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By Bob Sandidge

 
 

Dr. Bass   Premier Theater       Last Picture Show      Eleven Stores
   
China Trees           John Appman         Grayville '61       Last Day Of School


Johnny Appman, As I Remember Him
   
                               December 24, 2000  
by  Grayville native, W.F. (Bill) Werzner
 
 

Mr. Herschel Groff wrote a story about Johnny Appman that was published in  “The Navigator” several years ago.  John, as he was called, is no doubt the most remembered of all the eccentric people who ever lived in Grayville from the 1930’s until his death in 1960.  If you have not seen Mr. Groff’s article, check with the library or someone in the office of The Navigator.  Mr. Groff’s article offers insight as to why John lived and behaved the way we remember him.  I felt that I should add another story about John as I knew him during my boyhood days in Grayville.    

 My earliest memories of John go back to the late 1940’s when he and his dad used to hawk newspapers in front of our restaurant, Werzner’s Café at 214 E. North St.  In the afternoon, dad used to roll down the big canvas awning that overhung the sidewalk and John and his dad “Paw Appman” would roll up their newspaper vending cart in the shade on the side next to the post office.  Back then, the Grayville Post Office was located in two buildings at 210 and 212 West North St.  For those of you who never knew John, the best physical description that I can offer is picture the late movie actor, Telly Savalas as obese; clad in old bib overalls, and in need of a bath.  John walked with a steel cane and you could hear him coming by the ping, ping, ping, on the pavement.  John wore a carpenters nail pouch around his waist from which he made change for the newspapers that he sold for seven cents each.  Needless to say, he always had plenty of pennies and frequently paid his delivery boys the same.  During the afternoon, John could be heard above the din of traffic and people on the street with his cry, “Graaaaville Mercury, Evansville Press” which he would repeat over and over, in a sing-song fashion.  Downtown Grayville was much different back then and with the oil boom still on, it was often a crowded and busy place.  John was also noted for his sneezes that sounded something like “heraashue, heraashue, heraashue” that could be heard above the din of the traffic and seemed to resonate from the Wabash and echo off the water tower.  John had a repertoire of nicknames that he would bellow out to the carrier boys who worked for him.  “yoo hoo! Babydoll, Honeyboy, Kid, Stinky, Baby,” were some, but some others were unprintable when one forgot to deliver a paper to a customer.

 After his father, John Sr., died in 1948, John began living inside his news stand.  The Appman Newsstand was a small frame gable roof shack that stood next to the old Peoples’ National Bank building on North Street.  In the early 1950’s, John had a large billboard sign erected above his place that was festooned with pictures of comic strip characters and advertised daily and Sunday newspapers in large letters.  I still remember the pictures of Dick Tracey, Moon Mullins, Orphan Annie, etc. that adorned his sign.  John’s building was another matter.  The frame exterior resembled a paint card from all of the colors that were painted on it.  It looked as if someone tested paint colors from over at the hardware store every time they opened a can of paint.  John drove an old three wheel Harley motorcycle that looked as if it had survived the Battle of the Bulge.  He kept his motorcycle parked directly in front of the bank and covered it with an old tarp.  A snow shovel served as a weight to keep the tarp from blowing away in the wind.  John’s shack and motorcycle created quite a contrast with his neighbor to the west, the stately bank building.  John’s wit and humor were unparalleled.  I still remember some of his humorous and often “off color” jokes that were probably learned and repeated from his earlier tent show days.

