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In the Heart of the Blackland Divide

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Down Memory Lane: Remembering Roscoe's Domino Parlors

A hot game of dominoes at Boxcar Slim's domino parlor in 1979.  Left to right are Boxcar Slim, Charlie Gray, Mr. McHenry, and Chubby Johnson.
Life is always changing, and for all the new things that come into our lives, there is always something else that is leaving, never to return.  So many things that were once common are now nothing more than distant memories, and in a generation or so, they will become so completely forgotten that it will be as though they never existed.  And one of those long gone aspects of life in Roscoe is the domino parlor.
Domino parlors were the exclusive domain of men, and, although there were no signs in them anywhere that said “No Women Allowed,” everyone—men, women, and children—understood perfectly well that they weren’t.  Women were often even reluctant to come to the door to get their husbands, instead sending the kids to go in and fetch their fathers.  In all the countless hours I spent in domino parlors, I can’t ever remember a single women coming into one anytime for any reason.  At most, they might stand at the door and wait for their husband to get up and come out to find out what they wanted.  

Even so, it’s not that men did anything particularly unusual or masculine in them, because they didn’t.  It was just that whatever went on in them was done entirely without the interference, influence, or participation of females, and because of that, there was a kind of male relaxation possible there not achievable anywhere else in town, unless maybe it was somewhere like Chubby & Mac’s filling station when there were no women around.

In the domino parlors, you could cuss, fart, smoke cigarettes and flip the ashes in the floor, chew tobacco and spit in the spittoons (or, in some cases, empty three-pound Folger’s coffee cans), and say things and tell jokes that the normal run of upstanding Roscoe woman would have considered improper if not scandalous.  But such things didn’t bother the men in the domino parlors.  In fact, if anything, they enjoyed them because it meant that they were in a zone where the rules they had to follow at home, in church, and other more civilized venues didn’t apply.  In fact, I expect one of the big reasons that domino parlors were looked upon with such favor by the men was that they were a refuge from the expectations found around the churches and more respectable establishments of the community.  

The domino parlors in Roscoe were always in those old, high-ceilinged buildings with wooden plank floors.  There would be a number of square wooden tables in the place with wood or cane-bottom chairs and brass spittoons or coffee cans on the floor next to them for convenient spitting.  On the tables were sets of dominoes and those little abacus-looking counters, little round beads on rows of wires that were used for keeping score.  

The game played was always the one known as “matching ends,” where you scored by getting the dots on the ends to add up to multiples of five, and by counting up your opponents’ remaining points if you “dominoed,” or were the first one to finish playing all your dominoes.  Each little bead on the counter was worth five points, and there were five rows with ten beads to a row, that is to say, 250 total points for a game.  You had to have four men to play a proper game because you always played partners with the person sitting across from you.  

If you and your partner won the game, not only did you get bragging rights, at least temporarily, but you also got to play for free.  The losers had to pay the establishment a nickel apiece for the privilege of playing the game.  That wasn’t so bad, though, because it meant you could play for a couple of hours or more for a quarter, and, if you were hot, you might even get out without paying a cent.   

Of course, beating the old men was not an easy thing to do.  There is a real science to playing dominoes, and the old men had decades of experience to draw on.  The good ones could tell what you had in your hand after just a couple of rounds and, if they had a halfway decent hand, could block you from playing your last two or three dominoes.   You also had to be careful how you played because they would expect you to know what it meant if they played a certain domino in response to one the opponent played.

But men didn’t go to the domino parlor just to play dominoes.  They also went there to find out what was going on around town, who’d bought a new tractor, who’d been arrested, who’d been getting drunk, and so on.  Women always had the reputation of being gossips in the beauty shops, but, if the truth were known, they probably weren’t gossiping any more than their husbands were in the domino parlors.  

When someone mentions domino parlors, the first one that always pops into my mind is the one Boxcar Slim used to run.  It was on the north side of Broadway, across the street from the Steak House and Russell Haney’s Tailor Shop and a couple of doors to the west of the Pool Hall.  In an earlier time, it had been Check Farmer’s Barber Shop, but by the early sixties, it was Boxcar Slim’s domino parlor.  Slim lived there.  In the back behind a cloth curtain there was a single bed not much bigger than a cot, and I don’t guess he ever took a shower, probably just washing his face and hands in the little lavatory that was in the restroom.  Old men, usually retirees, would start showing up for games in the mornings, and the games would go on for the rest of the day.  

But the best place in town to play dominoes was not at Boxcar Slim’s, but at the Pool Hall.  The Roscoe Pool Hall, the one run by John Smyrl and later by Orville Faught with the assistance of his sons Billy and Buryl, had the unique benefit of being a pool hall and a domino parlor all in one.  On one side of the establishment there was a row of pool tables running all the way from the front to the back, about eight in all, with the two in the front being full-sized snooker tables.  And on the other side were a half-dozen or more domino tables.  So, when you went in the front door, there were pool tables to your right and domino tables to your left.  

It’s hard to imagine with Roscoe the way it is today, but I can remember times in the fifties, especially on Saturdays in the fall when the town was full of Mexican braceros who’d come to Roscoe to pull cotton, that there wouldn’t be an empty pool table in the place, and, on the other side, there would be several tables full of men playing dominoes while others sat and watched, often sitting backwards in their cane-bottom chairs with their legs straddling the back of the chair.  

As bizarre as it may sound, there was something warm and cozy about being in the pool hall on a cold winter’s night with people like Walter and Lawrence Sims, Billy and Buryl Faught (who also ran a shoe-shine operation on the side), Dewey “Catfish” Chapman, Lewis Snyder, Chubby Johnson, Charlie Gray, Snuffy Jones, and other old men who used to hang out there.  It’s sometimes hard for me to realize that I’m as old now as they were then, and there are times when I’d appreciate the privilege of going back and playing a game or two of dominoes with them like we used to do.


  1. You missed the cotton gins. There were always domino games going on there. A better class of people!

  2. I never knew there was such strategy to dominos. We played it as kids, but spent more time lining them up to watch them fall than playing by the rules. Great descriptions of the game and the players!

  3. I'm getting nostalgic about it and I wasn't even there! Great post.

  4. I miss those days and I miss those men. If I close my eyes I can still hear the clink of the dominoes and the smell of the oil and gas at Chubby and Dads station. Thanks Snake.

  5. I remember going to Boxcar Slim's as a little girl. What really sticks out in MY memory is the funky smell of "old man". It was a strange, unpleasant odor.

  6. Many an evening was spent not inside Orville Faught's pool hall, but sitting outside on the sidewalk or street curb. Like Rose in Titanic, this is where I learned to "spit like a man". The chewing tobacco for the novices was Beech Nut or Red Man. Those who were older veterans chewed Tinsley White Tag (my dad's favorite), Bull of the Woods or Days Work. The red bricks on the street were often a browner shade when the gathering broke up.

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  8. I was trying to correct my spelling and deleted the whole thing! I was just saying that I remember those days and the urge to go inside the hall. I think I may have a photo of Boxcar Slim somewhere, I will try to find it.

  9. I'm a former Roscoe girl and just ran across your website. Charlie Gray was my Papaw! I loved him so and miss him every day. How wonderful to see this picture and read this very insightful article.

  10. I remember when the Scotts-Mr. Scott and his son Jesse(who was crippled from polo and was in a wheelchair) ran the dominoes and pool hall late 40s and early 50s. I worked there as a boy shining shoes. My Dad James Gortney and Charlie Gray was cousins. I grew up in Roscoe and left there i 1957 and moved to Odessa, Tx. My brother Jerry still lives in Sweetwater, and keeps us brother and sister Doris Gortney, informed of the going on around the area. Would like to here from friend in the area. Sure miss all the fun times I had in Roscoe.
    Aubrey "Guy' Gortney


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