The Marvelous Mr. Gates

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

Apr 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

And even with all the years gone by like so many garden harvests, his memory is decent and reliable. It's just that so much of what there is to remember is gone. "Buster Wortman used to come in here," he says, referring to Frank "Buster" Wortman, the once-notorious member of the Chicago Mob (who reported to Sam Giancana) whose turf was East St. Louis. "I didn't know who he was, but once he introduced himself we got acquainted. High rollers would come in here looking for women. There used to be a house (brothel) down the street, but they tore that down. Ike and Tina Turner stopped here, had to be in the early '60s. They played at a big nightclub, not three miles from here. That place is now tore down."

Ditto for the Foxhole, a once-famous restaurant and nightclub that stood directly across the street from the Golden Garden Country Club and now is a very unremarkable vacant lot. "That closed down, oh, 10 years ago," says Gates. "Her husband died -- at least he got killed -- and she left the business and moved away." Gates pauses, adjusts his glasses. "All of them just about gone."

The door squeaks open. A shaft of light slashes the wall. A preteen boy with a long scar across his scalp walks in: "Can I have a sodee?"

"What kind?" asks Gates

"Any kind," says the kid, slapping some change on the counter.

"You may have enough left over for a pack of gum," remarks Gates.

"One of the cleanup boys," says Gates as the kid walks out. The bar's interior is clean and tidy, and Gates likes to keep up the appearance of the premises as well. "People drink, throw cans in the street along with old shoes and hats," says Gates. "I think they do it at night." This policing of the area not only gives the place an aura of respectability, it provides a few neighborhood kids with pocket change.

Walter Gates has always been an authority figure -- at least for as long as Eugene Redmond can recall. "The name rang throughout the community when I was a kid," he says. "Policemen were seen as mediators. They presided over the community like elders. Understand that this was during segregation, so that black police officers arrested only black people, and because we lived in a segregated society, most of us in the south end of East St. Louis lived closer to our policemen, our professionals. We interacted with them more than we would today. Gates, on top of being a policeman, was also a businessman. He owned an establishment, and that gave him an added boost, an image, a certain degree of clout. So if you owned a business, you were a central figure in the community, and if you were also a policeman, you were big."

If it hadn't been for the kindness of a neighbor, Gates might never have wound up on the force, for police officers have to be able to read wanted posters and write reports.

St. Louis has its share of former Mississippians, individuals or entire families moving up from the Delta region to find decent work at places such as Carter Carburetor, Scullin Steel and American Can. In 1921, like so many others, Gates left Mississippi for the lights of St. Louis. He worked at odd jobs for a while, and though he wanted better, he was hindered by a lack of education. One day, he recalls, a woman in his neighborhood asked him how far he had gone in school. "I told her I'd made it all the way through second grade," he says. She began tutoring him in reading and writing "out of the goodness of her heart, God bless her."

Somehow the military passed him by -- "I was too young for World War I, too old for World War II," he asserts jokingly. Gates says he got his job on the police force "through politics." His wife, Nevida "Silk" Gates, a committeewoman with a reputation for pulling in votes, was active in Republican politics in East St. Louis. In fact, it was Nevida who bought the property that was to become the Golden Garden Country Club. Walter and Nevida ran the lounge for years. "This was always a place where the neighborhood people can come and have a good time," he says. Gates retired from the force in 1962, and Nevida died in 1967. Since then, he's been a solo act behind the bar. "You hire someone to work for you, they steal more than they're worth," he says with a shrug. "I do it all myself."

Well, that's not quite true. Some of his children drop in from time to time to check up on him and bring provisions. Gates says he has 12 children by 12 different women -- which, if true, makes him the Benjamin Franklin of the East Side in terms of fecundity. One of his children happens to visit with her two daughters this very afternoon. Sandra Calhoun, 38, a nurse's assistant, only stays for a few minutes, though long enough to remark on her father's vim. "He'll climb the ladder and get up on the roof," she says, shaking her head in amazement. "Anything needs to be fixed, he's going to fix it. Dad never got old to us," she adds. "He was always old."

Older, in fact, than he thought he was. Back in February, just before Gates' 100th birthday, his friends and family had planned a big celebration with a parade and lots of fanfare. But that month another daughter, June Vardiman, checking into her dad's Social Security records, discovered that Gates had been born in 1895 and not 1900 as he had thought. Gates took the news philosophically. After all, what's five more years when you're already at the tippy-top of the longevity charts?

"It must be true," concedes Gates, explaining that he grew up in rural Mississippi, one of 10 children, and the record of who begat whom and the pertinent dates were inscribed in the family Bible. "A preacher borrowed that Bible," says Gates, "and the bastard never brought it back." So the records were lost -- to the family, anyway. Uncle Sam kept track, however.

So Gates kept on, living throughout the 20th century and at the cusps of two others. On Feb. 28, the 105th anniversary of his nativity, he was given a parade in East St. Louis, which lasted two hours and, with a caravan of 30 cars, ended up at the lounge. Many stayed for drinks and carried on until the early hours. "I rode in a white limousine from one of Carl Officer's funeral parlors. It was first-class all the way," says Gates, "the best time I ever had in my life." And that's saying a lot.

"The parade was beautiful," says East St. Louis Police Chief J.W. Cowan. "We left the police department here, where he worked for a number of years, and made our way out to his place. Mr. Gates did have exemplary service while he was here, and it was an honor and a pleasure to have one of our police officers return at a ripe old age like that. As you know, most of the old guard are gone."

On a subsequent visit to the Golden Garden Country Club, Gates' step has lost its hitch. The bad toe has stopped being angry. Turns out he was wearing his shoes too tight, so his daughter Sandra took him to the shoe store and got him a new pair of comfy shoes. That fixed the problem. "They give me a really nice walk," says Gates, beaming.