  John used to watch our restaurant from across the street and when dad would begin to close for the night, he would beat a hasty path to our door.  John would shout at the top of his lungs “hamburger steak with onions” and seat himself in the first booth.  This was always followed with, “do you have any leftovers?”  If  mother answered from the kitchen, “yes I do”, John would reply, “bring them on”.  John had a voracious appetite and his eating habits were a sight to behold.  Dad kept an old quart size soda fountain mixing glass behind the snack bar reserved exclusively for John as a water glass.  He usually emptied it with a couple of gulps and would ask for a refill.  Although he used a knife and fork to eat his meal, John would resort to picking up a piece of pie and eating it from his hand.  Sometimes the “piece of pie” was half a leftover pie, that was the way he wanted it served, and that was the way he ate it. I cannot ever remember him using a fork to eat a piece of pie, no matter its size.  When he finished eating, John would lick his fingers, smack his lips, and compliment mother on her fine cooking.  With John as a nighttime customer, our restaurant never had to dispose leftover food.

 John had no family after his parents died, he never married, and to my recollection, no one ever mentioned his having a girlfriend during his lifetime.  According to one Grayville resident, John would occasionally visit a house of ill repute near Benton.  On one such visit, the madam refused to let him in because he was so dirty and smelled so bad.  According to the story, she made him bathe in tub out in the yard before allowing him in.  Back in Grayville, John found entertainment at the local pool hall that was located in the building east of March’s clothing store.  He also frequented the Wabash Theater and was a big fan of the old “Bowery Boys” comedies that were popular during the 1950’s.  I still wonder how such a large man managed to fit himself into that back row seat at the top of the left aisle.  One of John’s prized possessions was his accordion.  On warm summer nights, he would sometimes sit outside his shack and play tunes to entertain patrons from the taverns that closed at midnight.  On Halloween night, playing his accordion, John would sometimes lead the costumed kids in a serpentine parade up and down North Street during the Lions Club’s downtown party.  Because of his eccentric lifestyle, he was scorned by some, tolerated by others, but enjoyed by some of us who knew him for his wit and sense of humor.  There was another side to John, and as I look back after all of these years; I feel that behind all of his eccentricities, John was for a better description, “a broken hearted clown”.  In life, I believe he concealed his misery behind the façade of a happy go lucky charlatan who rebelled against the norms of society. Sometimes I think of John as a  “hippie” ahead of his time.

 As the year 1959 drew to a close and the new decade began, John’s health was deteriorating.  I remember one bitterly cold day in February 1960 when I came into our restaurant and found piles of newspapers stacked in the front window. Then dad told me what had happened earlier in the day.  Several inches of snow had fallen and the bitter wind was whipping the swirling snow down North Street in a torrent.  Ted March came to the restaurant and called dad’s attention to John who was sitting inside his shack with the door open.  He was feebly trying to wrap newspapers for the afternoon delivery and seemed oblivious to the blizzard around him.  John was suffering from a high fever that was brought on by a worsening pneumonia.  Together, Ted March and my father tried to convince John that he must go to the hospital or he would surely die.  At first John refused their advice, but relented when dad offered to sell newspapers for him in our restaurant and to deposit every penny in his account.  John made one last request before the ambulance arrived to take him to the Carmi hospital, and that was how I became involved.  John had a large yellow and white pet cat called Itty.  There would be no one to care for his beloved pet, so dad volunteered me for that task.  As long as I could remember, John always had at least one pet cat and Itty was special. 

 How did John ever come up with such a name for a cat?  Sometime during the late 1950’s, following the death or disappearance of his previous cat, John adopted another stray.  I remember one evening when John came over for his hamburger steak, my mother asked him about his new cat, and inquired about its gender. John in his usual jovial wit answered, “well I don’t know if it’s a he or she so I’ve named it “Itty”. That was how the name Itty came to be, so folks; as news commentator Paul Harvey says, “now you know the rest of the story.”  I don’t recall the cat’s true gender, but tend to think of it as a large tomcat. 

 

Dad told Jerry and David what had happened, and asked them to sit down with my mother so that she could type the names of people on their routes.  As I mentioned earlier, John had a repertoire of nicknames for those who worked for him and his customers were no different.  I remember some of the names as they were called out, “fat lady in brick house, one arm guy, guy at Texaco, old man at nursing home, old lady at nursing home, brown jug, green car, etc.”  Fortunately those names were a minority of the total and as old time residents, we were able to figure out the identity of most of the customers.  Some however, remained a mystery, especially the old man and old lady at the nursing home.  Perplexed by this and other unknowns, dad handed me the key to the padlock on the door of John’s shack with instructions to feed his cat and look for any customer records.

 With the key and a can of cat food in hand, I crossed the snowy street and unlocked the door to John’s shack.  My perception of  John changed forever that evening when I saw firsthand, how he lived.  For things that we took for granted, John did without. Suddenly my thoughts of the big eccentric jovial man turned to sorrow and pity. There was only one working light that came from a clear glass, high wattage bulb that hung from the ceiling just inside the front door.  From the darkened back room John’s cat peered out from behind a dirty curtain that hung over the doorway.  The cat was distrustful of me at first, but hunger quickly overcame distrust and it devoured the meal in its bowl.  I found two bundles of billing cards attached to steel holding rings in the small front room above the bench where John wrapped newspapers.  With the weather turning bitterly cold, I checked the back rooms to make sure any water was turned off, as there was no heat.

  I took the flashlight from my coat pocket, turned it on, and entered the room behind the curtain.  A small iron coal stove stood on the left and on the right was where John slept.  As I recall, it was sort of a shelf like structure rather than a bed, and the wood base was covered with rags and plastic sheeting.  There were holes under the back door where the cat made entry and exit along with other creatures from the back alley.  There was no furniture to speak of and part of the shack on the east side had a dirt floor where a frost proof hydrant stood.  His shack had neither kitchen nor bathroom, television, or radio.  There were a few books on a small shelf, among them was a large medical dictionary that stood out from the rest.  I don’t recall seeing John’s prized accordion, but I’m sure it was in there somewhere along with his lucky cue stick and cane.  I locked the door behind me and crossed the street to our restaurant with the rings of customer cards in hand.

 For the next month or so we cared for John’s business and added some new customers as we opened a new morning Evansville Courier and Chicago Tribune route.  I wrote letters to John while he was a patient in the hospital.  He was relieved to know I was caring for his cat and that his bank account was growing from the increasing newspaper sales.  I remember the last letter that I received from John in March of 1960.  John was feeling better, thanked us for all we had done for him, and in the closing paragraph he said that he was sorry for the way he had lived and behaved.  He stated that he planned to give up the newspaper business and enter a nursing home somewhere.  John was looking forward to being released from the hospital, but years of untreated diabetes had taken a toll.  We learned that John was suffering circulatory problems in his feet as a result of the diabetes and would have one or more toes amputated.  The snow was melting and springtime was beginning to make an appearance that sunny March morning when we learned that John had died.  It was about that time that John’s cat disappeared and never returned.  Perhaps someone adopted it, perhaps it found a mate somewhere, or maybe it became a traffic victim.  It was one loss that John did not have to sorrow over. 

 I did not make it to John’s funeral as I was still in high school and his funeral was probably on a school day.  I did visit the funeral home and paid my final respects.  I don’t know who handled his funeral arrangements, perhaps it was the Baptist Church.  I remember John lying in the casket and dressed in a suit coat and tie.  That was the only time in my life, and I’m sure for others in Grayville as well, that we saw John wearing a coat and tie.  For years I wondered where John was buried, but never really pursued it beyond simple curiosity.  Years later the late Paul Green, who was a regular customer, told me where he was buried.  John is buried in Grayville’s Oak Grove Cemetery and lies next to his mother and father’s grave on the far southwest corner in the back of what some of us call the old section. Like the Grayville Mercury and Evansville Press, Johnny Appman is but a memory to those of us who knew him.  If you’re out Oak Grove way, you may want to drop off a flower in memory of an unforgettable man who braved all kinds of weather and delivered newspapers to Grayville doorsteps for so many years.  

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