The Only Bar In New Orleans

Welcome to "About a Bar," a column that explores America's most notable bars and cocktail programs. Nearly ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Nathan Mattise reflects on the bar that was once the only drink in town.

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In New Orleans’ ever-changing Marigny-Bywater neighborhood, Kajun’s Pub doesn’t immediately stand out. It lacks the newness of the shiny oyster bar down the street within historic (and just restored) St. Roch Market. Its drinks aren’t objects of lust and lore like Bachannal’s wines or Oxalis’ whiskey offerings.

But there was a time when Kajun’s—this seemingly nondescript, painted brick dive on the west end of St. Claude Avenue—felt like the only bar in the entire city.

Ten years ago on August 23, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. Soon the federal levees failed, and chaos ensued throughout New Orleans. At the time, this area, about ten minutes west of the 9th Ward, didn’t exactly qualify as prime real estate when compared to some French Quarter watering holes. But in the aftermath of the storm of the century, the space was suddenly invaluable, mostly because it wasn’t submerged.

“Usually the routine after a storm is the next day everything settles down,” says JoAnn Guidos, the owner of Kajun’s. “But after Katrina, the next two or three days you didn’t see nobody, you didn’t hear nobody. There’s no cell phones, landlines, no police. All the thugs came out to break into other buildings that had been damaged, stealing shit because police aren’t out. That’s when I pulled my guns out and said I’m not going to fuck around, and I didn’t. Simple as that.”

When the Industrial Canal infamously burst roughly a mile and a half away and rapidly flooded the surrounding area, patrons hoisted anything vital (the jukebox and propane grills included) off the floor and implemented a web of extension chords to keep the bar running. At its worst, Guidos says a foot and a half of water filled Kajun’s, “but we were open, we had cold beer and it was business as usual.”

Seven or eight people stayed at Kajun’s throughout the first night. Guidos would sit at the front door, guns in tow, when the sun set to ensure looters stayed away. Using trashcans, she gathered and stored rainwater to keep bathrooms functional, and made sure she had a generator ready. When the Industrial Canal roughly a mile and a half away infamously burst and rapidly flooded the surrounding area, patrons hoisted anything vital (the jukebox and propane grills included) off the floor and implemented a web of extension chords to keep the bar running. At its worst, Guidos says a foot and a half of water filled Kajun’s, “but we were open, we had cold beer and it was business as usual.”

Devastating, soon-to-be-documented damage in New Orleans’ 9th Ward eventually led many to discover the bar’s open sign. St. Claude Avenue is a major west-to-east road that extends out from the Quarter, and it remained one of the few open arteries allowing media, rescue officials and authorities to navigate the city. Everyone from locals needing a home to foreign correspondents to the Army Corps of Engineers came to Kajun’s, and Guidos had coolers of $1 PBRs ready for all of them. For her ever-present clientele, she served as bartender, protector, family member, chef and even medical assistant at times. (At the elementary school turned aid station next door, for instance, Guidos says she provided ice to people suffering from heat stroke and likely saved a few lives according to aid staff.)

In total, Kajun’s welcomed customers 24/7 for at least 12 days immediately following the storm. It would’ve been longer if armed forces didn’t come through to disarm citizens and enforce the federal mandatory evacuation. Though Guidos finally left, she reopened as soon as possible, returning to the city before many of her fellow displaced New Orleanians could or would. In a city of bars dating back to the 1800s, Kajun’s suddenly had history.

In the midst of those chaotic two weeks, Guidos distinctly remembers September 5, 2005. Over the years she says she’s given 200 to 300 interviews to people spanning the globe—Russia, Ukraine, Japan, Israel—but on that day, Guidos first met The New Yorker’s Dan Baum. The chance encounter would eventually introduce the world to the bar owner and her entire backstory, including “her previous life,” as she refers to the years spent before transitioning to JoAnn fulltime.

A transgender, arms-bearing New Orleanian that sheltered her neighbors during the storm of their lifetimes sounds rightfully like the hero of a book. And since Katrina, Guidos has become just that. Baum’s New Yorker columns eventually turned into his best selling Nine Lives, which turned into Nine Lives: A Musical Story of New Orleans, where Guidos’ life was portrayed by Tony Award-winner Michael Cerveris. The show has been performed multiple times in New Orleans and made some waves in New York, where it has larger aspirations.

Beyond the notoriety for bar and owner, the storm inadvertently led Guidos to something even better—Lisa. Guidos met her after Lisa came down to work as a nurse post-Katrina, also looking to move on from a “previous life.” She lived near Kajun’s and neighbors pointed her to the pub after learning about her dating struggles. The two met that night, fell in love and have been married three times (a commitment ceremony in Louisiana, a heterosexual wedding in Arkansas, a same-sex marriage in New York state) during their roughly seven years together since.

Today, plenty of patrons become enamored with their bar without ever knowing the full story. The only subtle signs of Kajun’s improbable first year sit in the cigarette machine at the back of the bar, where you can find a paperback of Nine Lives and its musical soundtrack nestled between packs of Newports and Zapp’s potato chips.

Instead, people flock to the bar for its legendary nightly karaoke (deep cuts and alternative genres welcome among 70,000-80,000 songs available) or because they know they’ll never watch the Saints alone here, even during the saddest of seasons. Authenticity-seeking college students travel cross-town for Instagram-worthy late nights, and they often overlap with the longtime neighborhood residents. Those folks also come in during afternoons and willingly chat with tourists, explaining how the area continues to evolve from middle-class to poor to some hybrid still figuring out its way forward.

What Guidos and her bar were during the city’s darkest hour is simply what Kajun’s is today. Here, hospitality goes beyond the everyday understanding of the word. And while Kajun’s offers that to everyone and anyone, the bar’s appeal is more than its “be nice or get the fuck out” rule. Just ask the owner; she’s usually around and available when the daytime regulars come by.

“Well, we do what we can for everybody,” Guidos says. “Whatever’s within our means.”

Nathan Mattise is a New Orleans-based freelance writer and editor at Conde Nast's Ars Technica. He's previously written about bars, beer and booze for Wired, Paste and Fast Company, among others.