A number of years ago, after spending a little over a decade working with homeless, mentally ill adults, emancipated juveniles and the developmentally disabled, I felt I needed a break. I needed to do something else for a while, something that didn’t seem to have so much responsibility, more carefree. I was feeling burnt out, dissatisfied with the quality of work I was doing yet seemingly unable to improve.
So, I did what anybody would do in those circumstances: saved some money, created a false work history and got a friend back home to vouch for said history, read a couple of bartending guides and moved to New Orleans.
After a month or so, I got a gig in a locals bar in the French Quarter a couple of blocks from my apartment, and soon found myself working the midnight to seven shift, praying every time someone ordered a drink it would be a drink I knew how to make. The woman who trained me, though she never admitted it, knew I didn’t have a clue and I was thankful for that as she quickly taught me the tricks needed. We became friends, initially because we were both from the same state and eventually because we shared common histories.
She passed away three and a half years ago, a year and a half after the flood.
And I still think about her.
I don’t make a lot of friends. I’m kinda antisocial, but she was a friend and she was trusted, something else I don’t often do and I hold a lot of good memories from those days.
On Halloween night, the bar was full. We each took half the bar and were busily making drinks when the tell-tale sound of breaking glass sliced through the chatter. I looked up just in time to see my friend, all 5’7″ 105 pounds of her vault the bar’s wooden surface and still holding a liquor bottle in her hand, race through the people towards the door.
“I saw you throw that bottle,” she shouted, pushing the much taller, much larger and rather startled looking gentleman towards the wall with one arm. She held the liquor bottle menacingly over her head, ready to swing, “Get the fuck out of here!”
Reflexively, I paused in my work while my hand reached below the bar counter for the baseball bat. She cursed, shoving him again and soon the guy backed sheepishly out the door. Grinning now, I watched her make her way back through the crowd and behind the bar again, she muttered the word “asshole” before throwing me a smile.
Another night while working, she came in with her husband, both of them pretty lit up after a good long night. She had the sleepy eyes and pixie smile she always had after a night out and the two would routinely stop in to say hello before heading home. I was pouring them drinks and talking when some less than respectable gentleman walked in complaining loudly about people who weren’t white. She glanced over, same smile on her face and suggested the gentleman “take it elsewhere.” Well, he didn’t take too kindly to her comment and as I again reached below for the bat, she laughed at his insults and then spun round, kicking him in the chest, knocking him to the floor.
It really was an impressive maneuver and I couldn’t help it, I cracked up, especially when immediately after she looked up into the video camera that was wired to the bar owner’s home and mouthed “I’m sorry,” before ordering another drink.
No way she was going to get in trouble though, the owners liked her as much as most people. On occasion I would see one of them talking to her in serious tones, but it always took on more of a stern, adoring fatherly voice than anything of real reprimand.
A year and a half after the city flooded, I was back in New Orleans for the first time since Katrina. I had talked to her the previous month and told her I would be in town. We were looking forward to sharing a drink at the bar she had bought and opened up two years previous and when I arrived, I saw her husband inside. I asked where she was, whether she was coming out tonight. He looked at me, stunned, and then realizing I didn’t know took me outside where he told me the story of her seizure, of the ambulance not arriving in time, of her current state in the hospital, of the discussions on removing life support.
Over the weekend details emerged as to the previous year and a half of her life, of too many nights out trying to escape too many memories of the flood, of interventions, successes and failures.
That weekend, I saw a number of people I knew and I saw evidence of a lot of little habits grown large, something as a social worker I should have realized, but over a thousand miles away, didn’t. A lot of the time that weekend, I didn’t know what to think.
All I know is it took the flood a year and a half to take away a good friend.
I’ve never met anyone like her, probably never will again, and I miss her.
Have a nice day.