A few weeks ago, a friend posted a picture on Facebook of a cool sign. It was the old neon sign for the Keyhole Klub that used to be on Procter Street in downtown Port Arthur. I had seen the photo before, but this brought back memories from my days at The Port Arthur News in the late 1980s.
When I moved from England in 1988 (I always claim I was a refugee from Thatcherism) I got a job in the composing room at The News. The building was on Lakeshore Drive, opposite the town hall and one block over from the police station.
By the late ’80s, downtown PA was already in bad shape. Mardi Gras had not yet set its stall there and businesses were few and far between. I am an inquisitive person so I took my lunch breaks and explored the neighborhood for an hour. I would set off in one direction for 20-25 minutes then turn around and walk back, ready to pick up the afternoon’s tasks to get the paper ready to print (the composing room had a decent-sized staff as this was pre-computer and everything was laid out by hand).
I normally brought a sandwich and would often relax on the sea wall opposite The News, but one day I had forgotten to bring lunch. I thought I would pop to the Kress store and pick up some chips or some such, but one of my co-workers said, “You should go to the Keyhole Klub and get a hot dog.” The Keyhole was opposite Kress’ but I hadn’t noticed it. The sign was not illuminated during the day and the place was pretty nondescript from the outside. I’m not a huge fan of hot dogs, but I thought I’d give it a shot.
It turned out to be a religious experience.
The revolving door was slightly recessed, and I left the sunlit street and entered the darkened room. A cool looking bar ran down the left side of the narrow building. To my right, some tennis tournament was on TV. I sat down and ordered a chili dog and a water (it was just lunch and I had to go back to work).
The ambience was right up my alley. Apart from me and the barman, the only other inhabitants were a couple of regulars that looked like the bar was built around them. The dingy décor looked like it stepped out of a movie, which it actually did. Wim Wenders filmed scenes for “Paris, Texas” there.
My hot dog arrived and I decided to stay there and eat as I soaked up the atmosphere. I took a bite and tasted the most glorious thing I had put in my mouth in years. To call this a hot dog was like calling the “Mona Lisa” a picture of some girl. The chili overflowed the bun and there were onions and mustard and everything under the sun. It was magnificent. Just to be sure I wasn’t having some sort of culinary hallucination, I ordered another. It was just as fabulous as the first.
It turns out the Keyhole Klub’s chili dogs were the stuff of legend. I have yet to meet a Port Arthuran of a certain age with whom I cannot share nostalgic stories of the dogs. The University Press recently hosted a panel discussion in conjunction with The Port Arthur News and Port Arthur City Council. I chatted with councilmember Charlotte Moses as I walked her to her car and mentioned the Keyhole Klub and she immediately waxed rhapsodic about the chili dogs. It was a lovely bonding moment.
It’s hard to research the history of the place, except that from the 1950s on it was supposedly a hub for gambling and prostitution which, honestly, I can imagine. It had that look.
I had a Keyhole dog at least twice a week for ages. One day I stepped out of The News’ front doors and jauntily made my way around the corner. I walked at the revolving door and almost broke my wrist. The door didn’t revolve. The Keyhole Klub was closed! I stepped back and saw a small sign taped to the door that it was out of business (I read somewhere that the State of Texas raided it and closed it because of its illegal activities).
Do you ever have that moment where you are in a fog of disbelief? I read that the sign, and I knew the door was locked, but I stood there for a couple of minutes pushing the door anyway. I tried to convince myself that it was temporary, that it would reopen soon. I went there every day for the next couple of weeks, but to no avail.
I read a meme the other day that said there will always be a last time you see someone and most of the time you won’t know it. I had had my last Keyhole Klub chili dog and I hadn’t known it. Almost 30 years later I still grieve my loss. How bad could the illegal activities have been to deny me my simple gastric pleasure?
I know this story will trigger those of you who experienced it to revisit the emptiness that ordinary chili dogs will never quite fill. As for the rest of you, you’ll never know what you missed.