Tootsie Tomanetz, now a Texas barbecue pitmaster of renown and my former boss at City Meat Market in Lexington, said she never had any favorite customers. I must have because there are some people who still live larger than life in my memories.
One of those is Henry Harzke, the neighbor out on String Prairie who encouraged young Tootsie Otto to write to a serviceman named White Tomanetz. It was 1952. White was serving with the army in Alaska. Henry’s family was friends with Tootsie’s family. They got together at least once a week to play dominoes. Henry was a most unlikely cupid.
By the time I knew him, Henry was a lifelong bachelor who was up in years and cemented in his ways. He raised cows on his place east of town and worked hard year round outside. He changed his bib overalls and other work clothes with the seasons. Those of us who knew him up close and personal were grateful when spring came, and he retired the single set of long underwear he’d worn all winter.
He came into the market every Saturday after lunch. His brother Dewitt came in before lunch. Sometime earlier in their lives, they’d had a major falling out. Henry and Momma were on one side while Dewitt and their father were on the other. Ultimately, the brothers were separated by real estate and resentment.
One time, before my tenure, the brothers ended up at the market at the same time. It precipitated a fight in the parking lot, which culminated with Henry pulling a pistol from the bib of his overalls and drawing down on Dewitt. Cooler heads prevailed. Bullets didn’t fly. The split Saturday scheduled was implemented.
I still remember Henry’s Saturday afternoon order because it was almost always the same: four Taylor red wieners, a small hunk of summer sausage, a quart of buttermilk and a few canned goods. He always bought “hay,” too. Some weeks he chose Nabisco Shredded Wheat, and other weeks it was Mini-Wheats depending on “how hard he wanted to chew.” Food was a necessity not a pleasure, for Henry —although I’ve been told his mother, known only as Momma, was an excellent cook. Miss Tootsie waxed poetic about a seven-layer cake she ate at their home decades earlier.
Henry wore thick bottle cap glasses and saw life through an accumulated haze similar to bug splatter on a windshield. Henry was hard of hearing and made up for it by talking loud. Periodically he squalled. “G-damnit, Momma” was a favorite phrase.
In her later years, when Momma was unable to stay by herself; she accompanied Henry everywhere. He left her in the front seat of the truck while he tended to business. One day the oil change boy at Greg’s Exxon was more than a little surprised to see Momma peering down at him from atop the oil change rack. Henry had forgotten to take her out before the truck was serviced.
The only thing Henry loved as much as Momma was dogs. He had a pack of dogs that he hauled everywhere. They barked, snarled and snapped. He spent a lot of time yelling, “Shut up, damn it.” They obeyed for about 42 seconds. He had sideboards on the back of his pickup to keep them in. The dogs liked Henry but nobody else. They shared his house.
One time he came into the market bandaged up. I asked him what happened.
“G-damn Ridgie bit me.” Ridgie was half Rhodesian ridgeback and half something big. He looked like he could eat a lion in two bites.
As the story unfolded, Henry was late getting to bed, and Ridgie had gone to sleep sprawled across the top. When Henry tried to roll Ridgie over, the startled dog bit him. Despite looking like a chew bone, Henry was nonplussed by the incident.
“It wasn’t his fault. I was on his g-damn side of the bed.”
I liked Henry. And Henry liked me, but I didn’t know how much until I left for college. My freshmen year, right before my birthday, I got a birthday card from Henry. It was recycled. Not at a factory, but by Henry. He scratched out the other person’s name and sent it to me with a crumpled dollar tucked inside.
In older man scrawl, it said, “Be a good girl, Lorie Lou.” He signed it, “Your friend, Henry.” I got one of those every year until old age made him forget who I was. I don’t know if anything short of Alzheimer’s will ever make me forget him.
Madder Than a Wet Hen
Miss Tootsie is quick with a laugh and a hug. When we worked together at City Meat Market in Lexington, I watched her talk and cut meat with equal speed, never slowing down one to do the other.
She stands about 5’2” and 40 years ago she lifted 150 lb. beef quarters with ease as most women lift a vacuum cleaner. Miss Tootsie is a force to be reckoned with but not because she has a bad temper. She’s pretty even keeled. In all the years I worked with her, I only saw her get mad one time. She lost her composure over raisins.
Ed Jordan lived in Lexington. By the time I knew him, he held court on the bench in front of the Senior Citizen Center and slept in a variety of empty buildings. Earlier in his life, he rode his horse up the stairs in the post office, the interior stairs to the second floor not the steps outside. He liked wearing hard hats then. By the time I knew him, he preferred a crumpled straw cowboy hat with the evidence of a lot of living collected on the brim. Ed looked just like Santa Claus if Santa had preferred beer and cigarettes to cookies and milk.
Since Ed didn’t have a permanent address, Miss Tootsie let him keep a quart of milk and a box of Raisin Bran in the kitchen at the back of the market. In the afternoon, he’d come in and eat a bowl of cereal. I suspect it was his supper.
Unbeknownst to anyone, Ed disliked raisins. (Week after week he chose Raisin Bran from the cereal display where All-Bran was its next door neighbor.) For years he had eaten around the raisins and then put the despised dried fruit in the trash.
One week something snapped. Instead of putting his half-chewed raisins in the trash, he started spitting them on the clean dishes I had left drying in the sink. These weren’t just regular dishes. These were the big steel pans and trays that held barbecue on Saturdays. Washing congealed barbecue grease off these over-sized pans was an undertaking.
The first time raisins showed up on my clean shiny stainless steel gear, I rewashed them without a word. But after it happened for several consecutive weeks, I brought the problem to Miss Tootsie’s attention by showing her the masticated raisins on her otherwise sparkling steel pans.
Her face changed color. She said, “Don’t you wash those. I’ll handle it.” And she did. She marched out the front door and held her own court with Ed at the Senior Citizen’s bench. She was judge, jury and potential hangman. I had better sense than to follow along. I watched from a distance. I didn’t hear a word she said, but I didn’t need to. The gist of her message was clear from 50 yards. Up close and personal, it was unmistakable because Ed followed Miss Tootsie back to the market and apologized to me. He went into the kitchen and washed all the dishes.
From then on, he ate All-Bran.
by Lorie Woodward Cantu