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Passing Time at the Maple Leaf

Gentle reader, it is said that Time keeps everything from happening all at once. Apart from that, I find it a nuisance. My free ride to Uptown came well before Rebirth Brass Band was to play. And I was bound to sit upon a barstool and wait. Day bled out to night as the patrons traded faces, and I struggled to remain coherent in a bar that alters by hours as a year through the seasons. Come, my friends, and keep the watch with me at The Maple Leaf Bar.


Damnit! I was through another beer and shot. The plan was to nurse my drinks. Husband them. Hours more stretched out like a vast and thirsty Gobi between myself and the music at eleven.


Sunlight trickled in and was quenched by the cave-like bar.  No other dimness is quite so comfortable as that of a dive bar in the afternoon. The day-bright glow bursts inside, rowdy like frat boys through the front windows and door. But almost instantly, the vigor slows, cools, takes up a stool in some dark corner to relax. Because this ain’t that kind of place.


And make no mistake, my friends. Though The Maple Leaf does indeed enjoy a reputation as a premiere music nightspot in the City, heavy with tourists and college kids, the afternoons and evenings offer a very serious neighborhood watering hole.


The old wooden bar ran along the left. And I sat at the near end alone. A line of old men perched upon stools like a row of ruffled pigeons. The greybeards drank in leisure as R&B tunes filled the space at a low volume. 


Press-molded tin, burnished or stained with cigarette smoke and time, wrapped all the interior. Ceiling to floor. Both absorbing light and reflecting. Like a decorative thing long-buried and unearthed.   


I watched one tall old gentleman sip from a Collins glass he’d placed in a coozie.  An overturned go-cup acted as cap over the mouth of the glass in between sips. 


Content to sit in silence, staring ahead over the rows of liquor bottles. Content in conversation or laughing at a joke. Happy to pet a dog, brought in wagging its tail. My friends, I could sit contemplating a drink in a place like The Leaf until all the Seals are broken. 


Curse my junky’s heart! I found myself dry again. Day-drinking alone in a bar can be deceptively dangerous business. Without a bit of chit-chat or the odd bar game, the raising of the wrist can happen quite unconsciously.   


Rachel was my bartender. Dark-haired. T-shirt and jeans. And royalty, to boot. Rachel was this year’s Queen of Mid-Summer Mardi Gras.


The Krewe of O.A.K. (Outrageous and Kinky) is based at The Maple Leaf. The Krewe rolls on the Friday before Mardi Gras. But for almost thirty years now, they’ve made a tradition of holding a half-way-to-Fat-Tuesday party on the last Saturday of August. 


I chatted with Rachel over another beer and shot, happy for the diversion. The Highlife/Jameson duo was seven bucks. On the pricey side but understandable for what must be high rents on Oak Street.


The light outside began to fade as the tide of patrons went out. The old men were leaving like old men do, one-by-one. And in sauntered Hank Staples, owner of the joint.


Short, grey hair and sleeveless t-shirt, Hank smiled up to the bar clutching a bottle of Burgundy. Rachel sunk the gently curved bottle into the ice well as Hank laughed with some of the remaining old gentleman. 


Bound for Coquette that night, Hank is a great appreciator of the New Orleans fine dining scene. I nodded my thanks for the cocktail napkin in my pocket that bore his mark. In true New Orleans fashion, the man takes care of the service staff around the City with handwritten talismans for entrance. 


“They still call me ‘the new guy’ sometimes,” Hank will tell you, talking to the old men at the bar. “I’ve only been around thirty one years.”


The old patrons continued to dismount their stools and ambled out on stiff legs. And as each man left, the newly arrived doorman removed the barstool and stowed it aside.


Now a new crowd began to arrive, bellying up to the long bar with no stools, save those left to us few who remained from earlier in the day.


“Uh… can I get a screwdriver?” asked one aging bro in a polo shirt and dress shorts. 


“And a seabreeze,” added the shorter bro on his left.


“Four Highlifes,” a single, middle-aged gentleman came in just after.


The Jacques-Imo’s diners had begun to arrive. The bar within that iconic restaurant next door is tiny. And the list for a table can grow quickly. The Maple Leaf becomes a de facto waiting room for those after alligator cheesecake and softshells.


I heard the accented voices of foreign visitors, pre-purchasing tickets to see the famed Rebirth after dinner. 


Josh, the doorman and once road manager of The Radiators, worked through the gathering crowd. He sold tickets and spoke with the hardcore music followers.


“Man! Were you at D.B.A. last night?”


“They were killin’ it in Chickie-Wah-Wah!”


“Who ya’ll got playing for Mid-Summer Mardi Gras this weekend?”


Irredeemable heathen! I’d run to the bottom of my drinks again. This time I order two beers for safety and made my way into the back. 


A wide opening knocked through the side wall lead into the music hall. The windowless and dingy room looked every bit the dive bar venue. Nearly empty, save for bits of junk stashed along the walls near the back, the long room terminated with a stage on my right.


In one of the City's most renowned musical residencies, Rebirth Brass Band has been playing that stage on Tuesday nights for over twenty years. 


I walked carefully into the back, past the second bar that sat quiet and empty. And pushing through the doors in the rear, entered the lush courtyard.


I have never been able to describe the courtyard of The Maple Leaf with any accuracy, and cannot now. Crowded with tables and broad green leaves – that’s about all I can muster. For night is ever upon me when I entered there, and the drink heavy on my head.


A group of young friends sat at the tables on one side of the space. I picked my way to the opposite side and sat down on a bench with my two beers. I scribbled notes in a tiny pad that I cannot now read.


Perhaps I was writing a poem, an ode to the poet and lovely bastard Everette Maddox. The poetry reading he founded in this courtyard still goes on today in what is claimed to be the longest running reading in North America.


“Everette Maddox,” reads the stone over his ashes, buried in the courtyard, “He was a mess.”


What a fine, fine epitaph, I thought. Only a poet could hope for as much. And I drifted in darkness.


“I’m just getting sick of people barging into the room at night with flashlights, talking about dub step and Colorado! I’m sick of talking about Colorado.”


Son-of-a-bitch! Not only had I nodded off, I’d managed to finish my other beer while doing so.


Now the courtyard was full. Beside me, a group of young bohemian kids were in heated conversation.


“You’re the only one talking about Colorado, dude!”


The high clarion call of a trumpet turned all the heads in the courtyard upward.


“The music’s starting!” someone said. 


And in a great exodus, the crowd moved as one to the door. I sat alone for a long moment, listening to the horns, muted in the courtyard.


At long last, my friends, the hour had arrived at the music. And though Time had collated the faces and the moods, the booze had seemed to happen all at once.

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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