Working the Garter
The Red Garter was a coast-to-coast chain of banjo bars back in the 60s and 70s. They even had one in Florence, Italy. I worked the French Quarter Garter on the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter.
The ones we enjoyed throwing out the most were the loud-mouth karate guys. Wilcox, a street fighter down from the Bronx, would walk up to one of them and stand there with his hands dangling at his sides while the guy went through his gyrations. Then Wilcox would punch him in the Adam’s Apple and down he’d go. A couple of waiters would drag him through the swinging doors and toss him in the gutter. Wilcox had the fastest hands I ever saw.
The roughnecks in from the drilling rigs were a tough lot to handle. Even tougher were the off-shore divers. But the only guys we ever refused to tangle with was a hockey team down from Canada. We called the cops when they started busting up chairs and tables, and even the cops didn’t want to mess with them.
It was Mardi Gras and I was working the front bar. It was in the afternoon, and the place was packed wall-to-wall, the banjos and washboard and piano going at it full tilt.
Waiters shouldered their way through the crowd and either called out their orders in a loud voice or used hand signals we’d worked out. I’d just served up a big order and was scanning the floor and I see this guy five or six tables deep in the crowd bring a broken beer pitcher around in a wide sweep and take off half of another’s guy’s face who was sitting across from him. The guy fell to the floor like a sack of rocks.
No one except the people at the table noticed. The music kept blasting away and the crowd kept roaring and the guy who’d done the damage began working his way through the crowd, heading for the door.
I high-signed Tank who they’d brought in from Dallas to work the door for Mardi Gras. Tank wore a bright red orchestra jacket and a string tie over a grayed-out white shirt. His hair was orange and slicked back. He was shaped like a square and must have weighed 300 lbs. He and the guy trying to get the hell out of there came face to face right in front of the bar. Tank bent his right arm up at the elbow fist out and with a short jab like a jackhammer splattered the guy’s nose all over his face; he went down, and Tank went back to the door, adjusting his string tie with one hand and smoothing back his greasy hair with the other.
On Saturday nights they used to have beer guzzling contests. Three or four college guys would get up on the bandstand with a pitcher of beer each and go at it.
One night a fat sailor already so drunk his eyes were vacant got up there with the college kids. He drained his pitcher in one go and then went over face first onto a long table directly in front of the bandstand. The table shattered.
There were some lawyer types at the table with hot sexy ladies. They all jumped up, the ladies screaming with their hands over their ears and the lawyers brushing at their expensive suits that were splattered with beer and mixed drinks.
By the time me and two other waiters got there, the sailor was on his feet again. He ripped the blouse off one of the ladies and groped at her breasts. He moved like he was submerged in molasses.
He was incredibly strong. The other two waiters each grabbed and arm, and the sailor shook them off like flies, sent them crashing into the wreckage of the shattered table.
The bartender vaulted over the bar with a blackjack and brought it down on the back of the sailor’s head. The sailor turned slowly, lifted the bartender off his feet, and tossed him in with the waiters. Then he turned his attention to me.
I started talking. Anything that came into my head. I talked about being a kid and having bullies pick on me until one day I said fuck this and laid into the captain of the soccer team in the crowded hallway between classes and got expelled. The sailor got a vague smile on his face.
While this was going on, the waiters and the bartender crawled out of the wreckage. One of the waiters put his finger to his lips and then went down on his hands and knees behind the sailor. I kept right on talking, took a step in, and shoved. The sailor went over the waiter like an elephant falling off a cliff. The bartender and me and the other two waiters each got an arm or a leg, and with a lot of effort, managed to drag the sailor out into the street. Then we ran back inside and bolted the doors. The place had all but emptied out, and the band had stopped playing. The cops came, and it took six of them to get the sailor into the back of a squad car, beating on him with billy clubs the whole time.
The rest of the night the place was like a morgue. We closed early and went down to the Seven Seas to drink.
I was on the door. It was early and I hadn’t started barking people inside yet. I stood there smoking and watching the tourists stream by. In the street at the curb was a corndog stand, this thing shaped like a corndog with bicycle wheels on either side and a bar at one end to push it along. The top swung open, and inside were trays of steaming corndogs and hot dogs and sauerkraut.
A lanky guy in jeans and work boots who had bayou written all over him was walking up to place an order when this middle-aged tourist with short hair and glasses wearing penny loafers and a shirt with a button-down collar stepped in front of him. The lanky guy tapped him on the shoulder and said something, and the tourist turned his head and said something back and then turned away again.
He brought the thing out of a side pocket of his windbreaker–a curved blade welded to about three inches of metal rod with a perpendicular wood dowel on the end of it that served as a grip handle. The sort of tool a dock worker might use to cut twine or sink into certain types of cargo to move it easier. The corndog man saw it too, and he stepped way back.
Everything went into slow motion. The tourist turned, and he saw it. He began walking in rapid little steps around and around the corndog stand, the lanky guy loping along behind him until he caught up. He grabbed him by the hair, yanked his head back, and slit his throat from ear to ear.
The tourist didn’t even cry out, but blood was spurting out of his throat, and he went down. The lanky guy slipped the blade back into his pocket and faded into crowd.
I got off work and went down to an invite-only gig where the Jefferson Airplane was playing after doing a concert. I drank a bottle of tequila in about an hour and went a little crazy. I turned over I don’t know how many tables on my way to the door. When I came through the door I was yelling and a short nicely dressed guy said, “You want to fuck with me?”
“I’ll fuck with anyone!” I roared, and from all reports this guy brought the punch up from the sidewalk, busted my nose, and laid me out cold.
I came to in the emergency room at Charity Hospital, slumped in a chair against a wall in a long line of chairs with black guys in them who’d been shot or stabbed.
When they were done with me, I went down to the river and sat on the rocks, smoking and watching the sun come up.
We weren’t open for business yet but the swinging doors were tied back to air the place out. This guy came in, walked straight up to the piano player who was sitting on a stool with his back to the bar with a drink in his hand, pulled out a pistol and shot him point-blank in the chest.
The shot made a popping sound, not loud at all, and the piano player slumped back against the bar, gurgling. “Oh,” he kept saying. “Oh, oh, oh…”
There wasn’t much blood. Just a crimson spot on his shirt, small at first, but it kept getting bigger.
I got out of New Orleans. Moved to San Francisco. Worked the post office days and the Red Garter on Broadway nights.
The place next door to the Garter back then was a Go-Go bar frequented almost exclusively by Filipinos. One night while I was working the door three Latinos went in there around midnight. Pretty soon they came back out again with six Filipinos all over them. They had knives and broken bottles, and they slashed up those three Latinos good. Even after they were down on the pavement they didn’t stop. There was blood everywhere. I yelled in for the bartender to dial 9-1-1. You don’t step into something like that single-handed.
The Filipinos finally went back inside. A paddy wagon and two squad cars showed up. They tossed the three Latinos in the paddy wagon and drove off.
The next day I slept through my morning shift at the post office for the third time in a month. I put in a call to the manager at the New Orleans Garter. He offered to pay my plane fare down plus salary and a bonus to work Mardi Gras, which was a week off.
I flew out that afternoon.