Diary of a 24-Hour Dive Bar

What does a 24-hour bar look like at 7 a.m.? Sarah Baird pulls up a round-the-clock barstool at NOLA's Brothers III to experience the full lifecycle of nightlife's greatest cultural intersection—the dive bar.

brothers-jukebox

It’s 10 a.m., and Spider is sweeping cigarette butts from the floor with all the finesse of a waiter cleaning up crumbs between courses at Le Veau d’Or. A scruffy, waiflike man who bears a startling resemblances to the broom with which he’s sweeping, Spider hollers through the empty bar, spittle flying in the morning light, “They just throw ‘em on the floor—don’t care a thing for ‘ol Spider! No damn respect.”

The mid-morning sun is cracking through the front window of Brothers III, where I’m anchored at the bar spinning one of the perfectly clean ashtrays with my index finger. In a world so saturated with craft cocktails and drowning in mixologists, the dive bar has become, perhaps, the last true rara avis. And while I’ve spent many a long, rowdy night at Brothers III, I wondered: What does a dive bar like this look like when the sun’s rising? What does it look like at high-noon? And so my journey to capture the 24-hour life cycle of the bar began in earnest.

Located in New Orleans on a stretch of Magazine Street between a recently opened juice-cleanse bar and the future home of a hoity-toity taco shack, Brothers III is a living, breathing relic. The diminutive building—which is the color of a French’s mustard bottle and decorated year-round with multi-colored Christmas lights—is cavernous, with sunken ceilings that can be easily reached by those with average wingspans.

In its 47 years of existence, Brothers III has become the Swiss Army knife of bars, providing all the tools one might need to survive a night. Would you like to spend some alone time thumbing through a battered Tom Clancy novel? A small, dusty library is positioned by the bar entrance. Looking to hustle a game of pool for some quick cash? Saunter to the back and rack up the balls. Someone giving you trouble? J.L.—a silver-bearded, self-proclaimed “enforcer”—will toss them out before a brawl ensues.

It’s the dueling jukeboxes, though, that really stand out. The two music machines sit at opposite corners of the bar and, by some divine miracle of architecture or sound science, never seem to muddle each other’s song. Filled to the brim with classic country tunes and long-since-forgotten cowboy songs, George and Loretta—not Justin and Miley—provide the soundtrack for the bar day in and day out.

The Breakfast Club (9 a.m. – 1 p.m.)

I fall to pieces, each time I see you again…

“Ah, turn that off! It’s too early for that mess,” Jim, the morning bartender, hollers at J.L., who quickly swats the jukebox with his cane, silencing Patsy Cline’s warble. “If somebody comes in this early wanting to hear music, well, we’ll just tell ’em it’s broke.”

A gangly fellow with thin, wireframe glasses and a toothy grin, Jim is far more chipper than any bartender should be so early in the morning. Citing a nagging cold, he whips up a quick medicinal cocktail of Emergen-C and vodka (not bad, by report) and begins to organize the bar while cracking jokes for his three lone amigos in the bar—J.L., Spider and me.

While Jim is clearly an employee of the bar, J.L. and Spider’s positions seem to be much more ambiguous. J.L., whose long finger nails, drawn face and sunken blue eyes are intimidating despite his age, broke his hip two years ago when he was pinned against the wall trying to bounce someone from the bar. Since Hurricane Katrina, he’s lived upstairs, where Spider also seems to spend most of his nights. Throughout the day, Spider—who has been working for the bar’s owner, Johnny, in some capacity since he was 15—hauls boxes, unloads beer and holds down the fort when others have to run out. They both strictly drink Budweiser.

The bar itself is surprisingly well-stocked, with rock-solid rum selections and a smoky, secret-recipe Bloody Mary that has been something of a calling card for Brothers III since it opened. The evening bartender, Charlie, is even known for making some off-the-wall cocktail combinations if you’ll let him spin the wheel for you.

I nurse a Bloody Mary all morning. We compare tattoos, barbecue preferences (mutton was a surprising fan favorite) and scar stories. We watch The Price is Right. A pot-bellied boy in a Twinkie shirt comes to empty out the video poker machines. Spider briefly contemplates joining the New Orleans Police Department.

“Knowing how to talk to these old guys, it’s a really special skill,” Jim leaned over and whispers to me as we close in on the afternoon. “I learned it in my mom’s beauty shop. I swear, sometimes I feel like the cruise director on The Love Boat in here.”

Afternoon Delight (1:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.)

Around 3:30 p.m. a trickle of regulars begins to filter in as we sink deeper into the day, the majority of them aging, weathered men wearing some combination of khaki and plaid. Tiny cockroaches scuttle past on the knotty bar as J.L. and a newcomer, Jimbo, wage a friendly fight with their canes next to the pool table. Spider disappears. We all sing along to “I’ll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again” while Doug, the notorious bouncer for nearby bar Ms. Mae’s, shows off his recently purchased black, lacquered fiddle.

“I don’t know how to play a lick on it anymore, but it is a beauty,” he says, passing it around like a newborn baby. “I used to know ‘The South’s Gonna Do It Again’ and, hell, couldn’t be that hard to relearn. If that old man Charlie Daniels could do it, then I can.” He leaves to go to work mumbling something about Norwegian death metal.

