Civilization, Distilled and Deglazed
Candles burned all around the ruined room, stuck in spent liquor bottles and on elaborate, antique-looking candelabras. Sometimes, dancing couples slipped into the darkness at the back of the room while Ingrid kept singing by the gathered glow.
I thought I was seeing things the night I found the Banks Street Bar open again. It was early November, and around that time it seemed like there was not a single light in my shattered neighborhood except the ones I lit with matches each night at my own house. But I was walking the Amazing Dr. Watson one evening just after sunset when I noticed a dim flicker in the distance. I kept walking toward it, but even after a few blocks it didn’t seem to get any closer, like some mirage hovering in the darkness that receded with each step toward it. In fact, the light turned out to be half a mile down the road but, like the random noises in the nighttime vacuum of the streets, the smallest source of light could stand out with startling clarity from quite far away.
The dog and I walked closer and eventually the flickers ahead resolved themselves into a cluster of candles set in a big picture window frame at the Banks Street Bar. The glass was smashed out of the window and the sounds of a radio playing and people muttering and even the clatter of ice being pushed around in a cooler came right out to the street where Dr. Watson and I stood trying to size things up.
We walked in the door, which was swinging open on its hinges. It sounded like a generator was running on the second floor of the old building, but in the barroom itself the only illumination came from candles and the moonlight shining through the empty window frame. Dr. Watson was alert and anxious. His canine intuition must have picked up the vibe in the room, because everyone else inside seemed alert and anxious as well. If they had tails, they would have been as erect as Dr. Watson’s. There were only a handful of people in the room, and all of them were sitting on stools pulled up around the pool table, their faces half obscured in shadow even just a few feet from the candle flames. Everyone was playing it cool but they were still jumpy, glancing up quickly at our arrival and then nodding back in their half-shadows again, reaching slowly for cigarettes set in makeshift beer can ashtrays as their eyes scanned the room. The whole scene seemed just a few boot spurs and Stetsons away from a spaghetti Western saloon tensed up for the bad guy to arrive.
The actual bar was somewhere beyond the circle of light, back against the wall, while the pool table had become the de facto bar. The table was ruined by the flood and already warped at an abstract angle, but it was pushed right under the window and got more moonlight than any other spot in the room. A big woman in a sweaty tank top was running the show from one side of the table. All over the ruined green felt before her was a collection of liquor bottles and mixers, while at her feet was a fort of coolers and cardboard beer cases. People ordered drinks like they were calling out complex pool hall bank shots.
“Gimme a gin and tonic,” said one patron from the darkness at the other end of the pool table.
“What kinda gin you want?” asked the bartender.
“Oh, ah, what’s that over by the corner pocket, left side? That Beefeater? Beefeater’s fine. And use that Schweppes tonic by the right corner pocket. That’s what I like, not that Sav-A-Center crap. I know you fished that crap outta the flood!”
When I asked for a beer, the woman nodded and felt around in a cooler. She found a Miller Lite and charged me $3. When I ordered another beer a few minutes later, she produced a can of Guinness Stout and likewise charged me $3. There was no ordering by brand, I quickly learned, you just asked for a beer and the bartender went bobbing for whatever she found in the dark ice chests down below the pool table.
The flood had really hit the place hard, and it was bad inside. I couldn’t see the walls out beyond the perimeter of candlelight but I still knew they were moldy. The smell was unmistakable. I could feel it in my nose and taste it in my mouth as sharp as licking the back of an old stamp. But it didn’t matter. The Banks Street Bar was open and it seemed like a miracle. Instantly, the bar had resumed its traditional role as a neighborhood gathering place. Walking around the streets, it was hard to believe that anyone else was even breathing in Mid-City but my dog and I had stumbled upon a room right in the heart of the neighborhood where a bona fide, if bizarre, social scene had emerged. Occasionally, a new face would appear from the darkness of the street. It was always a man, and he would look as incredulous as I’m sure I had peering in the door for the first time. But then the guy would step inside - cautiously, like a swimmer dipping his toe in the water - and ask for a drink and then settle in for a few.
Within just a few weeks, the Banks Street Bar was cleaned up, the mold stink disappeared and, while there was still no electricity, the collection of candles and lanterns grew into a concentrically expanding circle of light under its roof. Eventually, some of the walls became visible from the pool table and the place was downright welcoming, even if making a trip to the bathroom still required taking your own candle into the dark extremities of the building.
Incredibly, the place began hosting bands again around this time. One early performer was Ingrid Lucia, a beautiful jazz singer who lives in Mid-City just a few blocks away from the bar. It was a for-real booking in a surreal place, and management even had the gumption to dub the weekly gig the “Acoustic by Candlelight Night.” Ingrid sang while her guitarist played behind her, and she made a specialty of old Billie Holiday songs, including a few suddenly poignant numbers like “Romance in the Dark.” She sang:
The music was so entrancing
The lights all began to fade
I said to myself keep dancing
But only my heart obeyed
A flame grew from just a spark
When I found romance in the dark with you
Candles burned all around the ruined room, stuck in spent liquor bottles and in little decorative votives with mismatched holiday themes and even on elaborate, antique-looking candelabras. People danced by the pool table bar, where the grab-bag selection of drinks still flowed for $3 a throw. Sometimes, dancing couples slipped into the darkness at the back of the room while Ingrid kept singing by the gathered glow around her guitarist and the tip jar.