Photo by Michael Terranova
NEW ORLEANS SPLEEN
By Anne Gisleson
The text from my little brother came around six in the morning: we would meet for lunch at the Rib Room and then spend the rest of the day “filling our lungs with memories.” It was Tuesday, April 21, 2015, and a citywide smoking ban in bars was going into effect at midnight. The ban was part of the wearying effort over the last ten years to reform New Orleans. The plan was to spend the day smoking in carefully chosen bars until it was no longer legal to do so.
I’ve never smoked, but the peevish adolescent in me sympathized with those citizens and bar owners who didn’t want to be told what to do. Smoky bars never bothered me. (Smoke seemed the least of the collateral damage of a night out.) If I stayed out late and my husband home in bed, he could tell which bar I’d been to before I even opened the bedroom door. “Markey’s,” he’d murmur into his pillow. I’d miss that primal sensory mapping as our world became more and more sanitized.
Most of my siblings have smoked at some point in their lives, but I had the impulse snuffed out of me early on. There were eight of us growing up and for years we had a nanny named Fanny. I’d hang out with her at the breakfast table as she sucked on her Kools, then crushed them into a saucer, a fresh one appearing at her lips. When I was eight or so, I asked her if I could try a cigarette and she said sure, baby, just take a deep, deep breath. It took some time to recover from the searing cough and burning lungs. Whether she was trying to save me or was working from a more sadistic impulse, the lesson took: not only did I never smoke again, but I also began to view adults who smoked as even more mysterious than regular ones, almost super-human in their capacity to inflict that kind of hurt on themselves and still look like they were having such a good time.
But alas, my siblings and I lamented over lunch, no more pragmatic Fanny State in which we could learn (or not) through pain, but rather the Nanny State, with posted ordinances stamped with the city’s fleur de lis logo. Beset by “best practices” and “accountability” and “enforcement,” we were facing a moment of nostalgic panic. The changes around our hometown were suddenly dramatic, inexorable. Some changes are good and necessary, but some threaten what makes New Orleans New Orleans. All of us brothers and sisters have worked for years, post-Katrina, in different civic spheres, on much-needed progressive, positive change, but now we were wondering—did we overcorrect on this rebuilding thing?
Driving around the city I feel a fluttery, unpleasant weight in my gut when I pass an old neighborhood seafood market turned yuppie food court or furniture store turned new age healing center or one of the beautiful, heartening school renovations—part of the billions spent to overhaul our dilapidated system—turned no-excuses national charter franchise with a twenty-six-year-old principal. The brand-new pastel housing projects with their white porches and suburban landscaping seem more spacious and humane than their predecessors, but what happened to the thousands who were displaced when the old buildings were razed? My enthusiasm for the wave of bright young newcomers with their start-ups and pop-ups and entrepreneurial energy is tainted by the loss of the 100,000 New Orleanians, mostly black, who never returned after the storm. And many who stayed are still struggling greatly under past injustices and fresh ones, byproducts of the “New Orleans Miracle.” I have a hard time separating out the loss from the gain. A hard time finding the right attitude.
While passing the smoking ban might’ve been the right thing to do from a public health standpoint, smoking in bars was just another thing taken away. This points to a larger existential issue: if the New Orleans that made us is disappearing, what happens to us now?
Admittedly, this uneasiness is also tied to my being middle aged, when the simultaneous opening up and closing down of opportunities coils into a maddening, melancholy-but-still-somehow-propulsive cycle. This energy was exactly what my brother, sister-in-law, sister, and I needed as we fortified ourselves with protein at the Rib Room and mapped out our smoking pilgrimage—bars from Downtown to Uptown, mostly older ones in the older neighborhoods, never straying more than a few blocks from the Mississippi River. We strategized about pacing, alternating water with beer, and holding off on the harder stuff. A couple times during lunch, a few from our party jumped the gun, stole off to smoke at the restaurant’s bar under a high domed ceiling frescoed with a Renaissance sky, like a side chapel in a cathedral maintained for daily veneration.
