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A Generational Journey at Henry's

Gentle reader, brick and mortar, stock and stone… A clever concept, rubber-stamped by some bloodless investor… The Bar must be more than these. The Bar, my friends, provides. For the friendless, it is society. For the friends, a place to meet. For the old man, it is remembrance. And for the youth to cut their teeth.


I was on the Magazine Street bus. Hospital-harsh light interrogated my pupils as my skin was flayed by the cold knife of air-conditioning. Tuberculosis? Legionnaires’ Disease? I shifted nervously within that hermetically sealed germ-incubator for a great many blocks before I realized the true source of my anxiety: I hadn’t had a drink all day. 


Seize the yellow cord!


And by a stroke of good luck, I found Henry’s Uptown Bar at the bottom of the tall, bus steps. 


The structure looks more like working-class housing than a tavern. Save for the business-like door cut into the corner of the building at Soniat and Magazine and the row of picnic tables along the sidewalk out front, the bar is almost entirely unremarkable.    


But sometimes, my friends, the most remarkable things are to be found in the commonplace. 


I gave way to a youngish couple who arrived at the open door just ahead of me. 


“I kind of grew up in this bar,” the attractive blonde girl led her gentlemen through the door. “You’re gonna love this place.”


There is no way to write about Henry’s without considering a wider context. While French Quarter watering holes like Laffite’s Blacksmith Shop may have the claim on the older buildings, Henry’s has been owned and operated by the same family since 1900. 


Fourth generation now. I know of no other drinking establishment in the City that can claim more. 


“Oh my god!” the blonde girl screamed just inside the door. “We went to high school together,” introducing her new boyfriend to her old classmates. A chance meeting.


“What can I get you?” asked the raven-haired and shapely barkeep. 


What can I get you? What’ll you have? What’s your poison? I heard the sounding of many voices layered over time.


I took a gin.


I sat in a tiny barroom. Perhaps thirty feet long by fifteen wide. A wooden bar, painted black along the carved front, ran down the right side. A few laminated tables and pleather chairs stood along the wall on my left. 


In the rear, a wall had been knocked through to a simple square room – an annex from the adjacent lot. Tables and chairs and a big sign: The Grill.  


Behind the bar, an open pass-through revealed a third room, stepped up from the main bar floor. Dart boards hung beside video poker machines within, brightly lit.


The side room was once a section of the family’s living quarters. Faintly, I heard the echoes of family squabbles through the wall. Dimly, that old door swung open as the father or mother broke the morning silence – time to open the barroom to the neighborhood.


And all around on the walls, one long and continuous memory spoke silently. 


A decree printed in large block letters.  Major General Benjamin “Beast” Butler, commander of the occupying forces of New Orleans during the Civil War, had issued an edict against women jeering at his officers.


An antique photograph of the tavern in 1899. The bar was lacquered black and shining. A single patron reclined in a black jacket and bowtie. The barkeep stood rigidly in a puffy white shirt and vest. No smiles.


One wonders what passed within these walls during Prohibition, not twenty years later.


The front page of a newspaper. The Hindenburg had gone down with all that humanity. The Volstead Act had been repealed but four years prior.


A black and white picture of men in the 1940’s. Pants worn high. Shirts button up. Lapels growing wide on the jackets.


A life-size cut out of John F. Kennedy. What a hero he must have been to the Irish Catholic immigrants who purchased the bar in 1900.   


Pictures of the Old Man, Henry, who took over the joint in ’46 with his wife. He loved his Saints, and passed a year before they won it all.


Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin like myths or Gilgamesh for a newer times. 


80’s. 90’s. Just last year. And we were all but passing through. 


“That was absolutely not the right move!” I protested to the gentlemen beside me. We were watching baseball, in a spirited discussion.


And the old man a few stools down nodded gravely his approval.


“A lot of people went down to F&M’s or Grits. Or Mae’s down the street. But we always came in here,” the blonde girl was announcing to her group of new friends and old, gathered now at the far end of the bar.


“Yeah, we’re trying to get someone in here to do the food before football season starts,” the bartender was telling me. “The last ones walked out on us.”


The heat and the rain. Hurricanes and the handful of times the snow fell on the St. Charles streetcar line. 


Wars. Elections. Birthdays. 


Another drink, if you will… 


The bartenders who quit. The employees who got canned. And there were times the old place nearly didn’t reopen but managed somehow… 


Brick and mortar. Stock and stone. A bar must be more than these, my friends. The Bar must be more than a point to extract cash from the community. More than some concept that sees its day and leaves a shuttered building behind.


For the friendless, it is society. For the friends, a place to meet. For the old man, it is remembrance. And for the youth to cut their teeth.

Previous Drinking Culture Columns

Follow Joseph Toman on Twitter @TomanJoseph

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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