Drinking Culture

Gentle reader, the New Orleanian is no great lover of leaving New Orleans. For some, the mere crossing of the Canal Street neutral ground is a Homeric expedition. And I had sojourned this past weekend in Baton Rouge. Out of that heart of darkness I returned, through lurking wetlands and in horror. I just needed one tiny drink in a place of comfort. Perhaps two draughts in a barroom where even the faces of those unmet were familiar. Friends, no more than three cup-borne constitutionals was all that I would require in Molly’s at the Market.


Only when the grey ribbon of highway unspooled ahead, looping into the domed skyline of downtown, did I breathe a sigh of relief. And only when I stood before the arched doorway set into the exposed brick of Lower Decatur did I feel again at home. 


Out on the sidewalk, a young couple sat smoking upon backless stools. Laughing. Young, healthy, and pretty. Their arms rested easily on the wooden shelf that acts as an open pass-through from the interior of the bar to the street.     


The brightly lit barroom made the public house seem open and welcoming. 


“I’ve been trying to leave for three hours now! I blame you!” came a jolly accusation in a heavily accented voice.   


“Blame us! Haha! Blame us!” came the reply.


A group of locals sat with the single tourist around the near corner of the bar. Locals to be sure: thousand-year-old t-shirts and weathered pants like they had just finished up a day of yard work. And undoubtedly a tourist: knapsack and well-dressed; taken in by the innate friendliness of the drunken citizenry. I was surely arrived…


I took a stool at the very center of the bar. On the high shelf of the carved backbar stayed the polished wooden urn of the Old Man, Jim Monaghan – right above the register so the patriarch the New Orleans bar dynasty could still keep an eye on the cash. “The Air Filter,” as the vessel is lovingly called, does in fact look like an air filter. And it ain’t the only ashcan interred within the bar.


“Alright! One more,” acquiesced the tourist beside me. Perhaps Australian.


Poor, sweet, careless fool. His day was shot through with a liquor bottle. Caught in the snare of day-drinking at Molly’s, the sun had abandoned him. Now, our Aussie’s only escape from the clutches of kindness was total inebriation. A novice blunder.


I ordered a Pernod from the bartender. Five bucks. Tall and thin with a plaid shirt and Irish driving cap, the young man behind the sticks looked the part.    


Molly’s is small but holds a crowd well. The wooden bar runs down the right side of the room. Tables anchored into the opposite wall stand out like a string of jetties in a lagoon. Even when the space is overflowing, a stool between those sheltering piers offers safe harbor from the surge of bodies. The Monaghans know their bars.


My eyes hopped around in random saccades as I drank my restorative. The backbar is plastered with patches and hats from police and fire departments around the country and world. Merchandise and odd cyphers. Wooden signs and bits of cloth hung from the ceiling. The left wall, opposite the bar, is laid across with memorabilia: framed reminders of local media outlets; remnants of the political campaigns of cantankerous barflies and serious candidates alike. Photos of St. Patrick’s Days past and moments of old revelry punctuate the keepsakes with levity.


Some picture or bauble is always obscured in the great volume of décor at Molly’s. Something always presents itself surprisingly anew, like a fresh personality trait discovered in a very old friend. I wondered how the hell I had never noticed the full-sized, carved wood, Egyptian sarcophagus suspended horizontally from the ceiling at the end of the bar.


I was finishing my third Pernod. A group of retiree tourists gushed about the French Market at the table behind me. A pair of tattooed production guys talked movie set design to my right. I was ready to leave. Three and out goes the phrase.


But I spied Editor Mintz in the knot of locals at the end of the bar. Animated. Mintz was shouting something about the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. One more drink, I supposed. But that was it, by Jove.


The Aussie had managed his exit and I went to take a stool amidst a small docket of faces. The aforementioned Mintz stood beside Young Professor, who as I understand it is untenured and so shall remain nameless. The two shifted on their feet beside Wise Chris Christenberry, comfortable on his stool.


And I do mean his stool, my friends. Chris, of a storied political and legal family stretching back to the administration of the Kingfish himself, has a brass plaque engraved with his name fastened to a seat at the end of the bar. 


The conversation quickly veered into the news events of the day. Raul Castro had just met with the Pope. Fantastically, the head of the Cuban Communist Party said afterward that he would consider a return to the Catholic Church if Francis continued his current path.


“Frankie Blackshoes!” Chris cheered, holding up his Jesuit High School ring to emphasize his affinity with the Jesuit Pope. 


“I gave him that name!” Chris continued. 


Indeed, a fine nickname for Pope Francis who eschewed the ancient tradition of papal red shoes for modest black ones.     


The talk shifted to education and Young Professor could not restrain himself.


“The only thing you could conclude is that Louisiana is against education. I mean, we’re at the bottom all the way across the board,” he said. “But at least we can be fairly confident that we’ve bottomed out; that it’s not going to get any worse. Everyone is lining up saying they’re going to do the exact opposite of Governor Jindal when they get elected.”


I was tempted by despair, but Young Professor’s passion instilled some hope.


“I go to education conferences around the country and people actually feel sorry for me.”


Another Pernod, please. One for the road.


“My favorite bar son,” Chris said as the Professor got up to leave.


“I’m only your favorite because the others are so bad,” our young educator replied, smiling out the door.  


Chris and I wandered into the back to smoke. We pushed through the door and past the counter to the kitchen space which now features the cuisine of L’Enfant. 


The back courtyard at Molly’s is more of a back room than a courtyard. Overlapping rooflines and overhangs block out all but the tiniest bit of sky above. But that postage stamp of access to the open air ensures our right to puff away in this “outdoor space.”


Chris and I pulled up to the sparsely stocked bar as he unpacked a series of stories.


“One last drink, my good man!” I ordered from the bearded keeper of the courtyard bar. “I’ll hear a tale or two and be on my way.”


With sharp ears and enough time, one can receive a virtual Ph.D. in New Orleans politics from Mr. Christenberry. A holder of elected offices, law enforcement posts, and sometimes consigliere to the Monaghan family, Chris had all the dope.


He pointed out faces on the great, painted mural that covers the walls of the courtyard. The Storyville Stompers they’d taken up to D.C. for a Mardi Gras Party. Old Jim Monaghan beside Jim Junior. CBS legend Ed Bradley who loved Molly’s so much. Even Chris’s own face, painted years ago. He told me of the troubles the Vieux Carre Commission gave the Old Man about the mural itself – the battles fought with the city.


The night ran away with us. Later, I found myself out on the sidewalk with a new gathering. We’d taken up with one of Young Professor’s former students who had wandered in coincidentally. A gentleman just sprung from jail for breaking the speed record on the Causeway joined us. Fine gentleman.


I wobbled, Pernod in hand. Editor Mintz balanced his frozen Irish coffee on the small shelf attached to the gallery pole there.


“I’ve been trying to leave for four hours!” one of us – perhaps I – protested. “I need to be up at seven, goddamnit!”


Dear friends, do not judge over-harshly. For Molly’s can prove difficult to quit when the characters flow through like a restoring stream. If no exception can be made for a bar with its own parades for both a Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, than nothing can be called worthy.


But indeed, the time had arrived for my departure. And I was set to leave, my friends. I was. But through the open window I spied our favorite New Orleans Burlesque performer, Angie Z. She sat smiling away and drinking at the bar with fellow dancer, Gogo McGregor.  


And with the swaggering, impaired confidence of a man who thinks he knows what he is unaware of, I walked back inside. Perhaps I could stay for just one more drink…

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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