I visited a bordello. There, I’ve said it. Now I bet I have your attention!
Before you get the wrong idea about me, allow me some preliminary paragraphs, and I will explain.
It was a Monday in March in Hannibal, Mo., a river town with an interesting background. Hannibal, of course, is the boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, and was the setting for some of his famous writings.
My oldest son, Brendan, and I were in town for a day of sight-seeing, father-son bonding and escape from the winter blahs.
Brendan lives in the St. Louis area and is a fantasy sports writer and editor for ESPN.com. He spends most of his weekdays alone at home, working at a computer.
I am a semi-retired jack of all trades, master at none. And I, too, spend most of my weekdays home alone writing and/or puttering.
Brendan and I had been commiserating about being cooped up inside during the long winter a while back when I came up with a brilliant idea (I don’t have many of those): “Let’s choose a place between our homes, get a hotel room, then spend the day and evening together just having fun and relaxing,” I suggested.
Brendan liked the idea. A few weeks later we selected a location, Hannibal, and a date, and we made a hotel reservation.
Hannibal was Brendan’s idea because of the Twain attractions and our family’s history there. My parents grew up and were married there. Hannibal is also where my grandparents and some other relatives lived.
As children, my brother and I visited Hannibal several times each year with our parents. One summer when I was about 16, my parents delivered me there, and I spent a couple of weeks staying a few days at a time with various relatives. So for me, Hannibal is like a home away from home.
Brendan had visited Hannibal, too, as a child. But he didn’t remember it.
The day of our father-son visit to Hannibal was what I consider to be a typical March day: Cloudy, cool and breezy. But there was no rain or snow.
We met a little after 11, dropped our bags in our hotel room, had a quick lunch and started our self-guided tour.
I showed Brendan Lindell Avenue, where my grandparents on my father’s side, Harry and Grace Roberts, and my great-grandfather, Christian Pabst, who had immigrated from Germany at age 8, lived.
He also saw Union Street, where my grandparents on my mother’s side, Ben and Minnie Miller, lived.
We visited my Aunt Doris. She is my sole surviving relative in Hannibal and still lives alone at age 94.
I showed Brendan some former neighborhood stores where I had shopped with relatives as a kid and a playground — now an industrial site — where my brother and I had once spent much of our time during every visit.
We saw where my Uncle Ralph’s barber shop had once stood, and I showed my son the place where my dad, his grandfather, Ray, who couldn’t swim, had nearly drowned in the floodwaters of Bear Creek. Had his playmate, nicknamed Bozo, had not pulled him out of the water, I wouldn’t be here writing this.
Thanks to my genealogical research, Brendan and I also located the house my great Aunt Pearl and Uncle Carl had lived in and the house my great-grandparents, William and Laura Roberts, had lived in.
Our visit also included stops at some family cemetery plots and well-known Hannibal sites: Lovers Leap, Mark Twain Cave, the statue of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on Cardiff Hill and the boyhood home of Sam Clemens and related buildings on Hill Street.
Our visit to the bordello – OK, it’s really a former bordello — came that evening.
I had asked the hostess at the Mark Twain Interpretative Center for the name of a good place for an evening meal. One of two restaurants she suggested, and the one we selected, was Lula Belle’s.
Just a short walk from our downtown hotel, Lula Belle’s was specifically designed and constructed for its intended purpose in 1917 by a madam from Chicago, Sarah Smith.
When Smith died in 1932, another madam, Bessie Heolscher, bought and refurbished the place in a Spanish style that was popular during the period.
The restaurant’s brochure claims the brothel girls “were reputed to have been highly respected citizens, purchasing quality goods, paying their bills on time and using discretion with their clientele.
“Prominent businessmen, railroaders and travelers were just a few of an interesting mix of customers.”
But apparently there wasn’t quite enough discretion. The brothel came under heavy attack by the local ministers’ alliance intent on closing it in the early 1950s.
And frequent police raids resulted in its closing in the late 1950s.
Lula Belle’s is named for a fictitious lady of the evening, and our meal there was excellent.
You may have heard this quotation: “You can never go home again.”
It’s from James Agee’s book, “A Death in the Family.”
I like the quotation, but, luckily, it’s not always true. My son and I did, in fact, go home again — on a Monday in March in Hannibal, Mo.
Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece was submitted as a column to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.