Street Talk: One night in Deadwood

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So, I’ve been watching “Deadwood” on Amazon Prime because it’s November and what else am I going to do with my spare time that doesn’t involve freezing parts of me that generally crave warmth?

Set in an unestablished mining town in post-Civil War South Dakota, Deadwood is a wild place, lawless and volatile; a muddy village populated by rough men and streetwise women, every one of them conniving their way toward personal fortunes or inglorious doom.

A man has to work some dogs, after all, to learn how the tail wags.

In Deadwood, there is no rule of law. Murdered men are quickly swaddled and fed to the pigs. Disagreements are settled with flying fists over card tables or with revolvers on the mucky streets. There is artful cussing and spitting used as punctuation. There is whiskey at all hours.

It’s a brutal place, sure enough, but it’s also brutally honest. To be frank, my brothers, I’m enamored with Deadwood; not only the town, but the age — that age before political correctness, before high-speed travel and before government control of everything and everyone.

When you’re sitting through your third human resources lecture of the year on sexual harassment in the workplace — or when you’re advised in hushed tones that you should use the term “holiday tree” instead of “Christmas tree” to avoid offering offense — don’t you occasionally yearn for the savage candor of the Wild West?

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Ah, maybe it’s just me. And I swear, every single time I sit my bones down for another episode of “Deadwood,” I find myself thinking in a lusty way about Lisbon Street.

Now, hear me out, pardner, before you reach for the rope. I’m not saying that Lisbon Street resembles the dusty saloon brawl that is the town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Far from it these days. But it occurs to me that Lewiston almost certainly started out that way. Way back in the beginning, before it was incorporated — or whatever they call the unfortunate act of turning a township over to government — I imagine Lewiston was plenty wild indeed.

Imagine Lisbon Street as a muddy, shoulder-to-shoulder thruway dotted with saloons, a blacksmithing outfit and maybe a brothel or two instead of the art galleries and knickknack shops that exist there today.

Way up here, far from New Yawk City, Boston or Chicago, I suspect the people of early Lewiston were a lawless bunch by necessity, required to settle matters in ways that would today be deemed primitive at best, criminal at worst. How many legal matters were resolved with brawls in front of what is now the Chamber of Commerce? How many men do you suppose were flung through windows in what is now a squeaky clean and brightly lit Subway sandwich shop? How many card cheats were swaddled and fed to pigs?

Brutal, sure. But it’s hard not to long, at least a little bit, for a time when the most important things in life were your cards at the poker table, the price of hooch, and being at least marginally good enough at something to make a living at it.

The people of Lisbon Street, Deadwood, may have drunk whiskey for breakfast and tugged an occasional ace from their sleeves, but I’d wager they were well-mannered, and in a way that’s more genuine than the superficial courtesies you see today.

Everything they wore was 15 pounds of thick, hot cotton, yet every time a man stepped out the door, he remembered to straighten his cravat and toss on a hat. They’d rise from their chairs whenever a woman walked into the room. They’d yank off their Stetsons, keep the tobacco spit in their mouths and forgo cussing until the lass was out of earshot — and I reckon they didn’t get called sexist bastards for doing it.

Such fine manners, those old west folks had, and they didn’t have a human resources department to tell them how to do it.

Ah, Deadwood. I dream of spending just one day there, and one night filled with sordid adventures. And I wonder what my role would be in such a place. Wordsmith, I suppose, reporting on business ventures, cotillions and rumors of what the wretched government was up to.

I like to think I’d have gone a different way, though. If there was a Martha Feeley in Deadwood, maybe I could have learned enough to play piano in the town’s most raucous saloon. Or maybe I’d run the apothecary, shoe the horses or sweep hair off the barbershop floor.

Whatever, mister. As long as I could earn my keep somehow, I’d have been happy in Deadwood until I either blew out my liver, got flung through a window or was fed to the pigs.

“Welcome to Deadwood,” is the way entrepreneurial brute Al Swearengen put it. “It can be combative.”

Only he said it with cussing.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal newsman who rides a chrome horse ’round these parts. Telegraph him at mlaflamme@sunjournal.com.

Mark LaFlamme

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