A Bum’s Xmas in Calgary

A Bum’s Xmas in Calgary 
Bob Edwards — Local preachers ran him and his Eye Opener newspapers out of Wetaskiwin and, in turn, Strathcona and High River for “expressing contrary opinions, drinking and hootin’ and yellin’and generally disturbing’ the Gospel”. He arrived in Calgary and the paper became The Calgary Eye Opener in 1904 

13-Dec-17 Despite all the snorting against them in works of divinity, it has always been my experience that infidels–or freethinkers, as they usually prefer to call themselves–are a generally estimable class of men and women, with strong overtones of the benevolent and even of the sentimental. This is certainly true, for example, of Set ‘Em Up Joe, Bartender-in-Chief at the Long Bar at the Alberta Hotel. He is a sincere friend to the orphans, the aged, all blind and one-legged men, ruined girls, marijuana fiends, remittance men, sheep herders, ex-convicts, the more respectable sort of disbarred lawyers and defrocked divines, and all the other oppressed and unfortunate classes, and he slips them, first and last, many a substantial piece of money.
Nor is he the only old-time Calgary infidel who thus shames the churchy. Indeed, the name of one of his partners, The Lady That’s Known as Lou, jumps into focus at once and so does my fellow Scot horseman, sportsman, showman, Fire Chief Cappy Smart. Set ‘Em Up, Lou and Cappy, I gather, have serious dogmatic differences, for there are as many variations in doctrine between infidels as between Christians, but the essential benignity of all keep them on amicable terms, and they often cooperate in good works. The only noticeable difference between them is that Set ‘Em Up usually tries to sneak a little propaganda for the Long Bar into his operations — and Cappy is a wizard of wow — but the more scrupulous Lou, who after all uses needs not words to speak on her behalf — her physique and fame speak for themselves — is careful to avoid these dodges . . . . and, too, she sends each and every one of the Calgary clergy copies of The Kinsey Report and The Happy Hooker and like depraved literature three or four times a year– always disguised as a special delivery or registered letter marked “Urgent”. . . .

But in that masterpiece which is The Lady That’s Known as Lou’s benevolent career there is no such attempt at direct missionarying; indeed, her main idea when she conceived it was to hold up to scorn and contumely, by the force of mere contrast, the crude missionarying of her theological opponents. This idea seized her one evening in 1910 when she dropped into the Calgary Police Station to pass the time of day with her old friend Chief Thomas Mackie, who was then the only known freethinker on the Calgary force. Christmas was approaching and the Chief was in an unhappy and rebellious frame of mind–not because he objected to its orgies as such, or because he sought to deny Christians its beautiful consolations, but simply and solely because he always had the job of keeping order at the annual free dinner, organized by the Salvation Army, of the massed missions of the town to the derelicts of First Avenue, and that duty compelled him to listen politely to a long string of pious exhortations, many of them from Mayor John William Mitchell who (until in July 1911 — when Chief Mackie arrested him as a found in in Lou’s Palace of Pleasure on the Bow) read the lesson every Sunday at the Central Methodist Church.

“Why in Liberty Bell,” Lou observed impatiently, “does Mitchell and all them other grandslam hypocrites keep the poor bums waiting for two, three hours while they get off their Liberty Bell whimwham? Here is a ‘all full of men who ain’t ‘ad nothin’ to speak of to eat for maybe three, four days, and yet they ‘ave to set there smellin’ the bird and the coffee while ten, fifteen Sunday-school superintendents and W.C.T.U. [Women’s Christian Temperance Union] goodie-two-shoes sing ‘ymns to ’em and ‘oller against booze. I tell you, Chief, it ain’t ‘uman.”

” More than once I have saw a whole row of them poor bums pass out in faints, and had to send them away in the wagon,” cried the Chief. “And then, when the chow is circulated at last, and they begin fighting for the turkey bones, they ain’t hardly got the stuff down before the superintendents and the sisters begin calling on them to stand up and confess whatever skullduggery they have done in the past, whether they really done it or not, with us cops standing all around. And every man Jack of them knows that if they don’t lay it on plenty thick there won’t be no encore of the giblets and stuffing, and two times out of three there ain’t no encore anyhow, for them psalm singers are the stingiest outfit outside hell and never give a starving bum enough solid feed to last him until Boxing Day. And not a damned drop to drink! Nothing but coffee–and without no milk! I tell you, Lou, it makes a man’s blood boil.”

