Meet the Regulars
Four groups of Bay Area men shoot the bull about drag racing, politics and the best way to catch a snapping turtle.
ABOVE FROM LEFT TO RIGHT Don Wilson, Tink Davison, Rick Daves
The Roshell Racers
Regulars: Rick Daves, “Tink” Davison and Don Wilson
Location: Roshell’s Café and Diner, weekly breakfasts
Duration: 30 years
It ain’t T-shirt weather,” says Rick Daves from his usual seat at Roshell’s. “Hey Marty,” he shouts to the already amused owner behind the lunch counter. “Can’t y’all install some seat warmers in these booths?”
Rick, Don and Tink (a nickname acquired for his knack for tinkering with cars) have been regulars at some place or other for about 30 years now. Roshell’s has been the spot as of late, ever since the third-generation diner started serving breakfast two years ago. The three regulars met during their high school days, dividing Mobile County into half-mile drag racing segments.
“All you needed was half a mile,” Don explains. “A quarter mile to race and a quarter mile to slow down.”
Life’s speedometer has dipped since those days, the competition of racing having been replaced by the yarning of tall tales — unreliable stories of fast cars and pretty women.
“Rick is full of it,” Don warns. “Although some of it’s gotta be true, ‘cause he tells it the exact same way every time.”
Don: My wife asked, “What magazine are you meeting with?” I told her Mobile Bay Magazine, and she said, “You are kidding, aren’t you?” And I had to tell these guys three times before they believed me.
Rick: My wife said, “Y’all are what?” I said, “We’re going to breakfast to meet that guy from the magazine.” She said, “Y’all are crazy. You’re gonna get up in the morning when it’s 17 degrees…”
Tink: It doesn’t make a lick o’ difference what temperature it is.
Don: We’ll go to breakfast, if it’s raining or whatever. Although one of us (pointing at Rick) didn’t show up when it snowed.
Rick: I was working.
Don: (laughs) Working on staying in bed with those grandbabies and not wanting to get out.
Rick: Oh, you mean this last snow? Yeah, I was with all my grandkids!
Don: That’s his patent excuse. The grandkids made me do it. I had all three of my grandkids, and I still got up and went to breakfast.
Rick: Well, my grandkids love me and don’t want me to leave ‘em.
Don: That’s cause you pay them to like you. Or you got bacon in your damn pocket.
Tink: Your grandkids ain’t nothing but an excuse.
Don: He’s like Jack Nicholson, he puts bacon in his pocket and everyone thinks the dog likes him.
Rick: The 2-year-old and the 6-year-old, they get into bed with me and they stay up til 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning watching shows, and I’m up with them. So I’m not gonna jump up at five and come to breakfast.
Don: Oh, I understand totally. I’ve seen “Lion King” 100 times.
Rick: You ever watch “Scooby Doo”? I can tell you about every “Scooby Doo” movie ever made.
Don: I like in “Lion King” when there’s the big showdown with the brother-in-law lion, and those animals are talking after the confrontation. And one of the parrots says, “Well, every family’s got one.” And another parrot says, “My family’s got two of them.”
Rick: I watched “Frozen” and “The Polar Express” four times this Christmas.
Don: My grandchildren always want to hear a story every night. Their famous words are, “I want to hear a new one and a funny one.” I’ve done run out of stories. I’ve told every movie I’ve ever seen, I’ve told everything that ever happened to me, and I’ve told everything these two ever told me.
Don: We used to drag race Cottage Hill Road. I mean we’d race 50 times a night. 50 times a night! On Snow Road, Celeste Road, Kali Oka Road …
Tink: Interstate 65, before they opened it.
Don: Riviere Du Chien Road. We’d go out there with what’s-his-name whose daddy had the hardware store. He’d bring a quart of paint and he’d pour it across the road to make a starting line. It was a hot Saturday night and it about dried up before we took off. This was all during the ‘60s.
Rick: The mid-‘60s.
Don: We used to play a game where you’d give me a $20 bill and sit in the back seat of my car. I’d take your 20 and add my own 20 and tape them both to the dash. If you could get those 20s off the dash from the back seat before I hit fourth gear, that’s your 40 dollars. And I never lost. Watch “American Graffiti,” and that was our lives.
