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Pal's Lounge, Mid City's Living Room



Gentle reader, at the six month point of my chronicle, I found myself wondering again at the qualia of a good local bar – its essential nature. A half bottle of Pernod later, I declared myself unequal to the task. Mine is but to see and to say, and no more. So it was that this sunny Sunday past, I walked into a sleepy corner of Bayou St. John. My friends, in lieu of pontification at this milestone, I offer my thousand-odd words as picture of a place: this, an abstract of a neighborhood, Pal’s Lounge in Mid City.   

 

The Bayou was flat and green in the old afternoon. Dogs and short pants; kayaks cut silently in the shimmering water. I passed by Magnolia Bridge and its wooden planks that long ago felt the rumble of streetcar steel. I skirted along the worn dirt path between Moss Street and the water. Rural kind of quiet.  Genteel.

 

I turned left on St. Phillip Street. A professional couple sat together in a gated corner lot. They sipped dainty beverages and discussed the peculiarity of a certain recurring punctuation in The New Yorker. I plodded ahead.

 

Pal’s Lounge stands out amongst the long rows of neat double shotguns all painted in cool colors. Cool pink, cool grey, cool green. The bar occupies the corner of North Rendon Street. Cultured stone bricks on the bottom half, the top half is painted a bright, reassuring blue. “Pal’s Lounge,” read the blue wooden storm shutters. And below, “Mixed Drinks.” That addendum to all Pal’s signage has ever spoke a subtle joke to me – dead pan – which I appreciate.

 

Three young gentleman were pressing the security button to be admitted as I approached. T-shirts and loose clothing. One had a good beard, but they were no hipsters, just some dudes from the neighborhood, in conversation. The door buzzed like an electric bumblebee and we all went inside.

 

The colors and the curves of the interior evoke Casablanca as easily as a Mexican cantina. The ceilings rise high in a long, rectangular room. An open archway creates the impression of separation from the back third where the wall angles up on a slant to the top. The walls themselves are painted blue-grey at the bottom and a tarnished gold from the chest up. Great fans turn in lazy revolutions overhead. The dusty gilding of paint glowed in the afternoon light that purred silently through the picture windows. This would only feel like home in New Orleans. I took a backed stool at the bar.

 

A couple of old men talked to the bartender at the corner of the bar. In the back, a group of three thirty-somethings sat around an open pizza box. Video poker and an AC/DC pinball machine flashed mutely in the daylight. 

 

“Joe!”

 

I turned my head to see a familiar face. Among the three gentlemen I’d come in with was Fat Jimmy. I just hadn’t noticed. Why we called him 'Fat Jimmy' is lost to time, for he is thin a man. Jimmy and I used to work together in some old server job or another. I remembered now that he had moved out to Bayou St. John some years ago.

 

Laura, the bartender and welcoming soul, was over promptly. She took us all as one party and served us together after checking our identification. Highlife for me. Jimmy got a specialty cocktail called the “gingerita,” which he drank with savor. His compatriots opted for the PBR tallboys.  

 

I asked Fat Jimmy how his new digs liked him. But my old friend, black hair slicked back, pale with bloodshot eyes, looked rough.

 

“I don’t feel so hot,” he offered.

 

“Get a shot!” encouraged his entourage. And he did, without more provocation.  And thus quickened, Fat Jimmy unpacked his experience.

 

“It’s still pretty rough down that way,” said my fortified friend, pointing back toward Esplanade.  “They still got a cop out front at night time here. But it ain’t too bad.”

 

Few places in New Orleans go untouched by crime. Pal’s has seen both the bizarre and the random. I don’t feel they need to be revisited here.

 

Jimmy had moved in a block or two in the opposite direction. His arrival in the neighborhood had been an uncomfortable one, though he didn’t catch on for a while. The former tenants of his current apartment had been kicked out so the Land Baron could remodel and raise the rent. And the former tenants had moved back in. Three houses down.

 

“Most everyone still just calls me ‘neighbor’ in a kinda sarcastic way. You know?  The wives are usually pretty cool. ‘Hey! What’s up Jimmy?!’ and stuff. But the husbands are just like, ‘neighbor…’  Not too cool.

