Gentle reader, the dog days of summer are upon us. Life is torpid in the heat. Business in the city hides its face from a sun that seems a mere mile removed. But we are prepared for our perspiring poverty, and we know the practice. Tighten the belt like a sweaty Spartan! Triage the invoices! And know your neighborhood bars, my friends. For a cheap pitcher of beer and a lovely lot of locals will carry us through at the Mayfair Lounge.
Wednesday night. I had a sawbuck. And in more ways than one, my Secretary Hamilton was doomed. I was determined to swap the expired economist for whatever booze he might fetch. Only the setting was in question.
Superior Grill bustled with voices on St. Charles Avenue. The 3-for-1 margarita special would indeed meet my needs. But I was unsure I could swallow that much margarita before the beverages warmed – and fearful of the consequences. I headed down Amelia Street.
The Mayfair Lounge is built at the end of what is essentially a neutral ground between Amelia and Antoine Streets. A strip of green grass runs between the streets from St. Charles to the rectangular Mayfair that abuts the August Moon Restaurant on Prytania. Irretrievably asymmetrical, additions and dormers pop up here and there. One-story here and two-story there. New-painted stucco on one end and shabby wood siding on the other. And it appears that someone has built a Doctor Seuss cottage into the roof line. I like the place.
“How’s it goin’, man?” asked a young neighborhood fellow, smoking before the front door. Friendly. White t-shirt and shorts.
“Quite well! Thank you,” I replied with a nod, reaching my hand up to find the door locked fast.
“You gotta hit the buzzer,” the young man said. “Not that they really need it. I think they kinda keep it for old times’ sake.”
Just then, two middle-aged gentleman came stumbling out the front door, fumbling with their billiard cue cases. Clad in polo shirts and khaki shorts, the two were of similar aspects: badly drunk but well able to handle their booze.
“How’s it goin’, man?” greeted one of the men, billiard case slung over his shoulder.
“Evenin’” I replied again, smiling.
“I’m Mike,” said the gentleman, offering me his hand.
“That’s John,” Mike told me as we shook hands. At least I believe he said Mike and John. Beggar as I am in funds, I am even poorer in cognitive retention.
John finished stowing his cue that had so stubbornly resisted the case and shook my hand in turn. I was beginning to feel like a person that people might like to get to know. A fine feeling, my friends.
Quite spontaneously, we all found ourselves in conversation. The bar. The neighborhood. A friendly little chat.
“Down there at Superior Grill used to be a bar called Que Sera. They started that 3-for-1 deal,” Mike told me. “They used to have to shut down the street on Wednesday there were so many people on the neutral ground.”
I had often heard of the legendary Que Sera, I told them.
“That’s how we found the Mayfair here,” John added. “Back in the 70’s. They pour a hell of a drink. And all the girls came down here to use the bathroom.”
The glints and grins of mischievous youth kindled in aging faces at the reminiscence of a mischievous past. I watched the old friends pile into an SUV and drive off cursing merrily.
And pressing the rectangular doorbell button, I was at last let inside.
“How ya doin’?” greeted a grey-haired gentleman, looking up from his seat beside the pool table.
“Excellent well! Thank you,” I beamed. A truly friendly gathering, I thought.
A red felt pool table stood directly before the door. A group of middle-aged guys stalked around the red surface, cues in hand like spears. Behind, a smaller room held a second red table where younger men played, groped their blonde girlfriends while awaiting a turn to shoot.
Bully for bar games, my friends. Darts and dominos, billiards and shuffle board. When you can afford no other diversion, the thrifty bar game makes sound financial sense.
I turned to the right. Over the oddly-shaped bar hung hundreds of Mardi Gras throws. Beads and baubles of all sorts dangled down from bedsprings strapped to the ceiling. The Mayfair has a reputation as a prime locale along the parade route.
I walked, the edge of the bar on my left. Video poker machines lined my right, perpendicular to the wall to keep the stools out of the narrow walkway – a flashing row of roller coaster cars, they seemed.
And here’s the rub, kind reader: I had in my possession that ten dollar bill. I could employ the mechanical advantage of those poker machines to turn ten into twenty. Perhaps more. But times being what they are, I restrained myself and sat down at the bar.
An older gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt sat beside me. Silent. He poured beer from a small pitcher and sipped slowly from a small glass.
From my vantage point at the far end, I could truly appreciate unusual shape of The Mayfair’s bar. Starting from a right angle at the end where a group of attractive older women gathered – I believe the word in common use is “cougar” – the bar sweeps out in two concave arcs. The shape is rather reminiscent of some disused Medieval musical instrument.
“How ya doin’ tonight?” asked the bartender, walking up casually. Denise has been a bartender at The Mayfair Lounge for a good many years and carries the calm and kindly demeanor of a librarian.
“Better and better, I thank you! One of those there would improve me still,” I suggested, indicating toward my neighbor’s pitcher of beer.
The Mayfair has but one beer on tap: Budweiser. But it is cold and it is cheap. $2.50 for a pint. But that would be madness. For a thirty two ounce pitcher is but $3.50.
A great tankard of Bud Strong arrived before me with an empty glass beside it. I am a great lover of pitchers for each vessel can be tallied as a single drink. And as my state-funded physician advises not above three drinks in a sitting: Bully for pitchers!
The crowd began to pick up as I set about drinking. Groups of high school friends, now college-age, flocked up to the bar. Blonde girls and dark-haired guys.
I and the old man beside me began to take up a strange rhythm as we stared up at the weather report on the television. Elbow on bar. Chin in hand. Pour a bit. Drink. Repeat. Slow and deliberate movements. Sometimes we fell into an eerie synchronization, lifting the glass and replacing in perfect, slow unison. I felt as though some blurred out future version of myself was hovering in my peripheral vision.
“Cheers,” he said to me as he got up to leave. We’d never exchanged a word, but I will miss him.
“Miss Gertie bought the place thirty-six years ago,” Denise was telling me later that night.
The college kids had cleared out. Things were quiet. Servers from the surrounding restaurants were arriving for their medicine.
In the great tradition of New Orleans service industry, the waiters would impart their tips to the bartender as gratuity. And that bartender would then pass those monies along to another server or bartender in the form of a tip. All trade the same money to stay afloat in this strange economy of summertime.
“Ahhh Miss Gertie,” I said. One can scarcely speak of The Mayfair Lounge without speaking of her.
The very definition of a bon vivant, the octogenarian owner is a legendary figure in the New Orleans bar pantheon. The tales say that Miss Gertrude Mayfield had been coming to this bar with her husband since before women were allowed in the neighborhood bars. Her husband died a short while after the couple bought the joint in ‘78, and she, alone, became the true face of the institution.
The leather pants. The flirtations and dancing with the young men. The speeches and drinks from behind the bar. Warm-hearted and welcoming and anything but a grandmother. The stories have reached my ears many times. And I was saddened that she was not there that night. But my money situation would not allow…
My Hamilton had long since departed, and The Mayfair was cash-only! This would simply not do. I had, kind reader, not yet reached my third drink.
I riffled my wallet for some errant bit of cash I had perhaps forgotten. And I found instead a talisman. Some fool had issued me a credit card!
And friends, though the summers be tight, we are not animals. And though the bankers charge the usurious rates of a loan shark on cash advances, a banker will never ever break your thumb.
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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.