Love and death in the Saturn bar.
A convoy of tour buses rolled up from St. Bernard Parish, up through the Lower Ninth Ward, and over the St. Claude Avenue Bridge. If it didn’t visit the site outright, the convoy probably passed within blocks of the levee breach at the Industrial Canal, where during the storm, a barge came to rest on Jourdan Avenue near the concrete foundations of houses whose former lives were now mapped out in abject squares and rectangles. The nose of a yellow school bus was crushed beneath the barge, the tatters of everyday life embedded in the puzzle-patterned mud cracked around it: chairs, tables, toys, appliances, intact jars of baby food, air-conditioning units, abandoned wheelchairs and walkers. The destruction went on for mile after numbing mile, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
But the convoy had now crossed the Industrial Canal, going west toward downtown, and was edging along Bywater, a Ninth Ward neighborhood a few blocks from the Mississippi River. The Bywater had little flooding but was rocked by looting and fires and months of abandonment. Then, from their plush-seated, window-tinted vantage point, the passengers—politicians or engineers or disaster tourists—looked down at a corner bar with a few dozen people on the sidewalk and seemingly hundreds more packed into the bar’s midday murk. In the cool, late-January drizzle, the people gathered in loose groups on the corner seemed unclassifiable, nattily dressed retirees to tattoo-faced gutterpunks, and many of them cheered the buses as they passed, raised their beer bottles in defiant acknowledgement. The folks on the sidewalk knew what the buses had just witnessed on their tour, were aware of the incongruity of what they were seeing now at barely past noon: a party under the spent neon trimmings of an old corner bar amid hundreds of blocks of desolation, across the street from debris piles as tall as the partygoers.
It was January 28, 2006, and the city was wrecked. The gathering was a memorial celebration. O’Neil Broyard, who owned the Saturn Bar on the corner of Clouet Street and St. Claude Avenue for forty-five years, had died at the age of sixty-seven on December 22. He was a victim of a subset of post-Katrina fatalities—older residents who succumbed to the heartbreak, hardship, and fatigue of life in the new New Orleans, where even the most youthful and energetic residents were overwhelmed and working at a near breaking point. When, and if, older evacuees made it back to town, many of them found their houses, neighborhoods, and friends gone. For many of them, “starting over,” or even the possibility of another arduous evacuation, was more than daunting, it was the finishing blow. As one elderly gentleman said to a Times-Picayune reporter as he stood in his flood- and mold-ravaged living room seven months after the storm, “My future is behind me now.”
O’Neil didn’t evacuate before the storm, but stayed behind in the leaden August heat and fetid water with a shotgun, two toy poodles, a few cats, and the chickens he’d raised himself from hatchlings. He didn’t want anyone messing with his business and the properties he’d accumulated along St. Claude. In the days following the levee breaches, bars all over the Ninth Ward were being looted. My husband, son, and I live four blocks down from the Saturn Bar toward the river. We evacuated at the last minute, but our next-door neighbor, Craig, who, like O’Neil, didn’t leave at first either, said he knew it was time to go when he saw a man walking down Clouet carrying armloads of liquor bottles, dropping them in the street as he walked. Craig, a fastidious forensic pathologist who spent the day tidying up his garden as soon as the hurricane had passed, not realizing what was happening at the nearby Industrial Canal and what was happening all over town, kept an errant bottle of Dark Eyes Vodka as a souvenir. Another neighbor said the worst sound during the ordeal of the aftermath was the night howling of the dehydrated drunks in the water-deprived and electricity-dead Bywater. When my husband and I returned to our blasted and beaten neighborhood in early October, one of these drunks, a bedraggled and aging transvestite, staggered up to us as we unloaded the trunk of our car, a go-cup of beer in hand. “Welcome back.” After exchanging a few inquiries, he got to what he really wanted to relay. “You know, I stayed. I never went anywhere.” He stumbled and slurred this badge of honor. “But welcome back.” Over the next few months, we’d piece together what happened during those first few days and weeks, before O’Neil was taken away at gunpoint by the National Guard, which locked down the neighborhood with its Humvees and razor wire.
