time when you’re young.” He returned to the restaurant in 1994.

His cook Dolleene London started at Wendell Smith’s when she was 24 years old. She has been at the meat and three for 27 years. She learned how to cook from her grandmother.

Dolleene London

Dolleene London

“A meat and three is based on the cooking you would get at home,” said London, who was born and raised in Nashville. “Southern baked chicken with home grown turnip greens. You can get the cabbage, a good old home southern soul food meal. I cook with care and pride. I would want everybody to eat the way I eat. I care about my job.

” Everybody loves my baked chicken. Now, I’m not going to give you my recipe, but I don’t skin it. I season it well and bake it off. I have a dressing I put on top of it when its ready. It is my personal
touch, gravy and all.”
And the personal touch is the fourth ingredient of the beloved meat and three.
Wendell Smith’s is open from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, (615) 383-7114; breakfast served all day.



All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—The walls of the main dining room at Niki’s West feature assorted anchors and life preservers. A white silhouette carving depicts a fisherman casting a wide net.

The nautical decor does an enchanting job of transporting customers to a far away place.

But where is this place?

Niki’s West was opened in 1957 by Greek immigrant Gus P. Hontzas. It is in an industrial park across the street from the Birmingham Farmer’s Market, which accounts for Niki’s spot-on-fresh vegetables. 

The long cafeteria -buffet style line is a landmark destination for Birmingham’s working class. The line moves fast in a place that has been slow on change.  Every weekday afternoon about half of the customers in the 420-seat restaurant are African-Americans, who because of segregation laws, would not have been allowed to eat at Niki’s West in 1957.

In the fall of 1957 the Civil Rights Act was passed, giving every American the right to vote. About 20 per cent of African-Americans could vote in 1957 and the Civil Rights Act was the first major civil rights legislation passed by congress since 1875.

Niki’s West also invites the debate between the southern “Meat and Three” and “Soul Food.” The restaurant serves 10 entrees and 40 vegetables every day. The “Meat and Three” generally consists of a meat accompanied by three vegetable and/or potato items. But most local African-American customers say Niki’s West has the best soul food in Birmingham. Niki’s is known for its lemon icebox pie, colllared greens and fried orka.

Niki’s is owned and operated by Pete and Teddy Hontzas, the sons of Gus. They are straight shooters. Once that is understood, everything is cool at Niki’s. Just a few years ago Niki’s West had house rules like “No Tank Tops, No Bare Feet, No Rollers on Head.” During a May, 2014 visit a sign in the kitchen read “When you’re on the clock you’re off the phone.”

Pete was dialed in during a lively conversation in Niki’s kitchen. 

“More blacks call this soul food,” he said. “More white people call it meet and three.  In the country they all call it soul food. There’s no racial thing. Soul food is like good music. It sticks to you.

“It conquers your soul.”

Pete Hontzas (center)

Pete Hontzas (center)

Amy C. Evans is the lead oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliated institute of he Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “Meat and Three is absoultely soul food,” she said. “Meat and Three might be more generally associated with a white establishment, but it is just the way people ate. When you need to feed the body to do the work you had to eat a good amount of nutrient rich and energy providing food.”

Birmingham is known as “The Magic City” because of it’s rapid growth between 1880 and 1920. There is no more magical place in Birmingham to witness the fluid exchange between the city’s past and present than at Niki’s West.

Niki’s West is named after Gus’s daughter Nicoletta. In 1951 Pete and Teddy’s great aunt (his Grandpa’s sister) and great uncle started Niki’s downtown on 2nd Avenue. It was challenging to get the Hontzas brothers to sit down during a visit to Niki’s West. Teddy was slicing steaks in the kitchen and Pete was dealing food for the cafeteria line.

Restaurant manager Diane Simmons was running interference and directing traffic. She started working at Niki’s 1994, seven years before Gus’s death. “Gus was agile,” she declared before seating a couple out of the buffet line. “He was good hearted. He expected you to do what you were hired to do. Both the sons do what it takes to do what keeps the wheels going. It’s busy. On a good day, between breakfast, lunch and dinner I will seat between 900 and 1,200 people.”

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Around two in the afternoon Pete sat down in a small corner to the side of the crowded kitchen.

This seemed to be his place in the world.

“My Dad and his three first cousins came over from Greece in 1951,” Hontzas said. They lived in a small primitive dirt road village where they grew up under the lights of lanterns at night. “My Dad first went to Jackson (Ms.) to stay with my Grandmother’s brother,” Hontzas said. “He learned how to cook, just like the other cousins did. He actually started here in ‘59. My great aunt and great uncle gave him an opportunity from a country that was in a civil war.”

