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 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?”