The Global Barfly’s Companion #22 by Todd Gray
Bar: The Spotted Cat Music Club
Location: 623 Frenchmen St, New Orleans, LA 70116
I had made up my mind to take my girlfriend to see the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio playing at the Spotted Cat. Walking away from Canal down Decatur towards Esplanade Avenue was once like crossing the River Styx to sojourn to the authentic side of New Orleans—Crescent City’s seedy, but soulful underworld. Four or five years ago making this trek, I wouldn’t have pivoted past senior citizens and Midwestern tourists. Frenchman Street, my destination, was still a secret, if not a badly kept one, reserved for locals and those in the know. But as is bound to happen, mouths blabber and Frenchmen Street with its bars and music and night-time, open-air art market has become another go-to for sightseers. Granted the scene hasn’t been commercialized the same as Bourbon, sanitized like the Quarter, and those out-of-towners that venture towards Frenchmen are a little braver for it (senior citizens & Midwestern tourists not excluded).
Under the awnings of the low-squat buildings that line Decatur, leaned against the brick and mortar, sat three young scalawags that greeted my girlfriend and me. Because my girlfriend had pinned a dollar bill to her chest they exclaimed—first the one, then the other, before the last shouted it too—“Happy Birthday! Do you want some acid?” Their appearance was disheveled, their facial expressions both askew and beatific, and they squinted at the night. “Happy birthday!” they shouted again like the words were the answer to a question. I’m mixing metaphors now, but I was reminded of the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice in Wonderland. They high-fived us. My girlfriend became concerned she had acid on her hand. Am I tripping? she asked.
At Esplanade more young people milled about in the median that separated the avenue’s traffic. They had a pitbull in tow and a cat on a leash. The feline was perched atop one young man’s shoulder. Some were shirtless, maybe several. Instead of Wonderland it was Neverland, because these boys—despite their age, they were just boys—they were dirty and ragged and stoned. “Happy birthday!” they said. A muscular boy wanted to party with us, wanted us to stay, and I told him we were going to Frenchmen Street and he could party with us there.
White lights strung above the Frenchmen Art Market shone in the empty lot beside the free-standing, two-story, cracker-box shaped club that was the Spotted Cat. Along with the aroma of beer, blue notes drifted out the open door and onto the street. A middle-aged man clad in a red, Wisconsin Badgers hoodie brazenly lit a bowl beside the thick plate glass window that looked inside at a crowd that threatened to swamp Washboard Chaz on a stage tucked away in the club’s left-most corner. No cover said a sign, only a one drink minimum per set. Above that, the club’s sign was a board painted black with cartoon letters in yellow and red: The Spotted Cat.
Inside the Spotted Cat, the club’s narrowness squeezes you into the mass of bodies that congregate here. Hanging on the wall to your right are paintings of musicians with guitars, Robert Johnson would-bes, done in the brightest part of the color spectrum: yellows, reds, purples.
To your immediate left, the stage is flush against the plate glass window overlooking the street. Moving further back you align yourself with the bar that occupies the left-side of the club. Like any good bar, a long horizontal mirror reflects the movements of both the bartenders and their patrons. A plethora of liquor bottles wait readied at the mirror’s base. Sitting at the bar you can see behind you into a small conclave, a little nook with an ATM, where more people stand and a few—moved by music—dance.
Positioned in the back, I get into a conversation with a man with a playing card in his hat band: the six of hearts. Watching Washboard Chaz play, he’s waiting patiently with a guitar case safely stowed behind him.
I ask him if he’s going on later and he says he’s hoping to play with his friend who’s in Washboard Chaz’s band. After that he plans to go out on the street to play some more. I ask him if there’s any significance to the playing card. He smiles, removes his hat, and takes the playing card from the band. He says he found the card on the ground in Portland just before leaving. He had since seen a tarot reader about his find and she had told him, “Six of hearts, six of cups, five fell down, one stood up, and that was you. You came to New Orleans.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, but the story brought him happiness, meant his good fortune, and I was happy for him. I got the bartender’s attention to order another drink.
The bartender, he’s busy but still I ask him what’s the drink of this place-what would he recommend for a night like this. Give me a minute he says and disappears for a good while. I think maybe I’ve pushed my own luck, there’s nothing magical in this—the man’s busy. Order a beer, I think. The bartender returns and puts a drink before me.
He says, “Usually we do a Catnip but you don’t look like a Catnip guy.” My drink is a Dark & Stormy: Mount Gay Rum & Goslings Ginger Beer. Magic it is, my favorite. At the Spotted Cat, they know your soul and parts of New Orleans, given the right night, when among the right company, with the right destination in mind, provides the experience of being a character in a fantastic novel, except you’re an adult, so the journey is even more exhilarating.
Todd Gray is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Southwestern American Literature, Hawai’i Review, Belt Magazine, and others. Sometimes he posts on twitter @todd_gray.