Common threads run through this port of call in the deep American south.

“They basically got pushed out of Greece,” he continued. “The restaurant gave them a chance to excel . So they paid rent to the great aunt and great uncle for running the two places. That’s how it got started. That’s the true story, not some internet thing.”

During their embryonic years Niki’s West and the Niki’s downtown also had lounges with go-go dancers. The present day Niki’s West kitchen is where the lounge used to be. “That’s what they were known for, really,” Hontzas said as he began chain-smoking Winston Lights into my face. 

“In those days go-go dancing was very popular. You had good music back then.  How are you going to have go-go-dancers with this sorry ass music today? Do you classify music as art or just noise? I classify it as noise and thensome downward. In 1984 we got rid of the lounge. The lounge was bigger than the (original)  kitchen, that tells you something.”

Typical mid-1960s go-go dancers-- not at Nikki's West. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

    ’60s go-go dancers– not at Nikki’s. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

The large back dining room was added in 1991 at Niki’s West. Gus was pointing towards the future. “Dad always depended on my brother and I,” Hontzas said. “He would have not built that last addition if we were not going into the business. I think he was ready to sell it or deal with what he had. It still is not for me. I look about 60, don’t I? ”

Pete Hontzas was born in 1966. He started working at the restaurant on summer shifts in 1974. He made $5 a day washing dishes and bussing tables. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “But I hated school. I’ve learned everything at this place.”

Only recently did Pete and Teddy remove their cigarette machine that was by the front door. A sign said “Smoking is not encouraged but accepted.” Pete rapidly explained, “It’s true. You have to visualize that line you went through today is not like it was. We had a jukebox. A cigarette machine. It was a hole-in-the-wall. I told Dad the cigarette machine looked tacky in here. But he said, ‘That damn machine makes $400 a month.’ So that’s why that sign was there. It became an icon. It’s a colorful place. Are you Polish, German or what?

“They call Chicago, New Orleans the melting pot. We are the melting pot of Birmingham. We have blue collar workers, white collar workers, lawyers, politicians, couples and families who can save a lot more money by eating here. The dynamics of the city have changed. The city is spread out. There’s growth south of the city. People are going to Hoover (pop. 82,000, the largest suburb of Birmingham)

“A lot of municipalities have their own places to eat. We’re kind of a destination point. They probably come here for the entertainment, but I want them to come for the food first. That’s soul food. I  can eat more black than a white man can. I can eat more white than a white man can. I can eat more Greek than a Greek man can. I love good food.”

Auburn University baseball-football legend Bo Jackson has visited Niki’s West several times. Actor-comedian Chris Rock stopped at Niki’s West in when he was in town. The Rolling Stones launched their 1989 tour in Birmingham and two of the Stones ate at Niki’s West. 

Hontzas cannot remember which ones they were. “Why don’t they come get my autograph?,” he asked. “If a hot shot lawyer comes in here do you think I’m going to bow down to him? I think not. Humility is the bottom line.”

Niki’s West is north of downtown Birmingham.

Over time Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor emerged as one of the most menacing faces of the civil rights era. In May, 1963 he green-lighted the Birmingham police and fire department use of firehoses and police dogs on demonstrators, many of whom were children and high school students. The violence was televised and forced  viewers to look at civil rights with a more sympathetic eye. 

The speed of change began to accelerate. The Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination was passed in 1964 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was given the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.  President Kennedy said, “The civil rights movement owes Bull Connor as much as it owes Abraham Lincoln.” Today, a cold steel life-size statue of a generic Birmingham policeman and a barking dog confronting a member of the non-violent “Children’s Crusade” stands with other civil rights era statues in downtown Kelly Ingram Park. Connor confronted the demonstrators in this park, named after the first sailor in the U.S. Navy to be killed in World War I.


Hontzas was not born During Connor’s reign of terror in 1963.

“I’m full blooded Greek,” he said. “If you act right and judge content by your character, I don’t have any problem. If you act like a fool, white, black, whatever, you’re getting your ass out the door. 

I don’t look at people through color. I was brought up that if you do right, right will follow. We are gracious people. We want people to be happy.”

Willis Huggins, Sr. started eating at Niki’s West in the early 1970s. 

He was an African-American salesman across the street at Alabama Paper & Metal Works. On a busy afternoon in May, 2014 he was enjoying beef liver, cabbage and rice with his wife Hattie, son Willis, Jr. and brother-in-law Henry Jackson of Salisbury, N.C.

