Last Hand

For forty years, the La Paz 12 has called this card table home.

The two old men sit at a card table surrounded by space heaters that buzz and glow in their struggle against the cold. The table has been pulled over to a corner near the front window to take advantage of the muted winter sunlight. A small black-and-white television tuned to All My Children perches on a nearby barstool.

Louis Robinson smiles and shakes his head as he slaps his cards down triumphantly. "Shouldn'ta played that last card, Leroy," he lectures. "Shouldn'ta done that."

Leroy "Smooth Mouth" Porter jerks his attention away from a steamy soap-opera scene to stare at his friend's hand and then back at his own. He looks betrayed. "I know it," he says at last, tossing down the cards and scowling beneath his Russian faux-fur hat. "I know it." He digs his thumbs under the purple suspenders that cross his shirt and turns his round face back to the television while Louis shuffles the deck.

Old men. Old friends. And a friendly little low-stakes game that's been running nearly four decades in this building at 2745 Welton Street.

Louis is a big man with thick, sausage-sized fingers--four of which are adorned with gold, diamond-studded rings--that testify to forty years of hard labor with the International Cement Masons' and Plasterers' Union. But he can rapidly snap cards off the new deck with a sound like firecrackers to start what must be the billionth or so game in his long association with Leroy.

Louis moved to Denver in 1946 from Lake Charles, Louisiana, by way of Lubbock, Texas, looking for work. "It got so I couldn't stand the racism in the South no more," he says. "I was gettin' away from segregation, only I run into more segregation here."

At the time, the local chapter of the International Cement Masons' and Plasterers' Union wasn't interested in giving jobs to blacks. But after Louis and his father, a union member already living in Denver, complained to the national headquarters, the problem was straightened out. "After which we had a real good union, one of the best in the United States," says Louis.

Leroy, too, fled the South for Denver in 1957. "A school friend invited me," he says, studying his new hand. "His people were kin to my people...I was trying to get away from the segregation, too." He left Colorado for California in 1963, "the year Kennedy was shot," returning in 1969 to work for the Veterans Administration Hospital until he retired.

As the afternoon wears on, more of "the boys" show up and take seats around the table. Howard "Jay Bird" Wilson, a thin, sharp-faced man in a blue cowboy hat with a yellow-bandanna hatband. Booker T. Hill, known to his friends as "Booger--'cause he's slicker than snot." Frank Wilson, who keeps the game lively with his nonstop banter. And Richard Stemler, at 59 the "youngster" of the group.

The boys even have a name for their social club: the La Paz 12. "That means 'the peaceful 12,' that's the Spanish words for it," Louis says. Throughout the remainder of the day and on into evening, elderly men drift in to play or stand around behind the card players, ragging on each other. Others poke their heads in the door just to see who's still playing before moving on down the street.

This afternoon the game is "Tonk," which is similar to gin rummy--losers each pay a dollar to the winner, possibly two if they've doubled down. Another day it might be poker, or pinochle, or maybe a lively game of dominoes.

The building where the old men gather as many as six days a week--depending on how cold it is outside and in--was even colder eighty years ago, when it was the home of Douglass Mortuary.

"One of the first undertakers in the state," says Booker, who doubles as the group's unofficial historian. "The plumbin's still all in back there." He hooks a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the shadows toward the rear of the building and then proceeds to scandalize his fellow card players by telling how he once went through a trap door in the back and down into a quasi-basement, where he found the mortician's old "cooling board."

"That's where they put dead people when they first bring 'em in," notes Louis.

Frank rolls his eyes at Booker's temerity. But Booker just shrugs and adds, "It had a drain in it."

Booker arrived in Denver in 1948 on a train from Texas. Pointing this way and that as he looks out the front door, he recalls the Five Points he knew. "Over there was Mrs. Gaines's chickens--you could buy live chickens, turkeys and rabbits, sometimes even a 'coon. Over there," he says, looking directly across the street at the new Five Points Plaza, "was a hog farm."

Booker made a living hustling newspapers and fry pies. "I was just a kid," he recalls. "They used to call me the Potato Pie Boy."

And when Booker T. "Chicago" Jones turned the old mortuary into the Ritz Shining Parlour in 1953, Booker Hill started his own shoeshine business.

Chicago Jones had two shoeshine stands of his own and a pool table to occupy waiting patrons. "It was his ol' lady, Miss Nan, let me come into the place with my own little stand," says Booker.

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