Bar Exam Eight

Life Lesson

He’d phoned twice the week before, and I’d returned the call to his hotel voice mail on both occasions, but we hadn’t connected. So when the 300-pound biker widely known across the Deep South as “Grizzly” called me again last Thursday, I was as prepared as could be for another of his semi-annual communications.

He was back home in Baton Rouge.

“Shit fire, Jimbo, I called and called, where the hell were you?” he yelled without preface as I picked up the phone in my office.

“Out of town, Griz, but I got your messages and left a couple for you explaining where I was.”

“Bro, my mind can barely handle punching in the eleven numbers it takes to get you from here in BR. No way am I gonna deal with some weird electron woman telling me to “Press 22 to access your messages” and “Press 87 to play your messages backwards in non-sequential alphabetic order derived from the various species of cloven-hooved beasts described in the Old Testament.” She ain’t even real, and this woman’s ordering me around. Don’t say ‘please’ or nothin’, so I ain’t doin’ it, and that’s that. So no, I didn’t get no messages. Just as well. I was getting a bit crazy. A lot crazy. That’s the way my old head rolls when I start focusing too hard on just one thing nowadays.”

“What was happening? Your Marine convention again?”

“Yeah, that’s it. They wanted to make me president. Then I decided I wanted to be president. Lost by three votes out of a couple thousand. Good damned thing I lost, too. Those sunsabitches would have made me actually BE president. Me, I just wanted to be ELECTED president. There’s a difference.”

“I know, Griz. There’s lots of that going around right now.”

* * *

Ed “Grizzly” Smiley was an active member of The Legion, a large group of ex-US Marines, the majority of whom who have faced the extreme conditions of war and now communicated and banded together once a year as a nationwide support group. The now-civilian vets in the Southeast also gather for a week once a year in New Orleans to drink beer and try and find order in the universe.

Griz – once an uneducated, extremely poor 17-year-old volunteer soldier known affectionately to the Corps of “Semper Fidelis” as Buck Private Edward P Riley III — earned his place in that organization the hard way. He hadn’t much going for him when he joined up except his natural country-boy talent as a sharpshooter, but for the Marines that was enough. They fed him three large meals a day, gave him free clean clothing, honed his marksman’s eye in Basic and in Advanced Infantry Training, and schooled him on the workings and maintenance of state-of-the-art, high-powered, long-range, single-shot rifles. They promoted him to Private First Class. Edward P was mighty happy.

Then suddenly, the honeymoon was over.   Ten days after completing AIT, he found himself left dangling with a bag of dried and canned food in a hastily constructed blind seventy feet above a jungle floor in Cong-occupied South Viet Nam. He had mimeographed orders in the pocket of his “gilly suit” — a self-assembled camouflage uniform of colored burlap — telling him to kill and then categorize anything he saw move below him, because there sure as hell weren’t any “friendlies” in his assigned neck of the woods.   There was a buddy Marine hiding out somewhere down there, a combination spotter and guard who was supposed to be the PFC’s safety net. Somewhere down there.

The “Alpha” teams would go out in groups of two to five for two days or ten, depending on the mission, and they’d trek way up into boonies infested with VC and NVA regulars, a pretty harrowing experience in itself. But mostly Ed squatted in his elevated nests thinking about life. As ordered, every so often he took one — a life — at a distance of over a mile if he had his favorite 300 H&H Magnum, unsilenced. Taking off the silencer made for increased accuracy. “Further away, safer you were, especially with the noise that baby made,” he’d told me the drunken night we first met, “that way Charlie couldn’t track back to you. Pretty scary, them walking all around down below, sometimes get caught with them camping right underneath if your spotter was doped up and not watching. You just hold your water and don’t eat or hardly breathe ‘til they move on.”

PFC Smiley was sent out frequently to wait in trees for the better part of two years. Then he re-upped for another two. It was something he could do, and do well. He was proud to be a part of a truly elite force of over a thousand deadly Marine sharpshooters, a group that was put together when the contract shooters being brought in from outside the services by “Project Phoenix” kept mysteriously disappearing with American weapons which, though not always legal, were certainly lethal.

