Derailed at The Old Train
4:00am, SAT 14 MAR, 1970. The massive venue known as “a warehouse” – commonly indicated as lower-case and indefinite — closed its doors an hour after the conclusion of a much-anticipated headlining set by legendary bluesman Albert King. The 6’4” 300-pound Mr King was reportedly not happy at show’s end, as he had been musically one-upped by the first New Orleans appearance of an unknown opening act, a flaming, howling, blues-rock monster called the Allman Brothers Band. Much of the crowd actually left before Albert hit the stage, knowing nothing could top the extended Bros set they had just witnessed. Young musicians from Jacksonville, Florida, of all places, who could make some kinda heart-rending music. A recording of that night still exists: “Not My Cross to Bear” 14:40 into the show, for godsake, almost killed me.
I stayed for the headliner and pondered the absurdist nature of an Allman vs King universe amidst a thinning audience.
They had two drummers. At least I thought they did. At the moment I was confused. I remember a conversation I was having about the demise of twentieth-century Anglo-American drama. Then subsequently realizing I was alone. No one was listening to my inspired rhetoric. Please, this wasn’t self-obsession: that year I had a particularly hard time maintaining interest in being an English major. My scholarly pursuits were entirely concocted for the exclusive benefit of my local Draft Board and avoidance of the US Army. My main interest, actually, was in not being dead, to the exclusion of much else.
Everything else. Indeed, my “date” of the evening was no longer anywhere near, irretrievably lost at some point in the evening amidst the overwhelming crush of stoned rock ‘n rollers.
So I walked back to my friend Francis X. “Hog” Patriquin’s 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 for a doze and a ride home. Hog’s nickname came via playing the lead character in a live-action 16mm movie version of cartoonist Gilbert Shelton’s “Wonder Wart Hog.” The Hog-mobile itself was a hard-rolling combination of long and chrome, a scarred but shiny vanilla paint job that was easy to find, even in wee foggy hours of the unlit lower warehouse district.
As I approached the Galaxie, I could plainly hear a loudly broadcast transmission of what seemed to be animal rutting noises, but were in actuality the end result of the Hog’s psychically interrupted sleep. I had arrived just as the large man, dozing while wedged behind the plastic and steel steering wheel, was returning to consciousness. This after two hours of snoring induced by the mutually paralyzing effect of four pitchers of beer and most of an aluminum plate of hash brownies. Now momentarily rested, Monsieur Patriquin decided that he was ready for round two, so while I climbed into the spacious faux-leather back seat of the vehicle and fell into a sound and immediate sleep, my vagabond friend sat upright behind the classic automotive controls, twisting the ignition to life, and putting his craft in gear. He was looking for a good bar. Defined at that moment as an open bar.
Hog, having spent time amongst oil field roughnecks, had done a lot of beverage exploration in the less-civilized honkytonks of New Orleans. And of all these, his favorite was (Greasy) Nick’s Old Train Bar about a mile up Tulane Avenue from the Mississippi River. True to the Hoggah’s background and tastes, Nick’s was at heart a workingman’s sort of bar, but was also wildly popular with the collegiate crowd. The informal “Greasy” appellation was added off-the-record, in part to make the workers feel more at home among the pristinely buttoned-down young academicians. In line with patrons’ drinking habits, the establishment was open 24-7.
After 7pm Nick’s served no beer or fancy wines. It was a matter of principle. This was a “Cocktail Lounge,” and Nick would serve cocktails, dammit.
So no beer. No vintage grape. Hardly any simple one-ingredient highballs. The specialties of the house were Nick’s huge fruit-flavored versions of drinks with names like “Between the Sheets”, “Ruptured Duck,” and “Underwater Demolition.” Another bevvie, called “A Wild Night at The Capri Motel,” was served in a quart-sized miniature toilet. It was not a place of huge subtlety. The various fruit juices and unspeakably odd liqueurs disguised the true heart of all the drinks: a huge quantity of cheap but incredibly potent pure alcohol which some patrons claimed was illicitly distilled from recycled jet fuel.
Possibly confirming the aviation source, customers seen gulping down one of those deceptively sweet-tasting concoctions would often immediately fly into a quasi-catatonic trance. Usually they did so staring at the wall mural which travelled through 270 degrees of their vision. The painting featured hypnotically-rendered cosmic waves of smoke gushing from a ‘40’s style locomotive painted round the walls. Hog liked that train. So tonight he headed for Nick’s to get a further bit of head on, my comatose body brought along as a passenger, curled up in the back.
