Bar Exam, Part Six

Mozart & Margaritas, Napoleon & Wind-Up Birds

 The first day after the last day of high school. The day I was sure would mark the rapid decline in naïveté that surely came with entering the Real School. I was scheduled to celebrate, though at the time the reason for the festivities was nebulous to me. My mother and father had generously arranged the affair. All these years later, I’ve come closer to understanding what they were offering me.

My parents had ushered me onto the southbound Kansas City Southern earlier that morning, their eldest son headed to a week at the plush St Charles Hotel as a graduation gift. The train had clacked across the two hundred miles of swamp between our house on the gumbo-mud-encrusted unpaved Central Louisiana street generously called Boeuf Trace (“Cow Path”) and the relatively posh confines of Union Station in the Crescent City. I arrived in quick time. Which was just as well, since I didn’t remember much of the journey. My head was still aching from the commencement parties of the previous day, and the aftermath of the first beers I had ever consumed in their entirety. I was a late learner, but soon to catch up.

Other than the quick stolen sip of one of my father’s brews at a crawfish boil, and the thimbleful of dreadful Mogen David “toast” wine at Christmas and New Year’s, I had never had an alcoholic beverage. The four Schlitz from the night’s parties had taught me the reward of immoderation quickly, but I was not daunted.

I had lined up two very cool — a metaphoric temperature also describable by a seventeen-year-old Louisiana boy as “hot” — dates to go along with my first venture into adulthood. They were both acquaintances and long-time correspondents, first met on the competitive high school speech and debate circuit. I had been modestly successful at winning contests of dramatic interpretation, and had used that same blarney skill to enter the ever-so-shallow affections of similarly post-pubescent females.   The depth of my experience with the opposite sex, though, was much in line with my experience in alcohol.

I hoped both were subject to change in New Orleans.

The truth of the matter was that I walked in the Vieux Carré looking to get into trouble. Trouble. I courted some, truly. But I anticipated trouble in only the moderate proportions imaginable by a small-town “good boy” on his first long-distance solo — ie, non-family — excursion. Adventure was due ahead. I did, however, hold steadfast to a determination to avoid massive pain or injury, at least anything corporeal.

The ancient swinging doors of the Napoleon House flew apart with what I considered a minimal shove, banging first the wall, and then my knuckles on the doors’ return.   When religious literature speaks of “signs that bespeak the future,” this small accident is a perfect example of what they are attempting to describe.

In mid-May, the town was already carrying the hot baggage of August. Thermometers were pushing close to triple digits with every noon’s sun, and would offer no dip below 75 degrees Fahrenheit for at least another three months.

The Nap House was still two decades away from any thought of air conditioning, so to keep the high-ceilinged rooms livable, cast iron ceiling fans were sent a steady diet of DC electricity, and coaxed to turn. On each, a quartet of dust-coated blades spun unenthusiastically, pushing pollen and water-saturated air into circulation. The half-dozen exterior French doors were open to the street, and copper-sheeted tables placed in the sidewalk’s stagnant breeze, sweating clientele shaded by a pressed tin awning that curved on wooden spindle columns around the corner of rue St Louis and rue Chartres.

The two-hundred-year-old building has been promoted in tourist literature for decades to have been fashioned as a hide-away for the fugitive Napoleon. The bar’s namesake, however, died at age 65 in less comforting circumstances within the eastern waters of the Atlantic, fated to never enjoy an umbrella cocktail next to a brightly-clad tourist from Wisconsin. The final Bonaparte would never know what he missed.

I myself was two months shy of eighteen as I broke new ground, sitting down in a public bar, unescorted by my father or mother. My date was to arrive momentarily and I needed to look appropriately worldly. I ordered my first cocktail, ever.

A Margarita, an overly large cocktail, was served by a gentleman of such years that I had to wonder if he’d been on the original wait-staff. Bill was his name, even then well into his seventh decade waiting tables at the House. The double tequila portion was due to the fact that I was sitting at one of Bill’s tables. Age had given an unmistakable trembling to the kindly waiter’s fingers. A regular stemmed Margarita glass in those hands meant that half the beverage would be shaken to the floor before it reached the customer’s table. Thus the bartender always served Bill’s stemmed drinks in larger, more stable Old-Fashioned glasses, and to make up for that inconvenience, the patron was given a double drink for the price of a single. Bill’s tables were always full of the M&M crowd, the Margarita and martini drinkers, and I was lucky to accidentally get one.

While licking the salt from the edge of the glass and waiting for my first companion’s arrival, I was to witness another of the Napoleon House’s resident quirks. For over a century it had been the favorite gathering place for the classical musicians of the city, and the stereo in the inner room was surrounded by cabinets full of vinyl containing the works of Mozart and Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and Puccini. This day the air was filled with the sounds of the Bach Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, and the flapping of plastic bird wings.

Bird wings.

As was later revealed to me, at the completion of an unusually long rehearsal by the Philharmonic, the entire string section had retired for refreshments to Chartres Street. One young cellist, on his walk from the rehearsal hall to the Nap House, had spied a window full of yellow wind-up canaries from France. On a sudden inspiration, he bought out the shop’s entire stock of two dozen birds, and distributed these to his comrades immediately upon his arrival. Powered only by a rubber band, a tiny flock of the ingenious birds now fluttered about the room in lifelike random flight.

Twenty-four inanimate bits of plastic drew energy from the same hands that only an hour before had also given life to a long-dead Beethoven. One Gallic canary, its engine temporarily losing power, fluttered straight down into my Margarita and flapped there for a few moments before being retrieved, dried, rewound and relaunched by a lovely Oriental woman. She also ordered me another of the large drinks, courtesy of the second violas. Bill brought it quickly, the old man smiling and ducking as yellow wings and Isaac Stern’s fiddle continued to fill the room.