Life in New Orleans in the months following the storm was heavy and complicated. Layers of bureaucracy collapsed like the floors of an imploding building, one slamming against another: government, insurance, utilities, government, insurance, utilities, and you could feel the aftershocks reverberate throughout your being. On any given day, nearly every person you encountered, a cashier, waitress, co-worker, an old high-school buddy, had suffered catastrophic loss—homes or jobs or loved ones or all three. In the evenings, my husband and I would go over what we called the “Daily Calamity Report”—fresh news of disaster, who’d lost what, or was leaving town, what places we loved that had just burned down or were not salvageable, any recent political bungling or infuriating Army Corps of Engineers revelation. Though we lived in the lucky twenty percent of the city that hadn’t flooded, the “sliver by the river,” or if you lived farther uptown in the more affluent area, “the isle of denial,” the mingled sense of urgency and despair was still taking its toll, as was watching people you love evolve into strangers under the pressure.
All of this in a landscape of damaged or destroyed signs. Literally. Upon returning to New Orleans, one of the more disconcerting civic casualties was the lack of traffic signals and street signs, which was also liberating in an anarchical kind of way. Billboards, if still upright, became surrealist collages as years of advertising re-emerged in shredded layers. Almost all contemporary plastic signs were either gone or had had giant wind-fists busted through them. In some cases, the under-layer of old, suspended metal signs revealed their businesses’ original monikers (TINA’S CAFÉ on St. Claude was once again PALACE PRIDE HAMBURGERS, the sign replete with turrets) or blown-off siding uncovered the stoic, homely elegance of hundred-year-old signs painted right on buildings, like the huge DRINK REGAL BEER command that emerged down on a Chartres Street restaurant facing the levee. Hurricane as both destroyer and cultural archeologist.
Miraculously, the Saturn Bar’s iconic red and turquoise sign featuring the ringed, tilted planet with its swirling surface hung undamaged, one of the few things along St. Claude Avenue that was still intact when we returned. And beneath it we’d sometimes see O’Neil, sitting in front of the propped-open double doors taking a break from the clean-up, trying to catch a breeze and let in some light (as there was still no electricity on that side of the street), his two poodles skittering around the entrance. In the great mess that was everything, it was hard to tell if he was making any progress, but it was a relief to see him there, back from his forced exile.
Most of the times I laid eyes on O’Neil, he was behind the counter, underneath the flickering black-and-white television. He and a skulking cat were the only animated elements in the dense landscape of bottles, ephemera, keepsakes, fetishes, and trash that had piled up in front of the bar’s clouded, beveled mirror for decades. A former boxer, O’Neil’s tough countenance and heavy features were somewhat blurred from a lifetime of bar-owning. He kept his dark hair short and greased and his brown eyes were still bright and wary. He often wore guayaberas wilted from his decades-long battle with the Saturn’s air-conditioning system, one of his many projects whose fallout accumulated in tangled piles of machinery on the pool table and in the leopard-print booths. Though he had a reputation for sometimes being a little ornery, over the years he was unequivocally nice to me because I was polite, blonde, knew what I liked to drink, and never ordered anything fancy. But if you grilled him about the variety of beers or cigarettes he carried, paid with a twenty-dollar bill on a slow night, or if you ordered a labor-intensive shot (“the layers, they want the layers”), then there was a good chance he’d become surly or downright belligerent.
But he didn’t speak much, at least to me. The bar seemed to do the talking for him, both effusive and mysterious in its volume and range of material, open to all species of interpretation. For a long time, the bar was known for its eccentric decor (mummy suspended from the ceiling, neon-trimmed stuffed sea turtle, decades of Ninth Ward garage-sale finds) and for the wild, apocalyptic paintings of O’Neil’s friend Mike Frolich. But as O’Neil’s health suffered, even before the storm, the slag heaps and general mayhem of the place drove some patrons away and attracted others. Some, who only knew the place in its later incarnation, swore by the “authenticity” of its decrepit state. But to me that was akin to being intrigued by a barely comprehensible derelict at the end of a bar without acknowledging whatever detours brought him to that place, what vibrant life he may have lived before, or what fragment of that life was still active in some bright corner of his mind, shining an indirect light on the dimness and chaos.