Little negotiation of the route was necessary. We have a roster of family bars, so we knew all the spots we had to hit and where we had to be at midnight: our childhood bar, Le Bon Temps Roule, Uptown on an oak-crowded corner of Magazine Street. It was the first bar most of us ever went to. Because the drinking age was eighteen in the eighties, any reasonably mature-looking fourteen-year-old could get served. Most Fridays during the school year, we would go for free oysters and fifty-cent drafts. In the summer time, we’d go nearly nightly. The regulars were a diverse bunch. Between the old timers fastened to self-assigned stools and us kids who monopolized the wooden booths were adults ranging from deep-sea divers to accountants to carpenters to bikers to lawyers to drug dealers to college students who alternated playing pool and a jukebox whose 45s hadn’t been updated since the late seventies.
There had also been a shed-like back bar with its own jukebox, which opened to a courtyard where they served the oysters. When I was seventeen, a glacially slow dance there to Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” nearly ruined me. It would take decades to find that feeling in someone else again, but when I did, I recognized it instantly and where it was rooted, in that perfect three minutes, stunned and sunken into another person, shuffling a tiny worn patch of floorboard as Redding’s voice climbed to free itself over and over, only to keep tumbling back to the quieter register of his stubborn love.
Eventually, our adult lives took shape and dragged us out of the bars and into jobs and families. Our names were carved into the Le Bon Temps Roule’s wooden booths, and the place was carved into us as we aged, never losing our love for dive bars and jukeboxes and the grand variety of human experience.
Our first stop after lunch was the nearby Chart Room, whose French doors open up onto Chartres Street, a few choice tables straddling the sidewalk. We managed to snag one, but we worried that such precious real estate would throw off the day’s schedule, because once you sit down at one of those tables you never want to leave. You have the best of both worlds: the street action of the French Quarter moored to the bar action of the Chart Room. Named for the navigational center of a ship—where maps, charts, and instruments are kept—the bar’s decor is a throwback to the port city’s rowdy maritime past. The thick wood paneling is deeply scarred, and a sturdy bench with green leather runs the length of the Bienville Street side. But this vessel doesn’t pass through the world; the world passes through it, leaving its mark. Along with pennants and discarded bras and dollar bills tacked to the sagging cork ceiling is the residue from millions of cigarettes. Over the decades, the nicotine stains on the yellowed ceiling and fixtures have transitioned from patina to layer, almost geologically. But now, one can cleanly identify the end of the Nicotine Era as April 21, 2015.
Since I was a first-timer at this last-chance smoke out, my brother bought me a handful of Swisher Sweets, little cigarillos I wouldn’t have to inhale. I associate Swisher Sweets with my paternal Midwestern grandmother, who I saw only a couple times in my life. My first memory of her: tall, robust, laughing, heavy hips under her gingham apron. My last, only a few years later: shrunken down by lung and bone cancer, the only recognizable feature being her perfect brown hair, wig-like on her almost-corpse. On the plaid couch, she alternated between her cherry Swisher Sweets and her oxygen mask.
Lighting up a Swisher Sweet at the Chart Room brought me closer to my dead grandma, at least in gesture, touching death like a dilettante. Which is a common enough desire, through chemicals, or sex, or art, but ultimately, mostly, we fear death’s full embrace and make decisions accordingly, pass ordinances. Honestly, the Swisher Sweets were wretched. Cherry cough syrup and dead leaves, they left the front half of my tongue numb and cindery. But I committed to them for the duration of the day, and in turn they shaped my smoke-out persona: brassy, day-drinking native, bodily committed to this damaged, striving city, in cork wedge heels and a strappy dress, clinging to her youth in every sense.
