Bars I’ve loved

batey
El Batey these days.

I WENT ON the wagon in 1996, but I once was a drinking man. Not a falling-down drunk, but a constant imbiber.

Every day. Without fail. For 25 years.

Not recommended. It affects relationships.

No matter. Some bars I have loved. In a recent post, I mentioned that a bartender who served me in the 1970s in New Orleans is a part-time resident here on my mountaintop.

It was one of the bars I loved. The Abbey.

My most beloved bar of all — El Batey — was in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Recently I did an internet search, wondering if El Batey still existed, and it surely does.

It’s now the oldest bar in Old San Juan, and it has its own Facebook page. But what business doesn’t?

El Batey has changed a lot over the years, but outside more than inside where the only alternations seem to be more wall graffiti. Here is a current exterior shot, just below, and a photo from when I drank there, farther below.

batey-outside-now
Today.

Note the street surface in the photo to the left. It’s blue stone that Spaniards brought to the New World as ballast in sailing ships.

So it’s said.

It was recycled into cobblestones in what is now Old San Juan, which is San Juan’s version of New Orleans’ French Quarter.

You don’t encounter blue streets very often, and they take on a particularly lovely cast when slicked with raindrops.

When I moved to San Juan the first time in the early 1970s — I was there twice, once for five months and a second stint of 11 months — I had a black BSA motorcycle shipped down from New Orleans in the hold of a Sealand freighter.

old-days
When I drank there.

A decade ago I wrote El Morro Sunrise about a late night in El Batey while the black BSA leaned on the cobblestones.

My two spells in San Juan were separated only by a year or so. When I returned for the final time I brought a record from New Orleans. It was one of Jimmy Buffett’s lesser-known ditties, titled Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?

The owner put it on the jukebox.

El Batey was owned by Davey Jones. In the early years, while I was there, he had a business partner named Norman, a spectacularly delightful man.

My second ex-wife and I visited Puerto Rico in the early 1990s, about 20 years after I lived there, and the only time I’ve returned. We went to El Batey, and Jones told me that Norman had died. Far too young.

norman
Norman
jones
Davey

If memory serves, Davey was one of those mail-order ministers with the legal right to perform marriages.

I was smitten at the time with an Argentine floozy who’d overstayed her visa. I decided to marry her so she could stay in San Juan, and Davey agreed to perform the ceremony. But it never happened, thank God.

Which is why you shouldn’t drink, boys and girls.

During that 1990s visit, I checked the jukebox for my Jimmy Buffett record, but it was not there.

One of Davey’s daughters, Maria, told me on Facebook that he died last year. He was in his early 80s. R.I.P.

* * * *

The Abbey

abbey

Both fore and aft of my times in San Juan, I favored a bar on Decatur Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a city where I lived off and on — mostly on — for 18 years.

For a time after my first divorce, my ex-wife tended bar there, and it’s where she met her second husband, the guy who jumped bond on a marijuana charge and hightailed it to Canada with my ex-wife and my daughter.

The Mounties nabbed them three years later, and they were returned to New Orleans where everything eventually got straightened out, and both ex-wife, second husband and daughter are now upstanding citizens.

The Abbey is one of a handful of New Orleans bars that never close, a characteristic that suited me wonderfully.

On Sundays, back when I was a patron, the owner laid out a spectacular free spread of snacks that negated your having to buy your own main meal that day.

Between the two, I favored El Batey, but I’ve spent far more nights in The Abbey.

If you stumble out of The Abbey at dawn, lurch right a couple of blocks to Jackson Square, look left and you’ll see the levee that holds back the Mighty Mississippi.

You’ll spot freighters passing above the levee’s crest because the river is higher than the city.

It’s like watching ships sailing in the sky.

* * * *

(Note: El Batey is a plaza for community events, a word that comes from the Caribbean Taino people.)

 

Marriage perp walk

Julie

LET US CONTINUE down Failed Romance Lane. We’ve already passed the Argentine penthouse and the First Marriage Apartment, so the only address left is the Second Marriage Ranch House.

The photo, which I should have taken better care of, is from 1979, and it was taken in New Orleans. We did not move to Houston and purchase the Second Marriage Ranch House till the mid-1980s.

Meet Julie.

I was with Julie the longest of all, about 19 years, but we were married for only the last decade. I have been married to my Mexican child bride for 13 years, but we lived together just a few months before the wedding.

