Gentle reader, a full glass of liquor can sometimes do the office of a shew stone. Sit quietly upon the bar edge and run a thoughtful hand along the crystal curvature. Peer within. And with enough drink, the soothsayer’s gift will be yours. So it was I found myself gazing into deep distances of gin. Images of the past week of Tales of the Cocktail emerged. Mysteries of the present summer lull. Auguries of days yet to come. All these I saw in a tumbler made cloudy and uncertain with ice at the Erin Rose.
Long had I sat near the center of the bar with cold gin. The night was hot and quiet, a welcome return to summer normalcy after Tales the previous week.
To my left, two off-duty waiters sat and complained about their night. To my right, a grey-beard leched upon a neigh-on-nude young woman. A prostitute, you ask? Your surmise is equal to mine in these heady days of scandalous dress.
The Erin Rose is a fine place for a solitary drink. And a raucous drink, too, kind reader. As I glanced about the room, both these elements spoke from deep within wood and wall.
The bar isn’t much. But it is, at the same time, quite a lot.
In a long, narrow room, the wooden bar takes up most of the space along the left wall. Barely enough gap for two men to stand abreast separates the stools from the opposite wall.
A tiny room of video poker machines stands at the back like a gatehouse. Beyond that tiny choke point, a small room of wooden tables surrounded by wooden counters garrisons the toothsome Killer Po Boys' kitchen.
And everywhere, on every inch of wall, spoke the remembrances of a long-lived bar. Collages of rowdy photographs. Shamrocks and beer signs. Saints banners. Banners of Jim Monaghan’s political aspirations. Local art. And a grand sign reading “PRESCRIPTIONS” high above the rows of liquor. The list is inexhaustible.
Murph, the bearded and heavily tattooed bartender, spoke with friends at the far end of the bar.
I stared down into my gin, deep into a cloudy cube of ice. And the static nebula of haze began to move there, twist and swirl. And the swirl took shape, galaxy-like. And into the heart of the ice, like a crystal ball, was I drawn.
Bang! A packed room! Jammed! Hip-to-hip, my friends! I found myself perched upon a round wooden stool right beside the door. 80’s dance music blazed like electric fire. My own eyes were revealing the scenes of last week. Tales of the Cocktail. And there was scarcely room to set my feet upon the floor.
Normally shy of crowds, I had ventured to the Erin Rose out of curiosity. I had to know what humor a bar packed with bartenders could possibly enclose. For they are a fulsome and independent lot.
No environ, my friends, is quite so unsettling as a crowd comprised of unrepentant extroverts. I found that out. But on balance, it wasn’t as bad as I would have previously thought.
It seemed that the early years of Tales – of the early adopters – were in the past. Nowhere did I see the mustache wax, the stylish hats, and the dress of barmen from John Wayne films.
Well… almost nowhere. I did see the odd twisted mustache. And the new trend in hats appeared to be a baseball cap with an upturned brim like a kind of clownish Tour de France bonnet. But apart from the odd fashionisto, the gathering was one of salty folk.
I watched as the competing crowd waltzed and moved about each other in no space, dancing the strange choreography of the service industry. They ordered drinks efficiently and quickly. They knew what they wanted when called upon.
“Two Highlifes. Two frozen coffees. Four shots of Jameson.”
“Three tequilas. Two Guinness.”
“Keep it.” “Keep it.” “Keep the change.”
The two working bartenders slipped around each other deftly. Light was in the barkeeps’ eyes, paying bills in their minds through the shift.
I looked down into my own empty drink, then up to the bar. Three deep along the straight-edge. I was doomed. Without another divining pool of liquor, I could be trapped in my merry vision of Tales – an LP forever skipping on a high note. Hideous.
Just then, I locked eyes with an old friends standing along the bar. Good ‘ol Captain Dennis! A French Quarter head waiter, he was off work and in his usual spot. And about to order.
“You want one?” Dennis mouthed to me, pointing at his glass.
A moment later, Captain Dennis was handing me my succor.
“Crazy in here, huh?” observed the Captain. “I was hanging around after work for a few to see what happened, but I think I need to get out of here.”
“Me too…” I agreed in a distant voice, trailing off as my eyes delved the two-way mirror of my gin and tonic…
“You ready for another?” Murph asked me from behind the bar.
Quiet again. Calm and nearly empty. I was back.
“A double, please,” I added to my nod.
“How long you been here for, Murph?” I asked as the barkeep served me my gin.
“Not too long now. But I’ve been drinking here over ten years,” the great-bearded bartender replied as if by rote. He did not know me, but I had run into the man a few times over the years.
A WWOZ DJ, bar manager and bartender working out of Sylvain and the old St. Marie, Murph was a man about town. His arrival at the Erin Rose was not surprising.
For the Erin Rose is a bartenders’ bar. The marks of Old Jim Monaghan, the patriarch of the Monaghan bar family, are evident everywhere throughout. A dive bar without being too divey. A cool bar without being trendy. The Old Man dickered and dealt, bought, sold and traded bars in this city for decades. And he left the Erin Rose to his longtime manager, Troy, in the will.
That’s a story every bartender can hang onto, I thought, staring down into my new drink. Falling… falling through the mirages like a skydiver through layered clouds…
“Ten thousand bucks!” Captain Dennis was telling me, talking loud over the loud music.
Dennis spoke of a table that had shown up in his restaurant that night – the kind of table that keeps servers showing up to work. Distillers here for the cocktail convention, the eight-top had dropped a cool ten large.
“Good God!” I remarked.
Indeed, such an expenditure was another sign of the maturation of the Tales convention. No longer just a handful of house-poor Brooklyn hipsters and a few crusties from either Portland, the whales were starting to follow the krill.
I cast my eyes from our conversation, over the gathering that continued to grow wilder. They were young and had cool haircuts. They threw back shots and yelled at each other with beaming smiles and abandoned laughter. All the doings of the crowd conjured images like the images of a Fitzgerald novel. Only the music and the clothing had changed. The haircuts were, oddly, quite similar.
Like dreams out of a further past, the music began to fade, the movements of the throng slowed to unreality as I gazed once more into my cup…
“Migh-ty Joe has returned!” sang Murph with a hearty voice. “Migh-ty Joe to slaaay the dra-gon!”
I turned to see a gentleman in kitchen pants and red bandana returning from outside: Joe. Joe stopped and stared deadpan at Murph’s composition.
A bated moment.
“Migh-ty Joe, with chainmail on his heaaaart!” Murph concluded in response to the cold reception. And Joe continued on into the back, returning to his post at Killer Po Boys. I followed.
I ordered a grass-fed meatloaf poboy from Joe at the pass-through counter. Murals painted by the same hand as those in the back of Molly’s on the Market looked on with smiling eyes.
I am loathe to rank establishments in New Orleans, my friends. But Killer Po boys may be my favorite in the city if I were compelled to choose. And the impending opening of the new location in the French Quarter is greatly anticipated.
Back at the bar, I awaited my food. The servers had gone. The greybeard, his trollop run-off, chatted with Murph. A pair of fifty-something tourists sat a few stools down, talking about their azaleas at home.
A crowd of young people came rolling in on a wave of laughter. Vibrant and hipsterish and riding across the city carelessly. They carried a party atmosphere with them like gravity.
I looked down once more into my glass and had a vision of things to come. I saw a city of change and creativity. I saw a city making things new and relevant to the wider world, linked to that culture out of our past that has always made New Orleans relevant. I saw the hedonistic, unapologetic spirit of a new 1920’s.
A fine vision, it was. And there was plenty of fine drinking to come, my friends. But it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that.
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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender's Editorial Board.