Ed was good at his job. After the first year, he’d been promoted to corporal. Then, after making two quick kills on the same mission at 608 and 610 yards, using only an M-16 — an astounding feat — he received a field promotion to E-5. Buck Sergeant Smiley.

But at the end of his time in service he was retired as a Corporal, because though the shooters were revered within the Corps, things weren’t quite the same on the outside. His superiors were under instructions not to publicize what his job had been, much less that he had done it well and under extreme conditions of duress and danger. Back in their Washington press mills, the Pentagon’s community affairs pundits considered the term “sniper” pejorative. In WWII movies a “sniper” was stereotyped and cast as a despicable, heartless creature only The Enemy employed. The job description remained a negative PR label Stateside, and such a cowardly non-person was considered not acceptable as a civilized tactical weapon.

The “police action” was having a hard enough time as it was. Nam was slow at gaining any popular support in the late sixties, even among the flag-wavers. The generals figured there was no sense telling the macho US public that the Good Guys used “snipers.”

Naturally, when the Corporal was returned to civilian life, he was completely out of contact with reality and dangerous as hell to boot. The only steady job he had had in his life was killing people, one at a time and from a distance. The government had trained him, and he had been good at his task. Now after over four years, they had decided that maybe he shouldn’t do it any more. They told him to stop, and to forget he had ever done it. They “rehabilitated” him and counseled him on anger management. They gave him free training on how to be a mechanic, and the shrinks offered him as many prescription drugs as he could ingest.

Corporal Edward P Smiley III went AWOL from what his doctors called reality, though the heavily-sedated soldier was eventually released from governmental care, and certified “no longer a risk to himself or the community.” At his exit, the Marine paymaster gave him three thousand dollars cash in separation and “total disability” bonuses, telling him he’d be receiving a like amount monthly for the rest of his life, or at least as long as he stayed crazy.   The doctors had noted in his records that the two periods were likely to coincide.

MPs pushed the discharged and supposedly defused assassin out the gate of the Army processing station where he’d been temporarily detailed for psychiatric evaluation in Fort Lewis, Washington, and told the young Marine where the bus station was located in nearby Seattle. He could walk the dozen or so blocks in no longer than fifteen minutes, and there was a bus headed South in just half an hour.

The Corporal was not to make the noon Greyhound. His route took him directly in front of Bob’s Harley Shop. He looked in the window, and saw large motorcycles. In particular he spied a used metaflake black Duo-Glide priced at $2200, walked in the door and plunked down twenty-two fresh hundred-dollar bills without a word. He counted out an additional $300 for two Harley t-shirts and a thick pair of upper and lower leathers, then walked into the shop’s greasy bathroom, removed his Marine Class A uniform and left the cotton and wool remnant of his military experience in a wad next to a stack of pink urinal cakes. The six-foot-four baby-faced twenty-one-year-old walked onto the bike showroom floor clad in brown-black cowskin. The owner stared and then commented, politely, “Hey man, you look like one of them big honkin’ grizzly bears from up North.”

So it was Grizzly who kicked the seventy-four cubic inches of cold steel to life. And it was Grizzly who took seven months riding the two-wheeled American icon home to Louisiana, hoping he’d find himself there.

When he arrived, he found his mom and dad had passed away a year or so earlier, and that he was the sole heir of a one-story two-bedroom brick house with a large garage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He hadn’t received much mail in his tree.

He parked his bike and took his medication.   It didn’t help much.

* * *

Griz was calling me from the front room of that house now, thirty-one years later, to catch up on what had been happening in the few months since our last communication. We’d been riding buddies through most of my graduate school and teaching years in the early seventies. The Flying Gonads Racing Club had somehow adopted me as a fellow Bad Boy, and Griz was the president of the Gonads. We bonded.

“I ain’t ridin’ no more, Jimbo. That beautiful big ole Hog is sittin’ outside gatherin’ dust and rust,” he orated into the phone.

“This part of your born-again rules?” I asked. Griz had found Jesus a few years earlier when the local Veteran’s Administration Hospital had upped his already-stratospheric medication levels with a new potent hormone-leveler.

