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Some Bars Never Really Close

April 17, 2020

Story: Leslie Pariseau

photo: Pete's Out in the Cold

Even when the door is locked, Pete’s Out in the Cold quietly keeps watch over its corner of New Orleans.

“Did you see something?” asks Kevin.

It’s a muggy April evening. Height of quarantine. But inside Pete’s Out in the Cold, it’s cool. It smells the way old rooms do years after people have stopped smoking inside, the ghosts of thousands of cigarettes still lingering in the plaster. When Kevin asks if I saw something, it’s because I’ve been looking up and down the bar to count the number of stools. There are only 10. According to a typewritten eulogy I’m huddled over, composed for former owner Pete Scherer by his friend Judge Dennis J. Waldron, there used to be 12. I shake my head and tell Kevin I was just counting stools—I haven’t seen anything. Why does he ask?

“Oh, the occupants—sometimes they show up,” says Kevin, laughing a little. Kevin Lee, co-owner (along with Autumn Town) and bartender at Pete's, is short, with a shining Mr. Clean pate, sparkling blue eyes and a neat white mustache. Sometimes, when he’s by himself at the bar, he sees things. Apparently so does the bar’s calico cat, Foxy; she won’t sleep inside anymore.

The building that Pete’s occupies, on the corner of Sixth and Chippewa in the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood, has been operating as a watering hole of some sort since at least 1848. Today, it’s one of very few businesses left in this now-quiet residential neighborhood. But back then, it was one of dozens of boardinghouses, which also operated as grocery stores and bars. Kevin still has the original staircase’s banister stored away somewhere, and a receipt from one John Jones who paid $15 to rent a room for the month. In those days, the lower part of the 11th Ward, bordered on the south by the Mississippi River, catered to the stevedores coming off the port of New Orleans. It was a way station of sorts, a place for tired, hungry men to rest their heads, cash their checks, drink their fill and a few other things. “Used to be brothels everywhere,” says Kevin.

Before that, even, the plot on which Pete’s rests was part of the Livaudais Plantation, which was sold and divided into city blocks in 1832. Kevin says two archaeologists have told him Pete’s was built over the plantation’s graves. “I know it’s built on a cemetery,” he says. “When I went to the other side, I felt it.” Kevin, who worked for 17 years as a fireman on New Orleans’ Heavy Rescue Flying Squad, has had many dangerous brushes with the other side, including one at Pete’s.

Eleven months before Katrina, Kevin bent over the bar sink to wash his hands, went unconscious and hit the floor. “Greatest feeling I ever had in my life,” he says. When a handful of former colleagues who were hanging out that day revived him, he sat right up, and said he was fine. The next day, feeling headachy, he went to the hospital, where doctors told him he’d had a brain aneurysm; they were astonished he was even alive. Kevin says while he was out there, kicking around in the ether, he met his guardian angels, got in touch with his past lives and has an open invitation to go to the other side whenever he’s ready. Doors to parts of his mind he didn’t know existed were unlocked, he says. Ever since, he’s studied other languages, history, religions—things he’d never spent time doing before. “I make all kinds of art—carvings, paintings,” he says. Tonight, he’s got art supplies set up on the card tables up front.

He opens an Abita with a clean towel, slides it down the bar from a safe distance. Pete’s is the first enclosed room I’ve been in in the last month that wasn’t my own apartment, and Kevin the first person my fiancé, Tony, and I have hung out with outside of Zoom or FaceTime. In the back of the bar, the three dice poker machines are still lit up, the refrigerators still stocked with beer. Kevin stands a bit down the bar, going back and forth to the thermostat to regulate the AC. The jukebox starts flicking through records, even though nobody has touched it. Tony’s eyes go wide. We’re the only three in the room. “Oh, it has a mind of its own,” says Kevin, waving it off. Even though Pete’s has been closed since mid-March, he still comes by twice a day; when his truck is out front, the neighbors know he’s keeping watch. His presence is a comfort.

In some ways Kevin is still keeping watch over the bar for its previous owner, Pete Scherer Jr., or Mr. Pete as Kevin and everyone else called him. Mr. Pete was bequeathed Out in the Cold (the bar’s official name) by his father, Peter Sr., the day he got back from World War II. According to Judge Waldron’s eulogy, on October 8, 1945, Mr. Pete stepped off the train at New Orleans Union Station, and his dad handed him the keys.

Kevin grew up in the Irish Channel, which has, since its settlement back in the early 19th century, always been culturally mixed. “We were poor. That was the only thing we had in common,” says Kevin. He remembers Mr. Pete being kind to everybody. He says neighbors—black, white, of German, Italian and Irish descent—still stop by to recall stories of his good deeds. In 1989, Mr. Pete hired Kevin (who, even when he was a fireman, worked as a bartender) after he left Parasol’s, a famous Irish bar and po’ boy joint around the corner. In 1994, when Mr. Pete died, he left the bar to Kevin.

For the last 26 years, he’s guarded the corner of Sixth and Chippewa. “I’m in my warrior phase,” as he calls this incarnation of his life, moving his hand through the air like a ninja. During Katrina, he barricaded the door, and slept in the bar on a mattress for months, armed and ready. From the bar’s back window, he fed the neighborhood, passing out Red Baron pizzas he continues to bake in the mini-oven on the backbar. “I’m still in the mode of Katrina,” says Kevin. He describes hearing a military helicopter circling the neighborhood a couple days ago—the same kind that circled endlessly after the hurricane. “We all have PTSD from back then.”

He shows us into the back room to see some of the things he’s excavated from the property over the years—a glass bottle stamped “snake oil,” a woman’s Civil War–era shoe, a hand-blown green glass bowl, a Regal Beer card tallying the price and number of beers in a barrel, a black-and-white photo of what Kevin thinks must have been one of Mr. Pete’s girlfriends in a swimsuit. We circulate around one another in the fluorescent light, marveling at how many lives have passed through these walls, at how much calamity the sturdy building has survived.

Pete’s Out in the Cold does not manifest as a living relic in the same way many famous New Orleans bars do. There are no bowties or oil paintings, no cocktails (unless you count the Irish Channel Martini, a dirty Martini served in a giant Styrofoam cup) and no placard out front designating it a historical site. It doesn’t live on listicles or tourist maps. And unless they live in the Channel, most locals haven’t even heard of it. But it’s a bar that feels like it’s been through a lot. The capricious jukebox is filled with New Orleans jazz, Hall & Oates, Billie Holiday and Elton John. The siding out front is pulling off in a couple of places and the faucet in the women’s room is leaky. There are a few holes in the ceiling and the faux-Tiffany shades emblazoned “Miller High Life” hang on rusting chains. It’s the kind of place you don’t want to tell anyone about because it’s just too good for this world. But, here we are, and now you know its name and all about its wonderful owner. I’m not terribly worried, though. By the time this is all over, you’ll have your mind on other things, and this haunted little corner will stand, Kevin and its occupants still keeping watch.

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