Rick: That’s what it was.
Don: Every night of the week. Guys looking for girls, girls looking for guys. You’re driving around in the best thing you got.
Rick: We’d all go to Shoney’s and to Ozzie’s out there. Then the Krystal’s at Ann and Government Street. If you say that to someone now, they go, “The what?”
Don: And Dick Russell’s was down at the Loop.
Tink: We’d go into Krystal’s, order 40 burgers and they would not make ‘em. They’d come out there and want us to pay for ‘em first. Evidently they had a bunch who would drive up then run off or whatever. They were 10 cents a piece. We’d sit there and wait for our Krystals.
Rick: I’d get 50 Krystals for five dollars.
Don: A Kystal burger was a dime, McDonald’s was 15 cents. And when the Whopper came out it was like 29 cents, and everybody was like, “You’ll never sell one of them!”
Rick: We’d go way down Cottage Hill Road. There weren’t many houses around back then. We’d mark the distance off, and we’d race there at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. And there’d be 25, 30, 40 cars out there.
Don: And if you weren’t racing, you’d dive in a car when the cops showed up. You’d just dive into anything to get away. What you had to do was go down to the end of the road and race back. That way, you always had an exit route, because here come the cops.
Rick: They might catch a few of us, but they couldn’t catch us all.
Don: One time I was out on Kali Oka Road and everybody scattered, and I dove into a yellow GTO. I’m in the back pulling on this guy’s neck telling him, “Slow down!” And he says, “I used to drive an ambulance.” (laughs) We’re flying down Kali Oka Road. I told him to stop and let me out. I said, “I can walk home from here, and I’ll be alive!”
CLOCKWISE FROM FRONT LEFT Robert Emanuel, W.E. Jones, Charlie Jones, Dr. Keith Moore
The Waffle House Ministers
Regulars: Pastors Robert Emanuel, Charlie Jones, W.E. Jones and Dr. Keith Moore
Location: Spring Hill Waffle House, 4 nights a week
Duration: Approximately 30 years
What do ministers talk about when the church pews are emptied and the prayer books tucked away? Believe it or not, the answer to this question can be found in a Mobile Waffle House, in the first booth on the right. And on a cold Thursday night, MB is out to settle this matter, once and for all.
Pastor Keith Moore eyes the tape recorder placed at the end of the table, and turns to his friend Pastor Charlie Jones. “Now, you’ve got to be on your best behavior,” he jokes. Pastor Jones gives his booth-mate a look, as if to say, “Look who’s talking.” Pastor W.E. Jones and Pastor Robert Emanuel sit across the table, no less amused by the situation than the other two. The grill is fired up, the coffee is poured and the Waffle House ministers are ready to preach.
For the last 30 years or so, a variation of this group has met regularly for late-night coffee, greasy food or advice for an upcoming sermon, and, as far as I can tell, the result is always entertaining. If it’s a joke you’re looking for, how about this one: Four ministers walk into a Waffle House…
MB: Do y’all ever argue?
Robert: What friends don’t argue?!
MB: What’s the biggest thing y’all argue about?
Robert: (points at W.E.) Whether he caught a bigger fish than me. Sometimes politics, sometimes just life. How we handle certain problems.
Charlie: When we get stuck, we ask W.E. to clear it up for us.
Keith: He’s our elder statesman. He’s been pastoring his church for what, 50 years or more?
Robert: We don’t want to lose that wisdom. That’s wisdom. But now, when it comes to teasing and arguing, he doesn’t get by with that. Nobody’s immune!
Keith: But as far as I know, no one in this group has ever left outta here mad at another.
MB: Who gets teased the most at this table? Who’s the biggest target?
Charlie: I guess I am.
MB: What do y’all tease him about?
Robert: And if he doesn’t give us anything to tease him about, we’ll create something! (laughs) No matter how innocent you may be, you’re still guilty in our sight.
W.E.: That’s right, we don’t care whether it’s true or not! Being true has nothing to do with the teasing.
Keith: (points at Robert) And he’s our jokester. He tells all the jokes.
MB: What’s your favorite joke?
Robert: Oh, you don’t want to know. (big group laughter) Ok, I can tell a clean one. Three men died and went to heaven, ok? And when they got to heaven, St. Peter said, “Look, I don’t care what you do while you’re here, but don’t step on a duck.” They said, “Ok, St. Peter.”