There was salt on my shirtfront, and two lime slices fell from my lap when I stood up to greet my date. She’d been state champion at oratory. Her gaze traveled slowly from saline deposits down to citrus remnants, evaluating me as I had often seen her take stock of the character of an opponent. She raised her eyes to meet mine, then offered a hand by way of formal greeting. I was over-anxious. I clasped it much too readily, and instantly got the message, the long ivory fingers so cold and lifeless as to prohibit any carnal speculation whatsoever on my part. I found myself undisappointed, happy the pressure was off.

Immediately following this revelation, a hard plastic canary beak rammed me fircefully in the right temple. I saw a quick flash of avian-related stars and fell off-balance to the floor, dragging my orator friend with me.

“So,” I thought, as a dozen hands pulled the two of us to our feet and removed flattened lime slices from the front of her once-pristine silk dress, “this is what it’s like to be a high school graduate.”

Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour

 

Bar Exam, Part Five

You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me

As many people have often remarked before, music and food and sex are tangible entities here in New Orleans. This is a town that carries a living sense of place, much of it vibrating to the harmonics and rhythms of the past. Over the years I have frequented one particular building that exists as an individual entity within the larger whole. Since 1856 Tujague’s has worked as both a restaurant and bar, and as a time machine that gently continues carrying the presence of all who have ever inhabited its rooms. Much as New Orleans itself does.

Here 21st century guests inhale and then exhale the same air as the first crabbers and shrimpers and oystermen who stood at the wide cypress plank bar and placed their feet on the heavy brass rail a century and a half ago. In the room-sized mirror behind the bar that was already ninety years old when it was shipped over from Paris, there remain the smiling faces of those good working men whose images were captured in the shiny surface lifetimes ago. They are still beneath the silvered plane with its myriad of darkly spidered crevasses, remembering what it was like to walk among the living. Savoring the long-gone, deep fleshy breath of a human day. Relishing the almost forgotten roar of blood in the temples at a good laugh.

You can walk out the door, but you can’t walk out of the past here, so you might as well resign yourself to living in it. Even the gutters in the street outside are significant to the world’s history, long slabs of dense stone that came over as ballast in the holds of otherwise empty nineteenth-century British ships arriving in port to be emptied of the granite then refilled with the Louisiana cotton that sustained UK factories for the better part of a hundred years.

I have noticed that the same potency of spirit is not held in the shallow breath of a day-tripper from the Midwest of America, a Pentecostal minister who is wondering why people take themselves so seriously, and simultaneously so damned lightly here.

These people, who move amidst and through memories while remaining vibrantly alive.

 

I first placed my foot on Tujague’s brass rail almost half a century ago. On the day after high school graduation, dressed in torn black jeans and a very very early silkscreened Grateful Dead t-shirt, I would have never believed I would one day find myself this old, standing in the same place. But sure enough, here I am, looking in the wall of mirror at the fellow with the wide grey streaks in his hair and conservative adult clothes on his bones. He seems a bit defiant, framed in the fourteen-foot-tall 250-year-old reflected universe that runs the entire length of the large room.

Everything in this neighborhood is old. Vieux Carré does not romantically mean “French Quarter,” as so many visitors believe. It means “Old Square.” And here I wander, appropriately enough, now as old and square as they come. They know me here. And occasionally decide on my recent history, whether their concept reflects reality or no. The entire staff here always have the (wholly fictionalized) Lowdown on all the regulars. On this side of the bar we have come to live with it.

 

This building lived an entire life as a Spanish armory before Guillame Tujague arrived from Mazzeroles, France, to open a restaurant within the two-foot-thick brick and stucco walls. Ceiling fans that once ran off DC electricity are now converted to more modern power, but move just as crankily as they did during Prohibition.

Even the black-and-white tile floor’s surface rolls in noticeable grooves like the rising swell of a morning sea, the result of a decade of decades of dockworkers, sailors, and butchers making their way to the bar to stand and raise glasses in camaraderie. This is indeed the sovereign “standing” bar of the City. The one large table, available for seating only in the latter part of this century, is made of metal hammered into the shape of a painter’s pallet, and is positioned under the room’s single unshuttered double window.

 

I enter and slowly walk to the bar. Dollene the bartender and Steve the owner are waiting, ears and minds still alert for the closing dialogue of the latest episode of their own invented telenovela, “Local Boy Tells All.” They suspect I have Woman Trouble. The last lines of any imaginary drama have, however, already passed from my mind. Credits are rolling, and I really would just like to request a bourbon.

The radio soundtrack continues underneath, the local community radio station broadcast over tinny ceiling-mounted speakers: “… you treat me wrong now, my love is strong now…

A fresh drink is placed on a napkin in front of me before I am halfway to my leaning spot at the long cypress plank. Steve is staring at the closed barroom door and the street beyond. But then he sets his mouth and shakes his head, he lowers his eyes and walks toward the kitchen, mumbling during that passage. The word “woman” is heard again amidst the rumbling consonant sounds of his voice. Someone toward the back of the room, probably the red-faced bald guy with the tourist group, emits a nervous laugh.

The spell is broken.

It is after all just another fine Monday afternoon in New Orleans. A time to stand and have a toddy with friends at Tujague’s. And forget the rest of life.

Weekday regular Mad Dog Salvatano enters the room and walks right up to me, already in conversation: “I myself wouldn’ta normally be tellin’ ya this, Jimbo, but you know, I just this mornin’ found out somethin’…” the Dog pausing for an oratorical drum roll, then, “…that this non-violence shit really pays off.”

