The man who knew Jack Ruby

The man who knew Jack Ruby

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A short story by Johnny Hughes

In 1963 I formed a strange friendship with this old gambler named Soft Shoe O' Shea, or just Shoes. He was a regular fixture around the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel, the fanciest hotel in all of Texas.

The lobby was a beehive of activity and a real power centre. There were several lush leather couches that sat beneath these huge oil paintings of western scenes. There were often big oilmen there looking at maps, trading leases or listening to another story from Shoes. The oilmen wore the big hats and boots. Soft Shoe O' Shea was always nattily dressed in an older suit and tie, french cuffs and cuff links, a dress fedora or pork-pie hat and highly-shined two-tone shoes. Very often, he had a rosebud or white carnation in his lapel. He was a tall man, too thin for his suits, very agile and athletic. Sometimes when he'd walk up one of the oilmen would sing out, "It's Soft Shoe O'Shea." And he'd do a few dance steps. He was 80 and seemed to know everyone in downtown Dallas. I was only 23, and that age difference became the reason for our friendship.

Shoes had been an early partner in a dice game with Rowdy Martin, who got big rich as a wildcatter. Rowdy was chasing oil in the sky, but his two sons, Little Rowdy and Sonny, with more money than good sense, seemed to keep Shoes in money. They ran a big poker game weekends in a plush suite in the Adolphus Hotel. They'd chippy there too. I got to playing lucky there, even though it was over my bankroll. Shoes never played, but he would be up there telling stories while we waited to get our first hole cards of the day. Once the game kicked off he mummed up.

The Martin boys both had displeasing personalities, even for nouveau riche Texans. They often teased Shoes. Once, Little Rowdy asked Shoes to "tell that story about Bonnie and Clyde”. There were four us waiting for enough to start the poker game. Shoes pulled his chair up closer to the poker table where we were sitting. He hitched up his trousers. His watery, blue eyes began to shine. He took off his black fedora, exposing a full head of snow-white hair. I'd never seen him so excited.

"Well, I was working the stick at a craps game on the north edge of Dallas around Christmas of 1933. One night the boss said we was gonna stay late and fade this high player. About one o'clock in the morning Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and two other guys show up. Clyde and the boss went way back so Clyde knew we wouldn't snitch them off, and we hoped they wouldn't rob us. Clyde goes to shooting and drinking whiskey. We didn't have nothing to eat but Vienna sausage, crackers, cheese and onions and he ate his own self two plates full.

"They was real famous and in the newspapers and all, robbing them banks when banks were unpopular. I asked Bonnie for something to remember her by. We didn't have a pencil for an autograph so she pulled this little pair of scissors out of her purse and gave me this... a lock of her hair."
Shoes leaned up on one cheek and pulled out his ancient billfold. Inside a piece of hotel stationary, there was a lock of brownish, dry hair. He passed it around for everyone to see. "It was just a few months later the Texas Rangers shot them down like dogs on the street. Don't seem legal, the Texas Rangers ambushing folks in Louisiana." Little Rowdy was rolling his eyes and mocking Shoes.

After that Shoes and I sat in the lobby and talked nearly every time I played in the poker game. He had a key to the suite, and we’d go up there and make coffee some mornings. Sometimes he would be in the lobby in the middle of the night. I thought he lived at the Adolphus, but he lived in a residential hotel, aka flop house, where old men paid by the week and you heard coughing all night. Shoes could sign for room service up at the suite, and he often got a chicken-salad sandwich or egg-salad sandwich to go. He'd drink half a beer in a glass and put the bottle back in the suite's refrigerator.

One night late, I ran into Shoes in the lobby when I had $84 left in the world and dark, low feelings to match the occasion. "Poker money ain't got no home." he said. "When I was young, every time I pumped a healthy bankroll, I never dreamt that I would get broke again, but I did lots of times. If you ain't got enough character to be broke, go to nine-to-fiving it. Get a job. Be a square John, 'cause a gambler has to know how to be broke in style. Yessir, in style."

Jack Ruby was a regular in the Adolphus lobby, walking around fast, giving away passes to his strip club. Ruby and Shoes seemed to be absolute best friends. When Ruby came in, Shoes would walk toward him, and they'd often laugh or do a little dance. Shoes gave conventioneers’ passes to Ruby's joint. I heard at the poker game, but Shoes never told me, that Shoes ran football bets for Ruby, who was a bookie.

One time, Jack Ruby got in a fist fight in the Adolphus' big fancy Burgundy Room and was arrested. Folks were talking about that big time, and Little Rowdy guessed we'd not see Ruby again in the hotel. The next day, there were Shoes and Ruby strutting around the lobby as if nothing had happened.

Another night I ended up bigger behind than a cotton patch spider. Shoes wanted to talk and I didn't, at first. He told me that he once had a big joint on the Jacksboro Highway in Ft. Worth during World War II. They had three dice tables and sometimes a roulette wheel. Then the Texas Rangers raided. "That was the best bankroll of my life, but every shiny dime went for crooked lawyers and crooked politicians. I barely stayed out of the pen," he said.

When Kennedy was assassinated, I was playing poker in Hot Springs, Arkansas. When I saw a familiar figure, Jack Ruby, blasting away at Oswald on TV, I headed for Dallas. It wasn't as if I had a boss, or a budget, or a schedule.

I went straight to the Adolphus, figuring Shoes would tell me all about it. Only I never saw Shoes again. Not ever. Neither did anyone else, best I could tell. As the days passed, even the Martin brothers showed concern. I found the 50-cent limit poker game in the back of a pool hall that Shoes had told me about. No one had seen him. I found the Dallas Arms, the fleabag where he had lived for some years. They had carefully boxed up his impressive wardrobe, but no one had seen him since the assassination.
Little Rowdy didn't take any convincing to file a missing person's report. The police checked the morgue and hospitals and found nothing.

The bellhops at the Adolphus were these old black men in maroon uniforms. I had often seen Shoes talking to them. I asked one of them if they had heard any thing about Shoes.

He said, "The F.B.I. and the Dallas detectives asked around about Jack Ruby and about Shoes, but we haven't seen him. I told the man that if he found old Shoes to ask him to show him the lock of Bonnie Parker's hair." ?

Johnny Hughes is author of Texas Poker Wisdom, available from Amazon.

Tags: johnny hughes, columnist