The King’s Hotel

Danny O'KeefeHistorical Perspective, HP, Random Musings, Short Stories

Let’s take a little stroll down Concord Street from the corner of Grand Avenue, kitty-corner from the Stockyards National Bank where one day in the 1930’s John Dillinger rolled down the window of his getaway car and asked my grandmother, Nana to us, Cecile K. Dohan to the rest of the world, the proper directions to pursue. Nana was too polite not to answer and probably didn’t know who he was until reading the papers the next day. I mean she knew his name and all that but the firm visage was not embedded and she was satisfied that he had had a nice smile and was polite. They were evidently directions good and straight as he was able to evade all pursuers that day and for a period until his encountering the infamous “Woman In Red”.

We’re outside the drugstore and we’ll just saunter down to the middle of the block where if we didn’t know we’d be put to some task not to pass by the entrance to the King’s Hotel. The sign on the doorway said it all, of course, but this was not the Best Western or even Hotel 6. This was a place that a certain clientele knew well, and the rest of the world would have to discover on their own, by word of mouth, or not. This was the hotel that my grandmother ran through what would be thought of as her mature years.

She was my grandmother, of course, so to me she was always ancient and intimidating. Even in her younger years she had a bearing, almost regalness, that came from being informed that the kind of Irish she was were equal to any class or people in the world and were, in fact, the quality of greatness that had raised the stature of America to its present praise, this being the end of the Forties. She has something other than beauty in a younger picture as the mother and her girls, my mother Dorothy (Dody), Kathleen (Bitsy), and Janice, who got no second appellation from older sisters. She wears a mask that, though very cool, betrays a fire within that could scorch were certain manners and etiquette not observed on all sides.

She had married my grandfather, Jeremiah Chrysostom Dohan, Jerry Dohan, a stockman to his bones and a man with enough daring and skill that many women must have spread their electromagnetic nets of attraction in vain hopes. My grandmother reluctantly would admit to the attention he could draw upon entering a room. I don’t know the details, I surmise from scraps that have been left in the detritus of Time: photographs, faintly recalled conversations and discussions at the table or in the car, but mostly the eidetic voices and visuals brought back by photos. My grandfather was from a Canadian farming and livestock-owning family in Richmond, Quebec, a cowboy in a place where that term did not carry the same meaning as it did to those regarding the horsemen of the West. He knew cattle, pigs and sheep, but mainly horses and cattle in that great trans-phyla affair we have had on the planet as mounted warriors and herders.

He had acquired a weakness of the lungs in the cold, wet climate of Quebec and so was sent in his youth, or teens as we’ve decadedly come to refer to this period in our lives, to Wyoming. I know not where or to whom. Wyoming was deemed the dry kind of climate to heal him and the skills he would continue to acquire in the world of cattle raising would be invaluable. It did, and was. He learned many things in the Wyoming West that successively raise and lower him throughout his life. He learned to put a herd together and to get them to their proper weight for wealth in the proper time and co-incision of the most opportune market movements. He could do it with pigs and sheep but they carried no romance or mystery compared to the hybrids of beef.

He was skilled as a horseman and prided himself on his knowledge of horse flesh, although that seems an inappropriate description for the relationship that becomes a rider and a mount. The truth, when words are largely gotten out of the way, is that it is at its best, yoga. The shifting of weight and balance, the soft urging from the hands and the intention of the eyes create a symbiosis of skill and feeling that, in its elegance and serious use, is beauty to behold. Riding properly is something all should learn at a reasonable age. The appreciation of elegance in another life form and the mastery of that symbiotic balance, to whatever degree attained, is a character-building exercise that strengthens and gentles at the same time, and is never forgotten. Better to have learned proper collection, impulsion, and the half pass than to have mastered the cursive hand.

Jerry Dohan learned other things in the Wyoming West, although that was certainly not an exclusive domain. Even a young man with a proclivity to the weak lung learns the curses and benefits of a smoke, whether in practicing the art of rolling a cigarette from a sack of Bull Durham one-handed in a wind, mounted and with a restless herd about you; or the slow, almost meditative practice of preparing and lighting a cigar in significance of everything. And to learn, as well, how to drink effectively as a sign to other men that one has embraced the harsh stridency of Life and is prepared to and, in fact, has already assessed the forces arrayed against oneself and is constructing the most logical ramparts in defense. A good stiff one and once again into the breach. It is faux bravery at best, but it has its historical cache. One selects blindly from the bag of Manliness and repeats the experience based on the value of the selection and its outcome. Riding, smoking, drinking, gambling, the manner of bearing and the self-support gained from one’s own skills at the martial and financial arts. And one other: Women: Of both the Beau and the Demi Mondes. The exquisiteness, the sensualness of the Curving Rib. And beheld, Adam quickly began to consider dismounting, getting himself a good stiff one, lighting a smoke and taking a deep consideration for the amount he was willing to risk. I am sure, though that in no mode other than instinct, Jeremiah C. Dohan consorted and absorbed all the elements and contents of the mysterious bag of Manliness before encountering Cecille Marie King.

