“Those who have not lived in New Orleans have missed an incredible, glorious, vital city–a place with an energy unlike anywhere else in the world, a majority-African American city where resistance to white supremacy has cultivated and supported a generous, subversive, and unique culture of vivid beauty.
― Jordan Flaherty
So this guy walks into a bar, you’ve heard the joke, right? Well, if you haven’t you sure are missing out on, what usually becomes, a bad witticism. This post is not about a bad joke but about what could have been a choice, with truly extreme consequences, that should not be in place in the United States after all these years. This is not a post about recruiting, sourcing, or social media; it’s much more than that. I am penning a #truestory of a night not to be forgotten in a parish outside of New Orleans in a bar that forged an understanding of what racism is and how a genre of music, with the understanding of genuine respect, can bring people together.
So for a little personal history, my Grandfather was from New Orleans before he and his father headed west to San Diego for better fortunes during the Depression. I remember, as a kid, sitting at his feet listening to the stories of his childhood growing up there. He told me of the jazz and the blues music that would fill the streets with passion while the people would dance and sing along. It was a magical place, transformed into a dance hall on the streets at night with people drinking libations, mingling together enjoying the music and food. It all sounded like Nirvana to me, even at the tender age of twelve. I would listen to the music he played on the record player; Robert Johnson (King of the Delta Blues), Lead Belly, B.B. King, Bessie Smith (The Empress of the Blues), Howlin’ Wolf, and of course, Muddy Waters (father of modern Chicago blues). Over time, it became a passion for me to go to music halls, of any kind, to hear and feel the music live and in person. I grew up in the Southwest, and I only had a few opportunities to get to see a genre that I grew up listening to on my Grandad’s old Victrola. When I got the first chance to go to New Orleans, I planned my trip, accordingly, to listen to the music live in a city that was part of my heritage.
Play That Funky Music White Boy
“And here’s to the blues, the real blues— where there’s a hint of hope in every cry of desperation.”
― David Mutti Clark
A friend of mine, Jimmy, was getting married, and we were doing a road trip from Phoenix to Connecticut where the wedding was being held. It was a Bachelor Party on wheels, and one of the destinations was going to be New Orleans. I looked forward to all that was packed into the City of Music and Home to Jazz and, of course, the Blues. The air was wet with perspiration, and you could smell the alcohol sweating out of the tourists walking around The Quarter, taking in the liquid hurricanes and feeling the music blasting from the bars. It was my first time in New Orleans, and this kid was going to take in every sight and sound he could.
It turned out that a lack of sufficient hydration, while causing that dehydration to increase with alcohol, is not something that an individual used to dry heat, gets used to on their first night in NOLA. Needless to say, my man was down, my pal Jimmy was miserable the next day after our debauchery in The Quarter, bar hopping and being invincible. So, the next night I was left to my own devices, alone to find my next adventure, and I had an appetite for something a little different than wandering The Quarter.
I wanted to hear the Blues, the real Blues, not the kind abridged for tourists but in a REAL Blues bar. You know, the kind in the movies, filled with smoke and bourbon, hope and despair, happiness and hopelessness. I wanted the local experience; I wanted to see my heroes or legends who would find that back alley bar to try out new music with the only people listening already gone in their minds and who use the music to anchor them here one more day because they are just barely holding on.
I caught a cab and asked the driver where the best Blues club was in the city, and I am not talking the French Quarter. I got the most charming, wry smile and chuckle. He asked, “What you want to do that for?mThat’s what the Quarters are all about, blues and jazz for the tourists.” I politely told him I was looking for the real Blues, not the faux stuff, but a place where the locals would go to unwind and listen to the music. He laughed a laugh that only could be best described as Geoffery Holder from the 7-up commercials of the early 80’s commercials. “I know just the place,” he said. I introduced myself to my new friend and he said, “Name’s Cornelius, my man.” Then he told me “When we get there, it will be best that I walk you in, you know, just in case.” I, in fact, did not know what this meant, but I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sounds good to me, let’s go!”
A Guy Walks into a Bar and…
“Black, white, Latino, gay, straight – if any one of them came across a bear in the woods, they’d all taste like chicken.”
― Jennifer Lane
We drove out of the city and, well, a little out of my comfort zone. We ended up in what could best be described as a shanty town-like building with yellow light coming through the makeshift windows and cracks in the aluminum siding that were meant for walls. Entering the bar, I was excited, there was a titillation I had not felt before in my life, a newness to the unknown, I guess. Then a sense of reality quickly set in, a slap in the face that so many minorities I am sure to have felt when going to a place that was not where they were used to. I was the only white person in the establishment, and being like an odd 80s teen angst movie from John Hughes, the eight or so patrons all turned and stared at me.
The whole bar was quiet as I sat down on the last stool at the bar, closest to the door, and asked Cornelius, who had just come in and sat one stool over from me what was going on. He said, “This ain’t exactly a white man’s bar, if you get my meaning” I, once again, had no idea what he was talking about, but I was about to find out.