With great fortitude we gave up our sidewalk table. It was a beautiful day, full-on South Louisiana spring. As we settled up, my sister-in-law, another blonde in wedge heels, crushed out her cigarette and the bartender looked down at the ashtray and said, “You may as well take that with you.” For the next nine hours we would collect the soon-to-be-obsolete ashtrays, little trophies clanking in our purses.
We stayed on Chartres and walked downriver to Harry’s Corner Bar at Dumaine. Its big windows also open to the street, but a balcony shelters the light, keeping it at bay. The more lovely the day outside, the more pleasurably perverse day drinking can be. The outside world becomes sharper, your relationship to it affectionately adversarial—as long as it doesn’t tip over to sinister, like in Anthony Hecht’s poem “Third Avenue in Sunlight,” in which the alcoholic’s daytime view from a bar includes “the prowling sunlight whets it knife/along the sidewalk.”
Harry’s feels both tough and warm, permissive and conservative. Police-shield patches from departments all over the country line the shelves of bottles. Cash only, it favors RC Cola over Coke and Pepsi. We stayed for at least fifteen songs on the jukebox. I know because I put in the fiver and selected them all—Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Dean Martin, lots of Rolling Stones. The gravitational pull of a good jukebox can be just too powerful, the selection defining the bar, its values. I find Internet jukeboxes unnerving because you’re at the whim of any number of unpredictable tastes, the anarchy of the online music world unleashed upon you and your leisure time. I like being inside someone else’s particular vision, intimate and specific. Somehow it feels more communal.
Sitting on stools at the windowsill, we made fun of our brother, who was dancing unselfconsciously to Barry White while feeding money into a video poker machine. He was blowing off steam. My brother’s a plaintiff attorney who’s been litigating BP oil spill claims for years, and the day before had marked the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Over the last few days the news had been filled with stories, events, protests—assessments of the damage done and the damage that still remains. In tandem with the smoking ban, that week we were pondering an even wider culture of self-pollution, our role in what we’ve allowed the oil and gas industry to do to our state and what the consequences have been.
We were joking about how long we’d been coming to Harry’s and how in thirty years we’d probably still be at Harry’s, listening to the same songs on the jukebox, when I excused myself to go to the restroom. I dread Harry’s women’s bathroom, not for hygienic reasons, but because the lighting and the awful peachy-orange color conspire to age me about ten years in the mirror. A bare light bulb is affixed to the low, water-stained ceiling with about twenty strips of duct tape, but the whole sculpture is coming loose, so someone drilled a few sheet rock screws through the tape for good measure. There, I found a handwritten note to our future elderly barhopping selves on the stall door, took a picture and texted it to my brethren back at the window: “Please Only Toilet Paper Do Not Flush Your Depends in the Toilet.”
Further into the lower, leafier Quarter is Cosimo’s, a bar sheltered by enormous Natchez white crepe myrtle trees, on the corner of Burgundy and Gov. Nicholls, the physical intersection between Louisiana’s French monarchic and American democratic rule. Along the sidewalk, people stood shoulder to shoulder at tables covered with newspaper and crawfish—talking, peeling, eating, and drinking—making a big stinking mess together. Inside the elegant-though-casual high-ceilinged bar, almost everyone was smoking. On the window the owner had taped a manifesto:
To me this is NOT about smoking or non-smoking. It is about the right as
legal adults to choose what’s right for you personally.
I also believe that it is against my civil rights to not have a choice for my
patrons in my personal establishment!
I purchased this business with my money.
I pay tens of thousands of dollars annually in taxes to this city.
I follow all state and CITY guidelines to do business in this city,
including licenses, fees and permits.
Now I am told with one large brush stroke that I am not allowed to offer
my customers what 85 to 90% of them want!
But now MY right to choose is been unilaterally taken away.
This is an outrage to me in a free market society in a “free country.”
New Orleans is being overrun with liberal crusaders . . .
Where does it end?
Next time it maybe something close to you!