Nana knew a thing or two about horses as her father had raised carriage stock at Coat’s Station, down the river from St. Paul. The family was stock men and women and knew well the world of animal protein and transportation. Striders, though. Not content to merely raise cattle, whose prices rose or fell with the vagaries of the market, they raised breeding animals and carriage horses and eventually their sense of entrepreneurism led them to purchase a building in South Saint Paul that became the King’s Hotel and had a restaurant on the street floor that passed from operation after World War Two.

The King’s knew well their clientele, drovers mainly. Men who brought the herds of livestock to the market carrying their bosses’ hopes that a reasonable profit could be obtained and that few animal deaths had occurred in transit as well as no disease. Upon delivery of their loads these men would be in certain need of bath, bed, and a good hot meal, not necessarily in that order but those three were at the top of the list regardless of the urgency of others.

Let’s go in. And up. The King’s Hotel, for the most part, occupies the second floor of a building from the 1860’s. Feel the round newel cap, polished by so many hands steadying their holders as they glance up the long flight of thirty or so steps to the top of the stairs. There’s a skylight at the top so as never to appear too “dark at the top of the stairs”. Come up, you are welcome. Those stairs are a Jacob’s Ladder and a challenge of fortitude for the rest and cleanliness that awaits at the top. Assuming you can pass the test administered by the Angel of Discernment: Nana.

Nana occupied the apartment adjacent to the stairs and would greet you at any hour as you had rung the bell. You would have to pass her muster, however. She would look you down from your removed hat or cap, into your eyes, assess the state of your clothing and rest her gaze on the condition of your brogans or your boots. And here is the moment the regular clientele dreaded and the unsuspecting probationer knew not awaited. If you hadn’t the consideration, the wisdom or the state of mind to have removed the soils of treading from your footware, and had, indeed, tracked this refuse from the world outside the door of the King’s Hotel inside and up the stairs you were now in a state edging itself to the lip of purgatory and readying itself for a sharp slide to greater depths.

I used to spell Nana as the greeter of these gentlemen. (Almost invariably the clientele were men, although sometimes a man would bring his wife and she would have to pass even stricter litmus, but would be welcomed once she did. No woman of ill repute was ever, knowingly, allowed entry. I gained great respect and admiration for her observing and appreciating the test of life that running this establishment was.

One night a man from Iowa announced himself through the bell at the door. I had been studying and dosing as I could barely stay awake but not wanting Nana to get up I did my best to remain attentive to footfalls on the steps. I answered the bell to find a tall man waiting to rent a room for the evening. He appeared to have been drinking but was doing his level best to be appropriate. I was going through the room selection when my grandmother arrived to greet the gentleman. Nana liked most of the regular customers and had visited with them over the years and knew their lives. She considered herself kin to stockmen and she remained proud and familiar to it. This gentleman, however, had missed his mark this evening. No sooner had Nana greeted the man with a “How do?” than she looked down to notice that his boots were still retaining the remnants of bovine fecality from the yards. Her Irish ire rose like lightening and she fired fuselages of disdain and disgust that a person of his lack of discernment and character had dared climb the stairs in that condition.

The drover, towering over my grandmother, was cowed, nay sheeped, to his depths. He was told in certain terms to take the broom (at the bottom of the stairs) and to sweep any trace of his disrespect from those steps and to clean his boots prior to that or to never darken the door of the King’s Hotel again. “Yes, Mrs. Dohan, oh, I’m so sorry Mrs. Dohan, I’ll, I’ll…” and down the stairs and up and down and up again, boots in hand, as contrite as an alter boy caught in the cruet. Her opprobrium simmered a moment and cooled and the room was let amidst more contrition and an understanding on both subjects’ parts that this was a respectable establishment and in so being was a valuable asset to a weary traveler, and, as such, should be highly appreciated. It was. The man from Iowa went to his bed sobered and thankful that a woman of character equal to any his family had known had put him back upon the straight road.