That got Lou’s to duly boiling too, and to immediate effect. By noon the next day she and Set ‘Em Up had lassoed Cappy and the three of them lasooed the Long Bar and Cappy sent word to me to publish in The Calgary Eye Opener that arrangements for a Christmas party for bums to end all Christmas parties for bums was under way. Her plan for it was extremely simple. The first obligation of hospitality, Lou announced in her usual prissy fashion, was to find out precisely what one’s guests wanted, and the second was to give it to them with a free and even reckless hand. As for what her proposed guests wanted, she had no shade of doubt, for she was a woman of worldly experience and she had also, of course, the advice of her friend, Chief Mackie, a recognized expert in the psychology of the abandoned.

First and foremost, they wanted as much malt liquor as they would buy themselves if they had the means to buy it. Second, they wanted a dinner that went on in rhythmic waves, all day and all night, until the hungriest and hollowest bum was reduced to breathing with not more than one cylinder of one lung. Third, they wanted not a mere sufficiency but a riotous superfluity of the best five-cent cigars on sale in the streets of Calgary. Fourth, they wanted continuous entertainment, both theatrical and musical, of a sort in consonance with their natural tastes and their station in life. Fifth and last, they wanted complete freedom from evangelical harassment of whatever sort, before, during, and after the secular ceremonies.

On this last point, Lou laid special stress, and I had to hear her expound it in person and I well recall her great earnestness, amounting almost to moral indignation. It was an unendurable outrage, she argued, to invite a poor man to a free meal and then make him wait for it while he was battered with criticism of his ways, however well intended. And it was an even greater outrage to call upon him to stand up in public and confess to all the false steps of what may have been a long and much troubled life. Lou was determined, she said, to give a party that would be devoid of all the blemishes of the similar parties staged by the Salvation Army, the mission helpers, and other such nefarious outfits. If it cost her last ill-gotten cent, she would give the bums of Calgary massive and unforgettable proof that philanthropy was by no means a monopoly of gospel sharks–that its highest development, in truth, was to be found among freethinkers.

It might have cost her her last cent if she had gone it alone — for while her earnings were high she was not an astute money manager — but her announcement had hardly got out before she was swamped with offers of help. A.E. Cross pledged twenty-five barrels of Calgary Stock Ale and every other legal and illegal booze-monger in Calgary rushed up to match him. The Calgary agents of all the Havana and Ontario two-fer one cigar factories fought for the privilege of contributing the cigars. Pat Burns himself drove one steer from his ranch across his neighbours’ lands and, what do you know, 30 head ended up at his abattoir in Inglewood — and his butchers were able to carve 29 head into mouth watering steaks and roast beef and the original steer was high-teched into dog food for the bums’ canine companions. The poultry dealers in Pat Burns’s Market and over in Kensington threw in barrel after barrel of dressed turkeys, some of them in very fair condition. Carl Horlach and all the other members of the boss bakers’ association, not a few of them freethinkers themselves, promised all the bread, none more than two days old, that all the bums could eat and Geisha Pastries and every high-priced sugars shop in Calgary threw in pastries, chocolates and all the other sweets known to civilization, and the real estate “developers” and stock promoters — many of them had lived on the street themselves and would live on the street again — gave what little spare cash they could find.

If Set ‘Em Up and Lou and Cappy had to fork up cash for any part of the chow, it must have been for the pepper and salt alone. . . . But the rent of the Long Bar had to be paid, and not only paid but paid in advance, for the owner thereof was a Methodist deacon, and there were many other expenses of considerable size — for example, for the entertainment and the music (but not the waiters and booziditers — Cappy’s crews and Set ‘Em Up’s barristas looked after that) and the mistletoe and immortelles which decorated the ball. Set ‘Em Up and Lou and Cappy, if they had desired, might have got the free services of whole herds of amateur musicians and elocutionists, but they swept them aside disdainfully, for they were determined to give their guests a strictly professional show. . . . Cappy levered cash out of those rich freethinkers who hadn’t come out of the closet, but when the smoke cleared away at last and they totted up their books, they found that the party had set them back more than a hundred and seventy-five dollars.

Admission to it was by invitation only, and the guests were selected with a critical and bilious eye by Chiefs Mackie and Smart. No bum who had ever been known to do any honest work–even such light work as sweeping out a saloon–was on the list. By Set ‘Em Up’s express and oft-repeated command it was made up wholly of men completely lost to human decency, in whose favor nothing whatsoever could be said. The doors opened at 11 a.m. of Christmas Day, and the first installment of the dinner began instantly. There were none of the usual preliminaries–no opening prayer, no singing of a hymn, no remarks by Set ‘Em Up or Lou or even Cappy, not even a fanfare by the band. The bums simply shuffled and shoved their way to the tables and simultaneously the waiters and sommeliers poured in with the chow and the malt. For half an hour no sound was heard save the rattle of crockery, the chomp-chomp of mastication, and the grateful grunts and “Oh, boy!”s of the assembled underprivileged.