This from the mouth of the infamous “Mad Dog”, semi-retired bookie and gambler extraordinaire.

I make note of the occasion immediately onto a cocktail napkin. I figure to research this occurrence later to see if some heavy-metal planet oozing radiation has slipped from orbit, my reasoning being that there must be some cause for what I had just heard. Contradiction on such a cosmic scale does often not occur without a substantial prompt.

And The Dog was not known as a master of self-restraint in any portion of his life. Thus, his name. This man is embracing non-violence?

He has more to say.

“Yeah, me and my lady we was watching ‘Gandhi’ last night…”

Another slip in the universe.

“…and there he was in prison…”

This I know the Dog can relate to.

“… wearing a uniform with the numbers 189 on the pocket.”

OK.

“So I got up right then and there and drove to the Cracker Barrel Mini-mart and put a buck on the Lotto Quick Pick 3, betting the numbers 1, 8 & 9…”

Oh, no.

“I tell the cashier where I got my numbers, and she’s cute and laughs. Seems to like me, I mean, but who doesn’t? Who can resist The Dog in his prime? Though she has these dimples, which are making me crazy. Nobody else in the joint. So I buy us each a beer out the cooler, and we have a little talk about this philosophy stuff. We drink a second beer. Almost no customers comin’ in, you know, on a Sunday night. Even let me sit behind the counter with her while we was sipping our brews. Very classy dame. I got her number.

“Then I figured I’d go finish the movie and get some more of the scoop, but by the time I get home, this Gandhi guy is dead, and Linda smells somebody else’s perfume on me and asks me where I been and isn’t any too hot about giving me a recap of the plot.

“I figure it can wait and go to bed. Alone.

“So I get up this morning, look at the paper, and sure enough, there it is: the Quick Pick 3 winning numbers are 189. Natch. I won me five hundred bucks because a dead Indian went to jail in South Africa. I’m gonna watch that movie all the way through tonight. Maybe he sent me some more messages, hunh?” He drains his glass with a loud emphatic slurp. His extended idea of ending communication.

I add that last likelihood to my notes. “The Dog looks to Gandhi for messages,” I write with my Sharpie.

Looking at the wadded, marker-stained cocktail napkin, I decide to add the flimsy piece of paper to my home’s mojo altar. My thinking: “It’s best to pay attention when these things happen, and I am.”

Gandhi probably did, too.

 

The momentary gap in reality closes as the Dog pats me on the back, orders another Crown & Seven, and ambles over to his regular sunlit seat.

The radio: “…my love is strong now…”

The action of the afternoon does not stop. A large woman in a stained chef’s apron enters the front door, walks up to stand next to the bar, and places two white bags on the counter in front of the bartender.

“Right, honey,” says Dollene the bartender, putting the bags on the beer cooler. “Be right back,” and leaves the room, headed for the kitchen. She reemerges a few moments later with her own large brown bag which she gives to the visitor with a smile. “You gonna like it today. Chef got some duck in.”

“Thanks, babe, I’m gonna play me a dollar or two on this thing ‘fore I head back to work,” says the lady in the apron, indicating the gaudily flashing “Bayou Poker” video gaming machine against the wall.

“Enjoy yourself. The one in the corner looks to me to be near a payout. I watched two tourists from Minnesota put close to a hundred in just an hour ago. Didn’t win a dime.”

“Thanks for the tip, babe. I could use me some cab fare. Double shift today. Be too tired to be waitin’ for the bus this evenin’.” The rotund cook sidles up to the video poker machine, dramatically shoves a five-dollar-bill into the slot, and begins a feverish dance of banging buttons and cursing fate.

“Who’s that?” I discreetly ask Dollene.

“Miz Lou,” she answers. “Works across the street at Evans Pralines. We do a trade every few days. She brings me’n the cook a bag a’ candy, which we share with customers and the waiters, and we send her back some gumbo and French bread for her ‘n her pastry chef. Works out great. Lemme see what she brought today.” She opened one of the bags. “Looks like Heavenly Hash and chocolate caramel turtles. Gotta love it. You want one?”

“No thanks. Was originally taking someone out to dinner at Snug tonight. Seems I am going solo now. Still, I don’t want to spoil a good meal.”

“Okay by me. Oh, looky here,” nodding her head back to the door. She has already filled a large plastic go-cup with water by the time I turn to look.

A woman in a jogging outfit holds a young Irish setter by the leash at the doorway. A shaved tummy testifies to the fact that she’s – the pup – recently been to the vet’s for population control purposes. Dollene hands over the cup of water to the jogger, who offers it to the dog, who begins gratefully lapping. She empties the cup in less than a minute.

There is a wave of the hand, another back from Dollene and the runner & dog are gone. Not a word has been spoken.

“Nice pup,” I comment.

Another beat. Another entrance.

Betty, whom I recognize as an affluent French Quarter property owner who had “retired” about a month ago from running a shop in a building she owns in the next block, walks in the door with a well-groomed gentleman of advanced years.  She comes to stand at the elbow of the bar across from me, loudly and obviously involved in a conversation about beans and chili. Their cocktails are set in front of them without an order. Chilled Stoli up with a water back for Betty, and a large Bass Ale draft for the gent. Who is speaking.

“… so she says to me ‘Well why don’t you just cook two batches of chili and make one without the beans?’ I mean, the woman must be out of her mind. I know it’s a wedding reception, but I am doing her this huge favor, making her six quarts of my own secret chili recipe, which has taken me years to perfect, and once won the Sacramento State Fair Chili Prize. If she thinks beans are gauche for a society wedding, she can just get somebody else to feed her fancy-pants guests.

