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Journeys through Mobile
By Roy Hoffman
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2001 Roy Hoffman
All rights reserved.
My Grandfather's World
* * *
A Walk Down Dauphin
There have been all kinds of stories written about Mobile over the course of 200 years, but none more intriguing to me than the City Directory of 1909.
It shows a town in which residents are clearly demarcated by race: "C" for colored, "Cre" for Creole, "Chi" for Chinese.
It reminds us, in advertisements for travel on the Mobile and Ohio railroad, how transportation has changed. It recalls, in advertisements for Mobile Electric Co., how concerns about safety have not: "A lighted porch light is the best protection against burglars."
Most revealing, in block-by-block listings of residents and cross-listings by profession, the directory shows who were neighbors, and how people spent their days. At 512 Dauphin, for example, between Lawrence and Cedar streets, was "Mobile Poultry Farm: Dealers in Eggs and all kind of Live & Home-Dressed Poultry." Next door at 514 was a Cleaner's and Presser's run by a young couple who resided at the same address, and who appeared in the directory the first time that year—Morris and Mary Hoffman, my grandparents.
How Morris and Mary, as youths, left Romanian villages, traveled to New York, met and married there and had their first child, Louie, is a saga which speaks to a time when America, to Europeans, glittered with golden shores.
That they eventually made their way to Mobile, had three more children—Charles, Goldie and Rebecca—and reared them over a Dauphin Street store, comes from a chapter in history in which some Jews, like other immigrants, made their ways to port cities and merchant crossroads throughout the South.
I do not know the stories of all the early Dauphin Street families, but I suspect that the long journeys their names suggest—Habeeb, from Syria; Naman and Zoghby, from Lebanon; Matranga, from Sicily; Kurkulakis, from Greece; Bitzer, from Germany—tell triumphs of their own.
In a way it saddens me that to walk Morris and Mary's original block today, with pages from the 1909 directory in hand, is to visit Pompeii.
Their storefront, which they soon turned into a general mercantile store, has long been replaced by a short row of one-story offices. Across the street, where David Pinkerson, a great-uncle on my mother's side, ran Pink's Music Store, there's now a vacant lot; part of the shop's ceramic tile floor still covers the ground.
Two blocks away, on Conti Street, is a parking lot that, in my grandparents' era, held the Orthodox synagogue where the Hoffmans and other families—among them Lubel, Friedlander, Prince, Kamil—strolled on Sabbaths to congregate and pray.
Despite the fact that this stretch of Dauphin is mostly inhabited by spirits of the past, I make a pilgrimage here whenever I return home. I like to recall a time when store owners were families who lived close by, and customer relations meant a rocking chair and an extra cigar.
The fact that a few family businesses still thrive on Dauphin—Morris and Mary's legacy, the furniture store, among them—cheers me; and that a new generation now comes downtown to amble in and out of music clubs, gives me heart that the battered street, buoyed by the adventurousness, and dollars, of America's youth culture, may revive still.
In the city's vast, temperature-controlled shopping complexes I lose my compass; downtown, close to the port, with tall windows and balconies the setting for countless lives gone by, I recall where I am.
Granted, I have a good guide in my father's stories about his own long life on Dauphin, both growing up and in many years of legal practice within footsteps of Bienville Square.
He takes me back to the streets of downtown at the time of the First World War: to the trolley cars he rode all over town; to the Lyric Theater where, for a few coins, he saw Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson; to the drugstores, from Van Antwerp's to Ortmann's, on nearly every corner; to the pool hall where the entry requirement was long pants and where young boys still wearing shorts schemed a way to borrow knickers.
He also takes me back to the days, unimaginable to me, before air conditioning. I have a picture of him and his brother, Louie, dragging their mattress onto the store balcony some hot summer nights, hoping to catch an unlikely breeze. On a rare vacation day from the store, the family walked to the foot of Dauphin and caught the Bay Queen for the ride to Fairhope, where they enjoyed a refreshing swim.
Keeping people cool was an aspect of business, too. I remember a radio jingle for my grandfather's store, something like, "We have ceiling fans and window fans, one-room fans and three-room fans, any old fan, even a baseball fan."
My father also helps transform old directory addresses into real faces peering from windows. Behind one is John Fowler, a clock repairer, who claimed to have invented the airplane and kept one, as a tourist attraction, at Monroe Park.
My father remembers an even more extraordinary invention Fowler demonstrated in his shop: a perpetual motion machine that had a ball running up and down a track day and night.
Behind another window is Dr. E. T. Belsaw, a dentist and, as a black man, one of the few non-white medical professionals in town early in this century. Joining them is F. D. Bru, a Cuban gentleman who rolled and sold cigars and who at one time, with his family, rented an over-the-store apartment from my grandparents. Then there's Gus Seiple, a locksmith, who referred to himself as a "keyologist."
