Gary Sosnick Detroit 2010




2.  Eugene "Toots" Johnson (1909-1987)

First of all, let's get the pronunciation of his name correct. It is not Toots as in "toot your horn." And it is not Toots as in "King Tut." Instead it is somewhere in between; it is Toots, like when you would call out to some babe, "Hey Toots!"

As the above obituary correctly points out, a variety of clientele, known as regulars, passed through the doors of the bathhouse on a weekly basis. Once everyone shed their street clothes for a toga sheet, you couldn't tell how wealthy or infamous anybody was. But it was always a good idea to treat everyone with respect, unless you didn't mind getting fitted for a pair of cement overshoes. As young college-age men, we always erred on the safe side and called everyone mister, unless we knew we could get away on a first name basis. Many of the regulars had very musical names, like Louie Newman, Chickie Sherman, Louie LaHood, or Leonard Krolicki (no connection between them). Nonetheless, we addressed them all as mister. On the other hand, patrons whose names began with a city, Toledo Tony for example, we merely called by their christian names.

On the pecking order, we, as young know-nothings were at the bottom, while Toots was at the top, ranked above everyone else. Everyone treated Toots with respect because not only had he seen all there was to see in the last 45 years at the bathhouse (and kept quiet about it), but he cooked our food, and you never want to anger the man who cooks your food. Toots remembered exactly how everyone wanted their food prepared, and some of these people could be very demanding.

In the above photo, Toots is standing just inside his kitchen. Along the left edge of the picture is a sliding door refrigerator. This was the only part of the kitchen where we were given a free reign, since this is where the Atlas soda pop (local to Detroit) and pressurized New York seltzer bottles were kept. Our favorite Atlas pop was black-cherry in 32-ounce bottles which we would occasionally dilute with seltzer. Behind Toots on the shelf above his work table is his radio which was always tuned to Detroit Tiger baseball games narrated by Ernie Harwell. From the looks of it, Toots is getting ready to add another pop to one of our bills.

Toots was generally even tempered, although he was capable of putting someone in their place. Toots got very mad the time he caught Dick Brown spitting into an empty pop bottle. He also got very mad the time some newspaper reporter tried to tie him in with the Purple Gang (local Jewish mobsters from the 1930s). Toots, like most people, did not like being ordered around. We never demanded from Toots--we politely asked. The maddest we ever saw Toots get was the time some punk newcomer called him "boy." Well, that was no way to address a World War II Pacific theater veteran. Toots, a big and muscular man, picked up this jackass by the back of his shirt-collar and trousers, and placed him face first, squarely into a wall. Each of us never left the bathhouse without giving Toots at least a $2 tip (even if he didn't cook for us), and most of the big shooters tipped Toots commensurate with their social standing.

Toots may have been a bachelor, but he sure had a lot of girlfriends. I know that because they were always coming to the bathhouse door at all hours of the day. Answering the doorbell to see a woman looking for Toots was a common sight. Toots' best male friend was a little fellow named W.B., who owned an old station wagon, always wore a pork-pie hat, and occasionally smelled of liquor. Toots liked W.B., therefore we did too. There was always a bathhouse dog. Bernard was the first dog and Queenie came along after Bernard died from years of over-eating. They barked at everyone that Toots told them to bark at, but they never barked at anyone making a food delivery, other than to notify Toots.

Toots was a dignified, proper man. As cook and manager, he held his head high. His respect throughout the neighborhood was well deserved. And the fact that he daily encountered many influential people, did not go unnoticed outside the baths. But his head never swelled, and he was at ease whether talking to us, the neighbors, or the more well-heeled bathhouse patrons. He treated all of us evenly and was as happy to see us, as we were to see him.

Toots used to pronounce my name as GAY-rih. I can see him standing before me as if it was just yesterday. I miss Toots.

In the incredibly rare photo above, we see W.B. driving around in his station wagon on Melbourne Street, the street that borders the north side of the bathhouse. This picture accurately shows the style of neighborhood homes that surrounded the bathhouse. There were no driveways between houses, although there were alleys between each street. Some homes had garages behind them, accessible via the alley.

TYPICAL TOOTS DAY

4:00 AM - Wake up, open chimney damper, light steam room gas jets, then back to sleep.
6:00 AM - Wake up to sound of doorbell, open front door for pumpernickel bread delivery.
7:00 AM - Open front door for Atlas pop delivery.
8:00 AM - Start preparing food for the day. Food deliveries throughout day.
9:00 AM - Time to make an oak leaf plaitza broom if leaves are available.
10:00 AM - Shut off steam room gas jets, close damper, rocks are now sufficiently heated.
11:00 AM - First clients of day arrive looking for steam. Steam room oven doors opened.
12:00 PM - Lunch crowd arrives.
2:00 PM - Post-lunch bathhouse quiets down for afternoon. Nap in chair possible.
3:30 PM - We arrive looking for steam. Have steam room to ourselves.
5:00 PM - Evening crowd starts arriving.
6:00 PM - First dinner is served.
9:00 PM - Kitchen closed.
11:00 PM - Last straggler leaves bathhouse. Go to bed.

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