One guy went about a month, messed around and stepped back — QUACK. He stepped on a duck. Here comes St. Peter coming out this corner with the ugliest woman the man had ever seen in his life. St. Peter clamped her onto the man’s arm and said, “This is your mate throughout eternity.”
So the second guy said, “Man, I ain’t stepping on no duck, did you see how ugly that woman is? Got to have her for the rest of his life.” He went about six months before — QUACK. Here’s St. Peter now coming out of this corner with the ugliest woman. Uglier than the other woman! Put her on this fella’s arm and told him, “This is your mate throughout eternity.”
The last guy says, “Man, I ain’t stepping on no duck.” He did alright for about a year and a half, stepped back — QUACK. Stepped on a duck. Here comes St. Peter coming out the other corner with a woman prettier than the man had ever seen in his life. Beautiful woman! I mean fantastic. Everything in the right place. And St. Peter clamped her onto his arm. And he looked at that beautiful woman and looked at St. Peter and said, “My God, what in the world did I do to get a beautiful woman like this?”
That woman said, “I don’t know what you did, but I stepped on a duck.” (group laughter)
MB: Had y’all heard that one before?
Keith: Oh yeah!
Charlie: But most of the time, the way he tells it, we always laugh.
MB: What’s the biggest group you’ll have here?
W.E: About six. Or maybe seven, when Carter comes by.
Robert: And seven is the perfect number in the Bible, you know.
Keith: Now Carter is another one they joke on, other than Charlie.
MB: Why do you joke with Carter?
Robert: (laughs) I can tell you why we mess with Carter. I did a revival for a friend of mine, Reverend Rainey, and he came in here after the revival to eat. And Reverend Rainey said, “Man, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” So they said, “What?” He said, ‘Robert is over there doing a revival at my church, and I feel ashamed to have to get up there and preach behind him this Sunday.” So somebody suggested, “What you do is get somebody who can’t preach so well to come and preach for you on Sunday. And when you come the following Sunday, they’ll be glad to hear you.” So then the question became, well, who’s that gonna be? Who are we gonna find that can’t preach? Reverend Summers was sitting right here, and Carter was right there. And Reverend Summers looked at Carter and said, “Carter, what you doing on Sunday?” (group laughter) And he’s been the target every since!
W.E.: And he can’t live it down.
Charlie: Every time I see him — every time I look at him, that’s all I can think about.
MB: So what is it y’all enjoy about getting together like this?
Robert: Well, the camaraderie, the friendship. We’ve got something in common. All in the same boat. So we float together, or drown.
Charlie: And we share ideas with each other, since we’re working in the same field of pastoring.
W.E.: And we care about each other. We’re friends. We’re really, really friends.
The Liars Club
Regulars: Tom Claxton, Mike Dow, Johnny Hatcher, John Lockett, Butch Slack, Derrick Williams
Location: Dick Russell’s BBQ, weekly breakfasts
Duration: Approximately 30 years
The Tiny Diny was the original meeting place,” says Johnny Hatcher, over a table of steaming coffee mugs and empty creamer containers. “Then it went to the Bama Southern Belle, and then it migrated here to Dick Russell’s — and it’ll probably never leave.”
“Every time Johnny gets mad, we’ve got to find a new restaurant,” Butch Slack jokes.
“And he finds us anyhow!” says Judge John Lockett, to the delight of the men gathered around the heavy round table. And just like that, the Liars’ Club picks up from where it left off the week before.
Not many regular breakfast groups can claim as diverse a collection of careers as this crowd, which even includes a former mayor of Mobile. Mike Dow was a regular member of the club during his time as mayor, something Judge Lockett describes as a “humbling” experience for the mayor. (“During the week at City Hall, people would come in to tell him what a great job he was doing. Then he’d come here on Saturday morning, and everybody would tell him how he’s screwing up.”)
Depending on the week, as many as 12 liars might materialize, but today’s group of six proves, for our purposes, to be more than enough.
Johnny: This group was founded by Butch’s father, Art Slack. That was how many years ago, Mike? Twenty-five, maybe 30? He formed this group, and Mike was a charter member. Art was a very well-known person in Mobile County. Very political and very active in the community.