Huggins looked around the room and said, “About 40 years ago where we could only stick our heads in the door and get our orders to go. We were not allowed to be seated here.” Huggins was semi-retired and presiding elder at the A.M.E. African Episcopal Church. He oversees 21 churches in west Birmingham and four in Greensboro, Ala.

“I hear about people buying meat and threes here, but I’ve never had it,’ said Huggins, who was born in 1943.  “I call this soul food–down home country cooking. You have to have some neck bones.”

Stephanie Powell is a stay at home Mom who gets out of the house twice a week and drives 17 miles one way from her home in Hoover to Niki’s. “This is soul food and any vegetable you can name,” said Powell, who was born in 1968. “And their vegetables are fresh. Some places you go to you can tell the vegetables are out of the can. I’m a cook, I’m a caterer. They probably got these turnip greens across the street at the farmer’s market. This place has stood the test of time. It made it through our bad economy. We had so many restaurants close down in Birmingham.”

Her friend Kenyatta Strait has been coming to Niki’s since 1999. 

Strait said, “Today I had turnip greens, fried corn, I loved the sweet tea and Greek chicken.” Strait had doggie bags for her Red Velvet Cake and Greek Chicken. “Greek chicken is popular (four days a week),” Hontzas said. “Blackened tialpia, veal cutlet very popular and served every day. Yesterday we had rib-eye steaks. You can’t beat that. Six ounce rib-eye medium rare? That’s beautiful. We had barbecue chicken yesterday, we didn’t have Greek chicken. Pork chops tomorrow, turkey and dressing tomorrow. We have a fresh salmon we do Creole style.”

Willis Huggins, Sr, wife Hattie (far right) and family

Pete Hontzas is not shy about dishing out soul food philosophy.

“People used to love fried chicken with a bone in it,” he said. “Now adults want chicken fingers. What does that tell you where we are going? We used to serve whole flounders. The younger generation doesn’t know what a whole fish tastes like. It is two times better with the bone in it than it is filleted. I won’t eat filleted fish hardly. I have an old soul and my customers love that. I was brought up to like good. food. period.

“You have to something out there you can make money on, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. In this politically correct society they don’t classify macaroni and cheese as a vegetable. We do. Starch and protein? We don’t do all that fancy bullshit. Every day we just write the 10 entrees and 40 vegetables. We include the salad bar as a vegetable.”

The Alabama Farmer’s Market opened in 1956 on 49 acres of land. The membership is now more than 200 growers, and all members must be from the State of Alabama. Niki’s West makes regular visits to the market. 

“That’s why they put this place here,” Hontzas said. “There’s no delivery fee for us. It was so huge back then. Even up to the mid-1990s there was a lot going on there. It’s not as big as it once was.”

Hontzas said he staffs 84 people at Niki’s West. Pete’s cousin John contributes Niki’s secret slaw dressing. And in 2012 another cousin Tim Hontzas opened his own Johnny’s Restaurant, serving black-eyed peas and fried catfish in downtown Homewood, about five miles outside of Birmingham. Tim was born in 1972 and grew up in Jackson, Ms. He named his restaurant after his grandfather Johnny Constantine Hontzopolous who ran his own Johnny’s Restaurant in Jackson from the 1950s through the 1980s.

16th Street Baptist Church, downtown Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 “This topic you’re writing about gives me chill bumps,” Tim Hontzas said in a separate interview. My grandfather’s logo was ‘We prepare food for the body but good food to feed the soul.’ When I started my thing it was Southern ingredients with Greek influences. We are meat and three with a face lift. It all relates to soul food, it is how it is perceived. Niki’s West is soul food. It doesn’t have to be hog jaws and chitlin’s stereotypes to be soul food.

“I remember coming to Niki’s and seeing my Uncle Gus. I was the only boy and I had three sisters. He doted me as one of his own, which isn’t necessarily a good thing the way he raised those boys stern, stern, stern (laughs). I remember the hustling and the bustling, the yelling and the clattering of the pans.”

Tim Hontzas graduated with a psychology degree from the University of Misssippi in 1995 and for 15 years worked on and off for James Beard-winning chef John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Ms.  Hontzas moved to the Birmingham area because his wife Elizabeth Dreiling was a staff photographer for Southern Living magazine.

When he opened his own 85-seat Johnny’s Restaurant in 2012 he used his grandfather’s logo and his 1950s and 1960s menus hang on the walls. “What you have to remember about Niki’s is that it was the shit in the 1970s and 80s,” he said. “They were the first place serving snapper throats. They were the first place driving down to the Gulf of Mexico and bringing back fresh grouper and flounder and hand cutting steaks. And that was the night menu. It’s still the old school way of an 18, 24 ounce rib eye on a wooden platter with a knife stuck up under it and onion rings on top. That’s their damn garnish. There’s no edible flowers or hype. I come from a fine dining background so I know about it.”