After twenty minutes of driving, getting lost in the Central Business District that he never frequented, the Hog finally headed north on Tulane Avenue. Within minutes he spotted the lights of the dingy establishment just off to his left. He cut the wheel sharply, with a general U-turn across the multiple lanes of Tulane Avenue in mind. The 500 careened on two broad squealing wheels toward the bar, at the same time Hog turned in his seat to wake his sleeping passenger. Me. He was happy, getting happier, and wanted to tell someone.
Hog had good intentions, attempting to engage my groggy brain in enthusiastic conversation, getting me ready for the Greasy Nick experience. Meanwhile, he forgot one essential detail. He forgot that he was driving. He did not even put his foot on the brake as we went careening toward the building.
I later found that I knew someone who was actually in the bar that early morning, and got a first-hand version of what happened next. The substitute bartender – Nick had gone home for the night — almost fifty years later and ensconced in a nursing home, still told a version of the story himself. I was in the back seat and then on the floorboards, so I cannot truthfully say that I saw the actual event. All reports vary on the details, but I have with some effort pieced together the heart of the story.
While Mr Patriquin was gesturing oratorically into the large vinyl compartment to his rear, the turning Galaxie continued to travel forward on its own across the lanes of the broad avenue, hit the improvised creosote log curb that marked the end of the parking slot, rebounded a foot or so up in the air, still going fairly fast, and came through the wall of the barroom right near the nose of the locomotive.
A little too late, the Hog depressed the brake pedal, and yelled “Whoa, Nelly!” There was a loud, dusty sound of cracking lumber.
Nick’s patrons were unimpressed. Everyone in the bar was righteously loaded for the hour, of course, and they were not going to let minor mishaps bother them. Besides, nobody had been hurt, there were no drinks spilled, and the bartender was just exiting the john. No one moved. Then the two couples at the table nearest the idling automotive white whale nodded to each other, stood solemnly, and toasted the intrusion.
Hog, without hesitation, waved goodbye to the bar with equal gravity from the driver’s seat of the shining piscine vehicle — which was at that point inside the building up to its rear door — then slammed it in reverse and hauled ass back down Tulane to Claiborne Avenue, turning back left to head crosstown toward the Ninth Ward. There would be no police pursuit in the neighborhood which was his destination.
The front end of the Galaxie had a new dent or six to add to its collection, but it was made out of stout American steel, and nothing was really seriously wrong with it, except for the slight bend in its axle. Hog straightened that back in the Lower Nine with a borrowed service station sledge hammer, and drove me back home sober and exhausted shortly after sunup.
The next afternoon Francis X. Patriquin sold the Hog-mobile for cash, offering a favorable deal to the buyer in return for no papers and no questions. I had told the Hog before he dropped me off that I feared that somehow either the outlaw patrons of the bar or the authorities would discover that he was the owner of a vehicle guilty of malicious mischief, felony damage, leaving the scene of an accident, and hit-and-run freight-train derailment.
I needn’t have worried. There weren’t many reliable eye witnesses in the house that night, and none who wanted to carry the matter further. Even Nick, as it happened. The negligible hole in his bar instantly became both a source of legend, and a source of ingress until it was plywooded over and the mural-bearing wall boards restored to their original position. The bar’s business exploded overnight with admirers coming to hear the story, and Nick even considered allowing late-night beer. The stories of what came through Greasy Nick’s train wall were repeated in expanded versions amongst mechanics, hookers, mud-loggers, Harley riders, Elizabethan poets and roustabouts months and even years later.
The consensus was that a goddamn ghost hearse had driven right into the bar, and the driver gave ‘em a signal to let ‘em know that they all still had long lives ahead of them.
When he found out about the ongoing fable he had created, the Hog didn’t want to disenchant folks by showing up and being recognized as a standard-issue human with a petroleum worker’s union card.
The night of the crash was the last time he would party in Nick’s, as he, and the wonderful adventures he precipitated slowly came to a middle-aged halt. The Hog would marry a brainy newspaper reporter with two kids, and would take up a barstool at the great lounge in the sky at age 37. A legend. A friend.
And now the revitalized venerable Big Train institution is to return to full business for its 100th birthday, in 2018. I’d really like to go by and see the Restoration.
Maybe they won’t recognize me without the Galaxie.
Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour