For decades, when you thought about the blue-collar East Side of St. Paul, you thought about the Payne Reliever, an infamous rock ’n’ roll club and strip joint located on Payne Avenue. With its catchy name and wicked reputation, the Payne Reliever pretty much defined the rough-and-tumble neighborhood to the outside world, so much so that once when I told a guy in Florida where I lived, he asked if that was anywhere near the club. And did I go there? And how many shootings and knife fights had I seen? It’s gone now, just like the Faust and Flick adult theaters, replaced, I swear, by an Embers family restaurant. Yet the reputation for mayhem it embodied persists. As a result, people seldom go to the East Side unless they actually live there, and many of those are cagey about it, telling outsiders they reside in Hazel Park, Prosperity Heights, or Lake Phalen. Still, most East Siders are fiercely loyal to their neighborhood. I played hockey with one guy, you could insult him, insult his politics, his religion, even his mother, but say something nasty about the East Side and he’d drop his gloves. Boom.
Mrs. Thomforde was loyal like that. Her husband might have moved her to Merriam Park, yet once a month she’d faithfully return to gossip with her East Side friends. As kids we used to think that she was tremendously courageous—or just plain crazy.
Usually the friends would gather at the Silver Bucket, located not too far from where the Payne Reliever once stood. The Silver Bucket is a family joint that’s been thriving since the turn of the last century, when they actually served beer in small buckets. It had been built long before people decided it was okay to put windows in bars, and as a consequence it always looked like the inside of an old movie theater. There was no smoking—the result of a recent City of St. Paul ordinance—yet the odor of a million cigarettes could be smelled in the carpet, booths, and chairs.
There were at least one hundred people in the Silver Bucket when we arrived, and by the way they cheered you would have thought it was a sports bar and the Vikings had just put six on the board. Instead, a middle-aged woman dressed in a business suit was collecting her prize of a combo pack of chicken breasts and cheesy hash browns. Like a running back following a touchdown, she accepted about a dozen high-fives as she gamboled her way back to her table. Meanwhile, the manager held a plastic-wrapped package high above his head and called for order.
“Next up, a five-pound package of pork-chops-on-a-stick,” he announced. That brought more cheers. “Don’t forget, all proceeds go to the Johnson High School Hockey Association,” he added as two waitresses fanned out through the bar, each carrying a round tray. On the tray were little tents of paper, a number written on each, the tents arranged in a circle along the edge of the tray. People dropped dollar bills into the middle of the tray and snatched paper tents at random, or according to some secret betting system.
“Should we buy a chance?” I asked Karen. “Pork-chops-on-a-stick. I love pork chops.”
“Do you see Mrs. Thomforde?”
“We’ll have a barbecue. The last barbecue of the season.”
“Is that her?”
Karen pointed at a woman with white hair cut short sitting at a large table with seven other women. I had known Mrs. Thomforde for nearly three decades. During those years, along with the usual wear and tear of life, she had lost a husband just as he reached retirement age and had seen her favorite child sent to prison—more than once. Yet somehow her face had managed to retain a youthful contempt for the passing of time, for mortality itself. Looking at her, I decided that the old aphorism was true: That which does not destroy us only makes us stronger.
I came up from behind her and set a hand on her shoulder. She turned toward me. Curiosity, then recognition flashed across her face. She did not even say my name, simply stood and hugged me and said, “Oh, my, I haven’t seen you since your father’s funeral.” She hadn’t actually been a friend of my father’s, but she came from that generation that went to funerals when someone in the neighborhood died.
Mrs. Thomforde touched my face and said, “You turned out so handsome.” She turned to her friends sitting around the table. There was at least a case of longneck beer bottles, most of them empty, scattered in front of them, as well as the remains of several appetizer platters. “Isn’t McKenzie handsome, girls?”
The girls agreed with Mrs. Thomforde. The one called Ruth thought I was handsome enough to take home and lock in the basement.
“You’re just being polite,” I told her.
“Are you kidding?” said a friend. “Compared to the ground chuck she’s been chopping, you’re Grade A sirloin.”