Bar Exam, Part Two

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

Bar Exam, Part One

The Great Franco-American Naval Engagement of 1968

Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour

 La Casa de los Marinos, “The House of Sailors,” had three narrow and deep rooms, but most turistas never made it beyond the first. Each chamber was filled on its long side by a thin zinc-topped bar backed by a wall of mirrors. The reflective surfaces opened the rooms up a bit and made them seem less claustrophobic.   Then there was the third and last room, the hide-out preferred by locals and Quarter rats.

The reasons were many. The back room was the literal “inner sanctum,” windowless and unreachable by the light of the first bar, a haven of the undisturbed 24-hour darkness preferred by New Orleans nightcrawlers, who often partied through the dawn and well toward the next sunset. But the real reason the back room was treasured was its service outlet, a completely hidden back alley. That passageway ran through the middle of the block, and out an unmarked gate onto the side street. Other than regulars and beverage vendors, very few people knew of its existence.

Like any neighborhood bar with proximity to the docks, La Casa was even more insane at Carnival. As a reward for a particularly long time at sea, or just for a job well done, dozens of vessels timed their operations to insure their crews had shore leave during the prelude to Fat Tuesday.

The Saturday before the Fat One has always been particularly wild. The parades have become non-stop at that point, massively colorful during the day and lit by flambeau torch-bearers at night. The arrival of tourists and collegians on multiple night hotel packages becomes so huge as to transform the traditional weekend date night into a wild, smiling, double-backed, beer swilling Beast who will lose his room keys by 10pm and do the technicolor yawn before midnight.

This Saturday of Mardi Gras 1968 was particularly special.   The 2,000 crew members of the French helicopter cruiser R97, the Jean d’Arc had, for the first time in her history, docked the vessel in New Orleans. A primary training ship, she proudly carried two Aérospatiale Puma and two Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters, as well as two of the Navy’s Alouette III choppers. Tours of the sophisticated weapons were allowed in daylight hours, while the city’s populace was vaguely sober.

Their main gangway dropped onto the foot of Iberville street, a scant five hundred feet from a bar that proclaimed itself to be the “House of Sailors.” It was only natural that by nightfall more than a few of those military gentlemen made their way to the bar’s double French doors. They were prepared for trouble, had been advised by their officers of neighborhoods and situations to avoid. To avoid confusion with merchant marines and members of other nations’ armed forces, and to help maintain their sense of decorum, the captain of the Jean d’Arc had required his crew, much of which was still in training, to wear their finest naval dress. His logic was that even common seamen looked and acted regal in starched uniforms.

Indeed it was the lowest ranks among the French sailors who had the most arresting and unique outfits, with colorful red and blue piping outlining the rectangular piece of cloth which covered the shoulders of the wide-sleeved blouse. Their matching bell-bottom pants were well in advance of the fashion. Making them even more evident in the crowds was their headgear. Surmounted with spotless white berets, banded with a gold cloth, black-lettered Jean-d’Arc ribbon, the chapeau were topped with a two-inch bright red pom-pom which stood out like a beacon.

In trying to insure the safety and well-being of his crew, the French captain had sealed their fate.

Besides the consumption of vast amounts of inebriants, Mardi Gras centers on costuming. Le Capitaine had costumed his men well, and in doing so, put them at the level of the crowd. They were doomed to be bait even before they left their ship.

La Casa housed a rough but young crowd, supplemented by many haphazard students who were to a great extent young men enduring higher education primarily as a means to avoid a more lethal schooling with the US military draft. My own motives were in line with this aesthetic.

I had already seen one of my roommates, a jockey by true profession, flunk out in his first semester and be taken within weeks by the US Marines. Six months later he was bemoaning the New-Orleans-like wet and muggy weather of Viet Nam, when a mortar round insured that weather would never again be a concern for him. After finding that my own initial efforts at university were judged borderline by my local draft board, I became a much more devoted student. So much so that the release of Carnival was a desperately needed diversion.

As I entered the back alley of La Casa that Saturday, I ran into two New Orleans natives, Vic Panaletti & Conrad Gutermann, already coming out. It was barely 9pm.

We had become friends quickly, Conrad and I bonded in our devotion to Mardi Gras. His parents were descendants of the Alsatians who settled just below the City in 1721. They still lived in the bayou- and lake-bounded area labeled Des Allemandes, designated “the Germans” for the original inhabitants.

Panaletti was Old World New Orleans Italian, tough as nails, and unfazable. I was shortly to find out just how unfazable.

“Where you guys going?” were the first words out of my mouth as we came face to face in the narrow alley.  “I’m just getting here, and I was going to buy you bums a beer.”

