I spent every night at the Washoe House, playing cribbage with the bartender, between my sophomore and junior years of college, although I was only 20 — too young to drink legally. Tony didn’t care. He and I drank Old-fashioneds all evening, and he never charged me. Tony believed college kids shouldn’t have to buy drinks, although I was the only “kid” I ever saw there. Most of the time, there was just Tony, who slept in the backroom; Rose, the cook, and me.
The Washoe House served chicken and steak dinners that were as good as any you could get in Sonoma County, better than any you could get in nearby Petaluma, where I’d grown up, and it was an historical landmark. President Grant had spent a night there when it was a stage stop, and Black Bart reputedly drank there, possibly after he’d robbed the stage at Duncans Mills.
Tony had gone to high school with my father, but it was difficult to believe. My father worried about everything, and he never drank. Tony drank constantly, and never worried. He claimed to have a black belt in judo and talked about being a bush pilot in Alaska, but Tony had a vivid imagination. He kept saying, “My life makes Stud Lonigan’s look like nothin’. You should write a book about me.”
I prided myself on being a good cribbage player, but Tony won four out of five games and the cards seemed to blur when he dealt. Maybe it was the Old-fashioneds.
One night Tony shot a customer off a bar stool when he was demonstrating his fast draw. The pistol had belonged to a deputy sheriff who'd left it there when he was drunk, so the shooting made all the papers. Tony said, “I brought the guy a box of candy when he was in the hospital, but he didn’t want it.”
Another night, a tired looking man in his mid-40s came into the bar when I was there. He ordered a beer, interrupting our game. Tony studied him for a moment. The guy was wearing a wrinkled suit, and his tie was loose at the collar. He was probably a salesman who’d had a bad day. Tony yelled, “What the hell do you think this is, a beer joint? Get out of here,” then he dealt another hand.
I still go to the Washoe House when I'm in Petaluma, although Tony died years ago. (Part of a recent Clint Eastwood movie, True Crime, was filmed there.) These days, the owners serve buffalo burgers and steaks, and they don’t yell at customers who order beer.
I tried living in Petaluma for seven years during the 90s, but there were too many people in too small a space. It wasn't a happy place, but maybe that was just my perception. Maybe I wanted it to be the way it had been in the 50s.
I missed the Green Mill restaurant on the old highway, which had been owned by my girlfriend's parents, missed the State and California Theaters, and the Chinese restaurant next to the Petaluma River. I missed the chickens and the Jewish intellectuals who raised them. (Film critic Pauline Kael's parents had been chicken farmers, and she'd been born down the road from my high school home.) I missed the insurance man who'd had an office next to Andresen's Bar and spent his days there, writing policies, and the judge who'd been arrested for being drunk when he'd come out of the bar one afternoon. (Tony was an Andresen, but his family had exiled him to the country.) Everyone in Andresen's said Judge Webb had been as sober as, well, a judge, and the case was dismissed. I missed the carpenter who'd come back from Korea, changed, and the hours I'd spent with him, drinking beer at the Hide Away on Kentucky Street. Two cops locked themselves in their car one night when Clyde was on a rampage.
I didn't miss the cop who'd asked me if I'd driven by the hospital, then gave me a ticket for going through a stop sign when I told him I had. The cop and I were both driving new Pontiacs, but he was so stupid he said I was driving a Buick on the citation. Judge Webb let me off when I pointed that out in court. Later, the cop killed himself with his police revolver.
I even missed the green brothel next to the railroad tracks with its ludicrous closed sign hanging on the front door. Everyone knew the place was in business. I still find myself looking for landmarks that no longer exist, like Old Eben Flood in the poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, when I return to Petaluma, but everything changes. Maybe that's how it's supposed to be, but I don't have to like it.