Café Beignet: Day Shift

Café Beignet on Rue Bourbon right on stripper row about three blocks from Rue Canal in the Vieux Carré. It’s memorial-day weekend, a time when travelers from around the world find time to dip down to New Orleans before the oppressive summer heat takes hold of the “northern most Caribbean city” only thirty degrees above the equator. At 9:00am the old French-and Spanish-style courtyard called “Musical Legends Park” offers an inviting space for tourists as they begin their day amidst the statutes of great music heroes of New Orleans, and the smell of Cajun breakfast cooking in the kitchen fills the air. The musicians Steamboat Willie and Friends prepare to play Jazz, Dixieland, and Ragtime for their first set much to the delight of a courtyard full of eager tourists thirsty for New Orleans tunes and specialty cocktails.

As the line for beignets and Cajun eggs and hash browns builds, I open the wooden shutters that all but completely hide the enclosed bar in the courtyard, preparing the bar for what promises to be a busy day of getting tourists drunk. Prior to opening the shutters, standing inside the bar is like being in one of those big appliance boxes kids use to play in, except this box has a fully stocked bar loaded with alcohol. Many things must be done before the bar opens: the ice compartment needs filling, the day’s fruit prepared, the daiquiri machines and hurricane container checked and filled, the napkins and plastic cups stocked, the $1000 dollar register money counted, and so on. Perhaps the most important thing is to check where everything is placed, especially the most essential bartending tools and drink ingredients. Since each bartender organizes the bar differently, placing well drinks, lemon mix, sweet and sour mix, simple syrup, shakers and bitters, fruits and juices in their own preferred and seemingly random locations, it’s tricky to locate everything. It’s a treasure hunting game and treating it as such saves the experience from becoming an otherwise aggravating endeavor.

Prior to doing anything with preparation, opening the shutters is the first fateful step towards opening the bar. The safe and comfortable feeling of the “bar box” suddenly transforms as an unpleasant sort of visual terrorism pops in view; the morning’s first tourist. It’s a fat and thirsty tourist with a big loony smile and a corpulent face protruding into the bar at the sight of the very first shutter’s opening. In a loud and unmodulated voice, and with red-as-a-boiled-crawfish face, he asks rhetorically, “You’re open right? I’ll take four Bloody Marys.” “I’m on it,” I reply, running to fetch a bucket of ice to make the day’s first drinks. After ducking and diving through throngs of tourists to retrieve the ice and dispense it into the ice containment refrigerator, more tourists queue up apparently all with a similar thirst. First, I prepare the four Bloody Marys. In order: Place four cups on the bar, fill each with ice, two shakes of celery salt, two dashes of Worcestershire sauce, the house-made “Bloody Mary Magic Juice,” and the house-made bloody mary mix complete with spicy tomato juice and well vodka, two olives and two pickled string beans plopped into a cup. “That’s thirty-two dollars please,” and before the money is in my hand, more tourists arrive while still others shout their orders hoping to sit with their drinks in hand before the band plays its first song. They order the house Irish Coffee and a drink we call Café de Chile Orchata composed of rum, half and half cream, cinnamon, vanilla extract, and New Orleans coffee with chicory. The orders keep coming, from Mardi Gras Mornings (Mardi Gras brand vodka, Kalua, and cream) to Tequila Sunrises. There’s no time to stock the bar for the shift; it’s slammed and the crowd begins to look like an unruly mob of monsters capable of eating the entire bar and sucking all the juice from it.

Three more tourists order drinks. Beer, that’s easy, as is the next order of the ten-dollar Southern Comfort Mango Daiquiri. Most domestic beers sell for six bucks; imports sell for seven though some of the local beers also sell for seven. Holy hell, somebody actually orders the Cinnamon Apple cocktail made with Fireball whiskey, Apple Pucker, and Pineapple juice. The New Orleans famous Hurricane, easy to pour and sweeter than sugar, sells for nine dollars. Now there’s a request for a sazerac, but where the hell did the Angostura bitters go? As the sweat drips from my face in the already steamy and humid day, the crowd stands around waiting for their turn to order; one can feel their impatience building. But where did the bitters go? After thirty intense seconds of frantic searching, I found it. The thirsty crowd grows increasingly thirsty. Shake, shake that sazerac and circle that lemon peel over the rim of the plastic cup. Perhaps serving sazeracs in plastic glasses will ensure my place in hell. “What’s that? Mojito? Coming up,” I say immediately wondering in what absurd place the mint leaves might be hiding. Inside the refrigerator, perhaps? No dice. Certainly not on the bar counter nor the counter where the bottles are stored. Drawers? No. Maybe they went back to the refrigerator? No luck. Dashing out the bar to ask a manager who knows nothing about bartending, I remember a walk-in cooler outside the bar. Viola! Mint leaves! Running back into the bar, it’s mint-leaf muddling time. Oh shit, where is the fucking muddler? It’s nowhere to be found. It’s like it had an argument with the rest of the bartending tools and left town. Maybe the refrigerator? No, oh there it is. Someone left the damn thing in the cooler between the whipped cream and lemons. Muddle, muddle and shake, shake does a mojito make. Grab the six bucks and press the number two button on the register four times before it allows you to ring in the order. Shove the money in the register and turn around only to immediately hear, “Bombay and tonic please, with a lime.” Make the drink, but wonder, should I stick my hands in the fruit and pluck a lime out to plop it in the drink just after handling money. Alcohol sterilizes, right? Damn straight, no one complains, curious thing.