“We’ll be right back,” said Vic. “Connie’s just takin’ me roun’ to the car for a second. Gotta clean up a little mess.” At this point Panale lifted his left hand, which I had not noticed was clamped to his side. There was a large and spreading red stain. Instantly I got woozy.

“Easy, man,” said Vic, supporting me with his right. “It’s nuttin. Guy thinks he got hisself a knife when it wudn’t nuttin a real gent would call a nail file. Won’t be pullin’ that again. I think I broke his arm. Maybe two places.”

Conrad guffawed. “Shouldn’t a wasted that last beer on that thick head, though,” he said.

“Dat wuz a philosophical error about which I find I now hold regrets,” said Panaletti wisely. “Nuttin compared to the loss of a full beer. Gimme a Jax, willya. I got me a first aid kit and a clean shirt in the car. We’ll be back before the beer gets warm.”

He laughed so loudly he gagged and had to cough. And with that Panaletti turned, and he and Gutermann marched arm and arm through the wet alley toward the street, laughing.

I worked my way through the crowd at the back room bar to the Decatur end of the room, first buying three beers then precariously climbing with two of them in my shirt pockets to sit atop a stack of cases of empties set in the front far corner. I figured from up there I could see all the action and still be spotted by my two friends when they returned.

I took my first deep draughts and sighed with the release of pressure. Nothing in the Real World was bad enough to actually spoil a Saturday’s cultural theatre at La Casa. Nothing.

It was then that I saw the first Jean d’ Arc sailors battling their way deep into the bar. Their determination to take on the worst the dive had to offer was undoubtedly bolstered by the ports they had already conquered. These were men who had trampled through the booze-laden minefields of Marseilles and Sydney and Singapore. They had shoved a Gallic pie in the none-too-delicate faces of Hong Kong and Bombay and Beirut.

They had not confronted a crowd of drunken New Orleans partiers on a Saturday night at Mardi Gras.

The sailors were being a little overly aggressive, especially considering they had no idea of the ground rules. One of which was to act with a modicum of courtesy.   The French had decided that the sheer weight of their military training, and the fairly sizable numbers with which they had entered the bar, would hold them well in any stead. But La Casa was totally packed with people and, light-hearted as the evening was, no one was in the mood to be pushed around.

It started with the slightest of transgressions. A girl being shoved roughly from the rear, spilling her beer, only to turn and see a fellow wearing a red pom-pom beret with a gold band. The same woman decides that as recompense for his rudeness she should have this Carnivalgoer’s party hat. No one yet suspects that these are really sailors. Could be drag queens. At the moment they’re just a bunch of guys who went to the same army-navy store and dressed up all alike.

And those little hats are so cute.

The sailors are separated in the pressing crowd. They are being swept off their feet with the immense body surges toward and back from the bar. They are suddenly unsure of their footing. The first woman is carried away from the sailor whose hat she has taken before he can even lift an arm to try and grab it back. His arm, as a matter of fact, is stuck in the upright position. He cannot move it.

Another hat disappears. The jukebox and voices of the partiers are so loud that the shouts of the victims are totally inaudible. Then a shirt gets pulled out, and the process starts in earnest.

From my high perch the faces of the sailors are like those of swimmers held above the surface of a swirling coastal riptide. In this case as they exhibit desperate human faces as their bodies are attacked from below by costume sharks. There is surprise, then anger, then disbelief, and finally fear as their clothes are pulled, then torn from them. The sailors are pushed along, separated by the multi-bodied crowd, carried along by the human current toward the back alleyway door.

From which they are spit from the room as the seeds from a watermelon are discarded by a Louisiana farm boy, naked of all covering and protection.

A full half-dozen sailors have been ejected – now wearing only socks and shoes — into the alley, where they huddle shaking and babbling in their native tongue until a sympathetic bartender calls the US Navy’s Shore Patrol.

At just that moment my two friends Vic & Connie enter the alley to make their way into the rear room and claim their beers. I can see them for the last half of their walk. They don’t even stop talking, much less look to the left or right at six naked foreigners stamping their feet in the cold.

Vic looks dapper in his clean white shirt, showing no evidence at all that less than fifteen minutes before he’d had a nasty knife wound. He climbs up the beer cases to sit on one side of me, Connie on the other. I extract both their beers from my shirt pockets and we do a short toast to draft evasion.

The US Navy Shore Patrol finally arrives to transport their brothers-in-arms to the carrier’s gangway and release the seamen to walk aboard, sans uníformes.

La Casa de los Marinos was declared off-limits by the French navy from that day until almost two decades later when the rowdy bar was finally bought and transformed into a profitably tasteless burger and po-boy barn frequented by New Orleans on Ten Dollars a Day tourists.

That had not yet happened when Vic yelled into my ear over the rage of the La Casa crowd: “Anything happen while we were gone?”