The Marvelous Mr. Gates

You can do a lot of living in a century, especially if you get an extra five years

Walter Gates has a bad toe that causes him to step somewhat gingerly. Not that he has to walk far in his job -- just the 30-40 feet that makes up the span of the bar. Gates is the proprietor of the Golden Garden Country Club, a modest little East Side lounge. Nor does Gates have to travel far to get to work. Like the barkeepers of yore, Gates lives in the establishment, with his bedroom just off to the side of the bar. Every day -- that's every day -- the doors are open from noon-9 p.m. You want a cold beer, a pack of smokes or pint of 1843 Bourbon for takeout, you go to Gates' place. But don't ask to use the john unless you buy something -- that's only fair.

On a Saturday afternoon in March, Gates draws Busch beer from the spigot into 10-ounce mugs. Two guys, the only customers in the place, patiently wait as practiced hands tilt the mugs to reduce the foam. Gates lets it settle a bit, then repeats the action. He sets the beer on the Formica counter. A perfect head. At the urging of the customers, Gates pours himself a Busch. "When I drinks, it's usually whiskey," he remarks. Maybe the beer, with its curative powers, will soothe the bothersome toe, which could be a bunion or an ingrown toenail, he doesn't rightly know, though he does agree that he feels pretty darn lucky that the toe is his one serious ailment at age 105.

The retired East St. Louis police officer has been tending this bar in the far reaches of Centreville since 1937. That's 64 years of pouring drinks, making conversation, washing glasses, emptying ashtrays, sweeping up and gazing out the window at the rather stark environs of the Golden Garden. Located off Route 15/Missouri Avenue, Golden Garden is a settlement of African-Americans between East St. Louis and Belleville. Once known for its vegetable gardens and hog pens, the community was a good sight livelier when the horses were running at nearby Cahokia Downs (closed circa 1979) and nightclubs such as the Foxhole and the Gravel Pit advertised music, food and dancing. There are a few new two-story homes near the entrance at Pocket Road, with its small hand-painted sign that reads "Welcome to Golden Garden," though most of the 50 or 60 homes are extremely modest in appearance. Some have simply given up and fallen down; others have burned down and remain only as piles of charred rubble.

The earliest reference to Golden Garden in the archives of the St. Clair County Historical Society is from 1935 and involves the sale of a parcel of land there. "They advertised lots there very cheaply," recalls Shirley Hobson, 61, a librarian at the historical society, "and it became popular as a country town."

"It was a kind of hideaway, a country suburb of East St. Louis," says Eugene Redmond, 62, reigning poet laureate of East St. Louis and professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. "Some people had second homes there. Some people only had gardens. It was very common in East St. Louis during the '40s and '50s for people to have gardens in places other than where they lived. They'd have a plot of land that was leased or purchased, and they would go regularly and tend their gardens. It might be a common area that contained up to a dozen gardens, and you'd see people working them; then they'd go home. A lot of people had gardens in Golden Garden before they had homes, and some had gardens next to their homes."

Not to buck the trend, Walter Gates still tends a garden out back of the lounge, says he tills it himself each spring. "I grows all the vegetables I can," he says, adding, "Last year, I had 5- to 6-pound sweet potatoes." Although vegetables are happening in Golden Garden, pigs are passe. "Was a time when everybody out'chere had a hog," says Gates, warming to the porcine question. Gates, in fact, says he routinely kept about 20 hogs; indeed, near the confines of the current garden still stands -- barely -- the remains of a hog pen. But why hogs -- why not chickens or rabbits?

"Easy to raise," says Gates. "Profitable, too. When they got big enough, you'd take them to Hunter Packing and cash 'em in." But the packing houses -- Swift, Armour and Hunter -- all shut down and moved elsewhere as the National Stockyards, just north of East St. Louis, began to fade commercially in the '80s and finally died in the mid-'90s. Long before that, says Gates, the city of Centreville stopped the practice of raising hogs in Golden Garden. "Some disease got in amongst the hogs," he says.

Gates is a marvel of aging. Aside from his glasses, with their big, square frames, he has no sensory aids or prostheses. Well, maybe dentures, but they look natural. He hears fine without a hearing aid and is totally with the conversation. He says he quit driving eight years ago, and only then because "insurance was too high." Never mind -- he gets around just fine on his own two feet, thank you. He even stoops to pick up a pen that has fallen on the floor. Without audibly grunting. He could easily pass for a 75-year-old. "I think I'm a mighty lucky man," he says.

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