I did not discover Neal’s Three J’s Lounge.*** JK and his friends, who were a few years older and drove before me, found it one night as they drove around Orange, trying to find their way back home after getting some White Castles. JK took me there one night when I was about fifteen or sixteen, saying, “You’ll love this place.” He was right. I kept going there until it closed down a few years later.
I was (and still am) a fair skinned Irish Catholic kid, and JK is about as caucasian as you can get. The section of Orange that Neal’s Three J’s was in was decidedly more ‘urban’ than the neighborhood where we grew up. I am certainly not going to claim that I was completely colorblind. I had my petty prejudices, but I was aware of them and tried to overcome them. I think that I did ok at that. After all, (CLICHE ALERT) I went to school with a bunch of black guys, and we got along fine together. However, my classmates and I were peers. We were on a level playing field, with our teachers and the SHP administration rigidly policing our behavior so that no shenanigans could occur. But when I walked into Neal’s for the first time, and the black guys sitting at the bar stopped talking to each other and turned to look at the two white kids who had just walked in, I admit that I was a little scared. Goofing around with my fellow students was one thing, but these were grown ass men, and there was no way I was going to bond with them by talking about who was cooler, Father Pavlich or Father Melillo, or whether Stanley was going to make it to the NFL.
I knew enough, or had enough foolish pride, to know that walking out was not an option, so we bellied up to the bar. Neal walked over to us and asked, “You guys have papers, right? ID?”
Dead silence along the bar.
I nodded my head yes and slowly reached into my pocket. (I had no such papers.)
Neal said, “No, no, I don’t need to see ‘em, as long as you got ‘em. What’ll it be?”
I have no idea what I ordered. For some reason, I remember JK ordering a Long Island Iced Tea. Neal gave us our drinks, we paid, and the bar patrons turned away from us and started talking to each other again. We stayed for a few drinks, and headed home, but we were back within a few weeks, and Neal’s became a regular haunt.
Most nights we would go down there for a few drinks and get some chopped BBQ for dinner. Neal’s BBQ was incendiary. It was some of the hottest food I have ever had, and bathroom trips the next day were never pleasant, but that was some tasty pork. I cannot say we became friendly with any of the regulars, they mostly ignored us, but I like to think Neal grew fond of us. He always greeted us warmly when we showed up. We never caused any trouble and we always spent a decent chunk of change in there.
The best nights at Neal’s Three J’s Lounge were when the band was playing. I do not recall what they called themselves, and may have never known, but every so often a half dozen blind guys would sit on a makeshift stage at the back of the bar, and play the most soulful music I have ever been lucky enough to witness live. They used to do “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” with “Sexual Healing” tucked into the middle, and it was absolutely fantastic. As far as live music experiences go, I put the Clash ahead of them, and maybe one or two others, but that unnamed band is right near the top.
I went to away college shortly thereafter, and whenever friends would visit me in New Jersey during summer break, I would take them down to Neal’s. Everyone I took there loved the place. Looking back on it, I recognize that we looked like tourists swanning in for a visit, and to a certain extent we were. Other than my friends, I never saw another white face in Neal’s. I had the good sense to take only certain friends there. Some of my more douchey acquaintances would not have appreciated it for it was: a cool place with cheap drinks, good food, and if you were lucky, great music.
Neal’s limped along for a few years. He was always talking about opening a smokehouse or expanding into the dry cleaning shop next door, but none of that ever happened. The bar closed sometime in the mid-nineties. I am not sure what, if anything, is there now.
***One night, one of us asked Neal what the “Three J’s” in the name stood for. He looked at us like we were the dumbest bastards in New Jersey for even asking because the answer was so frigging obvious. “Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yeah, Neal, what do the Three J’s stand for?”
“Jiving, Joking, and Ja-rinking.”
(This story may be somewhat apocryphal.)