The sun is low in the sky around the time Johnny, the owner of Brothers III, finally makes his way into the bar. Despite being a newly minted octogenarian, Johnny glides around with relative ease, his self-described “helper”—a small Hispanic man in a windbreaker—hustling to keep up with him. The former owner of a successful chain of washaterias, a go-go club and a country-western bar, Johnny’s head-to-toe navy ensemble, freshly dyed ducktail and mutton chops place him less as an aging bar owner and more as a lost member of The Highwaymen.

His voice and eyes are alarmingly soft, and he fidgets with the baseball-sized golden sailor’s cross around his neck as he talks. He speaks, largely, of mortality. All his brothers and sisters, including the ones for whom the bar is named, have passed away.

“I went to a funeral recently for one of my nieces who died—she was in her 60s—and no one knew who I was. A room full of my family, and I was too old for anyone to know me,” he shakes his head wistfully. “You just have to keep moving though, you know, or you die. My father always said that, and I listened to him because I wasn’t a mama’s boy.”

If I sat in Brothers III and ordered nothing all day—but joked, teased and chewed the fat alongside the other bar patrons—no one would bat an eye. Perhaps the largest part of the dive bar experience isn’t drinking at all, but feeling as if you are part of a larger, welcoming community. Dive bars are inherently patient places.

The streetlights flicker on outside the bar around 4:30 p.m. as dusk sets in. I sip Jim Beam. Johnny ambles away from my company to heft a mattress from the back storage room, nestling it between the back jukebox and a broken Pacman machine. His helper, windbreaker still on, lies down on top and quickly falls asleep.

Prime Time (8 p.m. – 2 a.m.)

Brothers III is a place where things come in curious numbers. There are two jukeboxes, three video poker machines and, most peculiar of all: four cash registers. For over 40 years, Johnny has given each of the four bartenders his own cash register to ensure no one competes for tips. Lined up in a row on the bar, they are covered with knitted tea cozy-style covers when not in use.

“You can’t be a C+ student in math and bartend here,” says Charlie, the evening bartender who could easily win a Mike Ditka lookalike contest. “Otherwise, it ain’t coming out of anyone else’s pocket.”

The bar is bustling now as the clock strikes 9 p.m., with younger couples and gaggles of girls making their way in for cheap after-dinner drinks. A man in penny loafers and athletic socks perches at the bar swirling a brandy. The regulars, huddled together around Charlie, are loudly referring to themselves as “The Think Tank” and discussing the merits of the short-lived 1980s late-night program, The Alan Thicke Show.

I feel a second wind.

The pool table is finally being used by three 20-something boys—regulars who come every Friday night and are well liked enough to have their own designated red Solo cups. Their affection for Brothers III is palpable, as they tell tales of packed Mardi Gras nights, Sunday morning bacon and egg breakfasts cooked by Charlie and the time a guy stuck his hand in a crock pot full of hot dogs.

“He just scalded the hell out of himself,” says Adam, slightly balding and the clear leader of the pack. “The hot dogs all fell to the ground. No one was really concerned about him, they just picked up the hot dogs and put them on some buns. That’s how we kind of do it around here.”

As if on cue, a woman behind us falls over backwards out of her stool, landing with a thud. No one bats an eye.

Wee Small Hours (2 a.m. – 9 a.m.)

By 2:30 a.m., the crowds have vanished, and a pattering of rain begins to fall as Liam, the graveyard shift bartender, sits quietly strumming bluesy riffs on his guitar. A handsome, tow-headed man, there is little about him that doesn’t resemble a modern-day Paul Bunyan, down to his former job in logging. Only the penny loafer-wearing faux-dilettante remains, now glued to a video poker machine.

During America’s great westward expansion, taverns and inns (the precursors to bars) weren’t just places for drinks and rest, but true community gathering points. The news of the day was discussed, information traded and new faces traveling through welcomed with the same enthusiasm as those who show up every day. Whether the only person or one of the throng inside Brothers III, there is never a moment when I—a freckle-faced girl wearing floral leggings—feel uncomfortable or out of place. It’s this uncanny level of acceptance that makes the bar a success and, I suspect, has kept it around for almost a half-century.

We welcome in more regulars out of the weather around 4:30 a.m., do a shot of Jameson and turn on Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 3 in G Minor to celebrate Liam’s birthday. We swap pranking stories, classic literature recommendations and opinions about Rachmaninoff—who Liam feels was one of the most transcendental of all classical musicians.

Around 5 a.m., an inebriated tourist couple wanders in—clearly looking to unnecessarily up their ante. The man orders Long Island Ice Teas as the woman teeters toward the jukebox, slurring an excitable, “Oh, let’s play some music, honey! Let’s play some music and dance.”

“The machine’s broke,” Liam says, not missing a beat while cracking a smile at me.

He turns up the Vivaldi.

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  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no.1 spider drinks only miller lite.

  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no. 2. mike Ditka now wants to kick my ass.(dear mike it was not a quote.)

  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no.3.i believe doug said “norweigian douche metal”.

  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no.4. there 4 registers because johnny can’t figure out how to fit five without remodeling.

  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no.5. jim is a c- math student.

  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no, 6. adam had to have paid something to be referred to as SLIGHTLY BALDING.

  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no. 7. I did bat my eye when the girl fell.(i’ll testify to that under oath.)

  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no.8. liam is as liam does.

  • Charlie Kelly

    fact check no. 9. thank you for not making us look as stupid as we can look ‘

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  • Uncle Tonoose

    Wow, I feel like I know all those guys.
    Next time I’m in the neighborhood . . .
    🙂

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