By the early 1960’s the era of the small neighborhood market had come to an end. All of the neighborhood kids would gather on the east side of Fairmont Avenue and watch as great vehicles came in and picked up and moved the best houses, while others tore down the rest and hauled what had once been kitchens where wonderful dinners had been cooked, living rooms where Bret Maverick and Marshall Dillon had been watched while eating those dinners on TV trays, and bedrooms where couples made love and then placed the sleeping results of their efforts in cradles and cribs, to an inglorious dump somewhere beyond the edge of town. New machines cleared and leveled the ground, dug ditches for pipes, poured a foundation that looked like a concrete football field to us, and then began erecting walls. In a few months a gigantic (for then) Safeway store occupied half of the block between Fairmont and 43rd Street, Landis and Wightman.
“I’ll never stop going to Jim’s” my mother stated, and she was as good as her word. We had been shopping at Jim’s Market Spot, which occupied the opposite corner of Landis and Fairmont, since we moved into our house in 1952, and Mom liked Jim and liked Jim’s store. The problem was that Mom did most of her grocery shopping on the naval base and paid prices not even Safeway could compete with, and she only resorted to Jim’s when some item was used up between monthly shopping trips.
Other residents of the area who did not have access to the Navy base were content to stretch their dollars further at the Safeway, and Jim noticed a trickle at first and finally a flood of his customers crossing the street, stepping on the big rubber mats which activated the automatic doors, and disappearing into the air-conditioned vastness that was the Safeway supermarket. At length Jim heard the bell tolling and closed his market. I was told that he was crying when he locked the big double front door for the last time but I don’t know if that is true; I wasn’t there to see it.
As I recall, the building remained vacant from then until I entered the Army in 1966. Many businesses rose and fell along Fairmont; burger joints, pool halls, auto repair operations and plumbers and the like, but Jim’s old building was either too big or too small for whoever came along trying to start a business, so it sat shuttered, quiet, and lonely for my remaining years of childhood.
When I returned home from the Army however things had changed. Jim’s Market Spot was now a lounge called “Granny’s”, and the place was doing a brisk business indeed. I never went in there at first, since one of my old neighborhood friend’s father owned a bar a mile or two up El Cajon Boulevard, and my hours of sitting on my butt on a bar stool and piddling away my time and a large percentage of my Army severance pay were largely spent there. A couple of years later however I had occasion to venture into Granny’s and found, to my surprise, a place very much to my liking.
Granny had an L shaped bar with the short segment angling to the left as you entered the front door; the same front door that Jim had locked a decade earlier, and the long segment continuing straight toward the back of the building, where the beer cooler from which I had tried to purchase a beer for my father once stood. To the right were tables in a murky darkness where couples or small groups would be lost in their own conversation or listening to the juke box when live entertainment was not to be had. But live entertainment was almost always there to be had. Just behind the short segment of the L, the one which stretched off to the left, was a piano, and behind the piano on any given night was Freddy.
Freddy was a piano player and a singer, but equally important she was an entertainer. I have seen many acts and have come to place musical performers into two categories: musicians and entertainers. The Beatles were musicians. Fabulously gifted, they wrote and played wonderful music. When they got on a stage however they would mostly just stand there (or sit, in Ringo’s case), shake their moppy hair every once in a while to make the girls scream, and do their songs. The Rolling Stones on the other hand were entertainers. Oh, they were (and still are) musicians, to be sure, but in addition they, and primarily front man Mick Jagger, were amazing entertainers. Mick would strut, gyrate, twirl the mic stand like a baton, and pout and point and leer at the people in the crowd and utterly hypnotize the audience.
Freddy was no Mick Jagger. I never saw her do a handstand or sling her microphone like Roger Daltry of The Who. What Freddy did however was play popular songs from multiple genres, most if not all of which we were familiar with, and some that we even knew the lyrics to, and draw the audience into the performance. Being a person of an ebullient nature I would even sometimes sing along, as would some of my friends depending on how many pitchers of Granny’s suds we had already sent down the hatch. Freddy’s venue was small, but she played it to perfection and Granny’s became a favorite watering hole for me and a good many of my friends.
On one particular evening five of us were perched on our bar stools along the short segment of the L where Freddy sat before her piano. My brother Brad was to my right and long time friend Was to my left. To the left of Wes were two friends from the construction crew of which we were all a part. Charlie Pietermeeder sat next to Wes and Monkey star next to him. Monkey’s real name was Andy Bandrill, and as every drywall hanger in our crew knew, Bandrill sounds like mandrill, a monkey of the Family Cercopithecidae, Genus Mandrillus, Species Mandrillus sphinx. At least they knew it once I figured it out and shared it with them. Anyway, all of that quickly boiled down to Monkey, and so there sat Monkey on the end of our chorus line.
It was a good night. Freddy was on her game, the beer was flowing, we were all laughing and joking with each other, and Wes was flirting with Freddy. Freddy was a good deal older than any of us but certainly not ready to be put in the rest home and, in an odd way, attractive. How to describe her? Well, plain I guess. But plain taken to its best potential. Her hair was well done, and although her figure was a bit more full than the willowy sweetheart whom I had waiting for my dissipated ass back at our house, she was not at all unattractive, and Wes was a man who was not afraid to make an advance to an attractive lady. Freddy was on duty however, and while she obviously enjoyed the attention she did not materially abet Wes in his efforts.
Eventually the effects of several glasses of beer drove Brad to make his way to the men’s restroom in the back of the establishment. Brad posted up in front of the urinal in the usual manner and was routinely taking care of his business when the door to the men’s room opened behind him and he heard the rustle of skirts. Addled somewhat by the beer he had consumed, it took Brad a moment or two longer than it normally would have to register that skirts in a men’s room is not a combination that one comes to expect. A quick look over his right shoulder confirmed that the rustle was indeed that of a skirt and that the skirt was being worn by Freddy, the piano player, who was at that moment disappearing into a stall in the men’s room.
This discovery produced an initial pucker, and Brad shook off the last few drops and hurried back to his stool after coming uncomfortably close to catching something in his zipper in his haste. As soon as Brad had reclaimed his perch he leaned over and whispered to me “Freddy’s a guy. Don’t tell Wes.” I was initially stunned, but recovered quickly and guarded Brad’s secret. Soon after that Freddy returned to her post and Wes took his turn in the restroom, which gave Brad and me the opportunity we were looking for to share this intelligence with Charlie and Monkey.
Those two worthy gentlemen were also surprised to learn this fact, but oddly enough nobody was put out by it, even though this was 1973 and attitudes toward this sort of thing still trended toward a hard line of opposition. We all tended to be interested in our own business however and were not inclined to interfere into that of others, and so as long as Freddy could play a good piano and sing a good song we couldn’t care less whether her chromosomes were xx or xy. We all agreed to keep the secret from Wes however. We were a bunch who loved a joke, as I have written elsewhere, and the possibilities here were delicious to contemplate.
At length Wes returned and reclaimed his perch right in the middle of our line and right in front of Freddy. Wes’ flirtation was not aggressive, in fact it was more like a fun way to play for an evening than a strong pitch to make it more than that, although one never knew where such things could lead and Wes was always up for the game. Wes flirted with the girls in the same manner that fish swim, birds fly, and spiders are ugly; it was just his nature. On this night however Wes’ advances generated increasingly ill-concealed chuckles from the rest of us, who were trying with all of our might to talk about the Padres’ baseball season or the war that lingered in Vietnam or the degree to which Harvey Black, the crew foreman for Earl Thurston Drywall and Finishing, was shorting our paychecks; any mundane thing to try to keep us from cracking up right there at the bar.
Wes was only a casual Casanova and his attention was far from being directed only at Freddy. He too was interested in the Padres, the war, and getting cheated, and he joined into our general conversation. But when his bent returned towards amorous attention to Freddy the thinly suppressed giggles became more and more obvious and impossible for him to ignore. Wes could clearly see that it had something to do with his flirting but he knew that we had never behaved this way before, and this was far from the first that Wes, or any of us for that matter, had flirted in a bar. Not willing to make a stink in front of the object of his attention he waited until Freddy exited her stage to go and take a break.
“OK you shitbirds, what’s so damned funny?” Wes asked as soon as the coast was clear. At this our suppressed laughter erupted from where we had tried to cage it for the last hour. “Man, Freddy’s a guy!” Charlie blurted out, and we all laughed harder. Wes looked at Monkey, Brad and me, and we all nodded our affirmation. “Yeah man, it’s true” I said. “Freddy came in to use the crapper when Brad was taking a leak. He saw the skirt hit the floor in the stall.” At this point Charlie chimed in “It’s OK man. We ain’t judging” he said and slapped Wes on the back. “To each his own.”
Wes got red as a beet and just sat on his stool, unsure of whether he should hit somebody or just get up and walk out of the joint. Ultimately he did neither. Wes knew he had to face us on the job site the next morning and there was nowhere to hide. Also, Wes could play a joke as well as the next guy, and it slowly sunk in that it was just his turn to be the butt of one. I extended the pitcher and refilled Wes’ glass and we all had one more laugh, including Wes, and went back to enjoying our evening.
Her break concluded, Freddy returned to resume her work for the evening. Wes’ attentions were now dramatically muted and Freddy figured out quickly that the jig was up. We all genuinely enjoyed her music however and had no inclination to leave. This became apparent to Freddy who discerned that nobody was going to get weird on her this night, and we all enjoyed ourselves greatly until we went home far later than we should have.
That old building continued as a lounge for a few more years, and then changed hands and became something much more unsavory, and I will go no further in describing that sad history. At last, the old building was torn down sometime in the last thirty years, along with a couple of the adjacent houses, and now a Mexican seafood restaurant occupies the space. In my mind’s eye however I can sometimes see the place in a vision. It’s after closing time and when the traffic has settled down. The neighborhood rests in the dead of the night, gathering strength for the next day’s frenetic activity at parks, schools, and businesses that have transformed the place where I grew up. A thin, ethereal outline of an elderly woman pulling a wire shopping cart on two wheels walks arthritically through the big doors of Jim’s Market Spot, past five idiots sitting at a bar when they should be home with their wives and sweethearts. She selects her weekly groceries as a little boy pulls a quart of beer out of a cooler. The vision brings a smile to my face, and sometimes maybe a small tear in my eye.