Six boisterous post-fraternity-age blokes approach the bar, certain of their orders, while the women they are with sit at a table in the courtyard waiting for them to return with drinks. They order Margarita rocks, Bloody Mary, double Jack and coke with a lime, Pinot Grigios, Bud Light, Abita Amber, Seven and Seven, Tanqueray and tonic, and Abita Amber. I begin pouring the beers pretending not to notice the growing line while exerting a little too much energy trying to look cool and composed. The beers provide the time to devise a strategy for making the rest of the drinks, but only if I can remember the orders. I make one at a time and must have asked them to repeat their drink orders twice while taking what seems to be forever to make them.

Another customer asks for two beers while the manager asks, “You got everything?” to whom I reply, “Of course, got this,” clearly lying to both the manager and myself. The Bud Light pours smoothly into the pint-sized plastic cup until it taps out causing an explosion that ends up drenching my shirt. The tap needs changing and just as I turn around, I notice that the Strawberry Daiquiri machine red light is on indicating that it’s running low. I change the keg, pour two beers, and hand them to the man now watching the band play. Suddenly, there’s a brief break in the orders. Time to prepare for the next onslaught.

The crowd begins to slightly dissipate as the musicians take a brief break. The bar needs more of everything; napkins, fruits, plastic and Styrofoam cups, simple syrup, well drinks, and bar towels stocked and prepared for use. Running out of the bar requires ducking and diving between tourists in the courtyard and into the kitchen where frantic cooks and workers prepare orders and send them out to waiting customers. The sound of tough men cursing reverberates throughout the kitchen that carries the distinct blended smell of New Orleans beignets and jambalaya. Run, stop, and sidestep the sweaty short-line cook to make way, jump over a misplaced box, squeeze between the stairway and another cook to jump over steps leading to the towels and plastic cups. Outside, it’s the smell of coffee and chicory, the beignet’s powdered sugar taking flight as amateur tourists chomp down while breathing out, making the courtyard sticky sweet and seemingly foggy in the hot humid air.

While heading back to the bar, customers wait for me to take their orders. After pouring some beers, it’s time to make the Strawberry Daiquiri concoction that involves mixing 72 ounces of pre-made strawberry mix and 36 ounces of well Rum. This goes into the machine along with two big containers of Mississippi River-sourced tap water from the faucet. The Strawberry mix is loaded with high fructose corn syrup; it’s diabetes in a cup. The few moments between customers allow for tapping the Bud Light.

It takes a few moments to realize the exhaustive mental and physical labor that goes into frantically running around preparing drinks and stocking bars while also remembering a bombardment of orders from tourists eager to drink. As the shock wears off, I begin to ponder my life as a bartender on Rue Bourbon with a job that requires getting tourists drunk.

The Steamboat Willie Jazz Ensemble with clarinet, trombone, tuba, string, bass, piano and drum players, along with East St. Louis-born Larry “Steamboat Willie” Stoops leading on trumpet, prepares for another set in a now quiet courtyard where only the muffled sounds of tourists are heard mumbling through their mouthfuls of beignets. The courtyard faces directly on to Rue Bourbon where tourists can peak through a black gate with a corridor that allows open and inviting entry into the space.

Suddenly Steamboat Willie’s blow of the trumpet gives forth a resounding call, like Leviticus’s loud horn proclaiming jubilee throughout the land, but instead throughout Vieux Carré Land to tourists searching for a sense of cultural authenticity unlikely to be found here on Rue Bourbon. As the music fills the New Orleans night air, the tourists stop dead in their tracks, tilt their heads to the side, pay notice to the peculiar classic New Orleans rhythms, and begin an awkward and uncertain shuffling walk towards the music’s origin. They make their way to the black iron fence to hold on to it and stare blankly at the people making the sounds and begin to bump into one another to get closer to that sound; their bewildered facial expressions giving the impression that they have lost some sense of agency or free will.

They are zombies, not in that New Orleans or Haitian Vodou way but rather in that Hollywood absurd way of monster-like former humans that have seen better days mindlessly lurching forward in an attempt to sate their hunger for brains. Except it’s not brains but rather New Orleans Jazz and Dixieland with a bit of funk they are craving even if they are not fully understanding it. And while the musicians play their siren sounds, seduced tourists slowly gravitate to the siren call, unable to avoid its allure.

New Orleans is full of sirens. Just outside Café Beignet’s courtyard, nearly nude strippers prance around attracting tourists and businessmen like the sexy sirens of ancient Greece, luring their prey from turbulent Rue Bourbon to the seductive inner sanctum of the exotic houses of sex and sin. Just as Greek sirens of the Mediterranean enchanted sailors, perhaps all the city’s transplants and migrants hear the sounds of their own bayou sirens that drive them here from worlds afar. Even local residents, who have left this city long for it, lust this place, almost inevitably returning as if to a rejecting lover that loves you only for taking its rejection. Just who is this bayou siren and where in the humidity is she lurking?

If the musicians feel the power of sirens drawing “the walkers” of the Vieux Carré to its musical web, bartenders feel like prey to the zombie attack. One can almost hear the zombie moans, but with that Homer Simpson voice – “Beer” – sloppily and salaciously directed at the bartender’s soon to be consumed body.

Tourist zombies en masse take their positions, stumbling and dragging their overfed bodies to the bar, staring at the lousy drink specialties, and spewing out orders. The slamming begins once again with the beers and the daiquiris and the mojitos, mint juleps, sazeracs, simple mixed drinks, hurricanes so sweet they should be called “diabeticanes” or “diabetes in a Hurri,” as well as Bloody Marys, and Margaritas.

Some tourists not knowing much Spanish condescendingly speak to me in the language. Some folks – especially the western Europeans – refuse to tip while others give three or four dollars for every order. Some ask stupid questions like, “What do I want?” or “What’s good?” Others ask for directions to places, advice on where to eat or drink, places to stay, and ask, “Can I take these drinks to go?” Of course they can. This is New Orleans.

Once the attack ends, I take a deep breath only to realize the horrible spectacle before me: Sticky simple syrup coats the bar’s surface, mix bottles are out of place, chunks of fruit litter the bar, bottles of fruit juice as well as half and half – of course all without caps – scattered around while getting warm, shakers and muddlers displaced, spills of every variety covering nearly every surface of the bar, empty bottles strewn about the place, and dirty, and empty cans and containers, await to be dispatched to the now full garbage bin. It looks like Katrina passed through the bar.

While cleaning up, two smokers ask for ashtrays and miss it with each cigarette flick. A drunk man of fifty harasses the musicians with silly questions making them signal to me to cut him off. A woman flirts asking for an extra shot in her mimosa. A Japanese man accidently drops a thousand yen and gives it to me when I retrieve it for him.

The shift ends at 5:00pm; the bar needs to be prepared for the next shift. This involves restocking everything from napkins and plastic cups to simple syrup and fruit, filling the various drink machines, and cleaning just about everything, from the drainage holes on the ground to the entire bar area, including all the bartender tools and utensils. I count my tips to $150 dollars, plus $6 dollars an hour, but must pay the bar back thirty dollars for a missing credit card receipt.

There is a sense of shock after eight hours of being slammed at work as a bartender in New Orleans. After pouring so many drinks to drunken people, one wonders if self-medicating with alcohol is the best idea. But the alternative to drinking is to simply stare into the void; the ringing in the mind and body akin to the gong of a bell needing to be dulled. Unsure of how to handle coming down and the feeling of needing to do something, anything, to keep from staring into the void, buying a couple of drinks seems, at the time, the best option. After two or three beers, I feel better, not relaxed or comfortable in any way, just better somehow. Coming down from the draining buzz of work takes a couple of hours and a couple of drinks.

Commuting back from “wind down” drinking after work on a bicycle (most French Quarter workers ride their bikes or take the bad public transportation to work since parking is nearly impossible) lands me home late in the evening. Sitting on an air mattress in a room that serves as my bedroom that is actually someone’s kitchen leaves me with that numb unfeeling one gets from shit-work exhaustion and the accompanying drinking one does to relieve themselves of shit-work exhaustion.

I realize that not a single critical or intellectual thought happened today. Not a single creative idea traveled through my overworked-with-shit-work mind. There was no time for it. How did we as a society get to the point where selling one’s mind and body in exchange for a wage seem like a good idea? Why do we hold on to the ideological notion that “hard work” is masculine, as if, a “real man” works hard or a “real woman” finds liberation through the world of work? Workers in the service, hospitality, and tourism industry of the post-industrial urban economy become as vulnerable to transforming into the zombies as those they serve. Tip your bartenders well and all those who work the service industry; it keeps them from falling into the depths of poverty.

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