Then the cigars were passed round (not one but half a dozen to every man), the band cut loose with the tonic chord of G major, and the burlesque company plunged into Act I, Sc. 1 of “Krausmeyer’s Alley.” There were in those days, as old-timers will recall, no less than five standard versions of this classic, ranging in refinement all the way from one so tony that it might have been put on at the Union Theological Seminary down to one so rowdy that it was fit only for audiences of policemen, bums, newspaper reporters, and medical students. This last was called the Montreal version, because Montreal was then the only great Canadian city whose mores tolerated it. Cappy ordered it was to be played à outrance and con fuoco, with no salvo of slapsticks, however brutal, omitted, and no double-entendre, however daring. Let the boys have it, he instructed the chief comedian, John J. Kelly, straight in the eye and direct from the wood. They were poor men and full of sorrow, and he wanted to give them, on at least one red-letter day, a horse-doctor’s dose of the kind of humor they really liked.

In that remote era the girls from Lou’s Avenue Palace of Pleasure on the Bow could add but little to the exhilarating grossness of the performance, for the strip tease was not yet invented and even the shimmy was still only nascent, but they did the best they could with the muscle dancing launched by Little Egypt at the Chicago World’s Fair, and that best was not to be sneezed at, for they were all in hearty sympathy with Cappy’s agenda, and furthermore, they cherished the usual hope that Florenz Ziegfeld might be in the audience. Lou had demanded that they all appear in red tights, but there were not enough red tights in hand to outfit more than half of them, so John J. Kelly conceived the bold idea of sending on the rest with bare legs. It was a revolutionary indelicacy, and for a startled moment or two Chief Mackie wondered whether he was not bound by his Hippocratic oath to raid the show, but when be saw the whole audience leap up and break into cheers, his dubieties vanished, and five minutes later he was roaring himself when John J. and the other comedians began paddling the girls’ cabooses with slapsticks.

I have seen many a magnificent performance of “Krausmeyer’s Alley” in my time, including a Byzantine version called “Krausmeyer’s Dispensary,” staged by the students at the McGill Medical School at a toga party, but never have I seen a better one. John J. and his colleagues simply gave their all. Wherever, on ordinary occasions, there would have been a laugh, they evoked a roar, and where there would have been roars they produced something akin to asphyxia and apoplexy. Even the members of the musicians’ union were forced more than once to lay down their fiddles and cornets and bust into laughter. In fact, they enjoyed the show so vastly that when the comedians retired for breath and the girls came out to sing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” or “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” the accompaniment was full of all the outlaw glissandi and sforzandi that we now associate with jazz.

The show continued at high tempo until 2 p.m., when Cappy shut it down to give his guests a chance to eat the second canto of their dinner. It was a duplicate of the first in every detail, with second and third helpings of turkey, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and celery for everyone who called for them, and a pitcher of beer in front of each guest. The boys ground away at it for an hour, and then lit fresh cigars and leaned back comfortably for the second part of the show. It was still basically “Krausmeyer’s Alley,” but it was a “Krausmeyer’s Alley” adorned and bedizened with reminiscences of every other burlesque-show curtain raiser and afterpiece in the repertory. It went on and on for four solid hours, with John J. and his pals bending themselves to their utmost exertions, and the girls shaking their legs in almost frantic abandon and Cappy right in the middle of it. At the end of an hour the members of the musicians’ union demanded a cut-in on the beer and got it, and immediately afterward the sommeliers began passing pitchers to the performers on the stage. Meanwhile, the pitchers on the tables of the guests were kept replenished, cigars were passed round at short intervals, and the waiters came in with pretzels, potato chips, celery, radishes, and chipped beef to stay the stomachs of those accustomed to the free-lunch way of life.