For a boy alive with the lore and lure of the West the hotel had a certain charm and mystery, but I had come with my parents (or by myself some summers) to be released into the welcoming world of my cousins and Lake City. I lived with their memory and eagerly awaited my return to them. I was an only child made even “onlier” by my parents’ love of camping, fishing, hunting and the places numbered more by animals than people. It always seemed to me that every available weekend was taken up by excursions into the wild surrounds of, at first, Spokane, and then Wenatchee. My mother was a desultory fisher, as was I. I rambled in a world of fantasy imagining the forest peopled by Indian shadows in my hunter’s pursuit of the wily chipmunk. Best never to catch the little bastards if you value your digits, though.

Frank, however, was a fisher, in depth. He tied his own flies, made his own rods, and, in general, would succumb completely to the rivers and streams and their inhabitants, triumphantly opening a burgeoning creel to the awed appreciators both my mother and I were. Hunting was a different story, however.

I can still get the faint scent recall of a deer in the midst of skinning, hoisted via block and tackle in the garage. It is not a bad smell but an essential one: This is what life in death and of intended consumption is like. We will honor the creature by preserving his rack of horns; by tanning his hide to make gloves with or simply to cherish as a soft piece of skin; and we will consume his flesh over a winter’s time in gratefulness, if not in complete gastronomic delight. The art of cooking venison is that, an art. I never felt that my mother appreciated its uniqueness and always regarded it as something akin to wild beef, which it most certainly is not. Venison can be delightful if slowly cooked with considerable marination but fried in a pan like a steak? No.

The hunting of deer was embedded in the mythic for my father, Frank. I never got it and I don’t get it now. Blame Walt Disney and his damn Bambi. My first deer, at eight years old, was one I wounded and my father finished on the run. I don’t really recall it, although I had the small set of taxidermied horns for many years. I do recall the second, and last, deer, though.

My father had arranged with Henry Gaul, an owner of a local insurance agency, to have a seat in the four-wheeled Jeep when next he went hunting. His son, much older than I, and taciturn to the point of being speechless, would be going along, as well: A Fathers and Sons outing in pursuit of wily ruminants. They were Mule Deer in these parts. We were well on our way before the crack of dawn, the middle of the night, really. There was no sleeping in this open Jeep with the cold wind all around us as we drove up into the highlands above the Columbia River onto private lands, permission to enter which had been obtained or was understood. There was a dourness of anticipation in the air. No one spoke much. No joking. Henry Gaul’s son disdained my presence regardless of any kind overtures I made. He had a bad hand, as we said. A hand that was the result of birth or congenital defect of some sort. He was highly able, in spite of the handicap and could lever and shoot his rifle with skill and accuracy and skin an animal like an Argentine gaucho. My lack of skills and experience were obvious and this was a trial by firing and endurance. It all blurs, in any case: The sitting there waiting for panic-ed bucks to come running up a gully or across an incline where a clean line of fire could obtain. Plenty of candy bars and sandwiches. Good down clothing. Still it was cold. And tedious.

We hear shots in the distance and in a moment there is a six-point buck on the bound, pausing a moment at seeing us and then back into full acceleration. I’m urged quickly to lead him with my sighting, to take a big breath and squeeze the trigger slowly. All this is passing in dream time, almost suspended animation, frames slowly edging by. I fire. A hit but he keeps moving. I fire again. And again, and again. I empty my 30-30 Winchester into this hapless creature. And he’s down. And dead. Henry Gaul and his son are up and running toward the newly lifeless creature with a knowledge I don’t yet possess: I have “gut shot” my poor prey.

Quickly, Henry Gaul castrates the animal and slices the scent glands from the back legs. We must not have wasted this life and allowed its meat to become tainted or contaminated. This done we gut it in what is called “field dressing”. A complete dressing/skinning will occur later but for now the meat is safe from all but a few hardy flies. We carry the carcass to the jeep and secure it. I don’t know if we waited then for chance and luck to bring us another victim or whether we left triumphant. I am a blur here. Something deep within me is wrenching and writhing in disgust and sadness that can’t be allowed out of its corner of the room. I have been Manly in my boyhood. I have killed. I have downed a creature running from slaughter in stark panic so that I can be of more value to myself and others, as a hunter, a bringer of meat to the table. Damn. Why don’t we just go down to Dusty’s and get a bag of burgers? It’d be more fun.