It was about 4:00 p.m. when we arrived at the Grand Pre, a small drag bar on Rampart Street where a petite stage draped with rainbow lame magnifies the magnificence it often frames. A bespectacled, buttoned-down bartender with an incongruous Mississippi-sissy accent kept trying to get us to order “big girl” drinks and we kept trying to refuse. “It’s HAPPY HOUR, dammit!” Behind him, music videos from the eighties played on a wonky television monitor and were reflected in the mirrored and opposite wall, where we were also reflected, caught in some sort of time trap. The video for “Come Dancing” by the Kinks came on and I felt familiarly irked. I love the Kinks but that video represents a moment in the early eighties when all those British acts we loved started losing their edge—the Clash releasing Combat Rock, Elvis Costello cutting tracks with Hall and Oates, the Kinks performing in this “Come Dancing” video, a sentimental period piece with Ray Davies creepily playing the role of his sister’s mustachioed suitor. We still liked the bands, but a distrust had been building, with MTV driving a slick, pixelated wedge between us and our ragged teen passions. Watching the Kinks’ video, puffing on my rank Swisher Sweet, it dawned on me that I’ve been disgruntled about the man manipulating our fun since about 1985.
My sister pointed out that “Come Dancing” is about what we’d been talking about all fucking day! Development and change, commerce replacing romance. “The day they knocked down the Palais,” she sang along with Ray Davies, “some of my childhood died, just died.” The Palais was where the singer’s sister would go ballroom dancing on Saturday nights. In the song, the Palais was razed and replaced with a bowling alley, then a supermarket, and finally a parking lot. The song also ends with the memories of disappeared places keeping a bond between siblings as they age and the next generation roils on with its own Saturday night mischief.
Down the middle of Rampart Street ran a mile-long construction zone girded by jersey barriers where crews were shutting down their prehistoric-looking equipment, locking up the Port-O-Lets, and calling it a day. The government has been paying millions to lay down streetcar tracks right where they removed them sixty years ago. It’s a brutal process, readying the street for its return to the past—trees uprooted, huge ornate cast iron lampposts dismantled and left rusting in piles. The whole city is torn up with construction projects, drainage projects, road projects, snarling our drives and minds. By the time it’s all finished the next Big One will probably come and undo it again, once and for all.
Late afternoon sun angled into Bar Tonique in just the right way, backlighting patrons and igniting their drinks with an Instagram-ready glow. Even the construction site a few yards away from the bar’s nineteenth-century storefront windows couldn’t kill the romance of the hour. Exposed brick walls, a rustic chandelier, requisite chalkboards cataloguing the craft cocktails and craft beers. Bar Tonique, just a couple blocks up Rampart from Grand Pre, was my brother and sister-in-law’s special request. They love their mint juleps, a specialty of the bar. It took about a half hour to make four of them, the bartender muddling her heart out and pouring the mix over a mound of crushed ice in a metal cup. A slippery layer of ice instantly formed on the outside, which made me drop half of it on the bar. Several years back, Bar Tonique was on the leading edge of the craft cocktail boom in New Orleans. Like the replacing of the streetcar tracks outside, the craft cocktail trend is a historical throwback bolstered by the innovation, self-consciousness, and marketing of the present.
In many of the bars, there’d been an almost palpable frisson in face of the unknown as the smoking ban neared. The bartender who’d made our delicious mint juleps mentioned that since the city had yet to come up with an enforcement plan, it would be left up to the citizens of the surveillance nation. She pantomimed someone holding up an iPhone and taking a picture of the offending smoker and then sending it to a bureaucrat in City Hall. “The picture would have a time stamp on it and everything.” Chilling! Patrons as snitches. Another bartender—who’d been making fun of the way we were all poking at our mint juleps with our straws, like kids lined up at a snowball stand trying to get the correct ice to syrup ratio—lit up a cigarette and said, “Fuck it, it’s all for the better anyway, right?” He exhaled emphatically. “Right?”
