The United Nations of Louisville by Pat McDonogh


As our country wrestles over why we can’t stop shooting each other, one unlikely place that will accept you as you are, no matter who you are or where you come from. And if you do come be prepared to sing.

 It’s 12:35a.m. The ear bleeding volume of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Winning Keno numbers compete onscreen with the weekly NASCAR race. Customers at the bar stare at their last drinks. An off-key vocal, a final chain saw meets blender guitar solo and then a smattering of applause.

 It’s another Saturday night at the Peppermint Lounge, where a karaoke machine weaves a disparate and diverse group into family. The bar has been a south Louisville institution for nearly 70 years. Over the years it’s been a hangout for WWII soldiers, as well as L&N railroad and Naval Ordnance workers. On most Saturday nights the crowd of would be singers includes refugees from many countries.

 Over the din of clinking glasses and conversations, an eclectric and telling selection of songs fill the night. Ring of Fire, He Ain’t Heavy, La Bamba, What a Wonderful World and Comfortably Numb.

 Ronnie Bailey grew up in Louisville, leaving home at age 19 to serve two tours of duty as a soldier in Iraq.  “I’ve been shot and been blown up three times. I was in the Special Forces and ended up having a stroke from a hole in my heart that sent a blood clot to my brain. Karaoke is a big stress reliever. It just lets everything kind of float away. I might be here on date night with my wife and I can make her cry (by singing her love songs). I love to entertain people, I love reaching people..“

 Lounge owner Rebekah Ashcraft calls Beechmont the “United Nations of Louisville,” and the Peppermint Lounge, Switzerland. “Peace in the center of the storm is what we offer. It’s just a quiet place to relax. We don’t care who you are, as long as you treat everyone with respect. The people who sing karaoke generally sing the same songs. It brings them comfort and takes them back for a moment to reminisce on life. Sometimes I’m humbled by how little it takes to make people happy.”                 

 “We’re all brothers in song,” DJ Ronny Baker adds as the final singer saunters to the mic.

By Pat McDonogh, The Courier-Journal

A Human Sewer That Spares No One by Pat McDonogh

A colleague describes the Hall of Justice as a “cornucopia of medieval misery, where everyone’s problems are in plain sight, on a perpetual walk of shame.” Like a “human sewer that spares no one, even those acquitted or mere witnesses to them.”

The Hall of Justice, home of Jefferson County District Court, is a building in which very few people want to be.  It summons us for grievances both minor and grave.  Its 1970s textured cement slabs and dull windowless light wear on your senses and hasten your desire to leave.  Like a living M.C. Escher painting, with its balconies, spiral staircases and escalators on the fritz. A dull and grinding Kafkaesque nightmare.

On one recent day in Jefferson District Judge Eric Haner’s courtroom, there was a brief moment of happiness as he married a couple that appeared very much in love. Ten minutes later, a woman is handcuffed and hauled off to jail.

The building -- long horizontal slabs stacked like a game of Jenga -- was meant to be a one-stop shop for justice when it was dedicated in 1977, combining the metro jail, city and county courts and support offices as well as the county police department. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White was on hand to dedicated the new building.  But the Hall was troubled from the start when judges started complaining about its small courtrooms. Multiple jailbreaks and bomb threats followed. The building never closes and an average of 3,000 people come through its doors every day.

Architect and historian Steve Wiser says the Hall of Justice was a fascinating building when new. The ‘Brutalist’ or ‘Modernist’ style was popular at the time and won several awards.  “The interior space was very cool.” But he said the past 40 years have not been kind to that style of architecture. “It’s not cool anymore, it’s no longer around, and that’s for the better,” he said. “Downtown Louisville in the mid 1970’s was not a great place to be. There was concern over urban crime, so little glass was used in the building.”

Attorney Maury Kommor has been plying his trade for 29 years in the building, which he says is grimy from years of tobacco smoke. The jail space on top of it is even worse, he says, with “stains of blood and who knows what else stamped into the walls and concrete slab floors.”

He recalls a divorce case he was involved in where the woman perched on a ledge on the exterior of the Hall threatening to jump. Kommor said a deputy sheriff told her, ‘If you really want to get at your husband, you’d be better off alive.’ Another deputy grabbed her and pulled her down. “That sort of thing stays with you and it takes its toll,” Kommor said. “You see all sides of emotions,” he continued “Happiness, anger, crying, violence, nervous breakdowns and emotional turmoil, starting every morning at 8 a.m.,” five days a week. The building is like the New York Stock Exchange, with people screaming, yelling and crying. I’d be lying if I say it didn’t affect me,” he said. “Does white middle America know anything about an average day there?”

Robert Smith, who shines shoes in the building, says “All the craziness of the city comes through here. It amazes me that people who come here want to keep giving their money away. You’ve got to pay the lawyer, the court and more if they put you in a program. The place is all about the money,” he said.

 Still, Kommor says, the Hall of Justice is so familiar to him that it has become comfortable. “I know when I open the door at 6th and Jeff that I’m home again,” he said.

Pat McDonogh, The Courier-Journal



The Mountain Santa

 Loretta Lynn’s voice breaks the silence of a dreary Saturday morning in Sunshine Hollow, blasting loudly through her rendition of Blue Christmas and alerting the residents of Santa’s arrival.  In most Christian cultures there are traditions and tales of St. Nick bringing gifts to boys and girls. In the mountains of Appalachia Santa arrives on the tailgate of Ford pickup truck. Behind him a caravan of elves dole out presents to any child in sight.

 If Mike Howard were applying for the job of a department store Santa he would be soundly rejected. Too short, too wiry and no beard. Dressing up as Santa is easy, being Santa takes great faith.  Howard, a retired coal miner has been the Mountain Santa to children of Harlan, County, Kentucky since 1974. The youngest of 11 children, Howard, 64, watched his brother play Santa at a church Christmas and was taken by the joy on the children’s faces. The next year he took over and quickly realized the great need to share gifts to all the hollows of Harlan.

 Like all missions, Mountain Santa gets by on the kindness and donations of others. “I go to the mountains every day and pray and the Lord gives me the money I need,” says Howard. Volunteers from Louisville, Tennessee, Mississippi and North Carolina pour into 268 Santa Lane leading up to Christmas to wrap presents and help with deliveries. This year Mike will hand out one hundred truckloads of gifts in six different trips through the county.

  “This means a lot to children who don’t have nothing.  There are a lot of people out here who don’t have Christmas and Mike helps-out every year. He’s a wonderful person,” says Debbie Hensley, who carried home an armload of presents from the passing Santa. “It makes you feel so good inside knowing that you’ve done something good. I always cry on Christmas Eve when the last run is empty. I wish I had more gifts to keep going.” Says Howard.

 He’s not the rotund Santa on a Coca-Cola ad, but to the poor children of the Harlan County he is very real. Their memories of his coming will live with them for a lifetime.

 Pat McDonogh, The Courier-Journal