Frank is proud of me, though, even if the Gauls, father and son, regard me as defective, beyond neophitity and completely incompetent. They thought I knew how to shoot and I have gut shot this poor creature to its death. It must be said in my favor and score that I did put a round in its chest but it was insufficient for the kill. Bambi is dead in any case. I would be well into my Forties before I tasted venison again.

Let’s return to the King’s Hotel to get a better sense of the style and accommodations. I mentioned, its construction dated from the 1870’s period but I don’t really know its history, only ours in it. It was an old building in any case, but meticulously kept. The women came every morning to scrub and clean it, wash the bed clothes and, in general, make sure that it was a place where they, or anyone they had ever known, would be comfortable resting. Nothing fancy. When you needed a clean, safe place to lay yourself down or get off the street or highway for a while the King’s Hotel would do.

You could have doffed several historical styles of costume and felt appropriately ensconced there. There were no showers in the rooms, at least not in the original building (a new, more modern addition was added in the Fifties, more to accommodate couples and to grant greater privacy to individuals). For your shower you went to a communal room and I can’t clearly recall if there was a tub to accommodate those in need of a soaking. I doubt it. There was a separate shower that women could use, or the family. Nana had a tub in her private bathroom and women guests might be allowed its use but for the most part there was the shower. The rooms were high-ceilinged, had vanities, a chair or two and a serviceable bed. Nothing fancy. No one stayed there long, save family, and we only on occasion.

There was a tall, mirrored chair and coat rack in the hall that had a special hiding place under the seat that I always thought added a certain charm. The occasional book or a few periodicals might find their way there but usually it was empty. There were single rooms, double rooms, dormitories both up and down in the basement, if all you needed was a place to crash and you hadn’t the price for the next level up. My room was at the back by the porch that overlooked a green space that was not really a yard or a garden. I came to this room as part of my great transition from child to man.

I was sixteen and had come to Minnesota in mid-August to be enrolled in Cretin High School, a Catholic R.O.T.C. private school run by the Christian Brothers. My father was being devoured by multiple myeloma and my mother was being driven into distraction by the stress of trying to keep going. We were being taken in. By family.

The depth of my ache and sorrow are still palpable to me, even after all these years. I was wrenched from my base and my friends, and those I loved or was learning to love, and set onto an island in the midst of a festering pustule of meat trading. All I really had was the radio for consolation. It burned into me in that room, the lights out, all but the one inside that beaconed to any, and all. “Sleep Walk”, “In the Still of the Night”, “Long Lonely Nights”, all those beautiful doo-wop songs and the relief of the early rock and roll. We marry ourselves to the music of our times, never to forget. No divorce is ever truly possible, for when the strains of a song that has consoled us or moved us into the erotic depths of desire ripples across the airwaves, we succumb.

I was waiting not only to start school in a strange place, regardless of the family history involved in both the region and the dwelling, but also waiting for the loose ends of a life to be tied, a house sold and proper preparations made to send the meager belongings of our lives to Minnesota. I would take the train back to Wenatchee in October and drive my parents back to South Saint Paul. This was my responsibility at sixteen and all seemed convinced of my capability.

Even a short time away from someone who is dying points up the moment of time that speeds blindingly and imperceptibly. I was now taller than my father. You can see me trying to be “manly” in the photograph and my father and mother smiling gamely. The picture is taken by a neighbor I don’t really know, and the neighbor’s two girls are included in the picture, undoubtedly as time markers for the memento. One of the girls, grown to womanhood, sends me the picture many years later.

We are un-anchoring our roots and preparing to blow into the wind of an uncertain future. We have loaded our Ford with everything that remains at the last minute that is considered too dear to discard. All else is gone. It is approximately noon as I watch the few neighbors wave us goodbye in the rearview mirror. We have scheduled our first day’s drive so we can be in Spokane for the first night where we will splurge and stay, one last time, in the Davenport Hotel, a legend of the Inland Empire. It languored for decades until revived and rebuilt, refurbished, etc. in the last of the 20th Century. Long may it stand. We savor this memory and all those accompanying it. In the morning we drive on through Idaho, into Montana, fields and forests of memory rising to us.

We stop periodically, and as needed, to give my father shots of Demerol. Some of this journey may be sentimental but mostly it is the husbanding of pain as we re-cross the path we have found and measured many times distancing between our homes: Mine in Washington and theirs, in Minnesota. They are going home. Frank especially. To the King’s Hotel.