The late Melvin Springer retold the story of “that Heisman run night” many times outside Mary’s Tavern, that infamous bucket o’ blood on Magazine Street in the Irish Channel.
“Me and a coupl’a buddies had been in Mary’s all night drinkin’‚” Springer recalled often over beers. “When I stepped out into the night, there was a guy out there with what looked like a Lucky Dog cart. Only this guy was selling roasted chickens. LOCAL COLOR –Whole chickens! Hell, I’m starvin’‚ so I buy one and pay the guy with a $100 bill. He gives me my change and I stuff it into my shirt pocket. All of a sudden this old broad runs by and grabs my change and hauls ass up Magazine Street toward Jackson Avenue. Well, I take off behind her holding my chicken like a football. Man, that was a Heisman Trophy run if ever there was one! Well, at Josephine and Magazine, I stopped, and in my best Joe Montana impersonation, I rear back and let the chicken fly … perfect spiral. It hits this old broad in the back of the head and she goes down like a ton of bricks and drops my change. She gets up and takes off. I walk up, pick up my change and my chicken and head back to Mary’s.”
In hearing the tale yet another time, O.J. Hooter just smiles and nods in agreement. He’s heard them all: John “Herky Jerky” Herkenheimer ‘going for a quick swim’ off the Adele Street wharf and coming ashore somewhere south of Port Sulphur seven hours later. Harold Nichols going stratospheric on his Harley 125 during an Evel Knievel flashback as he used a heat-buckled section of Tchoupitoulas Street as a ramp to soar some 30 feet into the air; Nichols landed, miraculously remained in one piece and ordered ‘drinks on the house.’ Ambrose J. Schumpert a.k.a. “Ding Ding the King of the hawkers” pulling his popcorn and caramel candy step van up to the curb in front of a house at Harmony and Annunciation and loading up on the furniture stacked curbside. “Man, the things people throw away,” Ding Ding said. “Well, you know what they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” Unbeknownst to the hawker, the family was moving and placing their belongings outside while they waited for a brother-in-law to show up with a rented U-Haul. Ding Ding spent three hours that afternoon in the company of Sixth District police officers explaining his “one man’s junk” philosophy. Joe Griner, “the strongest man alive” who spent his entire life on St. Mary Street with his mother and sister. Not to mention Mike Roccaforte, the avuncular ward-heeler who made and broke politicians with the wag of a finger from inside his glass enclosed office within his Half Moon hangout on Sophie B. Wright Place … and on it goes.
And when the book is written, it will read that while these long gone upstanding citizens have passed into memory to be recalled over a cold beer in Channel bars that no longer exist, it was O.J. Hooter, a 63-year-old Loyola University business graduate, who remained the lone holdout; the last memory and recorder of what used to be called “The Irish Channel.”
The battered old building housing Hooter’s used and antique furniture emporium on the corner of Magazine and St. Andrew streets has been the cornerstone of all that was somewhat civil in the Channel since 1961, when it opened with a young Hooter working with his dad in the afternoons while attending class at Loyola in the morning.
“When we first came here in ‘61 on a four block stretch along Magazine Street from St. Andrew to Jackson Avenue there were 13 bars,” Hooter says. “They were open 24-7. And there was always what was called a ‘paddy wagon’ parked next door at Mary’s on the weekend. When they loaded up one with the drunks and the fighters, they’d pull off to unload and another one would take its place. You had Mary’s, Acy’s Hoe Down, the Red Bird Inn, Caronna’s, the Fun House and Tiny’s over on St. Mary’s. Man, you had some joints around here. When the Cubans and Central Americans started coming in the early ‘70s they opened up a place down the street called ‘The Guantanamo Room.’ Talk about tough! When you went in, if you didn’t have a knife, they gave you one.
“All of this [the Irish Channel] was a special time and a special place,” Hooter says as he rolls his head like a king surveying his fiefdom. “It was a tough place to be sure, but it was a good kind of tough: hard-working people. Two guys go into a bar and they have a beef, they go outside and beat the hell out of each other, then go back inside and have a beer together.
“And it wasn’t all about drunks and bars. You had some good people living back there [the now gone St. Thomas Housing Project]. Families. Around here, you had a pharmacy on the next corner, Baehr’s Bakery, Woolworth’s right across the street. You had the Happy Hour Theater. When the neighborhood changed with all the Hispanics coming in, the Happy Hour changed to show all movies in Spanish. This building here, the one I’m in. it used to be an old H.G. Hill Store [supermarket]. Sadly, when people said ‘Irish Channel’ all they heard was drugs and violent crime. But that wasn’t the case at all. These were good, good people. They may have been rough, but they weren’t violent. Now, breaking the law … that’s another thing, but it was mostly small potatoes.”
Hooter goes on: “There was a furniture store across the street. The old man who had it kept an old Dodge truck parked out front. That truck never moved from that spot. I mean never! I figured the tires were going to dry rot. I could never understand how the old man could make a living if he never picked up or delivered furniture. And every Friday afternoon two cops went into the store, stayed about ten minutes then came out. Being a naive kid, it took me a while, but I finally figured it out: The old man ran the biggest book in the neighborhood right upstairs. Forget about furniture, that was a front. But that’s what I mean … nothing violent.”
A well-dressed woman from the Garden District strolls in off Magazine Street and wanders up and down the cluttered aisles, carefully studying the ornate and polished armoires and beveled mirrors that look to be fit for a French château. Just as quickly she runs her fingers over a veneered dressing table that looks like it left its better days in a dusty apartment somewhere nearby.
“Nice, very nice,” the woman mumbles to herself. Memories of her past, perhaps: cheap dressing table to classy armoire.
She engages in small talk with Hooter then rounds the corner on St. Andrew to her parked BMW.
“Now that!” Hooter says, “That’s one of the beautiful things about this business. People I met years ago, or sold something to them. They come in just to look around, just to chat. They’re more like friends than like customers.”
A disheveled man who looks like he is seeking asylum from the Gestapo hurries in and quickly gets lost in the labyrinth of furniture, pictures and odds and ends. In a moment he lets out a yell to nobody in particular: “Hey man! What the hell is this?” The guy is standing next to an old push lawn mower that is attached to a circa 1950s bicycle.
“Oh that,” Hooter says in a nonchalant ‘that-old-thing?’ tone. “That’s my Cajun lawnmower. You get on and peddle to cut your grass. Gets about one acre to the six-pack.”
The asylum seeker is not sure if he’s being had or not. He just walks out shaking his head.
It is late in the afternoon and Ory James Hooter has laughed hard and worked harder this day to rebuild his business; one that took a beating from Katrina like all of the other businesses along Magazine Street. He’s chillin’ just like he’s done for the past 45 years on this ever-changing corner. He’s survived ethnic population shifts, drug dealers, shopping malls in the ‘burbs, discount joints selling bargain basement furniture and a hundred other quantum changes that come with slug-like speed … but come nonetheless.
In a few hours Hooter will lock up the cavernous, battered building and head home to the farm in Waggaman that he and his wife rebuilt. He’ll reflect on the day and the people and the past 45 years, and perhaps he’ll say, “Man, I wouldn’t want to have been anyplace else.”
Indeed, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.