My last night at the Abbey was my best night there, but the first night was a good one too.
The first night, I was in New Orleans with some friends on Spring Break my senior year of college, and we were wandering around the French Quarter getting drunk as college students will do in New Orleans when they are on Spring Break. We headed towards the river and grabbed some dinner, and then worked our way slowly up Decatur Street. The two story buildings on Decatur Street have balconies that extend over the warped and uneven sidewalks, and these balconies darken the streets more than usual, especially at dusk. By the standards of New Orleans, and especially by the standards of the French Quarter, there are relatively few bars on Decatur Street, so when we saw the small stained glass sign that read “The Abbey” and poked our heads in the darkened door and saw the bar, we headed in for a drink.
The constant presence of water, in floods and the high water table and also in humidity, makes New Orleans the city of uneven surfaces, and the Abbey is no exception. The floorboards are buckled and warped, and the bar seem to have an unusual tilt to it, though that may be due to the fact that intoxication seems to come quickly in the Abbey.
The Abbey is dark. You need to know that. If you spend any time in there during the day, your eyes are going to sting when you stumble outside if the sun is still up, and every time you walk in there, it takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust before you can make out the interior of the Abbey. There is always someone sitting in the corner that you did not know was there until you are midway through your second drink.
So we gathered around the bar and ordered our drinks. The bar was mostly locals, with the odd wandering tourist, and some other college age assholes like us. We drank our first round too fast, clearly pegging us as rookies, and ordered another. The locals gave us the once over twice, and pegged us for what we are, just another group of drunk ass college boys.
The first to arrive was the banjo player. He sat at the long low table by the jukebox with his drink in front of him and his banjo case propped on the bench next to him. He was followed by the trombonist, who carried his instrument without a case, and laid it on the table next to his drink. The banjo player and the trombonist chatted for awhile and were soon joined by the trumpeter and the tuba player. They all sat at the table, drinking their drinks, with no one touching their instruments. No one, other than the drunk ass college boys from the Northeast, seemed to find it odd that a group of guys are hanging out in a bar with musical instruments.
The banjo player took his banjo out of the case and spent a few minutes tuning it, before putting it aside. Another round was brought to the table, and the guys nursed their drinks and shot the shit with each other. Some of my friends were getting antsy to leave, while others wanted to see what was going to happen.
The trombonist picked up his instrument and played a few short notes, and then just held his trombone, while the other guys unpacked their instruments. The banjo was taken up again, the tuba player counted off, and a small dixieland jazz band sprung to life at the back table of the darkest bar in New Orleans. That has never happened in any bar that I have been to in New Jersey, or anyplace else for that matter, that is for sure.
I wish I could tell you what they played, but I was not well versed in traditional jazz back then, and while I know more now, I’d wager that I’d still be in the dark about most of the songs. I do remember a dixieland arrangement of “Every Breath You Take” which was a recent hit for the Police at the time, but nothing else. The banjo player sang on some of the songs, but most were instrumentals. He counted off the beginnings of most songs, while the tuba player stamped his feet to provide the rhythm section. We stayed for an hour or so, then drifted out to let some other people in the bar to listen. It is moments like that which make New Orleans one of my favorite cities anyplace in the world.
I have been to New Orleans many times over the years, and I always make my way over to the Abbey. Mr. JK has been there and took a photo of me that he dubs the “Humphrey Bogart” shot. We had been in New Orleans for several days, and as anyone who has been there knows, you are generally drunk within a half hour of your arrival, and stay that way until you leave. The photo was taken relatively early on Sunday afternoon, as we tried to drink our way out of a hangover. I am smoking a cigarette, one of the five cigarettes I have smoked in my life, and I look far too world weary for someone who was probably all of 25 years old at the time. Had any of my ex-girlfriends walked in the bar right then, I would have said “The Germans wore grey, you wore blue” and just walked out.
The last night I was in there was a few years ago. I was in New Orleans for I don’t know what reason. It was a random weekday night, well after midnight. I wanted a drink, so I headed to the Abbey. The usual mix of local regulars and somewhat lost tourists was in there. The bartender was younger than normal, probably in her early to mid twenties, wearing a vintage floral dress. She had that sultriness that you only see in American women when they come from the South. I ordered a bourbon on the rocks, and grabbed a seat at the corner of the bar. The regulars knew the bartender well, and an old guy at the opposite corner of the bar kept asking her to sing a song. She kept declining.
-Come on, Hon’, sing us a song
-No, no, not tonight
-Come on, just one song, then I’ll leave you be
This went on as I downed first one, then a second drink. As I ordered a third drink, he turned on the charm.
-Sing us a song, you sing so b’you-tee-full-lee.
-OK, OK, but I need to unzip the back of my dress so I can breathe properly.
She reached behind her back, undid the clasp at the top of her dress, and lowered the zipper halfway down. The dress visibly loosened. I was dimly aware of what was happening before, but now she had my full attention.
She started to sing a song. I don’t know what it was. It was slow and soulful and smokey. Her voice was not pitch perfect, and there were no vocal gymnastics, but it was sensual and womanly and you got the sense that every note and every bit of phrasing was pulled out of a deep well of experience, although she seemed too young for that to be possible. Maybe it was, or maybe she was just that good a singer that she fooled me. I looked around the bar and every single person, both men and women, were transfixed. She finished the song, zipped up her dress, and turned to the guy at the corner of the bar.
-Yeah, that was good, thanks.
I finished my drink, left her a huge tip, and walked back to my hotel.
I am still just a little bit in love with her.