I never figured I would miss last call at Johnny White’s. One reason is because they never closed. The little dive at the corner of Bourbon and Orleans was notoriously, relentlessly and defiantly always open.
Without lights, AC, electricity or refrigeration, it even remained open for the duration and aftermath of Katrina. You never smelled a fouler saloon in your life during those days and nights, a fetid cocktail of B.O., warm beer, stale breath and desperation.
But it’s closed now, another entry on the Ain’t Dere No More ledger, a list that just keeps on going. It wasn’t the coronavirus that took it down. The owners said that hastened it, to be sure, but a sale of all four Johnny White properties in the Quarter has been in the works since last year. So last week they called it quits, shut down the taps, turned out the lights. It was a colorful run.
Back in our younger and more vulnerable years, me and my friends called it the Clubhouse. It was where, at any indecent hour of the weekend, one or all of us could be found drinking, smoking, arguing, sleeping, playing poker and staring at the TV screen in the corner – which played Johnny White’s homemade Mardi Gras balcony flasher video 24/7; available at the bar for purchase for the low, low price of $19.95.
Caution: Age verification is uncertain.
The poker games were legend. Just inside the Bourbon Street entrance at a raised table, a gang of motleys would assemble around 1 or 2 a.m. on weekends and shuffle and cut until long after the sun came up.
There was Beverly, the street artist; Mama, who sold roses that she carried in a basket to tourists and lovers on the street; Walt, the famous cartoonist; Coop, the infamous writer – the dapper antiques dealer, the cranky bartender, the angry waiter, the bookie, the stripper – all of whose names are lost to the haze of time and Jack Daniels.
My therapist once told that nothing good ever happens in a bar after 2 a.m. And the Clubhouse was as good an example as you could have. One night, a friend and colleague – who shall remain nameless since he is still trying to carve out a living as a respectable journalist – excused himself to retrieve a Lucky Dog from the vendor across the street. Deep into our cards – and cups – no one seemed to notice that he was gone for a long time, considering that the hot dog cart was about 40 feet from the door.
Finally, he comes back, sweaty, disheveled and slashed. Yes, slashed. Turns out the Lucky Dog guy tried to upsell him from a regular to a large. My friend, he doth protest. Words were exchanged. Heatedly. My friend pounded his fist on the cart while making an emphatic protestation. The Lucky Dog guy drew a knife and moved in.
Amazingly, my friend escaped the incident without personal injury. However, his brand new windbreaker was shredded. It was a pretty nice windbreaker. Worse still, he never even got his hot dog.
When we commiserated over this past weekend, he was still griping about that windbreaker, some 25 years later. But that’s how memories were made, brotherhoods sealed, legacies enshrined. After 2 a.m. at Johnny White’s.
Ruthie the Duck Lady used to hang out there most afternoons. That is, when she didn’t get 86’d on occasion for bumming too many cigarettes from the customers.
Ruthie in her tattered Victorian dresses, straw hat, corn cob pipe, flashing past on her roller skates – all 4’6” of her – trailed by her gaggle of waddling water pets, cussing at passersby, cursing fates and terrors that only she could see. Some folks said she slept at night beneath a stairwell. Others speculated that she was secretly a millionaire.
Ruthie, she ain’t here no more either. A kindly family gave her rent-free lodgings for the rest of eternity in their stone mausoleum.
And so the stories come and the stories go. Hustlers, hippies, suckers and drunks, gathered under neon lights, strangers in a crowd, spinning a million tales from the half-naked city.