Mike: He just cared a lot.
John: Art sold heavy equipment — cranes and stuff like that. And in a very quiet, subtle, effective way, he got these contracts and relationships established. He was good at getting under your skin a little bit. He cared about people. He was just a good guy.
Mike: When I was mayor, he was the one person who would just come walking right into my office — wouldn’t even make an appointment. He’d just say, “Hey, Mayor, how’s it going?” Not many people did that.
Johnny: I’ll tell you this — I can’t help but tell this story. Art was 86, I think he was, and he was in a casual setting, and there was a gentleman there with a very vulgar mouth in front of Art’s wife. Art kindly asked him two times to please watch his language in front of his wife. At 86 years old, he did not ask a third time. He took the guy off the stool and let him have it. And that’s a fact. He had no fear.
Tom: He was just a Southern gentleman.
Johnny: He really was. And he wasn’t going to tolerate that. (silence)
John: And Johnny wasn’t in the hospital but for what, two days after that, right? (group laughter)
Tom: Next time, keep your mouth shut, Johnny.
MB: How would y’all describe the people that make up the Liars’ Club?
Johnny: All liars. (group laughter) That’s the first qualifier.
Mike: There’s a thread that goes back to local politics.
Tom: We’re all politically involved.
Mike: Involved and aware … or try to be. Having gone through the election process myself, I found that you can go out and spend time with certain groups and say to yourself, “Wow, I ought to pay attention here.” You can hear things and better feel the concerns that people have. Barbers are a good group for that — they hear people all day. And if you’re in touch with that sort of stuff, you get a good feel. That’s what Art was good at. Art was out there around a lot of people, and he would tell me, “Mayor, I need to come down and talk with you and tell you what’s going on out here.”
MB: What topics are usually discussed here?
Johnny: When Mike was mayor — number one.
Tom: When Mike was mayor — number two. (group laughter)
Mike: When an election cycle comes around, every one of us has got our feelings about different people, and we discuss all that. From my perspective, if you’ve got this table on your side, you’re gonna win. You’ve got them all.
Johnny: The biscuits here became chargeable at one time.
Mike: They have great biscuits here.
Johnny: But Art had a word with them, and now we get free biscuits.
John: Of course, it’s $25 an egg now. (group laughter)
Johnny: Only for this table!
Mike: I’ve got those nine rental houses, so of course I had to go cut the water on during the winter storm. I’ve probably got an $8,000 water bill.
Johnny: I’m telling you, the best way to do that is get them little deals that go on the faucets. You twist these things on there, turn the faucet on, and it only lets so much come out.
Mike: I’ve never heard of that.
Tom: I haven’t either.
Johnny: You can get them at that hardware store downtown — Blankenships’.
John: They’ve got everything. I love that place.
Mike: Which place?
Johnny: Blankenships’. It’s like a pressure relief deal. And it only lets so much water come out.
Mike: Is this like a snipe hunt? Is this b.s.? And you’re trying to get me running around looking for these things, or what?
Johnny: Maybe it wasn’t Blankenships’, Mike (laughs). Come to think of it, I think the store was in Lucedale, Mississippi!
ABOVE LEFT TO RIGHT Al Johnson, John Sherrell (hidden), Terry Barksdale, Van Finger, Doug Harrell, Robbie Bacon, Eddie Rogers
The Dangerous Bunch
Regulars: Robbie Bacon, Terry Barksdale, Van Finger, Doug Harrell, Al Johnson, Eddie Rogers, John Sherrell
Location: Battles Wharf Market, daily coffee
Duration: 22 years
At an hour too early, on a morning far too cold, Van Finger is exasperated with his dog — and his friends couldn’t be happier about it. “My wife has taken to calling him 1G,” Finger explains. “She reckons that’s about the cost of all the things he’s chewed up so far.”
The punch line lands, his buddies chuckle, and slowly, the morning doesn’t feel so cold any more.
Within spitting distance of the Grand Hotel, seven men crowd a single table inside the Battles Wharf Market on Scenic Highway 98: a former dentist, an entrepreneur, a once-upon-a-time football coach, among others. The gang seems friendly enough, but I remember the imposing words Finger wrote before our rendezvous.
“I will take no responsibility for what will be said, or implied, or for the language heard,” Finger declared. “Limited parking, so don’t park in our own regular parking places. That, you will hear about. Dangerous bunch.”
But as the day awakens and morning light pours through the market window, I discover a group of guys about as dangerous as a cap gun — sure, they make a lot of noise, but they can be a hell of a lot of fun.
Van: (points across the table to Doug, the oldest of the group) This guy’s gonna visit Mobile. We don’t know when, but we’ve got bets on it. When he passes on, we’re gonna blast him on over to Mobile out of the cannon [at the Grand Hotel].
Doug: Y’all are not gonna …
Van: We’re gonna pack his powder into that cannon and blast him out over the Bay.
Doug: Look, I’m not gonna stand for that! You won’t shoot me out of no damn cannon, I’ll tell you that.
MB: How many members of this group have died over the years?
Van: Yep, we’ve had six pass on. See the picture on the wall? That was before the place burned down the road.
Al: We’ve lost about four or five of them there in that picture.
Van: That was taken at a store down the road where we used to meet that burned — a Shell station called the Easy Pic.
John: When I first drove by this place about seven years ago, I saw all these cars out front and thought, “Man, they must have some good breakfasts in there.” And I came in and found these guys, talking and drinking coffee, and they just welcomed me in. Now, there was an initiation fee that Dr. Harrell talked about — don’t know if I’ve ever paid it. No one really stepped up as accountant. (laughs)
MB: So what do y’all like about meeting like this every morning?
Eddie: Bitchin’ and moanin’. (group laughter)
Van: Mixed with some shenanigans.
Robbie: Solving the world’s problems.
MB: Speaking of problems, I heard someone talking about trying to get moles out of their yard. Did you solve that problem?
Eddie: (groans) Juicy Fruit…
MB: Juicy Fruit? Can you actually use that to get rid of moles?
Eddie: Shit, no. I bought all the Juicy Fruit in the store!
John: You’d drive by his house and see all these mole holes with Juicy Fruit sticking out of them. (group laughter)
Robbie: Y’all did bad now, cause you’ve already told on me about my turtle pursuit.
Eddie: Yeah, Robbie had a turtle pursuit. He spent probably $600 trying to get a snapping turtle out of his lake. He kept saying, “That damn turtle…”
Terry: That turtle was eating up his plants he kept putting in. Lilies, wasn’t it?
Robbie: I constructed a lake last year, and I was putting in a lot of exotic water lilies, and this damn turtle kept eating them as fast as I was putting them in. So I had to declare war.
Terry: You oughta seen the contraptions he built.
Eddie: How many traps did you buy?
Robbie: Only three.
Eddie: That’s about $700 in traps! (laughs)
Terry: He built one trap himself. He had all kinds of traps trying to catch that turtle.
Robbie: Well, you know, I wanted to give him a chance to live somewhere else.
Terry: Robbie’s a world-traveling hunter. He goes into Louisiana, Arkansas…
Van: Yeah, a world traveler … sometimes he goes down to Venice — as far as Venice, Louisiana. (group laughter)
(Doug gets up to leave)
Van: See this guy leaving right now? He leaves every morning at 6:30. He will not tell anybody what he does at 6:30. But something happens at 6:30 in the morning, ‘cause he leaves every morning at the same time.
MB: So y’all are here just about every day of the week?
John: Except for Sundays.
Terry: They’re not open on Sundays during the winter. In the summertime it’s open every day, ‘cause all those people from Mobile move over here.
Al: It really makes me mad when they’re not open [on time], cause I normally get here first.
John: As you get a little closer to 7 o’clock, 7:15, around then, the housewives taking the kids to school will pull in here, unload.
Terry: Buy breakfast for the kids.
John: Get breakfast and feed these kids Red Bulls, ice cream sandwiches and all that stuff.
Al: We’ve got people that come here from the [Grand] Hotel who found out about this place. They’ll come here rather than go to the hotel to eat breakfast.
Van: We’ve met some pretty interesting people coming here.
Robbie: We get all the latest news, before it breaks the press.
John: And then there’s people who don’t live here but come down maybe once a year for Christmas or holidays. They’ll walk in the door, and they’ll say, “Are you guys still here?”