 

“I just needed a place to live, man!” Jimmy added. And he did love his new street. Fat Jimmy said Jazz Fest was the time to be out in this neighborhood.  Block parties and people out everywhere. I made a note of it.

 

Little Richard leapt to life on the juke box and Jimmy fell into conversation with his friends. The last light of the afternoon burned a corona on everything in the bar. The little Doctor Who figurines atop a nearby cable box danced with a tiny piñata in the Magic Hour. Four-inch slats of mirror were spaced apart and hung behind the liquor bottles as a suggestion of a bar mirror. The depth of their reflection was like peering through a fence into another room.

 

Soft drawings of naked women were hung throughout the bar. Body-types and adornments of a bygone era. The placement of the nudes, both front and back, high and low, created a coherent theme rarely achieved in a local tavern.     

 

“Last man standing…” Bartender Laura remarked. Fat Jimmy and his partners had moved on.  “How about a roll?”

 

A buck to roll five dice from a cup onto the bar. Five-of-a-Kind and you win the pot, which had climbed to over four hundred bucks. I banged the dice like I was making an emphatic point. Full House. Fours over threes. Free drink. The seas will boil before I turn down a drink or a chance to gamble, my friends.

 

I watched an old Jack Lemmon movie on the television over the bar for a moment, glanced back down, and found myself drinking straight Edinburgh Gin on the rocks in a full bar. A bit of a jolt.  

 

A gentlemen in a kitchen apron, haired pulled into a pony tail with a feather stuck in the back, was walking me through the food menu that day. The food at Pal’s is a series of pop-ups throughout the week. Sunday was a menu entitled “It’s all rice and gravy baby – home style Cajun” with catfish court-bouillion, crab boil potato salad, and cornbread. All for twelve bucks.

 

“I just make it at home and bring it over,” said the cook. Sounded good. But I was too deep in my cups by then for solid food.  

 

I stood up and picked a faraway point in the back, like a mariner, and navigated toward the bathroom. Catches of conversation wafted like smells across my path as I walked.

 

“You know what I love about Spain?”

 

“No.  I went to West Jefferson…”

 

“…reminds me of this bar in New York…”

 

“…Bulgaria is really the spot to be…”

 

Two young hipsters played air hockey in the tiny room in back. Dark with bordello wallpaper and a hanging light. I assumed they were hipsters, that is.  Either that or one of the gamesters had an unfortunate eye condition, as he was wearing his sunglasses in the gloom.

 

A pair of old western-style swinging door led into the bathroom.  Centerfolds and pages from ancient Playboy magazines adorned the walls in the bathroom like a sexual collage. At least one of those buxom women had lived beneath my mattress in middle school, I was sure. Young Burt Reynolds and Johnny Carson stood by with knowing smiles in the advertisements.   

 

When I returned from the bathroom, the initial spike in energy from the arriving crowd had died down  The cliques were settled in at pub tables and along the bar. People chatting. People trying to get laid. People doing business. Lots of tattoos. Generally good drinkers.

 

One of the owners sat beside me, talking with one of the off-duty bartenders who was in for a drink. I wanted to say something, ask some question, but the booze was too heavy.  A moment later I found myself in a deep, metaphysical conversation with a rapper named Jessie from Westwego. Gentles, when you find yourself in a bar talking endlessly of Buddhist koans with a rapper from Westwego, the time has come to find your bed. Carve that on my tombstone.

 

Outside, I leaned against the building and reflected as I awaited my cab. A beat-worn cop sat beside the door in a chair, another old man in street clothes standing alongside.  

 

“So this old fella’s wife has a heart attack on him up there by Tchoupitoulas.”

 

“Say what?”

 

“Yeah. He calls that ambulance and the man says, ‘Tchoupitoulas, eh? Spell that out for me and we’ll get right up there and take her to the hospital.”

 

“Spell it?” asked the cop.

 

“So he waits a second and says, ‘Hang on. I’m gonna taker her up to First Street and call you right back.”

 

I laughed, but they paid me no mind.

 

Good one, though.

Previous Drinking Culture Columns

The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender's Editorial Board.

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