“I’m not just opening a can of some simulated chili-like food here. It takes me a half day to shop for all the ingredients, which costs me close to fifty bucks, especially when I go all the way to the West Bank to get the right grind of meat, which is the only way I’ll do it. Then it takes me another day to make the stuff, including reconstituting the beans, and I’ve got to refrigerate the big batch all in one pot overnight to let the spices rest, of course, and so the flavors can come out. And I’ve got to bring it over there to the reception hall at the Monteleone Hotel all by myself, with my own cast-iron chafing dishes. Heavy as hell. But that cheap aluminum or even good silver just won’t do – you’ve got to have chili in the right kind of metal or it gets bitter. Plus you’ve got to re-heat it properly right before people walk in to be served.

“And she’s got the nerves to tell me ‘no beans.’ I only make chili with beans, girl, and that’s that.”

He inhales half the Bass and sets the glass back down on the bar, then looks across at me. “You know how many pinto beans there are in a cup, son?”

I admit that I do not.

“Three hundred and eleven. That’s how many. I was marinating meat one day and got bored to death waiting for it to be done, so I sat down and counted them out. Three hundred and eleven dried number one pinto beans in a cup.”

“I’ll remember that,” I affirm, not quite sure of how I will use the information.

“Make it with the beans,” says Betty, who has finished her first drink and is handing her glass to Dollene for a refill. “Now tell me about that oyster bordelaise you made by my house Sunday. Where did you get those sweet sweet erstas?”

The conversation turns away from me and becomes less emphatic, though I do hear the name of my own favorite oyster house, P&J, mentioned with reverence. Again food makes for family.

“Mister Ted, he likes to cook for folks. Betty she likes having folks for dinner. Between ‘em they feed half the neighborhood Sunday nights,” Dollene says, pointing to Betty’s companion by way of explanation. “By the way, you want the beans?”

“What?” I am a bit confused: was I going to get the aforementioned legendary 311?

“Monday night. Steve gives all the regulars free red beans and rice on Monday night.”

“Oh, I thought…”

“Red beans. Monday night.”

“No, thanks, Dollene. Eating at Snug Harbor. Alone. Remember? In just a few minutes, really. Got to keep an appetite.”

“Right. Good batch though.”

“I’m sure.”

And indeed they do look good. Fifty-year patron Mad Dog Salvatano has returned from his extended journey to the kitchen, where he received the first plate of the day directly from Brenda, the legendary cook. Even for a free meal, Tujague’s still does food up right. The beans are mounded on a large steak plate over a bed of steaming white rice, a link of hot sausage nestles alongside, aromatic fresh parsley is sprinkled on top. A second plate holds hot French bread and chilled butter. Bar diners are issued the same linen and silverware as paying sit-down patrons.

“Looks great,” I admit.

“Good food, but sometimes not a great night to eat it,” says Dollene. “Some of those northerners who been buyin’ condos an’ now’re stayin’ in the Quarters, they hang over at Touché in the Royal Orleans normally, but they come by for the free stuff on Monday and they just ain’t the best kinda crowd. At least not to the waiters and me. Not nice. They got money, ya know, and hell, they’re gettin’ fed for free, but they treat workin’ people like dirt. Probably ain’t their fault, ‘cause that’s how rough regular folks treat them back up North. But it still pisses me off.”

“I know what you mean,” I say. “One of the things I’ve always loved about the South is that being polite has never gone out of style. I absolutely hate it when people don’t behave with at least a touch of civility. Though I know a number of enlightened females – intelligent, worthwhile gentlewomen – who still bristle when I open doors for them.”

“A-HAH! You!” Dollene is pointing to the door again.

A short young man with a very pleasant expression and a large silver platter held over his head has entered the restaurant. He lowers the platter onto the bar. It is covered with individually wrapped slices of cakes and pies, and a few foil-wrapped packets.

“Gimme a ‘Cup a’ Gold,’” says Dollene, offering the man a dollar.

He hands over a small foil pouch, and Dollene passes it to me. “Your breakfast tomorrow morning,” she says. “He makes ‘em. And they’re damned good. Loaded with vitamins. Eat one every morning before I run.”

“But…”

“Breakfast. Dealing with women caused you to burn an abnormally vast amount of nutrition. You’ll eat this and recover.”

“Yes, maam.”

When I leave half an hour later, I discover upon counting my change that, as is the custom for regulars, I was given my first drink free, and was charged for my second as a single. Both drinks were in fact doubles. I had been offered a meal and dessert and given breakfast. And I had been awarded the storied Gandhi 189. All gratis.

Plus I was given yet another magic number. 311. Pinto beans in a cup. Of course.

And as I leave, I hear again “… you really got a hold on me.”

 * * *

            A side note: I myself have a personal history with this particular Smokey Robinson song. I was emphatically slapped on the wrist by a righteously outraged nun on the night of my high school Senior Prom as I took the lyrics to the above song much too literally when dealing with the impressive derrière of my slow-dancing date. A note was sent home with me to my parents detailing his transgression, the reading of which caused my father to blow coffee from his nose at the next morning’s breakfast.

Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour

Bar Exam, Part 4

Gonads at Magoo’s

Two days after St Patty’s, the huge mobile contraption pulled to a full stop in the middle of Chimes Street, in front of the legendary Magoo’s Bar:

… stories from former residents and business owners fondly recall the area, particularly Chimes Street, which has long had a bohemian mystique. In its way, it was the Greenwich Village of Baton Rouge, with a beatnik vibe in the Fifties, a hippie vibe in the Sixties, a druggie vibe in the Seventies. There was a slightly dangerous edge to it — the kind of place that students loved but that made parents nervous.

