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In Praise of the Neighborhood Bar

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On the back of the bar, all the bottles were in their usual places.

Having endured a few swipes of a bar rag, they persevered in their role as catchers of the dust that in places such as this was practically a decorative item.

No stainless steel machines there, churning out slushes with Sesame Street names like Tropicoladas, Bloody Smurfs, Dirty Monkeys and Fruit Loops. No, this was the stuff of adult drinking: VO, I.W. Harper, Four Roses, and things named when age was a positive attribute: Old Crow, Old Forester, Old Granddad.

The call was for Old Crow, splash of soda in a short glass. Wrap your fist around the glass, spin slowly around on your barstool and full of all the common sense of a newborn baby, get ready for a little education.

Pal, welcome to the corner bar. And count yourself lucky to find one because the train left the station a few decades back.

A town with a true drinking culture should be like a millefiori necklace, a thousand flowers of colorful mosaics. A place to drink Bloody Marys on a Sunday morning, a place to drink Sidecars when she's wearing the black sleeveless dress with the silver conch pendant, a place to sip a Pimms Cup to take the edge off the swelter, a place for a nightcap.

But there's a little bead that's loose and fading, about to come off and when it does, we won't have a full necklace. That bead is the corner bar. Maybe more completely called the neighborhood bar. The kind of bar, as the theme from Cheers promised, "where everybody knows your name."

There's a book titled The Great Good Place, and it talks of bars like this. It says, "More and more, our lives are divided between an alienated workplace and a private home, with only a torturous commute to mediate. A third place, the great good place, is sadly disappearing."

But they weren't yet gone when I reached the drinking age. There was Roy Short's place on Prytania, Gunther's on Carrollton, Calamia's Claiborne, Frank's Place on Laurel. Markey's and Bud Rip's downtown, Serio's on Royal, Fatso's on Dumaine. Helen's in the Channel, Matt's and Zip's on Banks, Connor's and the Home Plate on Tulane. And a hundred, maybe a thousand others, of names forgotten but pleasantries remembered. In other words, nostalgia.

Now, admittedly, nostalgia is a particularly American thing -- not odd that those with the least past would celebrate it most -- and an unsteady guide to the truth. So before we get to the full-figured nostalgia, maybe we should put a hard truth behind us.

Dilapidation? Ah, yes, dilapidation.

Well, yes, sometimes there was a rip on a barstool or pool table and plenty of times there were beer cases stacked next to -- and as high as -- the juke box. And almost always the only thing in the men's room older than the plumbing was the pin-up poster, one where some helpful terrier pulled back the girl's skirt enough to show a little garter and plenty leg.

Sure, much of the clutter underfoot was to hold down overhead; how else could so many neighborhood bars stave off inflation so long that their prices didn't change for decades? But there was also a rejection of the gimmick, the artifice, the decorative. This bar as a place to come to because it was as real as the people who drank and dallied here.

Naturally, some of the people who came were a little dilapidated, too. The guy who always sat at the little table in back, sipping his L&J dark port. The old lady who lost a son in the war and couldn't put her lipstick on straight. Yet even these could find a niche in the neighborhood bar. Many a misfit became a mascot of sorts, and many were honored because they continued to survive by some kind of Darwinian reversal. The survival of the unfittest.

And they, too, could make their mark. Could leave hints, enough in themselves, that some of the complex things in life were actually simple and some of the simple things were actually complex.

A simple illustration: from the front window of one of these bars, you could see a shotgun double where lived a woman who nicely filled out her clothes. So my buddy and I watched this neighbor lady come and go and often remarked on how seldom her husband seemed to be around -- and how much we'd be around if we had something like that to come home to.

And one day, Tommy heard us. Tommy was this old rummy who swept up the place and didn't talk much except to bum cigarettes. But he heard us and said in a very soft voice, "Just remember this, boys. No matter how fine, no matter how beautiful a woman you see and suffer after -- somewheres there's a man who's sick to death of sleeping in the same room with her."

Simple things made complex.

But corner bars had more than dilapidation in common.

They were of a neighborhood, within a walk or a wobble of the houses, rented rooms, walkups, sheetrock and linoleum, of those who waited the city's tables, brewed its beer, read it gas meters, droves its buses, repaired its radios.

Here you had contact with people you wouldn't have had contact with if they didn't come "with the place." People older or younger than your circle of friends, people smarter or slower. With trouble much like yours and much different, too.

Together you came here, to take daily and small things of life and examine them for their poetry, their humor, their pathos. To shave down some of the distance between job and joy. A place to shout or sing, do your impression of your kiss-ass coworker, or dance your version of the Funky Chicken. A chance to turn away from all the evidence that we are all here alone. As one wag well put it, life is an illness and we must enjoy. Here were our hospitals and our theaters.

The True Bartender was commonplace in the neighborhood bar. Not just the one who remembers your favorite drink. True Bartenders know the power of play, play with the customers and promote them playing with each other. They stimulate conversation or calm it. They tell good stories and arbitrate bad arguments. Above all, they had character.

The Fat Man was a True Bartender. Part-owner and recreation director for Fats and Russ's, corner of Tulane and Clark. A fountain of a guy, bubbling with a kind word when encouraging was needed or a caustic word when debunking was needed -- and a quip any time.

Fats and Russ's was a great good place for foundry workers, horse players, judges, jocks and the creatively unemployed. The Fat Man had time to hear the opinions of all of them, even though he already had plenty of his own -- and his were usually more quotable.

The Fat Man had been a professional baseball player and had once roomed with future Hall of Famer Stan Musial. But he never cloaked himself in the aura of sports.

"You guys argue about who's the best manager in baseball; hell, there's nothing hard about managing," he'd say. "You play for the tie at home and for the win on the road."

Complex things made simple.

It has been proven by some unprovable survey that the average American laughs 15 times a day. In these bars, when you weren't laughing 15 times an hour, you paid your tab and went home. Not so much jokes, but reality humor, jibes constructed around your frugality or fat, the savagery of your spouse or the cut of your jib.

In these melees, you learned to defend your failings or, failing that, laugh about them. Like reality shows on TV, this was survival of the most benign kind. Dodging darts coated with acerbic camaraderie, the unfettered cleverness that made us Orleanians the brightest barflies buzzing anywhere south of New York.

Typical:

"The other morning, I'm goin' fishing down at Delacroix, I saw your old lady comin' outta church. Man, she must be in there prayin' for your sad ass morning, noon and night."

"She's making a novena, asking God to make her a widow."

"Looka, Earl's eatin' again. Red beans over jambalaya. He calls it bean-balaya."

"Ernie, what's that you drove up in? Where you stole that thing? That color looks like it belongs on top of a snowball."

"Ern, what happened to your old car, without the struts? 'The Vomit Comet.' Was you too cheap for new struts?"

"Me cheap? When's the last time you bought a round? You reach into your pockets like there was scorpions in there."

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We lived for the et ceteras.

Grand go the years. Change happens. Attitudes and addresses move on. Corner bars become bodegas or dentist offices and their parking lots, and there is no need for community centers where there are no longer communities.

But these were where many came and brought their personal music, where it was all orchestrated into a kind of neighborhood song. The ear still strains for its echo.

And there it is, the neighborhood bar. There may be a few left and worth a look, maybe Evangeline on Toulouse, Fulco's or Norby's Uptown. No email, no cellular contract, no shouting over music. Just some face-to-face conviviality, often supplemented by wonderful body English. Intimacy disguised as banter, a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Great good places. I'll drink to that.

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