We cabbed a detour down to Markey’s, just around the corner from my house in a part of the Ninth Ward known as the Bywater, once a mostly working class neighborhood full of shotguns and Creole cottages and now a fraught font of gentrification anxiety. We continued our lucky streak, finding a table right where old shop doors opened directly onto the corner of Louisa and Royal. My husband rode up on his bike, on his way home from work, curious to see the tribal spectacle of us siblings on a mission, and drank a pint while straddling his bike on the sidewalk.
Roy Markey, Irish tough in his late fifties, whose family had owned the bar for generations, had been one of the most outspoken critics of the smoking ban, attending all the city council meetings, filling out comment cards and getting his two minutes before the dais. That night, he was holding court, other smoke-out pilgrims taking pictures with him and commemorating the last few hours of Roy smoking at the stool he’d smoked at for decades. Roy told me, “I sympathize with the stories of the cancer victims, but those people were smoking in their homes and cars. The bars didn’t kill ’em.” He was worried about his business and worried for his neighbors, who’d have to deal with smokers hanging outside late at night. In our old Creole neighborhood, houses are built right up to the sidewalk; the streets and lots are narrow, everyone on top of each other.
This same closeness is also part of the traditional intimacy of the neighborhood, where people knew each other’s business, for better or for worse, talked on stoops and porches, and looked out for each other, a closeness Roy fears is being lost. Last summer his bar went dead as many of his regulars were priced out of the neighborhood. Then suddenly, the bar became packed with out-of-towners, as most of the available rental units in the Bywater were being used as Airbnbs. The money was good, but he preferred his regulars.
Capital seems to be winning out over community in the Bywater, as in other urban neighborhoods all over the country. It’s not just the big developers who want to put high-rise condos on the riverfront at the end of our modest little block; it’s our next-door neighbors with a baby who can make more money running an Airbnb on the half of their shotgun a few feet from our house. I hate the cabs and the loud vacation sex, our picturesquely battered front porch becoming part of a tourist tableau. I hate that so many friends are leaving the neighborhood because they can no longer afford it or because it’s so transformed from the one they moved into.
Roy doesn’t keep quiet about the change at all. He yells at the Airbnb bachelor-party crowd drinking on a front porch, who didn’t listen to him the first time he asked them to keep it down at 2 a.m.; yells at the opportunist who bought a two-story house half a block from his bar for the sole purpose of renting it out on Airbnb while he lived across the street. I wish I could yell like Roy does—out in the world, not just in my house or my car. Instead, I internalize my anger and it metabolizes into something like nausea.
Recently, a writer friend and colleague was reading Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, a book of wild prose pieces published in 1869, many of them about Paris facing the modern age. He said Baudelaire’s style and tone were apt for evoking some of what he considered the more obscene things about current change in New Orleans, like insensitive displays of affluence alongside entrenched poverty, things cities have always been good at providing. “Spleen” in Baudelaire’s sense doesn’t refer to the organ that filters out old damaged red blood cells and stores the battling, defensive white ones, but rather to an emotional state that mixes nostalgia and disgust. My friend likened Baudelaire’s “The Double Room” to a Double New Orleans. Depending on the narrator’s shifting mindset, the Room is either a romantic, exotic garret or a squalid, debauched attic. Both places exist at the same time. New Orleans is especially accommodating to this simultaneous existence of fantasy and reality. A decayed shotgun house picturesquely strewn with vines is both an evocative photo-op and a rat-infested health hazard for neighborhood children. He talked about another piece, “A Wag,” in which a self-satisfied, well-dressed New Year’s Eve reveler makes ironic fun of a workman’s donkey, looking around for an audience to complete his joke. He likened “the wag” to the new variety of tourist who uses our neighborhood as a backdrop for his life performance, leaving his Airbnb and heading out to brunch, stopping to take selfies with the authentic offerings of the city.