There was the head shop in the 70s that sold cigarette papers, water pipes, and bongs, and Magoo’s bar with its famous beer-can collection and infamous St. Patrick’s Day street parties featuring green beer.

In those days the bar’s owner never met an extravagance in behavior he couldn’t top.   This good-natured fellow’s bar sat in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, snuggled up to the very perimeter of Louisiana State University. An institution which itself will never outlive Randy Newman’s lyrics: “Good ole boys from LSU, go in dumb, come out dumb, too.”

But the infamous Flying Gonads Racing Team were not dumb, no. The dwindling number of bikers in the loosely-knit band of motorcycle enthusiasts were out to use the leftovers from the recent St Patty’s holiday to recruit new members, even if it meant signing up an unintentionally educated college boy or two.

There was a serious merrymaking opportunity at the same time, of course.

The “Party Wagon” turned out to be a converted beer truck, bought cheaply and quickly from a university fraternity. Though it got bad gas mileage on the highway, the refrigeration unit still worked well, and the industrious frat brothers had already drilled and sealed holes for the installation of three taps on either side of the truck body. This allowed six kegs to be tapped simultaneously while an additional six were kept cold and on reserve inside the insulated truck bed.

Two principal organizers – and the best mechanics — from the club, Crazy Charlie and Grizzly, had been hired by the trust-fund-endowed Greeks to rework the engine, brakes and electrical system. Thus the Gonads were among the first to know when the truck hit the marketplace again.

It was a good deal. The buy came with seven leftover kegs of green beer already in place. It seems that the Greeks had been unable to maintain their desired pace on the recent St Patty’s Day. Only two days before, they had set their chairs on the fraternity house’s bare lawn at 8am and had begun power-drinking the tinted beverage as a salute to the sainted Irish hero.

Their location, quite near several campus ministries, allowed them to toast those supposedly less-enlightened spiritual institutions in many a gallant lift of the pint and gusty recital of remote classical origin. However, in spite of valiant efforts at consumption, the twenty members present on the morning shift had only been able to empty two sixteen-gallon kegs of the bright chartreuse liquid before similarly colored public upheavals began to set in at regular intervals. This did not deter the pace of consumption.

One unfortunately well-synchronized outward burst occurred just as the lead limousine of a rather formidable politician’s funeral turned the corner onto the street that fronted the frat house. The limo’s sole horizontal occupant was not celebrating St Patrick’s Day, and his well-connected family was not amused.

That very afternoon the Dean of the University had retaliated, only allowing the fraternity to remain on campus — on strict probation — if it agreed to ban all alcoholic beverages from the premises, and, of course, if it got rid of the Party Truck immediately.

Griz pulled it into parking mode in front of Magoo’s the next Saturday morning. By noon it was decorated, and the rooftop packed with baskets of individual cocktail weenies, each skewered by a tiny Irish flag, also furnished by the fraternity’s former partyers. The miniature meat tubes had been part and parcel of the discreet acquisition of six cases of the product, which had been discarded in a dumpster behind a strip-mall supermarket when management discovered that the bulging cans were almost eighteen months beyond their “sell-by” date. The Gonads, however, did not see this time lapse as a matter for consideration.

Weird Harold and Crazy Charlie had volunteered to ride on the top of the truck and toss the newly-acquired party favors. At noon, they were already in position, each with a gallon milk jug filled with green beer, and the parade was preparing to roll.

Dozens of riders from across the area had shown up on their Harley-Davidson “hogs” to show off their rides and provide escort. They carefully lined up their bikes across the street in four neat rows, kickstands down and front wheels all slanted uniformly to the right. The sun glinted off what was enough chrome to cover a mid-sized naval destroyer, a blinding but glorious sight. Most of the waiting masses were amazed at what the Griz and Gonad Co-chair Crazy Charlie had been able to put together on such short notice.

“We are the purposely forgotten people of this town, you betcha,” the patriotic Griz yelled over the engine-cranking roar of another wave of arriving bikes. “At least until today.” Things were looking up for the recruiting process.

By the time Grizzly got behind the wheel of the Party Wagon, a rather voluptuous drama major – Harold’s “niece”, it was rumored — had taken the middle of the bench seat to handle the truck’s cab-top public address system. A rather cross-eyed political science major also scrambled onboard to the passenger window position to distribute crudely mimeographed Gonad recruitment leaflets. By then the “forgotten” men and women of the club, and their fellow bikers, had already put a serious dent in the contents of the onboard kegs, and had themselves all but forgotten why they were gathered. It was only after Griz had blown the Wagon’s deafening air horn for five minutes, thereby drowning out all conversation, and actually put the vehicle into gear, that the crowd all started scrambling for their Harleys in an attempt to quickly get behind the beer source.

Scrambling… a little too quickly.

Griz didn’t notice that all six taps were still wide-open as he began to progress forward down Chimes street toward Highland Road, spewing a foamy green wake behind both sides of the ongoing campaign parade.

He also didn’t notice that Charlie and Harold had come seriously under the influence of verdigrised liquids while waiting atop the truck for the parade to start, and had been passing the time since they ran out of beer by napping, piles of flagged sausages melting all around them in the sun.

Lastly, the Griz didn’t notice what happened when the first prospective parader tried to bring his Hog upright in the middle of a row of ten. It all seemed to happen in slow motion.

Harley dominoes.

