The scene: One of those sacred booths up rickety stairs to the back on the second floor of the original Cunningham’s at 5th and Breck. The walls festooned, floor to ceiling, with RG Potter photos. Images of fair damsels and finaglers. Pols, pugilists and pretties. Jockeys and their mounts. Louisville ephemera. Oertel’s 92 signs. Derby regalia.
It was a spot, by the time I got there, the burnish long lost from once elegant woodwork, that reeked of clandestine sorties, torrid tales of trysts at every turn. Some apocryphal. Some true.
In later, tamer years, you could still hear the giggle of hookers. Mary Polly’s “sisters.” The slap of a poker hand hitting the felt, the defeated player’s grunt. The tinkle of tumblers filled with hooch. James Cunningham didn’t let his station as LPD captain deter his involvement with a bootlegger by the name of Coleman.
This was a seminal place, inextricably intertwined in the helix of Louisville’s DNA. Its tired creakiness was well-worn. It was a joint where bon homie reigned as it had from its initial incarnation in 1870 as a deli and stable.
There were six of us, maybe eight around the round table on the nether side of the booth’s swinging door. None of us of age. None of us with a worry we wouldn’t be served.
Then the moment, indelibly etched.
The swinging, double leaf door slammed open, hip checked against the booth wall by the indomitable presence that was Mr. Poole. No smile. No outward sense of hospitiality. He stood poised, pencil ready at the pad of white paper held shoulder high under his chin.
His mien was one of menace. As if he dared us to order. Or dared us not. One never knew. It was always that way with ever imposing Mr. Poole, a true legend of Louisville eateries.
I am told by my pal Dough that our pal Mo could make Mr. Poole smile. I take it on faith. I never saw it myself.
Mo would prod and utz and kibbitz with Mr. Poole until he’d finally give in and smirk. Or, so I’m told. But Mr. Poole didn’t suffer foolishness. Soon enough, he’d have enough. “Shut up, Mo.”
Trite as it sounds I’ll say it. They don’t make ‘em like Mr. Poole anymore. Okay, one more. They broke the mold.
Raymond Poole passed away the other day at age 81. The Korean War vet challenged and vexed customers at Cunningham’s for 60 years, serving fish sandwiches with sharp cheese and other classic, old school fare. He outlasted the original venue, toiling for awhile at the restaurant’s 4th street site.
So, yes, we can lament the loss of Lynn’s with its short shelf life. Or, John E’s, without even a mention of Bill Boland’s another all-time Louisville fave that preceded it at the Buechel location. (There are those who still swear the predecessor served the best onion rings ever fried anywhere.)
But now is the time for tears, to bury the rag deep in our face. A big part of Louisville’s soul has passed on.
Mr. Poole joins the original Cunningham’s as but a memory. R.I.P.