Night and all its possibilities descended at Markey’s. Traditionally, sundown is a time of decision in a bar—you go home or go rogue into the night. My husband went home to feed the kids what I’d dutifully put in the crockpot that morning. We did lose my younger sister, who said she had to go feed her son’s puppy, but vowed to continue the mission at a bar in Mid-City. But we gained my older sister Uptown at Ms. Mae’s on the corner of Magazine Street and Napoleon Avenue. This sister, a recovering politician, came straight from the airport with her husband. She’d been speaking at a transportation symposium in Phoenix. We’d been texting her since lunch with our whereabouts, and we cheered their entrance, fresh reinforcements. My brother ordered us shots of Chartreuse for her arrival, against all of our protestations. He was visibly exhausted and we were still three hours away from our goal. I suspected he was trying to scuttle the mission.
Before we left Ms. Mae’s, a man with grey-blond longish hair and a sparse beard sitting next to us announced dramatically that he was smoking his last cigarette for the last time in a bar in New Orleans. A bike delivery guy for a deli downtown, he looked like a slightly younger Karl Ove Knausgaard, with a rutted faced that the world had done something to, not in a wind-swept Nordic way, but in a Southern dive-bar way. He was disgusted with the smoking ban, and how all our rights were being stripped away. As he got up to leave he said, “At least you can still go to work drunk in this town. At least that’s still legal.”
We walked upriver along Magazine Street to the Brothers III Lounge, its faux-stone facade painted a cheery, desperate nursery school yellow. We made for the pool table in the back, the space separated from the rest of the cave-like bar by a couple steps up and video poker machine sentries. My brother and sister started racking balls and feeling up the pool cues. I looked around and lit another Swisher Sweet. In between a dead Ms. Pac Man game and a plastic-shrouded electric keyboard was the old jukebox we used to play twenty years ago. Up front there was a newer one, with CDs, but this one still had 45s.
The yellowed song title labels, in faded type, glowed dully, and the rest of the machine was erratically lit. I put in a dollar. Nothing. I ran up and asked the bartender if it still worked and he said it only takes quarters, which he gave me. My older sister asked me if “Seven Spanish Angels” was still on it. All the old songs were, nothing had been touched. I put in the quarters, punched the buttons, and the jukebox came alive with a plaintive and distant Ray Charles:
He looked down into her brown eyes, and said,
Say a prayer for me
She threw her arms around him, whispered,
God will keep us free
We all looked at each other in disbelief. The Mexican horns warbled as if underwater, and the spectral hissing of the grooves obscured the vocals, but it still played! That song, a Ray Charles and Willie Nelson duet, synthesized the aesthetics of the jukebox, which was divided between white country acts—George Jones, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubbs—and black r&b—Percy Sledge, Jr. Walker & the All-stars, Arthur Alexander. The bar, though mostly white, often reflected that mix. That night it really did, black and white wistfully puffing away together.
Mired in buzzy retrospection, my big sister lamented that our kids won’t have the experience we had growing up in bars. Personally, I was fine with my kids not drinking underage in bars. But that’s not what she meant. She meant that that early exposure had formed us, made us open to and comfortable with all kinds of people. Naturally inclusive public spaces are disappearing as our cultural life is being flattened out—by the Internet, by gentrification, the working class and poor being pushed to the outskirts and into even more segregated schools. Even a city like New Orleans isn’t immune to these global trends, but we can’t extricate these changes from the loss and strife suffered through Katrina, so emotions get heightened.
Watching the dust-furred oscillating fan disperse my Swisher Sweet smoke among the broken and half-broken machinery and empty beer boxes, I realized we were in quasi-storage with the Old New Orleans. We were momentarily detached from all the contemporary anxieties—of too much money changing our neighborhood, of trying to figure out the sharing economy, of rebuilding and reform. It felt good to be back in the Old New Orleans, all entropy and neglect, making music in spite of itself. We loved that city, it made us who we are, but we couldn’t go back there—it was too complacent, too quiet about its own ills. But it felt good to visit while we could.
We were only a couple blocks downriver from our ultimate destination: Le Bon Temps Roule. My brother and his wife had vanished. It was excusable. He’d been up since dawn working and was supposed to see a client on death row in the morning. The whole escapade had been his idea, and that also gave him the authority to bail.
Walking into a place where you used to know everyone and now know no one is disorienting. Le Bon Temps is the mostly the same—the wooden booths and pool tables, bucolic river mural over the bar and mirrored wall by the cigarette machine, but all these other lives occupy your former life. You feel both proprietary and sheepish, like a living ghost, transparent and irrelevant.
We ordered a couple pints and looked around for an ashtray. A young bartender in a beanie cap and a thin scrim of beard informed us that the management had started the smoking ban the day before.
“No no no no no,” my sister and I said. We told him that he didn’t understand, that this was a pilgrimage to our adolescence, that this bar was our second home twenty-plus years ago. And then we pummeled him with stories—about the old back bar, about the fifty-cent drafts and how there was a payphone at the end of the bar, now memorialized by a shellacked rectangle of plywood, that we would call from all over the world during college, looking for each other, for home.
Still he said, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t let you.”
My sister took a glass ashtray out of her purse and put it on the bar.
“Please don’t do that.”
She knocked a cigarette out of her pack of Marlboro Lights and I took out my second-to-last Swisher Sweet.
“Please don’t do that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We really have to do this.”
And we both lit up.
Gripping the bar in front of him, the bartender looked pissed and helpless. We had morphed from pathetic, strident old timers to genuine pains in the ass.
“You’re gonna get me in trouble.”
Hoping for a moment with our lost past, we had unwittingly achieved continuity. Rule breaking in 2015 was just as fun as rule breaking in the 1980s, maybe even more fun, since now we appreciated its value and how it made us feel. Which was fucking great.
We polluted the bar with a few exhalations that immediately dissolved under the ceiling fans. The place was quiet, just a few dudes in khakis focused on their pool game. Not even any music on. After a few tense minutes, my sister nonchalantly picked up the ashtray, and we took off laughing through the double doors.
On the sidewalk under a streetlamp, we railed against what a wuss the bartender had been for not trying to stop us and reminisced about our favorite Le Bon Temps bartender ever, Bill, who once did a one-handed vault over the bar to stop a fight. Bill was lean and gruff and tolerated and protected us. I remember him saying to the owner on the phone one night, “Those kids are in here again. If they play ‘Angie’ one more time I’m gonna kick in the jukebox.” Last time I saw Bill, he was retired and working the Coney Tower at Carousel Gardens Amusement Park. I was in line with my son, a kindergartener at the time. I introduced them. He said he had taken the job to spend more time with his grandkids. He fastened my son and me into our seats and pulled the lever to send us way up high over City Park. In the distance, downtown seemed overtaken by the tops of the park’s thousands of oaks, a melancholy Planet of the Apes view that obscured our human significance.
Untethered from Le Bon Temps Roule and our overwrought expectations, it was time to improvise. As a consolation, we made an impromptu trip to the Mayfair on Amelia, near the Touro Infirmary where many in our family were born and had died. Next to me, a guy with a pint of beer was working a tiny lattice of a spreadsheet on his Macbook Pro, a cigarette fuming in an ashtray at his elbow. Inches above his head an old bedspring hung from the low ceiling, densely tangled with Christmas lights, Mardi Gras beads, and cheap stuffed-animal throws (the Mayfair is also about a half block from the parade route), one of those unwitting barroom installations that evolves over the decades into genuine art. As I reignited my half spent Swisher Sweet, I mentioned to the bartender how much I liked their matchbooks: MISS GERTIE WELCOMES YOU TO THE MAYFAIR LOUNGE. “Just take ’em,” she said dumping a handful of them into a plastic cup for me to take. “It’s over.”
