Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Rose

Without industrial waste sites festering all around Rome like underground bowls of fermenting fruit, Husband and I would not have been sitting in the oldest bar in the nation on Monday, sipping on Class 5 Hurricanes and acting as counsel to a young, Matt Damon-esque bartender with personal issues.

(This year, New Orleans hosted the government-sponsored Brownfields conference. For him, this annual gig means several workshops over several days on how to clean up and move on after someone knocks over a big glass of crap on your city. For me, it means a petite getaway with the man of my dreams, plus a few hours to myself during daylight hours. For the kids, it means a chance to spend some quality time with their grandparents.)

The pirate bar, as we call it, is actually a former Blacksmith shop run by the in/famous pirate/politician Jean Lafitte. When I say “former,” I mean like as in 1770’s “former.” On the corner of Bourbon past the “gay block,” as one local put it, the place looks as low and sagging as a round Hobbit house. The copper-topped bar covers dark, oil shined wood. All around the walls behind the bar, nooks and niches hold bottles of Jameson or Bombay Sapphire, Cuervo varieties and gazillons of flavors of Vodka. The original blacksmith fire pit makes a little sitting spot in the center of the bar, and on this night, a group of couples leaned in around the pit and yelled at each other over the din of music and bar chatter. A baby slept in a stroller next to one of the women, who kept one hand draped over the baby’s stocking foot.

Husband used to tend bar. He watched Matt Damon try to tuck a bottle of Dewar’s back into its place in a triple-stacked line along one wall of the tiny bar. “That’s got to get old,” he said to Matt. “Yeah,” says Matt. “You should see how we have to get the kegs back here. I told my uncle every one of us has back problems now, but the old man won’t spring for a longer line or a handtruck.”

Turns out Matt’s uncle owns the bar. Matt’s sister is the sole cocktail waitress, and their best friend/roommate also tends there. They live across the river, near Gretna. When we asked them where they went to school, they said “Gretna High.” That seems to be as much school as school gets. We dropped the subject. Husband asked about another drink, and Matt cocked his head at us. “Have you had a Hurricane yet? Let me make you a real one. I’m going to take care of you, sir. I’m going to take care of you.”

Rather than tip in the cheap well brand of rum, Matt loaded up Husband’s glass with Bacardi 151, a faint dash of sweet red mix, crushed ice and sliced oranges and cherries. He set it on the bar in front of us. “That’s done right,” he said. (Apparently it was done right, because later that night Husband got the idea that he could move people off the sidewalk and out of our way using telepathy.)

Matt’s little sister made her rounds between tables inside and out in the little courtyard, then back to a dim piano bar in the hull of the place. (About the piano bar, there was a moment with a biker dude and singing priest, but I’ll save that story for later). The sister and Matt spoke in hand gestures and nods, most of which seemed to center around the theme that she did not do her fair share of work around the place. At one point Matt asked her to go get a bucket of ice, and she stuck out her lower lip at him. Just then, an old black man appeared at Matt’s sister’s side holding a red garden rose. She smiled and crinkled her nose at Matt, and Matt rolled his eyes. “Hey Smooth,” he said.

“Whatchu need fuh me to do?” said Smooth. Matt’s sister asked him to get the bucket of ice, and he handed her the rose and shuffled off to do it. “That’s Smooth,” smiled the sister, before turning to take a tray of beers to the couples at the pit. “He brings me a red rose every night.”

Smooth looked like a sixty year old man living in the body of an eighty year old. Deep gullies ran down both cheeks, and he leaned to one side like he’d been thrown into a wall and never quite straightened up. Matt told us he served many years in the state pen. They don’t know what he did—he won’t talk about it. Because he was so good at showing up at the most advantageous times, he earned his nickname. After release, he went to work as a bodyguard for one of the sheriff’s deputies, and if you have to ask why a lawman needs a bodyguard you’ve never been to the Big Easy.

I looked up from my own drink to see Smooth nod at me, then turn and walk away. I forgot about it until we were almost ready to leave. I turned on my creaky, rusted barstool to find myself face to face with Smooth holding a pale white garden rose. The stem curved, with two long thorns, and an unopened bud branched away from the full bloom of the fragrant flower. “I brung you one, too,” said Smooth. “But I brung you a white one, cause you’s married.” I kissed his wrinkled cheek, and he chuckled and shuffled away.

“Yeah,” said Matt. “That’s why they call him Smooth.”

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