Julie and I met at a French Quarter party in New Orleans. I arrived with two dates, one of whom was married to somebody else, and I was drunk as the proverbial skunk. I could hardly stand up.

Julie told me years later that the first thing she noticed was how pretty I was. The second was how drunk I was. Forget him, she thought.

But my rakish charm won out in the end. But not that evening.

A sharp observer might notice my glassy eyes in the photo. Yes, I was happily under the influence. I mention this issue — again — because there are few people more annoying than a reformed boozer. Perhaps someone who’s stopped smoking. I did that too, years later. Ahem!

During our many years together, I supported us while Julie bounced from one business venture to another, all of which failed. It was only after she dumped me in 1995 did she become self-sustaining, by necessity, eventually earning far more than I ever did. She’s a computer wizard.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

She lives today in that Houston ranch house, which was entirely in my name after the divorce, but which I gave to her as a gift the following year because I am a really nice guy — or a total idiot — depending on whom you ask.

I prefer the first option. My mother embraced the second.

Newspaper days: New Orleans

NewOrleans

I WAS FIRST a husband at age 22 and not long after that a father. In such a situation, you’ve got financial responsibilities. You need a job, and I was without one.

I became, in this order, a telephone company residential, pre-wire man; an insurance underwriter; an insurance salesman; a loan shark; and a repo man. I had no heart in any of those things, so I went back to college for a degree, driving Yellow Cabs on weekends.

After graduating at age 24 (UNO, History, 1969), my father, a former newspaper copy editor, convinced Walter Cowan, the managing editor of The New Orleans States-Item, an afternoon daily, that I’d be a good hire, so Cowan put me on at $115 a week to be a reporter.

I was about as good a reporter as I’d been a repo man. Basically, I don’t deal well with the public. After a few months, I requested a transfer to the copydesk where I edited stories and wrote headlines.

About two years earlier, before my father retired, I spent a few hours working with him on the copydesk in the original Times-Picayune building downtown, seeing if I had any knack for that sort of labor, and I did. Here’s how it looked in 1900. It had changed little by the mid-1960s.

oldie

When I got hired in 1969, the newspaper had just moved into a huge, new building about a mile away. Though the building was modern, our work was done the old way. We sat around a horseshoe desk with the headman in the middle handing out stories to be edited and headlines to be written.

We edited with pencils and connected the sheets of copy with paste applied with a brush from a paste pot. The sheets were then sent to the linotype operators downstairs via a conveyor belt.

typeAs the years passed, the techniques changed. We began typing headlines on old, manual typewriters. Then IBM Selectrics arrived. Then some technology appeared that could read paper copy electronically. That was the end of the conveyor belt to downstairs. Then computers appeared on our desks. This all took years.

The computers brought one major change: The ages-old horseshoe copydesk, a fixture at all major newspapers, and in movies, for a century or so, vanished from newsrooms everywhere. The physical proximity of the copy editors was no longer required. We could sit anywhere.

* * * *

But before that happened, we were elbow to elbow with our fellow copy editors, and they were quite a crew. Many were drunks. The work was considered less a profession, as it is today, than a trade. And getting hired, if you had any skill with words, was pretty easy, which explains why I was hired with no journalism training whatsoever. I’ve never taken a journalism course to this day.

My father had done the same work as I began to do, but he did it a generation earlier. In the 1930s, our occupation was full of transients who shifted from city to city on booze-fueled whims, and we were paid in cash at the end of each day. By my time, however, it was weekly paychecks.

I started on the New Orleans States-Item, the afternoon paper which shared a newsroom and printing presses with The Times-Picayune, the morning paper. On an afternoon paper, copy editors and some reporters go to work very early, usually 6 a.m. For a crew of boozers living in New Orleans where bars never close, this could be a challenge. We usually arrived just marginally sober.

* * * *

Itemizing the crazy cast of my coworkers would require too much space. I’ll tell you about just one, which was a tragedy. A man named Bob Drake.

Bob was a former Army captain who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. His past was foggy, and he kept it that way. When he arrived at the States-Item, he had been divorced, was about 50 years old, with a receding hairline, and had recently married a woman in her mid-20s, I’d say.

Bob was starting a new life.

He had many odd characteristics. Bob was wound tighter than a spool of hardware wire, and he liked his highballs. One night at a party in his house, he taught me the “Bob Drake grip” on a highball glass that allegedly guaranteed it would not slip to the floor if one’s attention wandered.

