Twenty minutes before kickoff, there’s nary a football jersey with a golden fleur-de-lis to be found among the 25 or so patrons at the Parkside Lounge on New York’s Lower East Side. And, while the bar’s two televisions are showing the pregame show for the Thursday night matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the Dallas Cowboys, the sound is off and no one seems to be watching.
“This is a Saints bar, right?” an auburn-haired woman asks, as she and her friend find me taking up an entire four-top table by myself. “It’s supposed to be,” I answer, “I read that it was. But I’m not sure.” I point to the flag of Sir Saint, one of the team’s mascots behind the bar. I note that they have Abita Amber on tap, another thing connecting the bar to New Orleans. She asks if she and her friend can join me at my table, and I’m happy to oblige.
Our worries about the bar’s allegiances are laid to rest at kickoff. The sound goes on full blast and the crowd starts clapping. A man in the front of the bar yells “Here we go!” and a scattering of “Who dats” can be heard echoing from the poolroom in the back. A steady stream of 20-something fans start trickling in from East Houston Street, like kids returning home from college. One guy has a Drew Brees T-shirt on; another is wearing a Marshon Lattimore jersey.
The auburn-haired woman is from Lafayette, Louisiana. She tells me that she and her friend are in town on business, and that she found the Parkside by simply Googling “Saints Bar New York.” As she removes her winter coat, her friend, who’s from Atlanta, lets me know she flat out hates the Saints. A lot of people from Atlanta—home to the Saints NFC South rivals, the Falcons—feel that way, but she hates them with a vengeance. “What the hell is it with Saints fans, anyway?” she asks. “I fucking hate the Saints.” She looks toward the guy in the Lattimore jersey and asks, “I mean, seriously, how can you root for the Saints?” He pauses for a moment and delivers a pretty good comeback that he’ll probably be proud of as he falls asleep later on: “We’re a nation.”
Frustrated, the Atlanta fan goes to bar to order a round of Fireball shots, and I turn my attention to the game. The Saints are on a roll this year. They’ve won 10 in a row, and will inevitably take the NFC South. It’s the best season they’ve had in years, and I’m starting to feel the way I felt back in 2009, when the Saints made, and won, the Super Bowl for the first time since the franchise was founded in 1967.
When I moved to New York from New Orleans in 2003, I would watch Saints games at home with a few friends and a pot full of gumbo. But sometimes I’d go to Bar None in the East Village, which had the odd distinction of being both a Saints bar and a Minnesota Vikings spot in one. Everyone got along just fine until both teams ended up making it to the NFC Championship game and leaders from the teams’ respective fan clubs spoke of banishing the fan base of whichever team lost the game. In the end, New Orleans won after Garrett Hartley kicked a 40-yard field goal in overtime. And, by the time the next season began, fans donning black and gold and purple and gold, were both still welcome.
While Bar None had a bigger, more boisterous fan base, Parkside feels more like a Saints bar. It’s hard to pinpoint what I mean by that, because being a bar for an out-of-town team in New York is sort of a fool’s errand. A few posters and flags and a favorite local beer on tap doesn’t cut it. Each place has to channel, as best it can, something that simply can’t be captured in any sort of bar or any sort of bottle: a city’s spirit.
Game Day at the Parkside Lounge
The first time current owner Christopher Lee stumbled into the Parkside Lounge, it reminded him of the Maple Leaf Bar in Uptown New Orleans. Lee was born in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and went to Loyola, where he studied acting, before moving to New York in the late 1990s. He started working as a bartender at the Parkside in 2003. By 2009, he owned an operating share. He made a few changes when he took over, like tacking up photos on the wall of old Loyola baseball teams, and of the Cane River that runs through Natchitoches Parish. He even started hosting crawfish boils out front.
“My concept was that somebody from New York moved to the Gulf Coast and tried to open up a punk rock bar,” he tells me as I order another Fireball to pay the Atlanta fan back for the one she’d bought me.
Still, he says, the bar didn’t start to truly own its New Orleans mojo until 2009, when an energized fanbase started gathering weekly to watch the Saints make that first Super Bowl run. “It felt like more than football,” Lee says. “It was people from New Orleans coming to spend time together. They were rooting for the city more than rooting for the team.
Aside from its fanbase, the Parkside Lounge has other New Orleans traits. Opened in 1910, it has seen its fair share of mystery and vice. It’s rumored that bodies were once transported through a downstairs doorway that opens up to a tunnel that takes you right to the East River. Lee believes the place is haunted, too. He cites several incidents where he’s been alone in the bar and glasses have started hurling themselves off shelves and lights have flickered on and off.
Not knowing whether those spirits are good or bad, Lee didn’t want to take any chances. About once every two weeks, he invites a former French Quarter tarot card reader named Leslie to come and ward off any bad juju. She recites prayers, burns some sage and lights one of those voodoo store pillar candles to ensure prosperity, peace and, during the football season, a victory for the Saints. Lighting that candle, which sits behind the bar, is the first task Lee’s staff is instructed to perform as soon as they arrive to open the bar. You can’t blow it out at the end of the night, either. You have to snuff it, lest the spell is broken.
By halftime, the candle is failing us. The Saints are trailing, and that fourth-quarter rally they’re known for is nowhere to be seen. “We’re still going to win this thing,” Lee tells me, but at this point, I’m not so sure. When I get back to the table, a tourist named Gene, a New Orleanian who reminds me of the actor John C. Reilly, walks up to me and just shouts “Yeee-Ahhh! We got this, man. I know we do.”
The Saints never did mount a comeback. They lost in a dull thud of a game that, combined with the two Fireball shots the woman from Atlanta bought me, left me feeling sick inside. After settling my tab, I walked back onto East Houston wishing I was on Maple Street, instead. Sometimes, especially when I’m drunk, I dream of moving back to New Orleans, but I know I never will. For now, I’m just thankful that a little piece of it resides at Parkside Lounge.