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

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