“Naw, man, I’m kinda off that too, though I found there’s something bigger. At least bigger than most of that goin’-ta-hell marketing biz. Like a groove, you know, the sort of groove a real blues man finds in those middle of the night jams with nobody in the house but the band. Gettin’ to that high place where it only matters to yourself, you know, and you’re doin’ it all by yourself, without any of that artificial bullshit.”

“Without drugs, Griz?”

“That’s it, man. No nuthin’. Though I’d be lying if I said I even remembered what that was like. At least until about a month ago. That’s when it happened.”

“You’ve got something important to tell me.”

“Yep. I figure you’re the one’ll understand. Rest of the gang long gone, most of ‘em dead, Weird Harold he don’t even know what day it is most of the time. I couldn’t tell the Marines — well, I did, but it was just a biker story to them, nothing bigger.”

“Lemme hear,” I said, wedging the phone between my ear and shoulder, and preparing to continue my work while filtering most of the Griz narrative out. This had happened before, these long narratives made of valium and lithium and melaril and thorazine and whatever else the Veterans’ Hospital had in a quantity sufficient to sedate a moderate-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex. I like the guy, though, and am normally willing to listen if it will help him sort through the pharmaceutical haze. Usually the tale was disjointed, unrevealing, and without surprise.

Not this time.

“Since the boys elected me national chaplain of the Leathernecks, I keep having to do these public-service things to show regular folks we bikers ain’t all hoodlums and outlaws. I been mighty depressed this last year, and to try and get out of it I had let myself get into another of these damned Fearless Leader gigs. I was more messed up than usual, and gagging back half a dozen ‘scripts twice a day. All I wanted to do was sleep, which helped, but the pillow was getting boring as hell.

“One of the things everybody thought I should do is ride in this “Toys for Toddlers” caravan. Couple thousand bikers get together over in Cajun territory and ride 150 miles into New Orleans, and for every mile each biker rides, a sponsor donates a buck to this toy fund for needy kids. Even the damned Republican governor of this state rides. Lotta national PR involved here. Network news coverage and the like.

“So I get this call from the Pagans bike club up in New Jersey, saying they would sponsor me if I would ride one of their bikes, a seriously chromed and customized set of wheels with their club name painted all over it. They said they’d even ship it down on the train for free, just as long as it got seen by as many people as possible.

“Well, I couldn’t refuse that, not and save any face at all, even though I wasn’t really excited about riding on someone else’s colors, especially in a big crowd with a lot of rookies. So I said yes, and a week later this big crate arrived. Inside was one of the most elaborately tooled Hogs I ever did see, and I’ve seen a lot of ‘em. ‘Pagans’ in big script letters on both sides with little red horns on the ‘P’.

“Comes the morning of the ride, I wake up before sunrise to travel the 45 miles west to the rallying point in Lafayette, and before my ass is out of bed I know the day is bad news. Thunder is shaking the house like there’s an artillery battalion stoked on crystal meth outside. Rounds dropping all over the place. Rain, lightning, bimbamBOOM here it comes, over and over. But I said I’d ride and I’m a man of my word. You know that, hunh, Jimbo?”

“Uh, yup, yes, sure, Griz, always,” I mumbled, caught off-guard.

“So I put on my yellow plastic rain suit, duct tape all the seams tight over my boots and gloves, hop on that big mother of a bike, cut on the lights, and I head out through the rain.

“About half-way, in that elevated part of I-10 that crosses the Henderson Swamp, the storm really gets to cranking, the wind pushing even me and that heavy bike side to side and the lightning just exploding all around, reflecting up off the wet concrete and into my face. That’s when it happened.

“One minute I’m sitting on this Harley, and the next I’m naked, sitting in a brightly lit room on a plastic chair that’s sticking to my butt, looking around. I’m waiting for the bus, I know, but I don’t know which bus, so I just wait. Out of the Marines, waiting for that bus South. It all seemed so perfectly natural, like sure enough, I had planned to be there and this was the right thing to do.

