"Sex, politics and religion; these are the three things that you should never discuss in a bar,” Big Red told me, along with the importance of leaving a more-than-fair tip and to never piss off the bartender. Even as a young shaver, I knew that saloon etiquette was an important part of my coming-of-age process and it loomed large in legends, lessons and lore. Tales were told by my elders of mythical and larger-than-life personages and occurrences, woven like barbed wire gossamer, embellished with silver tongue Eudory Welty eloquence, and smoothly narrated like a Barrymore soliloquy delivered with brass knuckles in a velvet glove. “I remember one time…” would start an illustration of points, and a hush would be felt for six barstools in radius. Yes, when I was a kid … we were allowed in saloons.
Pubs, bars, taverns, saloons, gin mills—with mythical names: The Cave, Hideaway, Defense, The Office and, yes, The John. There was: The Wrong Place, Lost and Found, Golden Note, Crook’s Pouch, Wit’s End, and the likes of St. Joe’s, Ms Mae’s, Brother’s, Bridge View, Circle View, Beach Bar, Top Hat and Liuzza’s (By The Track). Smitty’s, Molly’s, Cosimo’s, Snake’s, Fahy’s, Hank’s, Roosevelt’s, Pal’s, and those places of drinks past which are no longer with us (to which we raise our glasses) and are missed but not forgotten.
They blanket our city and are not to be mistaken for those ubiquitous cocktail lounges that feature live music, exotic dancers, bead trading, neon color drinks and/or blaring disco-pop rave rhythms (bless their hearts). We’re talking bars here, gin mills, joints, watering holes; havens of serious drinkers who want the commiseration of likeminded miscreants with names easy to remember and pronounce, names that fit and wear well. They drink common brand beers, shitty chardonnay and cheap red wine, mixed drinks with two ingredients (three at the most), and shots to celebrate or to sulk. The blender is always out of order, they don’t have mint for your julep or mojito, and if you want to watch something besides Jeopardy at 6:00, you may be in the wrong spot.
Our free-pouring bartenders, who see hundreds of customers a week and possibly that many a day, are quick to peg regulars and commit their names, mates and drinks to memory within a few visits. If you hope for them to know your dreams, it may take a few more. The regulars regularly include a lawyer, one or two people who are into real estate, someone who is computer savvy as well as the person who knows the words to all the old songs, a movie buff, a young couple in the bloom of first love, a handy (wo)man, off-duty civil servants, couples of all stripes and persuasions, and service personnel going to or from their gigs.
In New Orleans, there’ll also be musicians, ne’er-do-wells, miscreants, tattoo artists, runaway princesses, pirates and those in the arts. At typical hang-outs will also wander in visitors, locals with out-of-town company, lost souls, and those mending broken hearts, sometimes a wanderer on medication or already half in the bag and/or underage aspirants out on a tear, delivery persons between stops, an elected official, and surely a couple of smokers holding up the walls outside, conversing in quiet tones or raucous laughter. Only Mr. Green Jeans is missing and he may be along any minute.
Sharing your local bar is like a marriage, and should (Lord forbid) you break up with your once significant other, it is understood that only one of you gets to keep the bar; it’s also understood at the bar which one that is. Oh sure, you both might be welcome there separately, if the other patrons are liberal-minded. But make no mistake, the gang has chosen sides. It’s a real down feeling (I know firsthand) when you walk into what was once your “together” hang-out, she’s there—and when you walk in—all eyes are averted from your countenance. You become nothing but chopped liver.
If only to experience—close up—other lives that run the gamut of the potential capacity of human thought, emotions and actions, spend time at a “locals’” gin mill—it’s reason enough. J.R. Moehringer writes, in The Tender Bar, that “Americans invest their bars with meaning and turn to them for everything from glamour to succor, and above all for the relief from that scourge of modern life—loneliness.” His protagonist (one of many) believes that the corner bar is the “most egalitarian of all American gathering places.” And while I’m not that sophisticated in my adjectives, I do know that when you’re assembled in a closed space with bipeds having the capacity for abstract thought patterns and you throw in food, drinks and the now-ness of the day, things happen!
In celebration or in sorrow, for company or for solitude, for strength, courage, or simply to gain reassurance that I have the ability to endure, I know that when I walk through those swinging doors, I’ll be at home. My bartender will catch my eye and smile (remember, NEVER piss off your bartender) and reach for that cold one for me. My eyes will run down the line of stools for familiar faces, and I’ll go and greet everyone I know with a touch, handshake, a kiss on the cheek. I’ll gauge everyone’s mood and see where, if anywhere, I’ll fit in; big swallow of liquid audacity and I’ll launch into the Neverland of perfect strangeness. My big exhale from the day’s occupation, my un-reality where everything matters and nothing counts.