Civilisation apéritif

Join the author for a toddy in a place where politeness has not gone out of style

“... I don’t want you, but I need you...” 

The tune is tinnily projected into the room from archaic, ceiling-mounted jukebox speakers.  Which are wired loosely to an even older tube radio.  The lyrics bounce off the black-and-white-tiled floor to rattle the frosted glass in the open double doors.  The music is turned up loud, and at least two voices are singing along.  I walk onto the Decatur street threshold of the joint, peer in, listen and look for a moment before entering.

“... you treat me wrong now, my love is strong now...”

Dollene is tending, Steve is managing, and I see that the resident bon vivant called Mad Dog is on his way to the loo.  My drink is placed on a napkin before I am halfway to my leaning spot at the long centuries-old cypress bar.   It is another fine Monday afternoon in New Orleans.  Happy Hour.  A time to stand and have a toddy with friends at Tujague’s.  Which is to say, to experience yet another tiny bit of the civilized life nurtured by the populace of this City.

Within moments of my arrival, a large woman in a stained chef’s apron enters the front door, walks up to stand next to me, and places two white bags on the counter in front of the bartender.

“Right, honey,” says Dollene, putting the bags on the beer cooler.  “Be right back,” and leaves the room, headed for the kitchen.  She reemerges a few moments later with her own large brown bag which she gives to the visitor with a smile.  “You gonna like it today.  Chef got some duck in.”

“Thanks, babe, I’m gonna play me a dollar or two on this machine ‘fore I head back to work,” says the lady in the apron.

“Enjoy yourself.  The one in the corner looks to me to be near a payout.  I watched two tourists from Minnesota put close to a hundred in just an hour ago.  Didn’t win a dime.”

“Thanks for the tip, babe.  I could use me some cab fare.  Double shift today.  Be too tired to be waitin’ aroun’ for the bus this evenin’.”  The rotund cook sidles up to the video poker machine, dramatically shoves a five-dollar-bill into the slot, and begins a feverish dance of banging buttons and cursing fate.

“Who’s that?” I discreetly ask Dollene.

“Miz Lou,” she answers.  “Works across the street at the praline shop.  We do a trade every few days.  She brings me’n the cook a bag a’ candy, which we share with customers and the waiters, and we send her back some gumbo and French bread for her ’n her pastry chef.  Works out great.  Lemme see what she brought today.”  She opened one of the bags.  “Looks like Heavenly Hash and chocolate caramel turtles.  Gotta love it.  You want one?”

“No thanks.  Going out to dinner at that fancy new restaurant on Frenchmen street tonight.  Don’t want to spoil it.”

“Okay by me.  Oh, looky here,” nodding her head back to the door.  She has already filled a large plastic go-cup with water by the time I turn to look.  In New Orleans you can carry drinks to and from bars in go-cups.  Plastic, so you don’t fall down drunk and cut yourself on a glass bottle.

A woman in a jogging outfit holds a young Irish setter by the leash at the doorway.  A shaved tummy testifies to the fact that she’s – the pup – just been to the vet’s for population control purposes.  Dollene hands over the cup of water to the jogger, who offers it to the dog, who begins gratefully lapping.  She empties the cup in less than a minute.

There is a wave of the hand, another back from Dollene and the runner & dog are gone. Not a word has been spoken.

“Nice pup,” I said.

Millie, an affluent French Quarter property owner who “retired” about a month ago from running a shop in a building she owns in the next block, enters with a well-groomed gentleman of advanced years and comes to stand at elbow of the bar across from me, loudly involved in a conversation about beans and chili.  Their cocktails are also set in front of them without an order.  Seven-and-seven with a water back for Millie, and a large Bass Ale draft for the gent.  Who is speaking.

“... so she says to me ‘Well why don’t you just make two batches of chili, and make one without the beans?’  I mean, the woman must be out of her mind.  I know it’s a wedding reception, but I am doing her this huge favor, making her six quarts of my own secret chili recipe, which has taken me years to perfect, and once won the Sacramento State Fair Chili Prize.  If she thinks beans are gauche for a society wedding, she can just get somebody else to feed her fancy-pants guests.

“I’m not just opening a can of some simulated chili-like food here.  It takes me a half day to shop for all the ingredients, which costs me close to fifty bucks, especially when I go all the way to the West Bank to get the right grind of meat, which is the only way I’ll do it.  Then it takes me another day to make the stuff, and I’ve got to refrigerate the big batch all in one pot overnight to let the spices rest, of course, and so the flavors can come out.  And I’ve got to bring it over there to the reception hall at the Monteleone Hotel all by myself, with my own cast-iron chafing dishes.  Heavy as hell.  But that cheap aluminum or even good silver just won’t do – you’ve got to have chili in the right kind of metal or it gets bitter.  Plus you’ve got to re-heat it properly right before people walk in to be served.

“And she’s got the nerves to tell me ‘no beans’.  I only make chili with beans, girl, and that’s that.”