Although Cornelius, was served right away the bartender only looked at me, with a stare and then flipped his bar towel over his shoulder and walked away. I asked Cornelius if this was this normal. He just reiterated his previous comment, then shrugged. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, the bartender came over and leaned in, putting his rather large arms down on the bar, then leaned in even further, slowly and with purpose, to look me directly in the eye and said, “I think you are in the wrong bar, you looks to be more of a quarters type of cat, you understand me?” I was, at this moment, and with the entire bar now staring at me yet again confused, then the epiphany set in. I was white, in the south, in a predominantly African-American area, and I was, in a sense, trespassing. Having never been in a situation like this and not entirely knowing what to do, Cornelius jumped into my defense saying, “Carl, the kid just wants to listen to music, man – he don’t want no trouble, I know, I brought him here.” “You should know better than to bring a white boy into this bar,” said the now obviously annoyed bartender. “They have their bars, we have our bars!”
The Moment That Changed it All
My entire life can be described in one sentence: it didn’t go as planned, and that’s ok.
– Rachel Wolchin
I was trembling and became reasonably concerned that this could escalate into a very unpleasant evening for me. Luckily, being from a family whose Grandfather sold liquor to bars and ran a few himself, I knew the industry pretty well – so I took a chance. I asked the bartender what was the most popular drink at the bar, “whiskey, of course! What’s wrong which you?” he asked. I pulled out a $50 bill and pushed it toward him and said with the strongest voice I could, “I would like to buy the bar a round then, and I would like a beer chaser with mine, please.” His eyes of steel resolve softened just a bit and he quietly said, “uhhh huhhh!” Cornelius turned slowly and stared at me with the same smile he had when he told me he was bringing me here. I think now he may have meant this trip as learning a lesson for me or possibly the patrons of that shanty bar; I suspect I’ll never know. Frankly, I don’t think I ever want to. The bartender poured a shot for everyone at the bar, even me, and put my change down next to my drink. I told him to keep it, in hopes of making him an ally for the moment. Just as a side note, that was all the money I had for the night, other than the emergency credit card, but it did not bother me, I figured I was done at this point, anyway.
One of the patrons, a regular I later found out, grabbed his glass and came down to where I was sitting and said, “I appreciate the drink an’ all my man, but I like to know who I am drinking with ‘fore I accept such an offering.” I told him of my appreciation of music, how the Blues spoke to me, how it made me feel, for the lack of better word, better. I spoke of how my Grandfather, being from New Orleans, grew up on the music and let me listen to the songs in the background while telling me stories of where the music came from. The greatest seat in the world is at the feet of your elders, and, yep, it always will be and as it should be.
I spoke that I honestly had no idea what I had done to cause the level of angst that was occurring and said, “As soon as I’m done with this shot and beer I’ll be on my way. I meant no disrespect and didn’t want any trouble.” The stranger that had sat down said, “The hell you will! The men in this bar pay their way, paid more than most, and we all will be buying you shots now. Welcome to the bar, son, and thank you for being real, and honest.” Heads shook, glasses were slammed to the bar, and everyone laughed, backs were slapped, and the clear fact that my pants were still waterless was a total win for me. I was escorted to the other end of the bar as I was told the acoustics were better closer to the stage as there were actual concrete walls and egg cartons to hold the music from escaping out into the night. Pretty soon, they were going to be proven right.
A Guy Walks out of a Bar…
Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list. – Dennis Leary
The music and the whiskey flowed that night, and the power of the blues ran through our blood, , because that is what we are all are, human. That night, that very evening, I learned a lesson that, unfortunately, so many go through walking into a new place, any place, where there is a lack of representation of what their race exemplification is. This is sad folks, it is, and we, as humans, all should be ashamed of at this time, this moment, that we allow this in the world. Such a simple gesture of respect, from everyone, made for an unforgettable evening.
Say it out loud with me, WE ALL ARE HUMAN BEINGS!!!
Since that day, and everywhere I go, I take that night with me, not only to new places, but the places I frequent the most. I put out my hand to shake or open my arms to hug; I laugh a boisterous laugh to soften the fear of anyone of any race, creed, or religion to think that they are not wanted or in and unsafe place. You should try, it as well; it is a great feeling, and the people you learn from or the people you can teach spreads the virus of kindness and understanding. I have to tell you it is, now more than ever, needed.
I’ll leave you with this Dr. Kings speech, maybe you have read it, maybe you haven’t, but damn — it speaks the words, don’t it? This is ONE of my favorite passages:
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.”
Here is a link to the whole speech I would recommend taking a listen or reading: I Have a Dream – Martin Luther King
I wrote this piece a few weeks ago, after a conversation with a number of friends about relations in this country and I told them this very story. They told me I should write it down for my next post and in light of recent events, I have chosen to post this, hoping to help heal and let all of us know, we choose how we are with each other and we need to start making better choices. I have a dream, as well; I am not a very religious man, but I will say that I pray. I pray that we as a society, can, in my lifetime, hold hands and build each other up for the betterment of all, not just because of what we look like but because of who we are, and that is one race, the human race.