Niki’s West also has a modest breakfast menu with grits and hash browns. A bold sign by the front door reminds guests of this fact: “Wake Up! To a Southern Breakfast. Niki’s West.”

“We create our own potatoes,” Pete Hontzas said proudly. “We make everything from scratch. We’re here though, so we do it. My brother and I will always be (behind) the (cafeteria) line. We’re opposites. He’s the younger brother and it becomes very interesting.”

Pete and Teddy trade off shifts. One shift launches at 4:30 a.m. and winds down around 2 p.m. The “night man” comes in around 9:30 a.m. and stays until 10 or 11 p.m. “Next week he’lll do it and I’ll be on the other shift,” said Hontzas, who is married with three daughters and a son “Do you know how that effects your sleeping? We’re stupid though. We make no sense.

“But if you did everything by sense you wouldn’t have America.”

FinalMINNEAPOLIS—The legion of devotees to Nye’s Polonaise restaurant and piano bar form a neon ribbon that runs from Hollywood to Manhattan.

Albin “Al”  Nye opened his Polish-American restaurant in 1964 at 112 E. Hennepin, just west of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Nye’s charms have been how it remained a period piece in a forthright Minnesota manner. Nye’s is Garrison Keillor with a lampshade on his head.

Earlier this year Nye’s announced it was closing in the autumn. The date keeps getting pushed back and now what Esquire magazine once called “The Best Bar in America” is slated to remain open until January, 2016.

Nye sold his restaurant in September, 1994 and died in 2004 at the age of 89. Brothers Rob and Tony Jacob bought Nye’s in 1999. In December, 2014 Rob Jacob told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, “We have made the decision to close Nye’s after careful consideration. In recent years, business has fallen off and it’s been difficult for us to stay competitive.”  (The Jacob brothers declined further comment for this story and our Aug. 29 WGN-AM segment on Nye’s.)

Minneapolis media reported the brothers are working with a development company to build two fancy pants high rise apartments on the site. Updates can be found at the popular Facebook page Save Nye’s Polonaise.

How do you keep the music playing?

Something bigger comes into play when a mid-20th Century place like Nye’s goes dark. We lose our cultural memory. We lose track of gentlemen like Nye’s bartender Phil Barker.  

“I’ve been here 46 years, three months and 20 days,” Barker told me on May 20 in a conversation at Nye’s “I had just gotten out of the Navy. I was sitting at home when Al Nye called me. He asked if I would come down and tend bar for him at lunches. The light went on. I thought, ‘Why get a job where I gotta’ behave myself?’ It beats the heck out of being stuck in some office where you can’t have any fun.” Barker was 22 years old when he started at Nye’s. He said he will find another bartending job in the neighborhood, but it won’t be the same.


Phil Barker with a Polish beer at Nye’s

Barker grew up in Northeast Minneapolis where his father worked for a burglar alarm company. Barker’s mother owned a grocery store. Nye’s is in Southeast Minneapolis. “The street out front, East Hennepin Avenue divides northeast from southeast,” he said as he peered out of the bar’s daylight darkness. “This used to be the Skid Row area of Minneapolis. In the late 1940s they tore down all the flophouses on what used to be called ‘The Gateway’ into Minneapolis.

Barker is a direct connection with Nye.  He is the senior employee at the restaurant. Collecting voices like Barker’s is why I do this website.

 “Al Nye was Polish and Austrian, “ Barker said. “He was born in north Minneapolis. His father moved to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, which is where he was raised. He moved back here during the Depression. He worked at Minor Ford before World War II and got a job at Northern Pump (company, established 1929). They made ordinates for the Navy there. He started out by owning a beer joint in South Minneapolis. Then he bought this bar, August 1, 1950 from Jimmy Heffron. This (bar) building opened  in 1908 it was the Prince Street Cafe.“

 Old regulars call the original bar “The Old Bar or The Old Side.” Newer folks call it “The Polka Lounge.”

 “The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” plays on Friday and Saturday nights in the bar. The cozy bar with eight Naugahyde booths and a dance floor is open Tuesday through Saturday.  The bar only opens during the day (at 11 a.m.) on Friday and Saturday, when Barker tends bar.

Barker looked toward the dining room and continued, “He added on the restaurant—the first room– that opened December 23, 1964 at four-thirty in the afternoon.”

Of course, old-timers call this “The New Side.”

But it is technically The Polonaise Room. Diners slip slide away into the past while sitting in the gold vinyl covers of large booths. 

