paying attention

Cafe Lafitte in Exile on Bourbon Street in New Orleans

“A man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.” – Muhammad Ali

 Cafe Lafitte in Exile's overstuffed Bloody Mary
Cafe Lafitte in Exile’s overstuffed Bloody Mary

Sitting in Cafe Lafitte’s in Exile on a recent March morning, enjoying the best Bloody Mary in that foodie town, I wasn’t thinking about Ali. I was talking to Harvey, the guy on the next stool. But the words of The Greatest were appropriate.

Two years prior, Suzy and I had stumbled into Lafitte’s asking for directions to a voodoo shop. A drunk proclaimed their Bloody Mary to be the “best in the whole world.” We tried a couple and were impressed. So impressed we conducted an impromptu test at other better known French Quarter places – Old Absinthe House, Galatoire’s, and Royal Sonesta come to mind. We now stop by anytime we visit New Orleans.

My previous visit to this same bar happened in 1989. The mother of my children and her sister needed restroom facilities. We were further down Bourbon than usual but did notice a bar nearby. The place was named Cafe Lafitte’s in Exile and yes they did have a ladies room.

I waited patiently in the doorway while absorbing my surroundings. We were between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the prime football playoff season, yet all the televisions were tuned to the same music loop; nary a sports station was being broadcast in this place.

The music onscreen was of the show tune variety, and gyrating men danced to the infectious beat. As my heart beat quickened, I realized my wife and her sister were the only females in the place.

Stumbling into a gay bar in 1989 was a traumatic experience for a Baptist born boy from West Alabama who had spent almost four decades with his head buried in the sand. I thought I was progressive because I had coffee breaks with black guys at work and trained women to climb telephone poles. But this was different.

I recoiled in horror and stepped outside the bar to wait. Sweating and shaky, I hoped I could survive until the ladies reappeared. What would I do if some same-sex Lothario actually propositioned me? How would I live with myself?

My current self is embarrassed by tales of such idiotic overreactions. And there have been many, involving everything from bouncing my head against bigoted behavior to being really stupid while considering myself the smartest guy in the room.

The story of Lafitte’s in Exile is filled with the same stuff. Once housed in the historically significant Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the bar was forced to move when Louisiana politicians discovered the oldest bar in the state with the best bar culture was a gay bar. Lafitte’s was forced to move up the street. Pretty ironic considering this is the City that Care Forgot.

Several regulars looked warily at three old people sitting comfortably in their private domain, perhaps awaiting the storm when we discovered the truth. Harvey offered no such vibe. He was friendly and talkative, exchanging pleasantries with an old man; just two members of the same race, the human race, enjoying each others’ company for a spell.

I watched my father adjust to life’s changes as he matured but also know people who still hold the same concrete principles they did when they needed assistance to buy Rebel Yell and carried a condom in their wallet.

I’m lucky I’ve been paying attention.

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Image: The feature photo of Cafe Lafitte in Exile on Bourbon Street in New Orleans was taken by Tony Webster (via flickr) and used under a Creative Commons license; the photo of their Bloody Mary is from the Cafe Lafitte in Exile website (promotional/fair use).
Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.