Before his death, O’Neil willed the Saturn to his nephew on his brother’s side, Eric Broyard, who, along with most of his extended family, had lost everything down in St. Bernard Parish. At first, Eric just wanted to sell his uncle’s crazy Ninth Ward bar. Back in the ’70s, he and his family had fled that part of town for the burgeoning Parish, where folks were setting up to escape New Orleans’ various and growing urban ills. After all, Eric had some good offers and he was trying to get his flooring business back off the ground and take advantage of the building boom that was about to occur. But as they began the clean-up in the requisite hazmat suits and respirators, the Broyard family unearthed signs that maybe the Saturn was more than just an old dive, a big mess they’d been bequeathed. Hidden throughout the place were letters requesting bar paraphernalia, testimonials from all over the world about the Saturn’s significance to the letter-writer. At the moment, though, what they had was a bar filled with debris comparable to the ratio of the debris that filled the whole parish, the city.
When I first met Eric Broyard in January, he had the increasingly familiar look of a lot of people around town, the tired, uneasy attitude of a man who was faced with so much inconceivable loss that if he stopped moving, stopped working, he might just fall apart. When you passed by the bar, he was usually shoveling out the soggy wreckage or laying down vinyl floor tiles, and if he paused to speak to you his large body would retain a tense, restless posture. As Eric and his wife, son, daughter, nieces, nephews, and sisters began cleaning out the place in earnest, the neutral ground across the street from the bar filled up with refuse that they carted over in abandoned shopping carts and wheelbarrows. The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with debris removal, would clear the wide, once grassy neutral ground and within hours, more would emerge. This cycle was still happening nine months after the storm, stores disgorging themselves of their rotted contents and ruined fixtures onto the neutral ground along St. Claude Avenue. When people saw that Broyard was fixing up the bar, hauling out load after load of junk, people told him to stop, warned that he would ruin the character of the place, the primary draw of the bar. People started sifting through the piles, like the French gleaners, hoping for some treasure or memento. This mess was too huge and it seemed a physical impossibility that a two-room bar with an upstairs gallery could hold that much stuff. But among the picked-over slag piles, my sister found a set of twenty-odd highball glasses and a case of Saints football-helmet car-antenna ornaments. I myself scored a cut-glass fruit bowl, a promotional Sambuca ashtray, and a silk screen of an old AJ’s Produce advertisement from the ’60s, whose warehouse at the end of our street exploded and ignited a six-block-long wharf-fire that raged for days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
O’Neil’s memorial was just a few weeks into the Carnival season, which begins every year on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, and on the pool table, along with fried chicken and finger sandwiches, were enormous king cakes from Randazzo’s Camelia City Bakery. My sister Susan picked the piece of cake with the tiny plastic baby buried in it, which, of course, represents the discovery of the Baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men, and promptly handed it over to me, who was six months pregnant at the time. A few months earlier, when we were all still in exile, she’s the sister who had told me over a tenuous cellphone connection, “You know, I can totally believe that three-quarters of the city has been all but destroyed, but I still can’t believe you’re pregnant.” I was thirty-seven and had taken my time with the family-making enterprise, marrying the year before, inheriting a seven-year-old stepson, and then getting pregnant during the Mexican honeymoon we returned from a few weeks before having to evacuate. Though I couldn’t take part in the triumphant midday send-off for O’Neil as fully as I would have liked, with at least a few beers thrown back in the smoky clamor of the barroom, at least I had the symbolic contribution of my crowd-parting belly.
And the memorial did feel triumphant. Also raising their Budweisers to that passing convoy of buses were guys who used to box in the back room at the Saturn in the ’60s, when it housed a ring O’Neil made himself, the upstairs gallery rigged to hold twenty or thirty spectators. These tight, compact men, Jimmy, Tony, and Charles, neighborhood toughs back in the day, had fled the Ninth Ward with their families thirty years before, when crime and desegregation pushed too hard against their communities—mostly Italian, Irish, and German. Crescents of tank tops visible beneath their ironed shirts, gold crucifixes around their necks, and, in one case, dangling from an ear, with cinched alligator belts and a subdued swagger, they were once again hanging out on the same corner they did as teenagers, beneath the same SATURN BAR sign, looking expectantly up and down a decimated St. Claude Avenue. One gentleman had a Tony Montana cellphone case hitched to his belt, a recent symbol of the thug life that developed from the culture that had driven these guys out to the suburbs of St. Bernard Parish as young men.