Many Dauphin Street names have continued through generations, to weave themselves through the city's commercial and civic life. From Megginson's Drugs on the corner of Lawrence came a mayor of Mobile. From Eugene Thoss Jr.'s store close by came decades of sporting goods. When I played Little League baseball as a boy, my team was sponsored by Thoss.
It's as though yesteryear's Dauphin Street created its own family tree, relating the city's dwellers in a thousand different ways. It even provided romance. My mother, Evelyn, when single, worked as a bookkeeper at the Toggery, an elegant clothing store, and watched her husband-to-be strolling by the square.
The Dauphin Street I remember growing up in the 1950s and '60s—a street where we frequently rode the bus—was vibrant with store logos: Hammel's, Gayfers, Metzger's, Kayser's, Reiss Brothers, Raphael's.
If the street's department stores and fashion shops have not been gobbled up by national chains, many have moved to locations more practically situated in an economy where consumers like to drive, park, and shop until late in bright, secure malls.
While the city continues to sprawl farther out to what used to seem like wilderness, the surroundings of the airport, I doubt that big stores will ever return to the downtown.
The Dauphin Street of my youth was also one where Mardi Gras parades still rolled their way down the street, the snare drums rattling the windows, the floats seeming to touch the sides of the buildings. On the balcony of my grandparents' store, I stood with Alberta West, a wonderful woman who worked for my family, and my sister Robbie, and shouted to the masked men below. They hurled back boxes of Cracker Jack, rubber balls and candy.
I can still feel the throws raining down.
I wish the streets around today's Dauphin felt safer. When I turn a block away onto St. Francis and pass by silent buildings, a scruffy white man with a sack under his arm watches me closely. What does he want? Although I have paced the streets of New York City, where I live, many a late evening, I feel more vulnerable here, on blocks where no one else on foot is around. I relax only when I turn back to Dauphin.
As the evening wears on, and I visit social establishments that have sprung up in recent years, I realize that the collegiate-looking youths shooting pool don't know they are reviving a Dauphin Street tradition, except that now girls play, too; and that the waitress in a restaurant which displays cigars doesn't know that a Havana emigre once sat in a room nearby and rolled scores of stogies, perfectly, by hand.
In one club, Boo Radley's, named for the reclusive neighbor in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," I listen to a folk singer, on open-mike night, struggling with a Simon and Garfunkel number while a Jimi Hendrix poster looks on. I check the 1918 directory: a tailor, Max Fry, a friend of my grandfather's, and whose family I know, once had his shop at this address. Here, as effectively as anywhere in the region, a memory of the old South and a sense of the new are crushed together like songs from different jukeboxes.
What would my grandfather have made of all this? I envision him alive and young again, coming down the street in Panama hat and suspenders, puzzled at the vacancy of so many storefronts where his friends, starting out life in America, sold items that were practical: bottles of milk, loaves of bread, tables and chairs, shoes and jackets.
Yet I feel sure he would appreciate this picture of money still exchanging hands, of small business owners taking risks, of people walking the street past dusk.
Since it's Dauphin Street, tonight he might even stop in for a beer. I'd be happy to join him.
A Contract for Watermelons
Come summer, wherever I may be, when I see watermelons like vast blossoms on top of overturned crates or stacked in green mountains at roadside stands, I think of a story about my grandfather handed down to me from my father.
The story begins on a road that runs about 30 miles from Semmes, Ala., to Mobile, through flat piney woods and farmland. The road was still dirt and clay back in 1912 when, on a Saturday in July, a young farmer named John, tall, sunburned, his hair prematurely silvering, was hauling a load of watermelons to Mobile's large produce market—a building housing City Hall upstairs and refurbished after World War II to hold just City Hall. A storm struck, muddying the road and slowing his cart considerably. By the time he arrived in Mobile the sun was sinking and the market was closing for the day.
Stuck with his load of watermelons and surely vexed by the thought of a few going bad, John turned his cart up Dauphin Street and made his way by the cluster of stores lighted by flickering gas lamps.
In front of one store was another young man, Morris Hoffman, my grandfather: dark eyes, genial, a touch portly. He was setting out sale items—socks, hats, overalls—in front of what was principally his cleaning and pressing shop.
"Howdy," John said, joking, "I see I'm not the only one getting a late start today."
Morris smiled and said that he and his wife, Mary, did not work on the Sabbath.
"Sunday ain't till tomorrow," John said, then leaned forward and peered closely at Morris. "Where ya'll from, anyways?"
Morris introduced himself, offered his hand and said, "We come from Romania. We are Jews."
John pumped his hand, said his own name, and replied: "I'm a Baptist myself, from Semmes."
"You are selling these?" Morris asked.
"Yessir. I got near 'bout 50. You buy just one you'd be doing me a favor."
Morris looked over the wagonload. "I want to give you help, but I cannot buy all."
By the time John had climbed down from his cart and accepted a glass of water Morris offered, they had exchanged more pleasantries.
"For one melon," Morris suggested, "one sock?"
"I could sure use some socks," John answered and lugged down his fattest melon.
Morris admired the melon, looked over the cart again and said that, in his opinion, the best customer is a repeat customer. "I will buy your 50 melons to help you," he said, "if we can make a contract. I will buy one melon a year for 50 years." They shook on it.
The next summer, when John appeared with an enormous watermelon Morris gave him a handkerchief. This time they visited longer and talked about the hot 1913 summer, about the varieties and shapes of melons. In 1914, when the watermelon was exchanged for a belt, John told how his forebears had come over from Europe long before the Civil War, pushed down through the Appalachians and ended up as farmers in southern Alabama.
Came 1915, when the watermelon became a second pair of socks, and 1916, when it was traded for a hat, and Morris told John how he had left Romania as a boy to escape religious persecution, stowed away on a ship to America and spent two years in New York where he'd met and married Mary, also a Romanian Jewish immigrant.
Feeling locked into the big city, and tiring of the cold, Morris headed south while Mary with their newborn, Louis, waited in New York. He arrived in a large eastern seaboard city (Baltimore, or perhaps Richmond?), where he took out his travel money, handed it to the man at the ticket window in the train station and requested passage to a small seaside town in a hot climate. The man handed him a ticket to Mobile. Mary and Louis soon joined him.
When 1916 turned to 1917, 1917 to 1918, personal reminiscences were set aside for talk about the World War. Already the watermelon contract seemed an excuse for a yearly conversation on a hot afternoon. By the early 1920s Morris' two sons, Charles and Louis, my father and uncle, were big enough to visit John's farm and walked delightedly down rows of the watermelon patch. And by the mid-1920s, John was delivering his annual melon in a truck to Morris who, having expanded his shop into a general mercantile store, offered shoes one year, a coat the next.
If watermelons were excuses for talking, they were also, by now, like calendars, each marking another year gone by. The years brought prosperity until the Great Depression, when Morris could give to John, as in earlier days, only a handkerchief or a pair of socks.
Morris shook his head and lamented to John: "All I have in my store is now not worth so much as one watermelon." But the men talked, even joked bleakly. They still honored their contract, as though honoring it were now a yearly ritual that assured they would both endure one year longer.
Then, after the Depression, Morris' merchandise became valuable again, doubled, tripled in value. His exchange with John became a yearly gift: a potbellied stove for a watermelon, a battery-powered radio for a watermelon. The store became the exclusive outlet for Aladdin gas lamps, which could illuminate an entire room. When Morris gave John an Aladdin lamp, John said he'd been given the best present imaginable, for the farm still had no electricity and his sons were "killin' their eyes trying to read by kerosene lamp." Morris gave John a second lamp, an advance on next year's watermelon.
Watermelons. Watermelons. If Morris could stack them all up from over the years, surely they'd reach as high as the eaves of his new store (a furniture store, down Dauphin Street a block): surely they'd be as high as a Succoth booth, or as an altar onto which one could climb to survey the plentifulness of the land.
Morris' children had children, and by the 1940s, when the Second World War came, Morris said a ritual prayer each summer upon seeing John arrive at the store with a fat watermelon borne on his shoulder. He recited the prayer to John and explained what the Hebrew meant to him: "Praised be Thou, O Lord our God, ruler of the world, who has granted us life, sustained us, and permitted us to celebrate this new and joyous season."
Yet, as the 1950s progressed, both men knew that new seasons, however joyous, were not innumerable. In 1955 Morris made a grand gesture of friendship to John, presenting to him, in trade for his watermelon, a bedroom suite. In 1956, though, when John arrived at the store, Mary met him sadly. He put his watermelon down slowly onto the floor as she told him of Morris' death that April. "My old, old friend is gone," John said quietly. "I always thought I'd be the first not able to honor our contract."
For two more summers John came with a watermelon, honoring the contract and honoring the memory of Morris. In 1959 he did not show up: Folks at the store heard he had died. The contract had lasted 47 years.
My father, a lawyer, has handled some legal matters for John's son over the years, and John's offspring have shopped periodically at Morris' store, now run by my cousin. But the ritual connection between families no longer exists. John's farm was sold, with only a small plot bought back recently by a son for his house trailer; a watermelon for a pot-bellied stove seems a mark of the past. For my grandfather and the farmer, though, a watermelon was enough to inspire a contract, to set going a friendship.
Excerpted from Back Home by Roy Hoffman. Copyright © 2001 Roy Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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