Millie’s companion inhales half the Bass and sets the glass back down on the bar, then looks across at me.  “You know how many pinto beans there are in a cup, son?”

I admit I do not.

“Three hundred and eleven.  That’s how many.  I was marinating meat one day and got bored to death waiting for it to be done, so I sat down and counted them out.  Three hundred and eleven dried number one pinto beans in a cup.”

“I’ll remember that,” I tell him, though I am not quite sure how I will use the information.

“Make it with the beans,” says Millie, who has finished her first drink and is handing her glass to Dollene for a refill.  “Now tell me about that oyster bordelaise you made by my house Sunday.  Where you get them sweet sweet erstas?”  For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the “Yat” dialect of New Orleans, an “ersta” is an “oyster”.

The conversation turns from me and becomes less emphatic, though I do hear the name of my own favorite oyster house, P&J, mentioned with reverence.

“Mister Ted, he likes to cook for folks.  Millie she likes having folks for dinner. Between ‘em they feed half the neighborhood Sunday nights,” Dollene says, pointing to the gent by way of explanation.  “By the way, you want the beans?”

“What?”  I am a bit confused: am I going to get the legendary 311?

“Monday night.  Steve gives all the bar customers free red beans and rice on Monday night.”  Steve is the owner/manager of Tujague’s.

“Oh, I thought...”

“Red beans.  Monday night.  Been a tradition for how many years?  And you don’t remember?”

“No, thanks, Dollene.  Going to Frenchmen street, remember?  Later.  Got to keep an appetite.”

“Right.  Good batch tonight though.”

“I’m sure.”

And indeed they do look good.  Forty-year patron Mad Dog Salvatano has returned from his extended journey to the loo by way of the kitchen, and there received the first plate of the day. Even for a free meal, Tujague’s still does food up right.  The beans are mounded on a large steak plate over a bed of steaming white rice, a link of hot sausage nestled alongside, aromatic fresh parsley sprinkled on top.  A second plate holds hot French bread and chilled butter.  Free bar diners are issued the same linen and silverware as sit-down paying patrons.

“Looks great,” I tell her.

“Good food, but sometimes not a great night to eat it,” says Dollene.  “Some of those northerners who been buyin’ condos an’ now’re stayin’ in the Quarters, they hang over at Touché in the Royal Orleans Hotel normally, but now they got word of what we do, an’ they come by here for the free stuff on Monday an’ they just ain’t the best kinda crowd.  At least not to the waiters and me.  Not nice.  They got money, ya know, and hell, they’re gettin’ fed for free, but they treat workin’ people like dirt.  Probably ain’t their fault, ‘cause that’s how rough regular folks treat them back up North.  But it still irks me.  Eat for an hour for free, buy maybe one beer, and leave me fifty cents for bringing it to ‘em and cleanin’ up after.  Ain’t respectful.”

“I know what you mean,” I tell her.  “One of the things I’ve always loved about the South is that being polite has never gone out of style.  I absolutely hate it when people don’t behave with at least a touch of civility.  Though I know a number of enlightened females – intelligent, worthwhile gentlewomen – who still bristle when I open doors for them.

“You do, of course,” I continue, on a roll, “remember the old conundrum about why genteel Southern ladies forgo the pleasures of group sex?”

“No, I don’t know about that,” she says apprehensively.  “Why don’t polite Southern ladies like group sex?”

“Because they just can’t take the time to write that many thank-you notes.”

There is a pause.  For genteel reflection.  A nod of understanding.

“A-HAH!  You!”  Dollene yells suddenly.  She is pointing to the door behind me again.

A short young man with a very pleasant expression and a large silver platter held over his head has entered the restaurant.  He lowers the platter onto the bar.  It is covered with individually wrapped slices of cakes and pies, and a few foil-wrapped packets.  It is in fact, The Cake Man, who bakes half a dozen cakes, pies and confections every day, then walks from bar to bar selling his wares by the slice.  Word is that he quit a high-powered banking job to do this, the job that he wanted.  For that he is much admired.

“Gimme a ‘Cup a’ Gold’,” says Dollene, offering the man a dollar.

He hands over a small foil pouch, and Dollene passes it to me.  “This is for you,” she says.  Your breakfast tomorrow morning.  He makes ‘em.  And they’re damned good. Loaded with vitamins.  Eat one every morning before I run.”

“But...”

“Breakfast.  You’ll eat it.”

“Yes, maam.”

When I leave half an hour later, I discover upon counting my change that, as is the custom for regulars, I was given my first drink free, and was charged for my second as a single.  Both drinks were in fact doubles.  I had been offered a meal, and dessert, and given my breakfast. All gratis.

Plus I was given another magic number.  311. 

Pinto beans in a cup.  Of course. 

... you really got a hold on me...

 

About the author

Jim Gabour is a film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. His New Orleans novel Unimportant People is available via Kindle.