By Neal Pollack
Dorothy and Ernest Doubek have been married for 50 years. During that time they've developed a healthy disdain for each other. One day in 1948 Dorothy was walking down 18th Street and spotted a woman struggling with a package. She helped her carry the box upstairs, opened the door, and there was her son Ernie, Dorothy says, "grouchy as ever." They wed soon after that, largely on the strength of a beautiful engagement diamond. "What was I thinking?" Dorothy says. "Nuttin' penetrated my head."
The Doubeks are the proprietors of A & K Hardware, which is on the south side of 18th just east of Ashland. Their rusted brown metal sign hangs over the sidewalk; it says they sell paint, electrical supplies, and enamel, but that's only partially true. The store is mostly full of boxes, some containing hardware, some not. Within the store's spacious interior are hose nozzles, door joints, oil filters, pliers, hammers, tin cutters, lightbulbs, wood putty, Krazy Glue, paint rollers, and miniature plungers. Approximately twice a year the Doubeks go to a wholesaler and purchase back stock, which they then try to sell at a profit.
They're not particularly concerned with money. Ernie collects a pension from his old job in a Board of Education warehouse on Pershing Road. They own their building and live in an apartment above the store. When they purchased the business in 1970 from the Kvasnickas, a neighborhood Polish family, the Doubeks left the name Kvasnicka on the front door. Dorothy says they were hoping city inspectors would leave them alone. They also neglected to remove the large red sign above the cash register that reads "Furniture Dept." At one time there actually was a furniture department, Ernie says. "This used to be the biggest store in the world of automobile batteries."
The Doubeks engage in a constant bicker.
Dorothy: "Where were you the last three hours?"
Ernie: "Upstairs. I don't want any food."
"My stomach is...screwed up."
"I got a break! Free! Free at last!"
"Just make me a piece of meat. That's it."
"I thought I was free."
"One little piece. So I can get some amino acids."
"Oh, brother! I'm leaving now. Parting is such sweet sorrow."
"That I shall say good night till it be morrow."
"Oh, shut up."
Dorothy is in her mid-70s. Short and lively, she moves with a pent-up energy. She wears thick glasses and spends most of her days behind the counter watching talk shows on a small black-and-white television set. She also attends to her two dogs: a shaggy, elderly one that doesn't move much and a younger, more excitable runt with a special dislike for solicitors. She swims 45 minutes a day at Harrison Park, occasionally shops downtown with other Bohemian women from the neighborhood, and attends church on Sundays. Until recently, she was a devoted member of Saint Procopius, but switched to a smaller Croatian church because she liked the food better at its Sunday buffet.
Ernie spends most of his time upstairs, reading, playing solitaire, watching the stock ticker on TV, and drinking an occasional beer. At 85, he's grown used to his own company. He enjoyed hanging out at a paint store across the street. When that place closed, he settled for a submarine shop. And after the shop moved to Belmont Avenue, he migrated to the liquor store next door.
He walks with a rubber-tipped cane that he taps on the counter to intimidate strangers. He often wears a captain's hat pushed back on his head, and his expression is always sour. His eyes are his most striking feature; the lower lids sag so severely they appear to be rimmed with blood. Ernie exults in his appearance, figuring it gives him a leg up on the squeamish. Dorothy, though, is not intimidated. "I got your number," she tells him.
Ernie's thick white mustache makes him resemble actor Richard Farnsworth, who's currently appearing in the film The Straight Story. Ernie, however, knows him from The Grey Fox. "The year that movie came out, I walked into the Fine Arts Building, and they thought I was him," Ernie says. "They salaamed and all that bullshit. They gave me popcorn." Since then, he's displayed a poster from the movie in the store's front window. It's the only permanent exhibit in a revolving array of items that has included several antique washboards and newspaper headlines about great World War II air battles. Currently he's showing an ice pick, a toilet brush, and a collection of taillamps from 1930s cars.
In years past, Ernie says, he was well-known as the Mayor of 12th Street Beach. He'll gladly recount his reign.
"I was the Mayor of 12th Street Beach!"
"Oh, he'll give you the baloney!" Dorothy says. "Oh boy, when he starts! I know him. I'm living with him too long!"
"By acclamation. All the captains over there have to say 'your honor,' whether they like it or not."
"Hoo boy! That's rich!"
From there, Ernie will usually launch into a long monologue that's hard to follow, though it moves with a sort of internal logic. It may span several decades and at least two continents. Though it's always autobiographical, it will also draw elements from history books and assorted nature programs on TV. Ernie's fond of quoting such poets as Rudyard Kipling as well as lyrics from songs that were popular before the invention of the electric guitar.
"Days of yore, no more, no more," Ernie begins.
He bends down in front of his cane. Walking around the store, blowing dust off the counters, he waves his finger when he makes an important point. Interruptions are not allowed, except by Dorothy.
"To begin with, I'm 85 years old. That means I had enough time to glean some sensible knowledge. Not versed in the art of barristry, which, translated, means you're a barrister. And everything you talk about is divisive, whatever that means. Divisive means bullshit. A bullshitter that is trying to stir up the pot..."
"Ehh! Will you listen to that?"
An hour passes. Ernie's mind moves back to World War II and beyond.
"Before I was 17 years old, I covered all the coasts. With not a nickel. There's a difference between a hobo and a bum. One will work and the other will not. He's useless, like a tit on a male. So that's about it. But only the tip of the iceberg. I went from Chicago to New York in 48 hours without a nickel. I slept on the Bowery floor. When real beer used to be made. Blah, blah, blah, blah. I'd be careful what you use."
"I could go on until the end of time," he says. "I'll ramble forever. But that's only the tip of the iceberg."
"You see this?" Dorothy asks. "You see what I have to put up with? You know anybody who wants an old man? I got one right here. All for nuttin'. Everything else is mine. I'll tie a yellow ribbon around him! That old grouch? He's miserable! You can have him!"
Dorothy says Ernie's been getting worse. He has grown a beard and refuses to shave. "He's too set in his ways," she says. "I can't take him anymore."
"She's only a bird in a gil-ded cage," Ernie sings, "a beautiful sight to see..."
"Who needs you?" Dorothy says.
Ernie climbs a ladder and attempts to hang some plastic brooms from the ceiling. "I'm going to sell them for two-something," he says.
"What's two-something?" she says.
"I don't know, you sonofabitch."
"You motherfucker," Dorothy says. "I didn't use to curse, but he taught me to talk like that. He's getting real bad, real bad. I saw yesterday on Oprah's program about people who have Alzheimer's disease. He's getting that way. He asked me the other day, 'Is it Thanksgiving?'"
"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, true..."
"I thought, who is this guy?"
"I hear music when I look at you. Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart.... This store was born in 1885. Batteries used to be made here in wooden boxes. And next door. The furniture department. You name it. I am the Mayor of 12th Street Beach. My name is Ernie. All the police have to say 'your honor.' All the lifeguards have to say 'your honor.' Since 1938. Blah, blah, blah..."
Ernie peers out the front window. "I will now quote from 'The Children's Hour' by Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow," he says.
"Oh, brother!" says Dorothy.
"Forever and a day 'till the walls shall crumble to ruin..."
"He's terrible! He's terrible!"
"Shall crumble!" Ernie shouts melodramatically. "To ruin! And molder in dust away!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.