“Then somebody said somethin’ to me and ZIP I’m on my couch at home, sitting there nice and still-like. I can feel a smile on my face. Feel it. Local news is on the box and the old lady is asking me if I want tea with dinner. I ask out loud where I been, and she comes into the room, looks at me, says ‘Grizzly?’ real scared-like. I says, ‘What?’ and she says ‘You sure don’t remember, do you? And now you’re back,’ Then she cries to beat all hell for the better part of half an hour before she tells me what she meant.

“The driver in the semi behind me saw the whole thing, saved me from getting killed, and I still don’t know his name. Told the cops that the lightning bolt hit me dead on top of my head, and that the whole bike glowed right down to the ground, even though the lights blew out and glass was flying out behind me.

“Must have killed the engine right then, but I had a pretty good head of steam and the bike rolled about a mile before it came to a halt. Driver said I was letting off yellow smoke from my rain suit, black smoke from the bike engine and white from my beard, which was smoldering pretty good. Amazing sight, my trail. Made it easy for him to follow me. He told ‘em I had control all the way, even put tried to put the kickstand down before I fell over. Didn’t fall off, though. My gloves were fused onto the rubber handlebar grips and my boots onto the foot rests. My beard was filled with melted yellow rubber.

“I didn’t remember my name, but they got my license, called the old lady to tell her that the paramedics had checked me out, and I didn’t seem to have any physical damage, even if what they had been told was true about the lightning, which they couldn’t prove. But more importantly they were disturbed that I was carrying lots of drugs, even though they were legal and in my name, and that I was completely disoriented.

“I love Sadie. She come pronto with a truck for me and the bike, and I was home barely two hours after the strike. She shipped the totaled bike back to New Jersey, and when it arrived the Pagans called her to say they hoped I was dead. She told them that not to fret, that for all practical purposes I was.

“I sat on the couch for a few weeks, and she said I seemed pretty happy, other than not knowing who I was or remembering anything for more than ten minutes.

“Then I woke up. I left the waiting room. And I took up right where I left off. Went to the Legion convention the next week like nothing ever happened. Got a little hyped and confused. Called you, but couldn’t find you. Took a few valium and made it through the knot. Decided that being an officer in things is not really what I want to do. The Marine years weren’t exactly the most pleasant in my life, but it was the time that has most affected who I am and what I did afterwards.

“Until this happens.

“Now here I sit, bored as hell again, and starting to think about the future for maybe the first time in my whole damned life, but I don’t feel so bad about what’s happened, I’m only taking half my ‘scripts at most, and I think I need to be doing something constructive. Getting back out there with people who do things, rather than just think about the past and sort it all out.

“So, I’m calling you again. Lookin’ for a gig to fill my time. S’way it is, bro. You need a body guard or a stage hand?”

“We’re happening, Griz,” I said without thinking. Then started thinking Can I really stand the distraction?

I told him I had a few gigs coming up where I could use a strong arm to change stage sets quickly. And of course I’d always liked having him around. He vowed he’d be here on a moment’s notice.

I thought again about our linked pasts, felt a bit ashamed, and said: “Sure, we’re on. Why not? I’ll call you with the dates.”

Before he hung up, Edward P Riley III said he’d travel the Interstate on the bus this time around.

 

Griz was awarded his Big Bike in the Sky 30 August 2004. There won’t be another like him.

Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour

Bar Exam Seven

At the Corner of Southdowns and Joe’s East Texas BBQ

I was eating my second raw dozen, balancing a paper plate full of food while standing on the slippery banks of the Amite River, a man dedicated to the consumption of the honoree bivalves of the Oyster Festival in Amite, Louisiana.   Just across the river and up the road from New Orleans.

Then suddenly I heard my name called out loudly somewhere behind me. I turned to see a oil-covered, snaggle-toothed, long-haired biker in full leathers racing toward me with his penis in his hand.

The crowd parted instantly, jumping back and yelling as if a rabid dog had been dropped into their midst. Fathers put their hands over the eyes of children. Mothers stood agape and transfixed. A gaggle of teenaged girls tracked the movement of the tumescent organ across the fairgrounds with a synchronized formation of half a dozen pointed index fingers and a moist cloud of snickers and giggles. I ignored the gasp from my own female companion. She also had reacted quickly and now cowered behind me holding onto my shirt as if she was afraid of falling into the yawning gateway of the erotic maelstrom that had suddenly opened in the middle of a family-oriented food fair. My opinion of her diminished. I would have actually thought her better prepared for such an eventuality. I know I was.