Part of Bob’s starting over was the purchase of a home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. He was a family man at heart, traditional and somewhat staid. And then his young wife got pregnant. Months later, she had a baby, of course. And not long after that, she dropped the bomb.

She wanted out. She needed to “find herself.” And there was no convincing her otherwise.

Bob went to the tool shed in the back yard, locked the door, poured gasoline over himself, and lit a match. It was no “cry for help.” It was a blazing goodbye.

He was neither the first nor the last of my coworkers to commit suicide. But no one else did it so dramatically, with such flare.

A year later I ran into Bob’s young widow outside a supermarket. We exchanged pleasantries and smiled. Neither of us mentioned Bob. I never saw her again.

* * * *

I lived 18 years in New Orleans. I consider it my hometown even though I was born in Atlanta and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. But New Orleans left its mark on me far more than those other places. More bars, I guess. I arrived when I was 20, and I left when I was 39.

I met, married and divorced my first wife there, and I became a father. I then met and lived with the woman who would later, in Houston, become my second wife. I lived Uptown, just out of town in Jefferson Parish, and I lived in the French Quarter too.

Most of that time I worked on either the afternoon paper or the morning paper. Eventually, The States-Item failed, as have most afternoon papers in the United States. In the middle of those years, I inserted just under two years in San Juan, which was bookended on both sides by New Orleans and its newspapers. It was an interesting occupation to fall into by sheer, dumb luck.

Getting a fresh hair up my backside, I quit The Times-Picayune in 1980, and went to a community college, first studying electrical construction technology and then computer science.

But I was back in the newspaper business by 1984.

* * * *

(Next: Newspaper days: Houston)

Guts wuz robbed!

GutsGUTS THE DOG was stolen from outside my sister-in-law’s business a few days ago. This did not surprise me since he’s a cute and valuable pooch. After his extensive bath and haircut, it became obvious that he is a pure-bred fellow with a pedigree.

But two days after the robbery, he came wandering home with a string around his neck, which he obviously broke to flee his captors. So all is well, but I imagine his return will be temporary because he is still allowed to sit outside unsupervised. It’s like putting a 1,000-peso bill on the sidewalk.

Guts’ return reminded me of my mini-parrot named Tube Steak who likewise returned home after a few days on the lam. Tube Steak had not been stolen. He simply escaped because a cat entered the apartment through an open window, upended Tube Steak’s cage, and the bird hightailed it out that same window.

Tube Steak was quicker than the cat.

This adventure took place years ago between one of my many marriages — I forget which — and I was living solo in the French Quarter of New Orleans in a tiny studio apartment, a section of what is known as Slave Quarters. Please forgive me for the word slave because I know so many of you find it dreadfully offensive.

I promise not to utter it again in this post.

That (word omitted) apartment consisted of one small room, a tiny bathroom and a minuscule kitchen. It was in that kitchen that I left the window open one day while I was toiling at The Times-Picayune — or maybe it was the earlier and now-defunct States-Item. I forget which. The mind wanders.

tube steakI came home that afternoon, found the cage upended and the window open, and put 2 and 2 together. There were no feathers on the floor, so I figured Tube Steak had escaped instead of being devoured. Distraught, I put the cage in the closet and figured I was short one pretty bird.

Less than a week later, on my day off, I was sprawled — with a highball — on the bed, which sat just inside the open door with romantic New Orleans jalousies. It was late afternoon.

Past the door was a small balcony overlooking a lush, enclosed courtyard I shared with neighbors. Perhaps there were some leftover oyster shells out there. I occasionally bought burlap bags of oysters, which I cracked open and ate raw with my friends and Dixie beer.

Tube Steak came walking through the door. Not flying, mind you, but strolling with that attitude of his. Imagine my surprise. I jumped up, pulled the cage from the closet and returned my pal to his proper place.

And that’s all I recall. It’s been a long time. I vaguely remember giving Tube Steak away as a gift to a girlfriend later on, but don’t hold me to that. But I’ll never forget Tube Steak’s return and his jaunty entrance through the open doors with romantic New Orleans jalousies, in from the courtyard. It was a happy homecoming.

Just like the return of Guts from a Mexican cobblestone street.

* * * *

(Two earlier posts on Guts, in proper sequence, can be found here and here.)