Spangled Electra-Glide crashing into leather-trimmed Duo-Glide crashing into Candy-Apple Sportster crashing itself into its meticulously chopped and elongated neighbor, which somehow kicks its engine over in the process, idling at a high rpm, falling out of neutral as it hits the ground, spinning toward the next line of bikes, hitting them, one after another careening to the asphalt, raising a blackboard-fingernail series of prolonged metallic crunches and crinkles, each set of handlebars and kickstands and foot pegs forcing their way into the tangled guts of its neighbors, owners trying to leap into the middle to stop the progress of falling bikes becoming helplessly caught by the sheer weight of the machines and falling over themselves, reaching for support, starting the same disaster in row after row after row after row, until the street in front of the Magoo’s was a 2500-square-foot block of howling bikes butts and elbows.

Nope. Griz didn’t notice that. He was already rolling, and looking across at the fine figure of a woman who was announcing the oncoming Flying Gonads first-ever post-St Patty’s Day parade. This was, in the eyes of Grizzly, one finely educated lady. Yessiree. Ready for a Bachelor’s degree, she was.

As the truck turned right off Chimes street and onto Highland Road, that same much-admired young woman turned up the PA and began declaring the worth of bike-riding humanitarians over the crunching rhythm section soundtrack of ZZ Top — Griz had the eight-track in the cab cranked up for dramatic effect. What occurred, though, besides the beer still pouring from the taps into the gutters of the academic village, was that Charlie and Harold came to, remembered their duties with a start, still numbed from their first gallon of lager, and started madly tossing greasy parade favors.

The Party Wagon turned right again, south onto Dalrymple, deeper into the University, intending to make a loop of only one block, but then, with a pop and an explosive ka-whoosh, its tenuously rebuilt engine broke down dramatically, a loud, hood-raising explosion erupting mid-street directly between Pleasant Hall, an admin building, and the Speech and Theatre Department. Smoke and steam began to fill the air, along with renewed green streams from the kegs which had been shaken back into active life. Charlie and Harold, still a tad dazed and thinking they would be labeled slackers, began throwing Vienna sausages with all their might, yelling happy expletives upon particularly successful tosses.

The first gaggle of weiners was followed by an infinitely larger second wave which emanated from on high in the expanding multi-colored cloud of chaos that now completely blocked the street. Tiny refined meat products were everywhere underfoot. As a cordon of newly righted bikers arrived at a rush, the first three Harleys hit the new sausage slick, sliding across the street to wedge under the back of the beer truck with a screech and a bangblooeyboom.

Neither the full-voiced drama major nor ZZ had diminished in volume or intensity of delivery, in spite of the slight inconvenience of their conveyance’s ongoing death throes. The motor was sputtering though still running, beer was gushing, Grizzly was under the hood with a fire extinguisher, the boys on top of the truck were emitting a never-ending stream of Vienna sausages like they were throwing out life jackets on the Titanic, and the growing crowd of student gawkers – all of whom recognized a good thing when they were soaked with it — were filling and refilling cups at the side of the Party Wagon.

It was later reported that Sergeant Leweltus R. Johnson, a campus policeman, was first to walk right into the mouth of the beast. He had just returned from his prolonged lunch hour when the truck lurched into a final smoking full-stop less than ten feet from his streetcorner traffic assignment. Instantly he was hit with a dense rain of tinted brew and cylindrical meat by-products. As he came forward, putting his hands around his mouth to shout out the possibility of arrest, if not grand jury arraignment, Charlie noticed him and decided to toss the prospective biker an extra large double-handful of poor man’s pâté.

The sergeant’s upraised hands acted as a funnel. Before he knew it a soft brick of sausages had filled his windpipe. His breath already expended, he quickly began to suffocate. He couldn’t clear his throat, though he coughed and hit himself on his chest repeatedly. He began to run about in circles hoping to attract help, pointing to his mouth, its surrounding face turning an unflattering shade of blue.

The political scientist in the cab was the first to notice. He pulled open the door, jumped to the ground, dropped his flyers, ran to the officer’s side, slapped him to get his attention, and managed to turn him around. Then, just as the future politician had witnessed on more than one occasion during his protracted volunteer days at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, he encircled the officer’s rib cage from the rear and applied the quick upward jerks of the Heimlich maneuver. Causing an immediate meaty rainbow of most, though not all, of the offending sausages.

Sergeant Johnson, seeming to instinctively know his role in all this, fell to the ground in a faint. The student volunteer rolled him over so that the officer’s was face up, and removed the last of the blockage. The supine victim, however, refusing to be upstaged in this exciting action sequence, stopped breathing.   Whereupon the hero knelt down, pinched the officer’s nose shut and blew directly into his mouth one, two, three times.

Sergeant Johnson coughed, inhaled, gagged, sat up, and took notice of the fact that a pimply-faced young man, probably a pervert and more than likely a political liberal, had just pressed his mouth onto his own. Johnson realized then that he was contaminated forever, gripped his badge in manly fashion, sighed deeply and immediately passed out again, happily unconscious of his continuing situation.

He took medical leave the next day, and was said to have retired early to become a reclusive monk of some vintage spiritual order. The Party Wagon was scrapped after its one and only day of full use, but not before all seven kegs were emptied. Sixteen cases of minor food poisoning via processed meat were reported by the University Infirmary that night.

The Gonads recruited only one college boy that day. Me. By sundown the two-wheeled gents had allowed me a trial membership, even though I only drove a 1965 British Triumph Tiger by way of a scooter, rather than a full-blown Harley-Davidson. My UK engine’s puny 500 cubic centimeters vs the US Harleys’ massive 1200cc motor was disregarded as a matter of universal goodwill.   Plus, they needed the dues money.