Prepared.

Because Crazy Charlie had always known how to make a big entrance.

“Get a look at this,” yelled Charlie as he approached. He had a big smile on his face, which looked even crazier than I remembered, what with the loss of the majority of his teeth and the fact that his right eye now looked permanently forty-five degrees out to starboard. All options were always wide open for Charlie, who had never taken environment or social setting into consideration when it came to the way he lived his life. He did what he was supposed to do, no matter where he was doing it. That was the way he operated. Now he was acting for all the world like it had been just yesterday we had last seen each other instead of the two decades that had actually passed. He seemed entirely unaware that displaying his sexual organ at a public gathering might somehow be deemed inappropriate by anyone.

“Charlie,” I said. “I remember what it looks like.” A full-blooded Choctaw Indian, he had been legendary among the university art school and biker bar crowds alike for the size of his Native American member, and had on more than one festive occasion such as this taken to “airing the peace pipe”, as he would announce gleefully. Thus my lack of surprise.

“Nope, you ain’t seen it like this,” he said to me now, still hefting the fleshy tube. “Just happened little over a month ago. Not used to it yet. It’s shorter. I blowed almost four inches off, but I still got the biggest dick in the Deep South. And now I got me the ugliest one, too.”

I couldn’t help myself. I looked. I had to, or he would have stood there displaying himself for hours. Sure enough, the thing protruding from his pants was still of overwhelming proportions, and the end of it was scarred and twisted, looking rather like the bad side of the Phantom of the Opera’s face.

“Sure enough, it is still big and it’s uglier than ever, but I think you’d better put it back up before we both get busted,” I said.

“What?” Charlie looked around, and for the first time became aware of the crowd he had drawn. “Oh.” He hefted his burden back into his pants and buttoned up his fly. “You’d think these folks never saw one before,” he said, staring down one particularly angry-looking elderly woman who was standing less than a yard away.

“Bring back some memories, maam?” he asked directly to her face.

“Well, I never!” she said, spinning about and walking off quickly.

“That does seem more likely,” mused he.

“Charlie, this is a coincidence. First I’ve been hearing from Griz, and now here you are. But wait. Manners. I’d like to introduce my friend,” I said, reaching around with my left hand and dragging the poor woman forward. “Louise, this is Crazy Charlie. Charles, this gracious and charming person is Louise. I am quite sure she’s never met anyone quite like you.”

“No one ever has,” he said, matter-of-fact. He smiled that wicked cracked smile again, and taking her hand gently in his, he bent over and gave it a delicate touch of his lips. “Enchantez, mam-selle,” he whispered, looking up into her face with his soulful brown eyes. Charlie reserved his cultured side solely for the ladies. He was by no means an unintelligent man and could talk the talk, when he wanted to.

“I promise that I am not as crude as I might seem, and I have always appreciated the sight and presence of a beautiful woman. You, my lovely Louise, are among the first rank of those.” He bent and kissed her hand again, leaving a faint trace of 10W30 lubrication there, and then smoothly unfolded into his full six-foot-five height. Louise had not yet spoken, but was now staring at Charlie with something less than full terror.

I broke the spell. “So how did you manage to ‘blow off’ a portion of your anatomy?” I asked politely.

Charlie was ready to tell his tale. He had always been one of the best around a campfire or a keg of beer when we both rode with the baddest band of hogs in the South, the Flying Gonads Racing Club. I still had the club shirt, which featured a pair of Harley wings flapping atop a wrinkled scrotum. Charlie was among the club’s reigning elite, along with the moderately psychotic Weird Harold and the overly-large ex-Marine-sniper Grizzly, who had also recently reappeared in my life.

With a vintage Triumph motorcycle and a university teaching job in Baton Rouge, I was something of a ringer mascot to the true outlaws, but was brought in as a full member after a long fully-bourboned night of my own barroom storytelling. And because my superficial respectability proved useful in getting the other members out of jams, legal, amorous, and otherwise. I liked almost every one of the two dozen members, bad or no, and their respect meant a lot to me, romanticized or no.

