To all East Coast sailors, Norfolk was ‘Shit City.’ Rumor has it that during World War II the fine citizens of that fair city put signs on their lawns that read, “SAILORS AND DOGS KEEP OFF THE GRASS.” Next to the Red Cross making front line GIs pay for coffee and doughnuts they should have given away, the stories about Norfolk come in a well deserved second. The best way to see Norfolk was through a rear view mirror.
Norfolk created a sinkhole called East Main Street. No place on earth was a bigger dump. It was wall to wall beer joints and establishments designed specifically to separate sailors from their money. It was a municipal embarrassment and they shut it down.
It needs to be said that without the Navy payroll, Norfolk would have been just another seedy seaport… The neat stuff that Norfolk has today got built with bluejacket bucks.
The police force that spent most of their time hassling sailors turned a blind eye to gambling, gouging storekeepers, whores, motels who rented the same room four times a night, and the crooks who drove cabs. Norfolk was a corrupt hole… A festering pus pit on the East Coast… It WAS ‘Shit City.’
The city fathers through a clever zoning plan, closed down the open sore of East Main Street. This forced the center of action to Hampton Blvd. A case of moving the ticks to the dog.
Hampton Blvd. became a Mecca of beer joints, navy gear stores, tailor shops, and greasy spoons. They sold everything a sailor wanted and set up locker clubs to store your junk. It was a land beyond health codes and consumer protection.
They had clothing stores who must have purchased their entire inventory straight off the seconds’ rack at the Ringling Brothers outlet. I once saw a sailor come out of Bells Naval Tailors wearing an avocado-colored sports coat with metallic threads woven into it. Jeezus, they would have laughed the guy out of a Ubangi class reunion.
There was a motto engraved in the hearts of all shopkeepers on Hampton Blvd… “You can sell dog doo doo to a sailor on payday…” And they did. Sailors with good taste (I wasn’t one and never met one) were a statistical element right behind pregnant nuns.
They sold godawful silk pillows with fringe all around the edges. They also had every imaginable kind of brass, plastic and ceramic ships and anchors with “FROM YOUR SAILOR IN NORFOLK VIRGINIA” printed on them. I figured any mother who put one of those ugly sonuvabitches out where anyone could see it, must have REALLY loved her son, or was blind.
There were kids running around with an open top tin can suspended on a string around their necks and a wood box… In the tin can they had a couple cans of black Kiwi or Lincoln shoe polish and a buff rag… The box held a shoe brush.
“Hey sailor… One fine shine… One thin dime…”
Adrian Stuke brought back this wonderful memory in a recent phone call.
“One fine shine… One thin dime,” a clean white hat, fresh pressed blues, dolphins, money in your pockets for a couple of pitchers of beer, eight Slim Jims… It didn’t get any better than that… It never did.
Hampton Blvd. was the home of the Second Fleet. Tincan sailors had a bar… Airdales had a bar… All the other skimmers had bars… SUBRON SIX had Bells. Bells was a hole. It had beat up furniture, a beat up pool table, a juke box and a men’s room where on a heavy duty drinking night, grown men have been known to pee directly down the floor drain. It was a hole all right, but it was OUR hole. Bells was the nest we feathered… Hell, we were young single guys and had no other place to go.
When a decent girl left home, the last thing a Norfolk dad said was, “Darling, stay away from sailors and don’t go anywhere near Hampton Blvd.” So, if you wanted female companionship, you most likely had to pay for it. One way or the other, you paid… And at the pay rate in those days, the product was a little ragged around the edges.
Our story will never show up on the screen at your local movie house. We should be thankful in a lot of ways… Why? Because no one who wasn’t there could get it right.