I remembered that fact of affiliation, and realized what else had happened, when I came fully to consciousness two days later and tried to brush my teeth. My mouth was still a bright chartreuse. “Oh shit, I am a marked man,” I thought. However, in my case, this did not cause a consideration of entering the religious life.

Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour

Bar Exam, Part Three

A Draft Dodger & a Big Dog Walk into a Bar

“A lottery drawing – the first since 1942 – was held on December 1, 1969, at Selective Service National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. This event determined the order of call for induction during calendar year 1970; that is, for registrants born between January 1, 1944, and December 31, 1950. Reinstitution of the lottery was a change from the “draft the oldest man first” method, which had been the determining method for deciding order of call.

“There were 366 blue plastic capsules containing birth dates placed in a large glass container and drawn by hand to assign order-of-call numbers to all men within the 18-26 age range specified in Selective Service law.

“With radio, film, and TV coverage, the capsules were drawn from the container, opened, and the dates inside posted in order. The first capsule – drawn by Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) of the House Armed Services Committee – contained the date September 14, so all men born on September 14 in any year between 1944 and 1950 were assigned lottery number 1. The drawing continued until all days of the year had been paired with sequence numbers.”

— Selective Service System “Official Site” of the Vietnam Lotteries

 

Sylvester Stallone, that most Rambunctious of faux soldiers was born on July 6, 1946. That date was picked 327th, out of 365. Therefore Sly, one of the more iconic combatants in cinematic history, would not be required by the government to go to war. Brave Donald Trump’s birthday, June 14, 1947, was awarded the number 356. He did not have to fight hard to stay out, but his wealthy dad still managed to get him four college deferments and one for “bone spurs.” He also avoided the draft. My birthday, July 24, 1947, was given the number 023. Insuring that I would indeed surely be drafted into the Army. My graduate deferment at LSU expired, so I quickly and quietly moved in mid-1970 to Austin, Texas, hoping to get into graduate school at the University of Texas, to somehow further my avoidance of the military.

I had been there three months when I ran headfirst into yet another bad Saturday, another of those recurring moments that year, spells when I simply could not stop wondering about the probability of my continued existence. But, as it progressed, the day began improving. I found that, over the past twelve weeks, I had somehow accumulated $22 worth of beer bottle deposits, loose change, and sofa coins. I immediately began planning a bit of weekend soul refreshment . So when Francis X. “Hog” Patriquin called from a gas station in Bastrop, Texas, barely two dozen miles away, I gladly invited him to come visit. I had no car myself, but he and I could go out for a brew or two at the newly-opened Armadillo World Headquarters, my treat, and he could crash at my sparse digs on 49th street that night.

Hog said he was just passing through Austin on his way to the West Coast, intent on some sort of deal involving Louisiana crawfish as currency to be used for unspecified Southern California contraband. I suspected that his fondness for porn films involving complicated lingerie was at the heart of the matter, but withheld judgment and did not press an inquiry. Hog also knew my predicament and, as a good friend, had offered to drive me to Canada. So I would not let the world get in the way of happiness this eve. After all, this was one of the few occasions since the start of my involuntary exile in Texas that my cash flow had allowed me the opportunity to buy anyone a beverage.

The Hog showed up at my shack around 4pm. His pickup was fairly new, and there was a gigantic, sweating metal box with a small motor of some sort in the truck bed that seemed to have a larger purpose. There was a faint fishy smell in the air.

What the hell. “Let’s go downtown and forget this shitty world,” I yelled.

Exactamundo, my dear James!” yelled Francis X. He was in a fine fettle, and ready to meet the world. “I do believe that we are set on a course of merit. I suggest starting the eve with the consumption of large portions of an economically viable wine. Something to fortify us against enmity. A democratic pursuit. Ingesting the proper amount of grape will provide a soporific against the ridiculous renewal of world upheaval. Wine is, after all, the beverage of philosophers.”

“I predict power drinking,” he added as a coda.

The wine of choice, easily purchased by the quart at a convenience store, was the Gallo Brothers’ Tokay. Other than the routine reign of cheap beer, this was the American heyday of that particular working-class grape, and the logic that flows therefrom. Between us, and utilizing only a very small portion of my “found money,” we purchased two bottles. Hog reclined comfortably in the passenger seat, pouring his wine into a Dixie cup as I drove us south through town. He considered me the “local” and therefore the driver, though I barely knew my way around.

My visitor quickly became inordinately soiled. It was that motivated drinking — aggressively slurping the fluid from his saturated cup — while hanging out the window yelling greetings to what he perceived as “cosmic” cowboys. And girls. The Patriquin corpus, mounded under what was formerly a clean white shirt, soon appeared to be a grisly accident victim, due to the raucous drinker’s continually spilling his large mug of red wine on himself at every swerve.

As the truck passed, the people he accosted would point and grimace at the “bloody” body slipping from side to side in the truck cab. An imminent demise was predicted in each case. “He’s a goner,” they’d say fatalistically, “bleeding way too much,” all the while shaking their heads at yet another fatality in their peaceful community.  “Get that man to a hospital!” one observer yelled at a stoplight. “Do they have a Happy Hour?” returned the Hog.

He continued to work at making sure no pain interfered with his afternoon, and soon began to speak of the lack of discerning twentieth-century poetry in Cuba. I felt vindicated with the newly sparked flood of porcine aesthetic criticism. The sophist Gallo Brothers were happily at work again.

As we crossed Town Lake and turned off the wide boulevard into a vast gravel parking lot, the last of the Tokay was already being consumed. The day was being salvaged.