At 7 p.m. precisely, Cappy gave the signal for a hiatus in the entertainment, and the waiters rushed in with the third installment of the dinner. The supply of roast turkey, though it had been enormous, was beginning to show signs of wear by this time, but Set ‘Em Up had in reserve twenty hams and forty pork shoulders, which had gone missing from the Burns Packers when the stock promoters and real estate developers had inspected it the day before. Also, he had a mine of reserve sauerkraut hidden down under the stage, and soon it was in free and copious circulation and the guests were taking heroic hacks at it. This time they finished in three-quarters of an hour, but Cappy filled the time until 8 p.m. by ordering a seventh inning stretch and by having Chief Mackie go to the stage and assure all hands that any bona-fide participant found on the streets, at the conclusion of the exercises, with his transmission jammed would not be clubbed and jugged, as was the Calgary custom at the time, but returned to the Long Bar to sleep it off on the floor. This announcement made a favorable impression, and the brethren settled down for the resumption of the show in a very pleasant mood. John J. and his associates and Cappy for that matter were pretty well fagged out by now, for the sort of acting demanded by the burlesque profession is very fatiguing, but you’d never have guessed it by watching them work.

At ten the show stopped again, and there began what Set ‘Em Up described as a Bierabend, that is, a beer evening. Extra pitchers were put on every table, more cigars were banded about, and the waiters spread a substantial lunch of rye bread, rat-trap cheese, ham, bologna, potato salad, liver pudding, and Blutwurst. Cappy announced from the stage that the performers needed a rest and would not be called upon again until twelve o’clock, when a midnight show would begin, but that in the interval any guest or guests with a tendency to song might step up and show his or their stuff. No less than a dozen volunteers at once went forward but Set’Em Up had the happy thought of beginning with a quartet, and so all save the first four were asked to wait. The four laid their heads together, the band played the vamp of “Sweet Adeline,” and they were off. It was not such singing as one hears from the McGill Glee Club or the Bach Choir at Berlin, Ontario, but it was at least as good as the barbershop stuff that hillbillies now emit over the radio. The other guests applauded politely, and the quartet, operating briskly under malt and hop power, proceeded to “Don’t You Hear Dem Bells?” and “Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party.” Then the four singers had a nose-to-nose palaver and the first tenor proceeded somewhat shakily to a conference with Otto Strauss, the leader of the orchestra.

From where I sat, at the back of the bar, beside Lou, I could see Otto shake his head, but the tenor persisted in whatever he was saying, and after a moment Otto shrugged resignedly and the members of the quartet again took their stances. Lou leaned forward eagerly, curious to hear what their next selection would be. She found out at once. It was “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?,” the prime favorite of the period in all the homeless shelters , Salvation Army bum traps, and other such joints along the railroad track. Lou’s horror and amazement and sense of insult were so vast that she was completely speechless, and all I heard out of her while the singing went on was a series of throbbing sobs. The woman was plainly suffering cruelly, but what could I do? What, indeed, could anyone do? For the quartet had barely got half way through the first stanza of the composition before the whole audience joined in. And it joined in with even heartier enthusiasm when the boys on the stage proceeded to “Showers of Blessings,” the No. 2, favorite of all seasoned mission stiffs, and then to “Throw Out the Lifeline,” and then to “Where Shall We Spend Eternity?,” and then to “Wash Me, and I Shall Be Whiter Than Snow.”

Half way along in this orgy of hymnody, Chief Mackie thrust his arm around Lou and led her out into the cold, stinging, corpse-reviving air of a Calgary winter night. The bums, at this stage, were beating time on the tables with their beer glasses and tears were trickling down their noses. Otto and his band knew none of the hymns, so their accompaniment became sketchier and sketchier, and presently they shut down altogether. By this time the members of the quartet began to be winded, and soon there was a halt. In the ensuing silence there arose a quavering, boozy, sclerotic voice from the floor. “Friends,” it began, “I just want to tell you what these good people have done for me–how their prayers have saved a sinner who seemed past all redemption. Friends, I had a good mother, and I was brought up under the influence of the Word. But in my young manhood my sainted mother was called to heaven, my poor father took to rum and opium, and I was led by the devil into the hands of wicked men–yes, and wicked women, too. Oh, what a shameful story I have to tell! It would shock you to hear it, even if I told you only half of it. I let myself be. . .”

I waited for no more, but slunk into the night right behind Cappy. Lou and the Chief had both vanished, and I didn’t see Set ‘Em Up again for a week. But the next day I encountered Chief Mackie on the street, and he hailed me sadly. “Well,” be said, “what could you expect from them bums? It was the force of habit, that’s what it was. They have been eating mission handouts so long they can’t help it. Whenever they smell coffee, they begin to confess. Think of all that good food wasted! And all that beer! And all them cigars!”

Credit for most of this tale to H.L. Mencken, Angelus Modus, from whom a standard Plagiarization and Purloinatization License was obained, mutatis mutandis and nunc pro tunc, on December 13, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.