New Orleans is a city with a culture all its own, and its name is synonymous with partying, which I learned how to do at a very early age.
My great aunt on my father’s side of the family, Aunt Joyce, owned a hole-in-the wall bar years ago, and my father would take me there with him when it was his turn to have the kids for the weekend. The bar had a name, but because it was so long ago, I can’t remember what the name of it was. What I do remember is that it had something to do with Hawaii. It may have been the Hawaiian Lounge, or the Hawaiian Island, or something like that. It was on a dead-end street that extended well into the woods, and it looked like a shack that probably would have been condemned if it wasn’t in such an isolated area. But at the time I was only in the first or second grade, so I didn’t see it that way. To me it was just Aunt Joyce’s place, and I loved going there.
The inside of the bar was always dim, cigarette smoke hung suspended in mid air, and soul music blared from the jukebox. Aunt Joyce must have had every type of alcohol ever known to man behind the counter, and she also had snacks for sale. The walls had dozens of posters for cigarette and beer ads which featured women in bikinis, and above the cash register there was a wooden sign with a picture of a donkey on it that read “we give credit right up the A-$”. As soon as my father and I would enter the bar, everyone would stop, look at us, and welcome us with a smile and a “Heeeeey! How y’all doin?!”, with their thick New Orleans accents. Most of the patrons were black men and women who looked to be thirty or older. All of them were poor folks who lived in the hood, and my guess is that a trip to the bar was probably the highlight of their week. They usually had really bad fashion choices, bad hairstyles, and really bad breath from all the liquor and cigarettes they consumed throughout the course of the night. Occasionally some of them would hug me and ask with their faces just inches away from mine, “Hey lil mama, how you dern? You remember me?” I’d force myself to smile, and nod yes while at the same time trying to hold my breath.
My father and I had an understanding that I was to either go play at the pool table or find a table to sit at because according to him, it was inappropriate for a girl my age to be seated at the bar where all the grown people were drinking and talking. (I know right? Like me being in there at all was appropriate.) So I’d usually sit at a table and watch people. Children tend to be the masters of ear hustling, so like any other kid I would eavesdrop on the grown folks’ conversations; which unless they were talking loudly, was kind of hard to do with the jukebox on. In the process, I learned how to figure out what and who people were talking about by watching their mouths and body language.
After my father would have a few drinks either he or my aunt would give me quarters so I could play on the jukebox, which was my favorite thing to do at the bar. I knew the words to almost all of the songs, and I loved to dance and sing along with the records. I’d make my selections in the jukebox and proceed to get down to the tunes of Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green. I was a little party animal; live entertainment for the customers at the bar, and quite frankly, I used to love the attention. The patrons seemed to think it was so cute to see a little girl dancing to the same songs they liked to listen to, and they were always so encouraging. I’d dance my little heart out while my drunken elders cheered me on “Gone baby! That girl sho’ can dance!” and the popular saying “Ayyy nah!” which in New Orleans, is the black equivalent of yelling “Woo!” After I got tired of dancing, I would return to my table for a break and something to eat. There, my dad would give me free snacks courtesy of my Aunt Joyce. I’d have dill pickles, salty potato chips, chocolate candy bars, and my personal favorite at the time- pickled pig lips, with a canned soda to wash it all down.
It’s amazing how differently you see things when you’re a kid. Back then, it never even occurred to me that it was wrong for my father to have me hanging out in a place like that. I mean sitting in a smoke-filled bar with a bunch of intoxicated adults, filling up on unhealthy snacks, and worst of all driving us home after he'd been drinking. These days that would be considered child abuse. But they say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I guess in my case the saying should be what doesn't kill you makes you a Nola girl with one heck of a story to tell.