The Night Before A President Died

Pat Kirkwood with one of his waitresses during the good-time days of the Cellar in Fort Worth.

What were secret service agents doing at the wildest nightclub in town? Find out in an excerpt from my Memoir of Sorts, The Man Who Talks to Strangers.

PAT KIRKWOOD COULD turn a dime into a dollar and keep the dime. He walked down the staircase into his own personal tavern, an all-night beatnik coffee house wedged into a dark cellar beneath a downtown Fort Worth hotel.

All he could see in the dim light were bodies lying on cushions beside small coffee tables, and the music made the walls vibrate around him. The drums were deafening, and the amp for the electric guitar had been turned up as loud as it would go. Johnny Carroll was behind the microphone, screaming an assortment of jazz and blues, and a slump-shouldered black gentleman, King George Cannibal Jones, was pounding out a hard rhythm on a fifty-five-gallon oil drum.

The music would go on all night, from dark to dawn, or even longer if someone had a dollar to spend and a tip for the waitresses. The room was a curious concoction of stark black and white. Someone had painted on one wall: “You must be weird, or you wouldn’t be here,” and on another, “Evil spelled backward is live.”

Pat Kirkwood frowned when he saw the men seated up front, crowded around the bandstand. He slowly counted them. There were ten in all. They were new, at least new to him. They weren’t part of the usual crowd of night crawlers who came to the Cellar solely because it possessed an alcoholic hint of sin, sinners, and scandal. If there had been a bad side to Sodom and Gomorrah, it would have resided in the back corner of the Cellar. 202

Kirkwood did not serve alcohol. Texas did not permit liquor by the drink in 1963. But if you brought your bottle, he would sell you ice and mixers, and he was known to slip a little 190 proof Everclear into the glasses of VIPs and special guests and those who desperately needed a pick me up or had nightmares they were trying to forget and truth they wanted to outrun.

“Who are the guys in the suits,” he whispered to Dubber, his bouncer.

“Beats me.”

“How long they been here?”

“Since before midnight.”

“They drinking?”

“They brought their own.”

Kirkwood frowned. “They’re hustling the girls,” he said.

“Everybody hustles the girls,” Dubber said. “That’s why you have the girls.”

Kirkwood could not deny it. A lot of places sold ice and mixers. A lot of places had live music. A lot of places had girls. His took their clothes off. Well, they weren’t naked in the Biblical sense, but they were close enough.

They did come to work, promptly strip down to their bras and panties, grab a tray, and start waiting tables. Tips, they noticed, were in direct proportion to the amount of skin that showed beyond the lace.

White skin.

Black lace.

The combination fit the décor perfectly.

Kirkwood simply hired pretty girls. The darkness made them beautiful. A drink or two made them sexy. The music could sometimes make them dance. And often, God forbid, a bra fell off somewhere between verses. A lot of girls worked their way through Texas Christian University with bras draped daintily around their shoulders or hanging loose and seductive around their necks.

The suits were tipping big. By now their coats were wrinkled. Their ties had been loosened. Their white shirts had a stain or two of spilled whiskey. One wanted to dance.

“Don’t let him dance,” Kirkwood told Dubber.

Dubber grinned. Crowd control was his specialty.

One look at Dubber’s face, and the suit lost his urge to dance.

Of course, he was having trouble standing, and the hard rock music was so loud the floor was trembling and would not stay still beneath his feet anyway. It must be the music. He reached for another bottle.

The good musicians came to the Cellar on their way through town. The bad musicians filled in when the good ones had left. After a while, it didn’t matter. When the room was rocking, no one could tell the difference between the beat and the melody. It was all beat.

The Cellar never had any dead air. The next band began playing before the last one finished its last song. Jazz. Blues. Rock. The music all sounded the same. A band could know one song and play it over and over for the next three hours, and no one would complain or notice.

“Why is the music so loud in here?” I once shouted at Kirkwood.

“If the band doesn’t play loud,” he answered, “people start talking. And when they start talking, sooner or later, somebody always says, ‘Let’s go.’”

Nobody ever said, “Let’s go,” in the Cellar. If they did, no one heard them.

The suits certainly weren’t ready to go. The suits bothered Kirkwood, and he didn’t know why. Police? No. If they were cops, he thought, they would be working undercover. Wouldn’t dare wear a suit into a place like this. Besides, he knew all of the cops in town. They received the glasses laced with the Everclear. And when business slowed down, he could always call on his friends in the vice squad and ask them to raid the place.

Illegal whiskey would be the charge.

Nude women would be the charge.

And Kirkwood would be featured on channels 4, 5, 8, and 11 for the ten o’clock news. His face would decorate the morning edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, usually above the fold, and there might even be a picture or two of his scantily clad waitresses, particularly if it happened to be a slow news day. The afternoon Press might even devote the whole front page to the Cellar.

It’s better than advertising, Kirkwood told me. He shrugged. “The fines for all of us are cheaper than advertising, and they don’t put my ads on the front page.” He would have a standing room only crowd that night, not counting the standing room only crowd on the streets outside and trying to get in.

Kirkwood glanced around and squinted in the darkness. He knew most of the faces, some better than others. But all were familiar.

The suits were different. The suits were out of place.

He knew it but did not know how or why he knew it.

The suits did not leave until five o’clock when the rock band played its final lullaby. Kirkwood watched them slowly climb the stairs, working as hard as if they had been climbing Mount Everest, and a couple were staggering.

He stopped the waitress who had made a career out of serving them. It was quiet now, and she could hear him. “Know who they are?” he asked.

“Secret Service,” she said.

“That’s what they told you?” “They did.” “They’re lying to you,” Kirkwood said.

“One showed me his badge.” She giggled.

“What is the Secret Service doing in here?” he asked.

“The President’s in town.” “They should be with the President.” “One said they got bored and asked the fire department to stand guard outside his hotel room.” She giggled again.

Kirkwood shook his head. He did not like the foreboding sense of dread that lay boiling in his stomach. He should have talked to the suits earlier. He should have found out who they were. He should have asked them to leave or thrown them out.

He sighed. Too late now, he decided. Besides, they were paying with cash.

The Secret Service walked in unannounced.

They left the same way.

Seven hours later, on the streets of downtown Dallas, beneath an open window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building, a President was shot.

Kirkwood sat stunned. He would watch the film time and again. He saw the agent running frantically to reach the President’s car as the First Lady crawled in a precarious daze toward him.

Kirkwood wasn’t sure, but he thought he recognized him. Maybe he was right. Probably he wasn’t. The agents, he said, hadn’t been moving very fast when they left the Cellar either.

They had a drink for the President.

The President was dead.

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