It was nearing midnight as we reached Buffa’s on Esplanade, which borders the French Quarter. Opened in the 1930s, it’s one of those iconic white stucco corner bars with oblong pill-shaped windows. About fifteen years ago, after my sisters helped move me out of a long domestic mistake and up a three-floor walkup garret apartment of my own in the Quarter, I bought them all late night steaks at Buffa’s. A couple years later, Ray Davies was shot in the leg in front of Buffa’s, chasing after a mugger who had stolen his girlfriend’s purse. The shooter was never brought to justice and the incident soured Davies’s relationship to the city. (Though recently I read that even Davies is considering moving back to the city, despite the fact that we still can’t seem to get our brutal crime problem under control.)
Buffa’s smoke-out party was becoming more rowdy as the digital clock, on the cable box behind the bar next to the In Dog Beers I’ve Only Had One sign, blinked toward midnight. It was a fun crowd—black, white, young, old. A twenty-something woman in short jean cut-offs, combat boots, and an afro passed drinks from the laconic, faux-mean old bartender to the tables behind her. Someone was standing up on the rungs of his stool and filming the crowd. Most people were smoking. Buffa’s had the congenial rhythms of an established bar community, one that was also inclusive and welcoming, where you could find both public solitude and communal comfort.
By the video-poker machines the owner had posted a mock copy of the ordinance, complete with the logos of the city and the Department of Health:
Starting April 22, 2015 it will be against the law to smoke or vape in these premises. Also there’ll be no rape, pillage, murder, kidnapping, rollerblading, ball games, trapeze acts, bathing in blancmange, fox hunting, bear baiting, hare coursing, hot air ballooning, driving of double-decker buses, nor any activity which patronizes the congregation in the way our government forces us to patronize you by obliging us to display this ridiculous notice.
Near the “ordinance” hung old framed photos from the forties and fifties of sharply dressed patrons in front of those same curved windows. Hats and suits and wide highball smiles. Even the bartenders wore vests and ties with their long white aprons. A beautiful strawberry blonde, with a triple strand of pearls and a full-rocks glass, seemed to take cautious delight at the camera. I wondered if she were possibly still alive somewhere, her movie star looks long gone, her memories of this place either extinct or hopelessly dissolved. In attaching ourselves, our egos, so firmly to the oldness of these bars, our histories to theirs, we were missing their big lesson: that lots of people—newcomers to the city and generational lifers—come though them and will keep coming through them, searching for the same things we did. These places are part of us, but they don’t belong to us.
At midnight the owner arrived to ceremoniously remove all the ashtrays himself. People continued, anti-climatically, to smoke their pre-midnight cigarettes. My sister, her husband, and I sat at the bar next to the trashcan where the owner was banging the ashtrays clean. My sister asked and he gave her a choice one, large red plastic with grooves down the middle to hold the cigarettes as they waited for the next drag. All over town hundreds of ashtrays were being removed from bar tops and tables, valedictory butts crushed into them. Our mission completed, we conceded that after awhile the smoking ban would just be absorbed into all the other change, change being our only constant.
On the 86 board next to the cash register the bartender wrote smoking, which was soon followed by parmesan. It was time to go. The tip of my tongue was deadened and ashy. I wasn’t drunk but I did feel buoyant, like I’d fumigated some of that weighty angst out of my system with twelve bars in twelve hours and a pack of Swisher Sweets. Things were still possible. Routine could be abandoned, mischief could be made. Though it feels diminished and endangered, what I love about this town, about life, could still be accessed and would be carried forward, by all kinds of people in all kinds of places. I felt truly great, almost victorious, and I could’ve kept going, just one more bar, but I had to get up early to make breakfast and get the kids to school. Hit the gym and drink a lot of water. I’d let my body sort out the damage.