Across the street and about a block down from The Avenue Pub is a twenty-four hour diner called The St. Charles Tavern. This is where I worked for the first six months or so after my return to New Orleans from New York, before moving to the Avenue Pub. It is, in every sense of the word, a dive. The food was ordinary, the bar sparsely stocked, and cleanliness, like most places in New Orleans, was not of paramount concern.
Nevertheless, for the locals it is one of the most beloved locations in the Lower Garden District, and deservedly so. The staff is eclectic and friendly and suffused with that affable variety of shiftlessness unique to New Orleans, and when you’re drunk in the middle of the night and need some chili cheese fries stat, there is really no better place to go.
I worked the graveyard shift when I was there. I’d get in at 11 pm and leave at 7 am. After work Ed and I would walk down the street a little ways to The Audubon, a scary, industrial-themed little bar with a grungy hotel overhead, where you could rent out rooms by the week (I spent a summer there; more on that some other time). All the kids who’d been riding high on X and acid all night would be draped over couches like Dali timepieces when we got there. We’d have a couple screwdrivers, get nice and toasted, and head home in the early morning sunlight to go to sleep.
New Orleans is the only city I’ve ever known that has a true twenty-four hour cycle. (NYC, the City That Never Sleeps? My ass.) We’d have a regular dead of night crowd. A lot of them were waiters or bartenders from other places; we got a ton of business from United Cab, which was located right around the corner; we got the strippers coming off their shifts in the deep morning, and cops, and prostitutes, and tweakers. Standard midnight crowd in New Orleans.
One of my favorites was this ancient black man named June. He was short, always impeccably dressed, and he wore a hat I’ve always heard called the Gatsby Golfer. He didn’t have any teeth, so he was sometimes difficult to understand, and when he spoke he articulated with his hands as though he were casting spells; he would sort of wave his fingers at you like anemones. I don’t think he had any idea he was doing it. So he’d come in pretty regularly, drink a few Scotches and milk at the bar, and head on home after a few. He was quiet and sweet, and he liked to talk to me and Ed. We liked it too.
We had another guy who came in for a little while. He was homeless, always broke. Old man. He’d come in and ask for coffee, and we always gave it to him even though he didn’t have any money. Normally he’d get it in a styrofoam cup, go to one of the tables and grab a sugar dispenser — one of those big glass ones that will last you through a busy dinner shift — and literally dump over half of its contents into the cup, until his coffee turned thick as river mud. Then he’d amble out into the street to attend to his mysterious obligations.
Except on the nights when he didn’t. Then he’d drink that sludge right there at a table and within three minutes he was talking and he would not shut up. Obviously this was the sugar at work. But he would keep up this steady monologue and he would not pause to take a breath. It was like Al Hirt playing “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Uncanny.
“You ever been to Los Angeles?” he would ask. No one troubled to answer because he didn’t really give a damn if you had or not. He had a warning to deliver. “You got to watch out if you go to Los Angeles because they got pterodactyls.”
Ed would cackle. Ed was the cheeriest guy I’ve ever known, and he adored this exchange. Every time. “WHAT?”
“Oh yeah man, big pterodactyls rip off your goddamned head.”
He would go on and on in this vein for quite some time. I heard it so many times that I came to believe him. I will never go to Los Angeles because I don’t want a pterodactyl to rip off my goddamned head.
Usually this guy came when the place was empty, or when the other people there were just as crazy, so I never worried about it bothering anybody. We would ask him to stop talking, but we might has well have been asking a bowl of cereal, for all the attention he paid us. We’d asked him to go, but he ignored us, and we never enforced it. I had kind of a reputation there as the guy who loved to throw people out — and oh, I deserved it, because I did love it so — but this guy was harmless. He just wanted to drink his coffee and help people out with some good advice about dinosaurs.
But one night June was there too. There might have been a few other people, I don’t know. So this guy got his coffee and pulled out a chair and prepared it the way he liked it. June was at the bar with his back to him. The guy sucked down some of the sludge and within moments he was off about the pterodactyls.
After a few minutes of this, June kind of looked over his shoulder at him. June was always stoic; the only way you’d know if he was feeling strongly about something is if he’d widen his eyes just a fraction when he was talking to you, or if his fingers reached a little closer to you when he was gesticulating. He looked at me and his eyelids lifted just a hair. I shrugged my shoulders.
Then he got off his bar stool and sat down at the table next to the man. The man got quiet. Understand me when I tell you that that had never happened before. I didn’t even think it was biologically possible. June leaned in and whispered something. The fingers of his right hand were waving like fronds under the sea.
The man seemed to think a moment. Then he got up, took his coffee cup, and left the building. In utter silence. We didn’t see him for a week afterwards.
Ed and I were agog.
“June!” I said, when he resumed his place at the bar. “I can’t believe it! What did you say to that guy?”
He inclined his head a little, his eyes fixed on his Scotch and milk, which he started to stir. “Oh, you know,” he said, “I just said a little something to him.” Then he looked at me, and the fingers of his right hand reached out, clasped, and drew back, like he was pulling something invisible out of me. “One of these days I might say a little something to you.”
I was genuinely unsettled. “Um, please don’t,” I said.
And that was that. A few months later I was snagged by the Avenue Pub, and shortly thereafter I convinced them to hire Ed, too. June came down to visit us once or twice, but The Avenue was not the Tavern. It just wasn’t his place. He went back to his old haunt.
After a while, we just stopped hearing about him.