In what later proved to be a pivotal event, I had thirty years earlier managed to spring Charlie himself from jail at 3am on a New Year’s Day, even though his one allowed call for assistance had caught me in the worst possible shape. I remember that the phone was ringing as I opened the door, stumbling into my living room on the return from a riotous evening at the legendary Southdowns Lounge, my disoriented state abetted by Rodney the owner and long-time friend . I was admittedly drunk, stoned, hallucinating wildly (in those innocent psychedelic days LSD was deemed a recreational form of social rebellion), and possessed of only my Trumpet (as the American Harley-Davidson crowd called my British bike) as a means of transportation.

I put the phone to my ear. “Jimmyboy, glad I caught you,” said a familiar voice. “This is George Gunner. You remember me?”

I listened. The voice was swimming through my disoriented memory seeking a face that when found did not have the label “George Gunner”. I knew I knew this person. I did not know a George Gunner.

“I fixed your carburetors a few weeks back.”

Crazy Charlie. Sure.

“Where are you, Charlie, and why are you calling yourself George?”

“Easy, man, easy. I’m down here at the Central Lockup. They busted me on a DWI, drunk as a skunk, and they identified me from my wallet. I don’t know how long that’ll hold.” Charlie had handfuls of arrest warrants out on him, for everything from firearms violations to possession charges. He had had a dozen different identities in the first year that I had known him. “I need someone to fetch me and quick,” he continued. “I got bail money. I just gotta be released into the custody of someone sober. They won’t even take your name. Can you come?”

“Charlie, I’m totaled myself. I’m illegal as hell. I just congratulated myself on making my way home walking six blocks from a party, and you want me to get on my bike, drive five miles of freeway, and dance right into a cop station?”

“I need you, man. You’re the only one that can pull this off.”

The pause was minimal. “Be there in half an hour,” I said without conviction.

It took me ten minutes to get on my warmest rain suit, keeping to normal clothes instead of the leathers I would normally wear on such a frigid night, hoping that I wouldn’t give the police one more clue as to my true nature and current condition.

I had done my best imitation of a sober and straight citizen, and had sprung Charlie without a hitch. Actually, riding my bike at the speed limit in the freezing cold on an interstate highway full of other inebriated New Year partyers had shocked me into a fairly admirable state of near-sobriety. I took Charlie another fourteen miles home to his bandito lair out in a bend of the Amite River, at the very end of a dirt path that went by the name of HooShooToo. I still don’t know the origins of that name, but suspect it has roots with Charlie’s people.   It was and I suspect remains wilderness, as The Man gladly chooses to ignore its existence.

Charlie had no shirt and no shoes, but hadn’t even shivered when he dismounted from the back of my bike. He nodded his head as I left him. He owed me a big one, the nod said. From that day forward, he was my protector. No one, no one could mess with Crazy Charlie’s bro. Word got around quickly that the mad biker had put me under his wing. It was indeed absolutely bizarre. Even the faculty at school treated me differently. I was intimidated myself by the power Charlie’s specter seemed to possess in such different corners of the community, and how after another two years, his gift was undiminished. I was finally relieved when I was offered a job back in New Orleans, away from the Gonads’ territory.

Charlie had never owned a phone. He said he liked to see faces and ears when he talked. His shanty had no actual address, and there was absolutely no chance of finding it without the company of its sole resident. He seldom even scribbled his signature, much less a letter, and he didn’t like to travel outside what he considered his tribal grounds. I’d heard from friends about three years after I left that his troubles with the authorities had gotten worse, and that he had gone even further underground. The Flying Gonads had disbanded. Weird Harold was killed in a car wreck. Grizzly had been born-again and was, for a while, preaching at Veterans’ Hospitals. Charlie was still there somewhere, they all said, somewhere near the HooShooToo, living below the surface of visibility to The Man. Thirty years had passed.

Now I had accidentally come back onto the fringes of his territory, and Charlie again stood in front of me, arm on my shoulder, acting like he hadn’t a worry in the world.