The gathering was a palimpsest of the bar’s history, revealing itself with every person I’d bump into, all of its decades represented. Among the hundreds, there was also Kenny, the Times-Picayune illustrator who’d left his five-foot-tall Dixie-beer-can costume there one Mardi Gras in the early ’80s because it became too cumbersome, and consequently was assumed into the bar’s decor. And Jeff Treffinger, owner of the Truck Farm Recording Studios across the street, who twenty years ago was the delivery guy at the Uptown po-boy shop where I worked in high school. I had a big crush on him then, and now his high-school-aged daughter attends the school where I teach. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you un-Americanly stay put where you grew up. Life starts to fold back on you. And there were clownish gutterpunks with tattoos and shredded clothes self-consciously pinned back together, who thought they’d found their level in the disturbing decay of the bar, though in reality O’Neil disliked their lack of manners and proclivity to sneak booze into the bar and to hang out for hours on the purchase of a couple of Cokes. And aging hipsters, more Broyard family members and friends, more recording-studio owners, artists, neighbors, all gathered for the shared purpose of honoring O’Neil and his unwitting lifework: the Saturn Bar.
Though the bar’s walls are crowded with snapshots of parties, parties, parties, including many for the wrap of a Nicolas Cage movie from the mid-’90s (celebrities like Sean Penn, John Goodman, and Tommy Lee Jones were also drawn to its wacked glamour and obscurity), and once you could have spent evenings in the storied booths watching people come through the swinging doors and step into the transformative air of the Saturn, the place had never, ever seemed so alive. Though there were no movie stars, this gathering felt like a cinematic finale, filled with reunions and pronouncements and atmospheric import. No Uptown frat boys ordering shots of Jägermeister only to throw the glass against the wall, no tourists who’d read about it in Esquire or in an online travel magazine. It was the people who’d known and even loved O’Neil and his bar and who, for whatever reason, were still in New Orleans five months after the storm when hundreds of thousands couldn’t, or wouldn’t, come back.
Above all, there was the Broyard family. They had invited everyone they knew and had done some modest advertising, but had had no idea what to expect. They were earnestly shocked by the large turnout and Eric later said it gave them the confidence to make a go out of reopening the place, even with O’Neil being gone, even with the local economy in tatters. They rushed around in black SATURN BAR T-shirts, bussing tables, taking pictures, and serving drinks, ebullient and proud, embodying the vanishing New Orleans tradition of the generational family business. O’Neil himself was even there, back behind his bar. His ashes had been interred in a brass urn and placed by the cash register, where he is forever remembered by thousands and forever at one with his clutter.
The event was a small but concentrated triumph for the city’s past and maybe its future, so on that Saturday afternoon when the buses passed us by, loaded with these outsiders, come to check out our devastation, our progress and lack of it, our piles of debris and our pain, mile after mile of this complicated, colossal failure, we found ourselves speculating about the passengers’ speculation. Did they think we should be out gutting and rebuilding and cleaning, not drinking, in the middle of the afternoon in what appeared to be the only functioning business for miles? But, of course, it wasn’t really functioning. It was merely open. Liquor licenses had lapsed after the storm and the Broyards were giving the beer away. No commerce, just generosity and gratitude. And we weren’t just partying; this was a respite from the overwhelming work of reconstruction. During those few months immediately following the storm, when there was much concern about the city’s diminished population, any critical mass of people felt strangely victorious, a desperate grab at a handful of social fabric. This memorial was a loaded moment of many loaded moments in the new New Orleans, a place and time when everything you did carried meaning, getting a piece of mail, buying a cup of coffee, walking your kid to school. The stakes were high, and everyone seemed to be making big decisions all the time. So this was what it was to live inside of history. Your exhausted heart was always on the verge of something, breaking in despair or bursting with gratitude, and your soul stretched in ways that weren’t pleasant but that made you feel very alive.
The convoy of buses would continue along St. Claude Avenue, passing collapsed furniture stores, burned-out businesses, stolen (then abandoned) city buses, and rescue boats grounded when the water finally receded. Then they would roll back to their hotels downtown, the ones that were open and not filled with relief workers and journalists and FEMA recipients. But first they would pass the storefronts along Canal Street from Claiborne Avenue to the river, some closed and blank with plywood, some still broken open and glittering with shattered glass.