Friday night I went out to what was billed as PACHANGA, an evening of Latin dance at the Blue Rooster. It promised me pachanga, cumbia, merengue y más, la música de mi juventud. And it delivered magnificently—to a room of young folks who knew what they were doing.
It was almost overwhelming to watch them dancing with expressions of glee, passion, and beauty, and to relive the rapture of those rhythms of so long ago. Fifty years… My eyes flooded with the body memory of all those wild dances with my beautiful Jane.
Though only couples were dancing, just as I’d do back then, I started dancing by myself to a splendid cumbia, and soon some other exuberant guys joined me. I wanted to shout out my joy. There followed some heart-rending merengues and a boisterous pachanga that almost did me in.
Once, the DJ called out something about la casa de música, and for a blessed moment I was back in La Casa de los Marinos I was again a demented dervish in the House of the Sailors in that ruinous building at Toulouse and Decatur, a waterfront dive aka La Marina. Vamos a La Casa!
Sorry, but I feel an elegy coming on. For the legendary La Marina was swept away by the relentless tides of years. Many others besides me must still remember the glory of that dark and disreputable Latin sailor bar, that temple of dance lost forever. (I’ve celebrated that long-lost glory in my autobiographical novel DIVINE DEBAUCH.)
I don’t know when the bar first opened, but my blessed time to carouse in its three mystical rooms was the early 60’s. By the later 60’s I heard it had been written up in some big magazine as the chic lowlife place to go, and very soon thereafter La Marina ceased to be.
Those three rooms were steeped in darkness and wrapped in music, tremendously loud Latin music, and the roar of voices and laughter. High above the crush of carousers and dancers, in deep shadows by the ceilings, blades of fans slowly swam around like circling sharks.
The three rooms were each special shrines. In the first more or less civilized one, you’d socialize with drinks and shouted talk. The second room was the place for group celebrations, being less crowded than the third and better for a formal dance like the pasa doble or the leaping pachanga.
The third room had its own even more powerful juke box and a hallucinatory mural on the walls over the crowd. Around the room in a dreamlike swirl ran a dark flood of writhing nudes, racing motorcycle, matador with sword, and charging bull. As above, so below.
It was here in the dense throngs of the third room that the ecstasy happened, the Dionysian transports of merengues and cumbias. The clock was forever stopped at ten of three, though that was usually an early hour in an evening’s revelry. We’d dance till dawn, even after.
A few years ago, when I visited New Orleans again, I lunched in the stylish Café Maspero that used to be La Casa and sat in what once was the be back corner of the second room. I told the waitress about its history, and she remarked that they had thought it had been a pirate joint before. In a way it was.