We had come to Armadillo World Headquarters, soon to become the most famous bar in the state, to wash down the fermented tang of California with bubbling pitchers of beer from Shiner, Texas. I climbed into a phone booth to call up an also-insane but well-connected Chicana named Felicia Martinez whom I’d met in a Guadalupe street fast food diner, to see if there was anything else jumping in town that Hog might enjoy.

Felicia was also a most inventive peddler of drugs before there was much of that action even happening. She sold multi-colored 24-hour time-release Contac cold capsules to the University crowd, telling them that it was “Christmas tree” speed. In spite of this inaccuracy in labeling, she had many repeat customers.

When I asked about the moral implications of her bogus merchandise she’d said: “Mierda, chico, dat’s the shits! If they ain’t high, at least they ain’t gettin’ colds.”

On the other end of my call from the Armadillo, Felicia proclaimed: “Nada sucediendo, nothing happening, but you two hombres wait for me at the bar and I’ll see what I can do.” She sounded a bit medicated to me, but in my brief experience that was her natural state.

Felicia’s Armadillo entry privileges had been restored only the week before. She did not think her initial transgression warranted banishment, and in recent days had successfully pled her case to management. Her error was unintentional, she asserted. It seems that, as a practicing religious bruja, she had brought a large pickle jar full of what she described as a sacred asp into a late evening Shiva’s Headband set. As usual, most of the crowd of over a thousand were comfortably seated on the venue’s floor, which had been considerately covered by management with thick carpet scraps. The ever-so-generously anesthetized Felicia, headed stageside and stumbled, of course, only moments after entry. She dropped the jar. Time stopped. The large vessel bounced once and then shattered in a spray of snake and glass, the single black slithering reptile causing a major panic and minor stampede among the already hallucinating patrons.

A stage hand rushed forward and quickly hammered the darkly-patterned snake with a set spike, determining that the dead creature was indeed a small but quite poisonous water moccasin.  Felicia said she had bought it from an acquaintance who dealt in socially-significant creatures, and had no idea it was actually dangerous.   The bouncer escorted Ms Martinez out the front door with a different directive: “No glass, lady. You should know better.”

But now, newly reprieved, this evening she appeared less than five minutes after my call and sat on the bar stool next to the ever-large Hog, who was perched solidly with one stool under each buttock. I introduced him by his nickname.

Cerdo, eh?” she asked. “He says he is the Hog. Eres un perro grande, Cerdo. Big Dog, what you do for fun?” The Hog, now smiling, ordered another pitcher of beer. Felicia supplemented the sparkling beverage with two orange tablets.

I decided her banter itself could actually be the Hog’s entertainment for the moment, and I could do a little wandering about in the concert auditorium while waiting for Felicia and my bud to find an even psychic keel.

The Armadillo was in its first months of evolving into the Southwest version of hippie heaven. Clouds of cannabis smoke hovered just above head level every night. This had rapidly became the norm. The illegal smoking at the ‘dillo was tolerated throughout its six active years of existence by Austin police who were afraid that a bust would take in too many of their own officers and town politicians.

I don’t remember the warm-up act very well – The Hub City Movers, I think — because interacting with other audience members was even more exciting, and the warm and welcoming conversations I struck up took my mind off my Federal situation.

But as I returned to the bar about an hour later, musing on the pleasant uneventfulness of the evening, I heard yells and protestations. A cringing hulk staggered down the sidewalk under a barrage of plastic drinking cups.

T’was the Hog. With Felicia in hot pursuit.

He later told me that under the growing liberal influence of California Tokay, Texas beer and unknown pharmaceuticals, he had made some creative but rather ill-timed suggestions involving Felicia, a stick of oleomargarine, a canary and a pomegranate. Her virtue was somehow offended. I rescued my temporarily lust-blinded friend and managed to maneuver him to the parking lot, where the large man promptly passed out in the half-bed of his truck, not bothering to open a door and climb into the infinitely more comfortable cab.

I then led the still-agitated Felicia to a vegetarian restaurant across the street in search of something to eat, figuring Hog as debilitated for the rest of the evening.

We were munching organic grapes, fried plantains and unsweetened oatmeal cookies when the sound of yelling again filled the air. Screams were becoming a matter of course this night, but we ran out into the street anyway, magnetically drawn to excitement. We were not disappointed. Fire was eating the laundry on the corner opposite the parking lot, spewing smoke out the exploded glass of its front door. Alarms were ringing. Shouts were confusing matters. Excitement sobered and stimulated everyone as a crowd grew. Then a giant dark figure lumbered across the street in front of the laundry.

Hog had come to what consciousness was to be afforded him, and had unknowingly decided to be the first of the firemen to arrive on the scene. Presumably bringing forth any starched shirts that might need rescuing. He had a mission. Before I could reach him, the Hog had walked through the smoldering front door of the quickly deteriorating building and disappeared.

A scripted gasp went up from the hundred or so people who’d already crossed over from the Armadillo. There was no doubt about the valiant Hog’s fate. Felicia reached in her purse and produced three black mollies, seconals, which she proceeded to swallow without water.

The shouting had stopped. The sounds of massive, two-story crackling flames and burbling waves of black smoke magnified in the face of loss of life.

But the Hog once again proved larger than that life, re-emerging only a few minutes later, covered in soot. He was carrying a tall, cold sweat-dripping RC Cola. He crossed back over the street as the fire engines were pulling up, walked up to me and took a long pull off his soft drink.

“Coke machine wouldn’t take my quarters,” he said, as if that explained everything, “So I got an RC.”

I was inducted into the US Army three weeks later.

 

Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour