The Big Easy Lounge
by Jonathan Hiller, Aug 1, 2020
Sitting on a high stool at a table by the window overlooking a gray and wet tarmac, I made myself comfortable. I could have ordered my beer at the bar, but felt like being served at that spot. The bartender, perhaps a little older than me, gray mustache, shoulders slightly rounded, came around from behind the bar to take my order. He looked slightly out of place walking over; his profession was bartender, not waiter. I asked him about a particular drink I wanted. I watched as the big jets landed safely on the runway - there is nothing routine there - and noticed others pay attention when the wheels of the mighty machines hit the pavement.
The television over the bar was set to CNN. They were doing a story on singing politicians and were playing some old footage of former Attorney General Ashcroft in the Bush administration singing at some state function. He looked like a former cub scout who had fulfilled the promise of their program. His voice was not bad, and he sang with feeling, unashamedly. His career and faith were peaking about then; this just before his health started to fail. The bartender was half listening to the report, and then glancing up at the screen said, “Don’t quit your day job” as Ashcroft hit the crescendo. I'd anticipated a comment from him, and he did not disappoint. His job was to make everyone feel comfortable in an unassuming way. He was a pro. I was sure he hadn't caught that it was an old clip, and had no idea who Ashcroft was.
My cell phone rang and it was time to head out. I walked up to the bar to pay my tab. He said apologetically and sincerely, “The owner of bar wants $8 for the beer.”
I responded that everyone has a mortgage to pay.
Still in an apologetic tone, he said he wouldn’t see the money.
I handed him my credit card. While we waited for some computer far away to validate the transaction I said, “You seem really happy,” which he did – so rare these days you can't help but notice.
He looked me in the eye, but like he’d learned with a man you didn’t know, not with too much force, and said, “That’s because I drink beer every night.”
I smiled and could hear the murmur of laughter from others. Then he paused. His face and eyes became softer, letting me move closer to his inner world, and said, “It helps keep the bad thoughts away.”
The moment opened. I could not see what dark thoughts were circling him, but sensed it was true and am old enough now to know that keeping bad thoughts at bay is a real thing. Even if he said it for effect, I could tell he was moved by his own words and the impact they had on all present.
“The computer isn’t responding,” he muttered with mild frustration.
I offered up another card, and with just a touch of pomp authority said, “My credit is impeccable.”
He took that in, his head tilted. Looking at me, and addressing everyone, he responded incredulously, “How do you spell that?” - a stock response for when someone at the bar uses a 50-cent word. Again, soft laughter spread across the bar.
The second card finally takes and he prints the receipt. He places it in front of me, but it’s dark in the Big Easy Lounge and I cannot make out the print. Feeling playful from my beer buzz, I say, “I believe it says scholar and gentleman” to which the bartender responds, “More like scoundrel and scallywag”.
We both laugh, and I sign. He then says with feeling, “You’re welcome back anytime.”
Four days later, I return to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, heading for my terminal and back home. In the crowd, I see him walking in my direction at about one o’clock. Without breaking his stride, I drift slightly into his lane and lock his eyes and say, “impeccable.”
Without stopping, his face opens and he grabs my right shoulder and squeezes.