“I blew off my pecker defending my dog,” he started. He turned back to Louise, with a gracious look. “This might be unsettling and a bit lurid to a lady, Miss Louise, but I assure you it is true. If you’d rather not hear, I can understand.”

“No, no, Charlie,” she stammered. “I want to hear about your, uh, pecker.” I took back my former lowered estimations of Louise.

He made a courtly gesture with a sweep of his arm and a bow to her, and proceeded. “I was standing in the parking lot outside Joe’s East Texas Barbecue in Baton Rouge, you know, in that bad neighborhood off Dalrymple, me and my new pup, BeeBee, a Doberman. Just as good a dog as you could want, except a tad too friendly for my taste. I was actually hoping for something meaner. But he was a handsome mutt, and he liked me, and housebroke the day I got him, so what the hell, I figured.

“Me and the boys was having a few beers — like I said, this was just maybe eight weeks ago at most — and we knew that we was putting ourselves in a rough place, what with going into the Devil Boys territory and all, but we wanted some of those damned ribs, and it’s the only place you can get ‘em. Everybody was packing, and me, I had that old double-barreled shotgun I sawed off back when you was running with the ‘Nads, Jimmy.”

I remembered the weapon well. Hard to forget such an evil-looking device. A blue-steel twelve-gauge, cut to less than two feet including stock and usually loaded with saltshot, since Charlie in spite of his posing had never wanted to actually kill anybody. Though he’d do it when it was necessary, he had often told me, just to keep everybody honest. And he’d do it for me, if I needed it done. I had assured him that I did not anticipate such a necessity. Two hair triggers, break-open action, no safety, and a recoil kick that I’d once seen crack a creosote fence post where Charlie had braced the gun’s butt.

“I had my piece tucked inside my pants, cocked, loaded, and ready to go,” Charlie explained, “because the Devils don’t give you any warning on their home turf. They’re just there, and they’ll do you, and they’re gone. Steal your car, grab your woman, shoot your ass, don’t matter to them. And that’s just what happened. This young guy zooms up on an old mid-fifties DuoGlide panhead, don’t even stop, grabs my pup, and is blowing up gravel trying to get out of there before we can blink an eye.

“So, me, I yell, then reach down and grab the shotgun to let the bastard have it, but the hammers get caught on my belt as I pull. I already got my finger on the triggers, and when I jerk to get the gun free first one, then the other barrel pops. Incredible noise. Blast took off the whole front of my pants along with the top third of my dick. Scared the guy on the bike so bad he dropped my dog and hauled ass.

“I didn’t feel anything at all the first minute, then the salt started setting in and I thought I was going to die with the burning. The owner had already called the cops, and he came outside carrying his own pistol, but everything was over and it was just me standing there, empty shotgun hanging on my belt and no front to my pants. All the boys I was with had hauled ass because they knew some shit was gonna to come down, and the law was on its way. Couldn’t blame them. When I told Joe the barbecue man what had happened, he brought out a garden hose and helped me wash the salt and blood off. I had to stand there squeezing it for the twenty minutes it took for the ambulance to come, or I’d of bled to death. BeeBee had run into the kitchen and hid under a table. Joe wouldn’t let me inside though. He was afraid of being too nice to me. He’s gotta live with them Devil Boys, day in day out. So there I was out in the lot, a longneck beer in one hand and my bleeding pecker in the other, and I didn’t even get to eat my barbecue. Pitiful.”

Louise and I nodded. “Pitiful,” we agreed.

“But it all worked out fine, ‘cause even if I don’t got the size anymore, the ladies seem to like it because it’s got that twisted scar on top. One of a kind.”

“I wouldn’t have expected anything else, Charlie.”

“Oop, shit, here comes a cop. If you need me, I’m around. I owe you, bro.”

And, just that quickly, without another word or handshake or exchange of connections, he disappeared from my life again. My bro Crazy Charlie. Gone back invisible.

Today, the Sunday paper’s weekly “Wanted by the Law” grid of six hunted desperados encased a one-inch-square depiction of a strangely-familiar brazenly-smiling toothless grin.

It is possible that “George Gunner” is once again on the run.

Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour

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 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?”