The iconic piano bar is part of the supper clubby room that serves Polish-American cuisine like cabbage rolls and pierogis along with strip steaks and walleye. Music starts at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Folks sit around a curved piano underneath a portrait of 18th Century composer Frederic Chopin.

In a folksy Northern setting where more people are familiar with Harry Chapin, Nye loved Chopin. He wrote his polonaises mostly for solo piano. “Chopin lived in Paris and that’s where the polonaise comes from,” Barker explained.  “Chopin missed Poland so much he wrote the ‘Polonaise’ which means ‘Poland’ in French. So it’s Chopin’s Polonaise.”

And so it became Nye’s Polonaise.

Around Valentine’s Day 2008 I hung around the piano bar listening to the playful Sweet Lou Snider sing standards of the 1950s and 60s. She sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” for my date and I. Sweet Lou started at Nye’s in 1965 and health issues forced her to retire around  Valentine’s day 2011. She had been coming to work on crutches.

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Sweet Lou met her future husband David, on Labor Day weekend 1959 while she was playing with the rock band Lanny Charles and his Harem at  the Casino Bar in La Crosse, Wis. David requested “It Had to Be You.”

“I had to look it up,” Sweet Lou told me as her eyes sparkled under multi-colored Flintstone-like lamps that were handcrafted in Winona, Minn.. What will become of these lamps when Nye’s goes dark?

Where will these stories go?

Daina De Prez now sings at the piano bar between 8:30 and 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

A second dining area opened in 1967 in a former sign shop, and the third area [The 80-seat Pulaski Room, east of the Polonaise Room] used to be John’s Café.  “Everybody still calls it John’s,” Barker said. “ That opened in December, 1971, ” Finally, the open-spaced Chopin Room seats another 80 people between the piano bar and the Pulaski Room.


When I was working on The Supper Club Book  a few summers ago I debated on whether or not to include Nye’s. It was a close call. I concluded the scene just seemed too large for a traditional supper club. Nye’s reminded me of Chicago’s Busy Bee restaurant on steroids.

“For the amount of food we serve and the number of people that come in here, it’s a supper club,” Barker said. “We still have relish trays. Family owners. Old Fashioneds are  popular again, especially  the Brandy Old Fashioned from Wisconsin. At one time like 51 per cent of every bottle sold in a Wisconsin liquor store was a bottle of brandy.

Barker said the Polish Vodka Martini is the most popular drink at Nye’s. “And our Polonaise (with Chopin potato vodka! served with dry Vermouth and an olive),” he said.

Vodka was outlawed in Minnesota until 1957. “They thought you couldn’t smell it on your breath,” he said.  “And it smelled like lighter fluid. Another Minnesota spin is the addition of hazelnuts to a White Russian, another go-to drink at Nye’s.

Nye’s doesn’t ignore its imported Polish beer.  You can find Zywiec, Okocim and Tyskie on a menu of 35 brews. “They’re basically all the same,” he said. “They have kind of a sweeter, hopsy after-taste to them from what I understand. I don’t drink. I used to drink, I was my own best customer. I made a deal with the state highway department years ago. They let me drive a car if I quit drinking.”

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Barker has served several thousand people during his 46 years at Nye’s. But he has not taken care of Minneapolis notables like Prince or Jesse Ventura.

 “I’ve served a couple vice-presidents,” he said. “I talked to Hubert Humphrey when he was vice-president. It was on a Monday. We used to have a Teamster business luncheon here and he stopped in to ask a question. He ran in and ran out. We’ve had (former Minnesota Viking) Bill Brown. (The late and rowdy New York Yankees-Minnesota Twins manager) Billy Martin  had lunch here with (former Twins coach) Frank Quilici. Billy behaved himself.”

But is the everyday people who made Nye’s what it is. And it is the everyday people who will be missed.




Davenport, Iowa, June 29,  2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

Davenport, Iowa, June 29, 2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

DAVENPORT, Ia.—Sometimes you reset the odometer.

I buried my parents in  April and late May and in early June my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire stopped running at the toll booth on a trip from Naperville to Chicago, a journey I had been making weekly over the last 18 months. Finis. The car was as loyal as an old mare and left only after it had done its job. I’ve spent 30 years writing road stories of small towns and gentle intentions and never had to call a tow truck.

I needed a lift.

When it came time to drive to the Quad Cities for my Midwest League baseball column I deployed my parents 2006 Hyuandi Sonata. You learn a new car, you learn a new way of life. I had used the four-door Sonata for all of my parents doctors appointments. My Pontiac only had two doors and a back seat full of half read Sunday New York Times.

The measured cadence of baseball lends itself well to being in the moment. Keep your eye on the ball. Embrace every blade of green grass of a Midwest League field because soon it will be winter for all of us. But on the drive out to the great Mississippi River I could not deflect recent moments, especially on my mother’s final visits to the Naperville Cemetery.

I would remove her black Drive wheelchair from the trunk of the Sonata. The caregiver and I helped my mom out of the passenger side of the car and into the wheel chair. I would wheel mom over the grass to my father’s grave. My parents are buried around stories much sadder than theirs.  Mom  got as quiet as a broken radio. Sometimes I looked away. She never wanted to stay long but she always wanted to arrive. Mom and Dad were married 65 years.

Rivers have a timeless nature which is why I wanted to see the Quad Cities River Bandits after all that I had been through. Rivers are always going somewhere and I feel a greater sense of history in Mississippi River towns than I do when I am along the ocean in Key West and Myrtle Beach -although Coney Island is an exception.

I drove alone to Davenport, at least in a physical sense. I brought along a river mix CD I made in 2012:  “Kern River” by the great Merle Haggard, “River Bends” by Tim  O’Regan,” “Get Down River” by the Bottle Rockets, and “Moon River” by Andy Williams, a song my parents liked.

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

The first thing I did when I got to downtown Davenport was visit the Quad Cities Visitor’s Center, housed in the former Union Station, 102 S. Harrison St. The center features souvenir books, locally made food and drink, postcards and bike rentals that are perfect for the riverfront.

I found the River Music Experience (RME) museum and performing arts center thriving at 129 N. Main St. in downtown Davenport. The two-floor RME is in the former Von Maur department store in the  Redstone building, erected in 1872. I first visited RME right after it opened in 2004 and it continues to amaze me Davenport can feature such a fine music museum while Chicago cannot get its act together to honor its important music heritage. In fact, RME is expanding to honor coronetist-composer, Bix Beiderbecke, born in 1903 in  Davenport. (Sun Ra sideman Pat Patrick was from East Moline, Ill.)

RME presents an all-ages and free “Live @ 5” series on the museum courtyard; Hal Reed & Mississippi Journey play today, followed by Fickle Filly and the Haymakers on Aug. 7, Wicked Liz & the Belly Swirls on Aug, 14 and the Ellis Kell Band on Aug, 21 (Kell is also a long-time museum staffer.)

I walked along the Mississippi River.

I had been to the former John  O’ Donnell Stadium several times but I had never found the time to  carry my thoughts along the river and Le Claire Park. I made discoveries. I saw a plaque that commemorated Aug. 22, 1963 when the  Catholic Interracial Council and other area organizations held Iowa’s  largest civil rights rally at the 400-acre park. Nearly 2,000 marchers listened to speakers like John Howard Griffin, author of “Black Like Me,” who spoke in the park’s since-refurbished band shell.

The march was a warm-up to the August 28, 1963 March on Washington (D.C.) which drew more than 250,000 people to hear Dr. Martin Luther King and others.IMG_0954

Finally, everyone can enjoy a nice picnic in the park and walk to what is now  called Modern Woodmen Park. The fraternal financial services company  scored naming rights in a 20-year deal worth $4.5 million. The 84- year-old “Modern Woody” often makes national news for getting flooded  out. Home plate is 400 feet from “The Big Muddy.”

The stadium was doing fine in June. A removable flood wall was created in June 2013 with a removable bridge that provides pedestrian access from the floodwater to the stadium. It is one of the three longest installations of its type in North America and the wall can be installed by six people in less than 24 hours.

June was the wettest month in Illinois history with 8.9 inches of rain, a fact not lost on my blue mood. I sat through an 86-minute rain delay before the game was suspended after four innings  with Quad Cities (Astros) leading Beloit (Oakland)  1-0 (Quad Cities  won 2-1 the next day.)

Earlier this year Modern Woodmen Park was voted “Best of the Ballparks” in Class A baseball by fans and readers of Ballpark Digest, which conducted a bracketed online voting competition of all Class A venues.

Modern Woodmen is the oldest stadium used continuously by a current minor league baseball team for more than 50 years. Davenport’s baseball history is one of the most storied in America, going back to 1879 when Davenport was a member of The Northwestern League that included Rockford, Ill. Dubuque, Ia. and Omaha, Ne. Northwestern is acknowledged as the first league west of the Mississippi River.


My brother recently gave me the 2013 John Sexton book “Baseball as a Road to God (Seeing Beyond the Game)” which cites a 1956 poem John Updike wrote for the New Yorker while sitting in the Yankee Stadium bleachers:  “Distance brings proportion…From here the populated tiers as much as players seem part of the show…..”

Sexton wrote how Updike saw unity in time and place within the framework of baseball.

I last visited the riverside park in 2004 when the team was known as the “Swing of the Quad Cities,” which always sounded like some kind of private kinky club. The improvements are impressive and memorable.

In May, 2014 a new 110-foot tall $1 million Ferris wheel was erected beyond  the left field fence. The wheel was shut down during lightning and thunder, but it is easy to see that you can see views of the Mississippi River and the humble Davenport skyline. Why didn’t Tom Ricketts think of this as part of his left field renovation? The Cubs have been spinning wheels for generations. There is a $5 charge to ride the wheel.

A children’s amusement area is being built in the right field corner, bringing a bit of the wonderful Brooklyn Cyclones-by Coney Island experience to Iowa.

The latest addition for this season is a tiny cornfield in the left field corner beyond the bullpen. Bumper cars will be added in the right field corner before the season is over.

It is clear that River Bandits owner Dave Heller is all ears for just about anything. He realizes the shortened attention spans of today’s younger baseball audience.


This is Iowa baseball.

“When I get five or six innings out of my kids I feel like I’ve really accomplished something,” Heller said from Connecticut where he was tending to his ill father. “If we’re in someone else’s park and they’re tired, we can leave. But when it’s Quad Cities and I’m in charge, leaving is not an alternative. Part of it is understanding first hand the struggles parents have to carve out affordable family friendly entertainment for themselves and their families. We wanted to do things that hadn’t been done before in minor league baseball to provide enough other attractions to keep them there for nine innings.”

Heller is a life long Democratic political media consultant. He attended Yale University where he completed his Master’s thesis and taught an undergraduate seminar on 20th Century American Politics.

“I’ve worked for 25 different members of congress,” said Heller, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “I’m working on a number of campaigns include Congressman Alan Grayson who is running for the U.S. Senate in Florida. I still love politics. But I joke that I’ve spent my entire life selling something nobody wants to buy and now I get a chance to sell something people really enjoy—baseball.” And sometimes, something people really need.




Dave Hoekstra photo,  June 9, 2015

Dave Hoekstra photo, June 9, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C.–If you look hard enough you see history in the misty shadows of bright neon.

As Asheville grows as a tourist destination many people stop to take photos of the Mountaineer Inn neon-lit sign on the near east side of Tunnel Road. The 1960s era sign features a hillbilly with a rifle resting against his right leg.

The iconic sign is purposely spelled with backwards N’s and E’s to attract roadside attention, but it attracts its own desires at night when it is lit up in cherry red and evergreen outlines.

Asheville is now filled with trendy motels and boutique hotels, so the Mountaineer Inn is left for extended stay residents, day laborers and the occasional prostitute. On a lazy June afternoon I sat by the pool (closed for remodeling) reading the biography of North Carolina born writer Joseph Mitchell. I saw that a few families were attracted to the Mountaineer Inn. The families asked proprietor Chris Moutos to see a room and then left for greener pastures.

And they were witness to the kind of room I stayed in: a saggy bed, a 1970s era Zenith television set jerry-rigged to cable TV and an air conditioning system run through the front office. I paid $59 for a Monday night stay. As one family drove away a middle-aged man with a walking cane left his room. He startled the mockingbird perched on the roof of his unit. His dago tee shirt wasn’t doing any favors for his ample belly. The man asked me how far the Waffle House was. It is two blocks west, not far from where the sun sets on Asheville.

Dave Hoekstra photo

Dave Hoekstra photo

The Mountaineer Court was built in 1939 as a 19-unit motel. Moutos added another 44 units in 1973. “Some of the biggest rooms in the state, 14 by 28 (feet),” Moutos crowed. The Mountaineer now consists of 76 units and the spectacular neon of the barefooted mountain man with his corncob pipe and rifle.

John Turk, Vice-President of the Western North Carolina Historical Association and Professor Emeritus Youngstown State University told me, “Asheville was founded in the 1790s and has had up and down times. The civil war certainly a down time.

“When the railroad got here in 1880 the place started to boom. You could get to Asheville from Baltimore or Philadelphia. A lot of people came to the mountains to get away from the heat and humidity. It built up until 1920 and the stock market crashed.Asheville went into the dark ages until the 1960s when tourist trade started to jump again. That’s when all these motels were built on the three main roads that led into Asheville. Themes varied from hillbilly to Florida chic to Colonial Revival and that was the time period before Howard Johnson’s where they all looked the same. There was a certain amount of character to the Mountaineer.”

Turk leads walking tours and bus tours of downtown Asheville through History At Hand. He has lived in Asheville for 10 years.

He admits he has never stayed at the Mountaineer.

“It is wonderful this motel is still in operation,” he said. “It prides itself in this huge sign. And if you live in Asheville everybody knows where it is. You are either in the camp that thinks its a horrible filthy thing that we need to get rid of or an iconic statement about what was happening in Asheville in the 1950s and 60s.”

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

 The 5’2” Moutos shuffled about his front office which features a vintage sofa and a front desk where he registers visitors by pen and paper. On a good day Moutos will tell visitors about studying Byzantine music as a young man. A Greek Orthodox, Moutos wanted to be a priest when he was young.

Here is a portion of our interview that we aired on the July 18 edition of Nocturnal Journal on WGN-AM 720 in Chicago.

“I will be 92 in one month,” he said. “And I work from seven in the morning until 11 o’clock at night. If we have a storm, we get big problems with the neon. It cost money to operate. It is hard to get parts. I fight and fight to keep the sign. The city has made it a historic sign. People from Europe and all over take pictures of that sign. Several people have tried to buy the motel. It is not for sale. What do I do if I stay home? Keep working. That’s all I can do. I love to meet people. I meet good people.

“Remember ‘Horse’ on ‘Bonanza”?

Actually it was ‘Hoss.’

“I wanted to give him (Dan Blocker) the room free,” Moutos continued. “He would not take the free room. He went across the street and ate feta cheese and bread just like he was in Athens, Greece. He came here in September, 1964.”

Blocker was one of Moutos’ first celebrity guests. Moutos was an Asheville restauranteur on June 10, 1964 when he visited the motel to sell a chamber of commerce membership. “I bought the motel in less than three minutes without knowing what I do,” Moutos said in a broken Greek accent.

Moutos was born in Greece and grew up in Athens. He was a messenger in World War II and came to America in 1951. Moutos lived with his aunt and uncle in Augusta, Ga. for 18 months before relocating to Greenville, S.C. to work in a restaurant. He next moved to Asheville to open his restaurants. He liked Asheville because the cool climate reminded him of the Mediterranean. At one time Moutos operated four diners in Asheville.

But Moutos found his calling in the Mountaineer.

His first restaurant, Cosmos, was across the highway from the Mountaineer.

“One of the most nice and high reputation in the state,  the best part of the city,” he said. Moutos is married to a high school classmate from Athens but they didn’t get hitched until April, 1977. It was not a shotgun wedding. “I was 53,” he said. “I went back to Greece to get married. She is 17 years younger than I am.” Barbara and Chris have sons ages 34 and 36. The oldest son John is involved with the motel and lives in Raleigh, N.C. Nick lives in Asheville.

Portions of the 1988 hit baseball film “Bull Durham” were filmed in  Asheville and the nearby McCormick Field is a minor league baseball treasure. McCormick is situated in a slope on the fringe of the downtown area. I’ve visited McCormick Field the past two summers.

The tiny brick framed ballpark (4,000 capacity) opened in 1924 and was renovated in 1959. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Willie Stargell are among those who have played at McCormick where the right field wall is a mere 297 feet from home plate. The Asheville Tourists are a Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Yankees.


Waiting for the gates to open (Dave Hoekstra photo)

McCormick is baseball’s oldest minor league stadium still in use. The vintage scoreboard reads “Visitors” in the guest slot and “Tourists” underneath in the home slot. In “Bull Durham” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) ends his career with the Tourists after being released by the Durham Bulls.

 “Bull Durham make shot,” Moutos said. “It was all right. I gave them the room free because it was good work for the city. But they took off the screen doors and never put them back. They were rough people. I’m glad they did the scene with no clothes on at another hotel in Greensboro (S.C.)

Moutos had a better experience with the acclaimed 2003 indy film “All The Real Girls” that starred Zooey Deschnael and Paul Schneider. 

“That was the best movie we had here,” he said. “Good girls. It was nice. They stayed here from October to March. 40 rooms. They were beautiful people. They paid the bills and it was good advertisement for the motel. The producer (Jean Doumanian) wanted to write a story on me. I came here with nothing and made something.”

The 92-year-old proprietor can walk around his grounds and realize it is not 1964 any more. “It’s not good people like it used to be,” he said. “You have to watch close to whom you rent it. You don’t want to rent to people who have a good time or dealers of dope and those things. You have to watch it close. You have to be 21 to rent a room. We have a bridal suite with new furnitures.” And like an old wedding ring, the Mountaineer circles the past with hopes for the future.

The Mountaineer Inn is at 155 Tunnel Rd, for reservations, call 1-800-255-4080.

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn