SLO County’s Merle Davis and the hanging judge

Dell Franklin in his cab

Editor’s Note: The following series, “Cabby’s Corner in SLO Town,” which includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin. 

Franklin’s memoir, “Life On The Mississippi, 1969,” is currently on Amazon.

Early on as a cabby in San Luis Obispo, I was warned about Merle Davis, who drank in McCarthy’s, the oldest bar in town, along with a crew of weathered ranch and farm hands and railroad men and scabrous retirees. Merle was a local legend—decorated war hero as a teenager, owned a ranch out in the California Valley, rodeo guy, champion hunter, notorious roughneck and redneck who went on three-week benders sandwiched between two-month periods of working hard and drying out on his ranch.

When I entered McCarthy’s around noon I recognized Merle immediately—muscular, in his 60s, in boots, soiled jeans, filthy western shirt, surrounded by the morning crew who’d started out at 6 and were going strong. I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned to me, eyes bloodshot and glazed, in the throes of the last couple days of his binge, smelling rancid. He was a home-grown millionaire.

“Who the hell are you?” he growled, while his compatriots looked on, amused, anticipating a confrontation. “You look like shit.”

“I’m the new cabby.”

He shifted around on his stool to half face me. “You some kind-a dirty hippie with that goddam beard?” He tried to grab at it, but I moved my face away.

“Look, I’m a busy man. I’m in a hurry. I can’t waste my time fooling around.”

“Jes’ hold yer horses, boy. I got to finish my drink. Mind if I finish my drink, hippie?”

I stared into his terrible eyes. “You just finish that drink, mister, and finish it now.”

“Hold onto yer pants, by God,” he whined, sipping at a full screwdriver, sizing me up with those eyes. “I got a right to finish my goddam drink, hippie.”

I stepped closer and gave him a look learned from my Dad that often terrified people.

“All right, goddammit, all right,” he said, taken aback. As I hovered over him, he drained his drink while his surprised coterie of longtime admirers looked on; appraising me, not realizing I’d spent years bartending in tough street bars.

Merle got up and followed me to the cab and sat in the front seat. He was close to dead to the world. He told me where he wanted to go—an affluent 1960s neighborhood a couple miles from the main downtown grid. All the homes had well-tended lawns and gardens, except Merle’s, which was faded with dead bushes and scattered with half a dozen folded newspapers. The whole time I drove he listed and mumbled, occasionally fixing his foggy gaze on me. He stunk of booze, dried sweat, and urine.

When I pulled into his driveway, he said, “Yah don’t like me, do yah?”

“Well,” I said, “It seems you don’t care whether I do or not, but if you do, well, we’ll be just fine.”

He handed me a ten for a seven dollar fare and told me to keep the change, a shock being he was a notorious tight-wad. When he got out of the cab, he teetered momentarily then staggered to the door. Later that day I picked him up at his house and drove him to McCarthy’s and then picked him up at McCarthy’s and drove him home. I repeated the process again, stopping at McDonald’s upon his request to go in myself and pick him up a burger, fries and chocolate shake. I gave him his change.

“I gotta eat,” he said miserably. “But I got no appetite.”

From this day on, he began requesting me to pick him up because he didn’t like Will who was a recovering alcoholic/born-again Christian always preaching to him, and Harley was too much of a clean-freak. Both wanted no part of Merle since his chintzy 1$ tips weren’t worth the abuse they absorbed.

About twice a week, I began going into his house with him to clean up the kitchen, disposing of fly-laden food wrappers and Styrofoam coffee cups. I stuffed all his unopened newspapers in the trash and hauled it to the curb. His home was full of rodeo trophies, animal heads, a large gun rack, and photos of his wife and family beside a glassed-in row of ribbons and war medals, including the Silver Star and Purple Heart.

I began taking him from the bar to the convalescent home where his wife, whom he’d known since grammar school, lay like a vegetable from a massive stroke. He asked me to go inside with him for moral support while he held his wife’s hand.

Afterwards, in the cab, he broke down and wept. I patted his shoulder. By the time I dropped him off at McCarthy’s he’d pulled himself together and gazed at me with the most sorrowful eyes I’d seen yet, and explained, “I only loved one gal my whole life, and now she don’t know me. I always been a drinker, but now I can’t take it, seein’ her this way, so I just drink. I don’t know any other way. Thanks for comin’ in with me. Yer a good guy, yah know that?”

“Don’t get carried away, Merle.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

This routine went on for over a year and a half. I wondered how he survived such brutal binges, especially since he divulged to me that he didn’t give a damn if he lived or died, would sooner be buried beside his wife and get it over with. He mentioned having a daughter, a cowgirl living with her husband on a ranch inland from Santa Barbara. She wanted Merle to sell his home and ranch and move in with her, but he refused.

At the beginning of his three-week binges, his recovery was amazing—he looked robust, clear-eyed. By the third week of his binge he was stooped, withered, an emaciated ruin. Nobody in McCarthy’s understood how he was alive.

He started out buying rounds for everybody, but by the third week his sojourns in the bar were shortened as bartenders called frantically to get him out, for his behavior became that of a belligerent madman, driving out even the most durable regulars.

On one of these days, as I dropped him off in the driveway of his home, a white-haired couple, the wife resembling Barbara Bush, strode purposely to my cab. When Merle spotted them, he scurried up to his doorway and disappeared like a truant school boy.

The man said, “Do you realize Merle Davis is an alcoholic?”

“I’m aware of it, sir.”

The wife stepped forward. “Do you think you are doing that poor man any good, taking him to that dreadful bar?”

“It’s not up to me to pass judgment on my customers, ma’am.”

“You are contributing to his self-destruction,” added the man, who, later, I found out from Merle, was a notorious retired hanging judge feared by all defense lawyers and criminals, and especially longhairs caught with a marijuana cigarette.

“I am a cab driver, sir, a bottom-feeder. I am trying to eke out a living. Merle is a good customer. I look out for him as well as I can, under the circumstances…”

“You certainly are not!” snapped Barbara Bush. “If you had any sense of decency, any conscience at all, you would take the man to the alcohol rehabilitation clinic at French Hospital, and not take advantage of him to feather your own nest.”

“Like a vulture,” added the judge. “Feeding off a helpless man who just lost his wife and happens to be wealthy. Shame on you.”

“This conversation is over,” I said, pulling out.

The next day, nearing the end of his siege, I was still driving Merle around. The cab dispatcher ignored the judge’s threats. The couple stood glowering at me from their front porch as I transported a staggering, feeble Merle back and forth from the bar in shorter and shorter intervals.

“That hanging judge and his fish-wife want me to take you to the French Hospital,” I informed Merle, “so you can get rehabilitated.”

He winced like I’d slapped him in the face. “No! No, no, no, don’t do that. You can’t…”

“They’re on my ass, worried you’re drinking yourself to death, and blaming it on me.”

“Go ahead and tell ’em I’m tryna drink myself to death, for Christ’s sake.”

“They won’t understand. They’re pushing hard for me to take you to French Hospital. They’re making my life miserable, Merle.”

“Please don’t take me there,” he pleaded, growing desperate.

As we started to pull away, they were at my door again. “I demand you take Merle to French Hospital,” snapped the fish-wife. “We will report you.”

“Report me to whom?”

“You are abetting a crime,” claimed the judge. “How low must you stoop to make a lousy buck? You are a parasite feeding off a sick and dying man.”

I began backing up, but they stayed with me. Merle, squinting up at the judge and Barbara Bush with his slaughtered eyes, began pleading. “One more,” he whined. “That’s all I want, judge, one more drink.”

“He wants one more drink,” I explained to them. “Then I’ll take him straight to French Hospital.”

They backed off as I squealed out into the street and peeled away. Merle gripped my arm vise-like, a panicky grip. “Yer not takin’ me to French Hospital, are yah?”

“I got to. That hanging judge wants to put me in jail, Merle.”

“No, no, no…” He tried to open the door and jump out of the cab. I grabbed his arm, pulled him back. “Settle down, for Christ’s sake. I was just kidding. I’d never take you anywhere but where you wanna go, even if you are a goddam Republican redneck.”

He sagged back down. “Thanks, pal.” He sighed. “Hell, all I want is one more drink. What’s wrong with those people?”

“They’re the enemy, Merle. I’m not.”

I dropped him off at McCarthy’s. Twenty minutes later they called me back. Merle fell into the cab. When I dropped him off, the judge and wife were on the front porch of their home directly across the street. I drove off. Their heads were together in serious discussion as I peeled away, honking my horn to further aggravate them. In my rearview mirror I saw Merle fall through his front door without closing it.

Fifteen minutes later, our dispatcher sent me back for Merle. “Can’t somebody else pick him up?” I pleaded. “There’s a hanging judge across the street wants to put me in jail for contributing to Merle’s demise.”

“He wants you and only you. You’re stuck with him. Go.”

When I arrived, Merle was out on the front lawn tussling with a young woman whom I recognized instantly from pictures in his home as the daughter. She was a big, strapping girl. A huge, dirt-encrusted pickup was parked on the street. The judge and Barbara were on the lawn, too, trying to corral Merle, who was fighting them off, careening around blindly, a wreck.

I pulled into the driveway, sat watching. I rolled down the side window when Merle spotted my cab and shouted at me in a frantic manner and waved his arms like a man who’d been lost in the woods for a week.

“Get me out-a here!” he bellowed, face purple. “Help me!”

I shook my head.

“I just want one more drink!” he pleaded with his daughter, who had him around the waist from behind, while Merle pulled her toward my cab, like a plow-horse. Then she surged and he started backwards as the judge and wife circled them.

Merle reached into the pocket of his stained, rancid western shirt and withdrew his wad. “Twenty bucks if you get me out-a here!”

I shook my head.

He waved the bulging wad maniacally. “Forty bucks! Please! Fifty! For God’s Sake, get me out-a here!”

I sprung from my cab and was immediately involved in the fray. The hawk-beaked couple tried to head me off, but quickly moved out of my way. I took hold of Merle, and the cowgirl and I engaged in a sort of tug-of-war, Merle being the unwilling rope. She was strong. As I began to find the upper hand, she surged. I momentarily allowed her the momentum while holding Merle’s shirt, ripping it, and the daughter sprawled backwards onto her fanny, landing hard.

I quickly hustled Merle into the front seat and jumped into the still running cab and screeched out of the driveway while they all ran toward me. I slammed on the brakes in the middle of the street, jammed into drive and pealed out, honking my horn, keeping my hand on the horn all the way down the street and around the corner so as to show everybody in this enemy neighborhood who was in charge.

“Goddam,” Merle wheezed. He was panting like a dog. “Why can’t a guy get a drink around here, huh? All I want is one more.”

“I dunno, Merle, but I ain’t comin’ back to that hornet’s nest. That daughter of yours is a bull. You better finish up at McCarthy’s and get back to your ranch before that crew puts you in French Hospital, and me in jail.”

“Guess I’ll go back tomorrow,” he conceded. He patted my knee. “Thanks, pal. Yer a good guy.”

“Let’s not get carried away now.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

When we pulled up to McCarthy’s, there was a gleam in his diluted eyes and a slightly triumphant smirk on his ravaged mug. He peeled off a fifty from his thick wad and placed it in my shirt pocket. He managed to painfully extricate himself from the cab and bent down to stick his face in the window.

“Yah goddam hippie,” he snorted, and weaved into McCarthy’s.

PS. A few years later, when I was no longer driving a cab, I ran into Merle at the multiplex theater in town. He looked good and it took him awhile to remember me, and said a woman came into his life, made him quit drinking, and all was well. It was obvious my presence shamed him, and he slunk away.