The Gin Mill, a Greek Sailor Bar

Once an elegy gets going, it’s not easy to shut off.  I can’t help but reminisce about another sailor bat in New Orleans.  I danced for years in the early 60’s in the Gin Mill, a supremely dissolute Greek sailor bar on the second block of Decatur across from the monumental Customs house.  For a change of tone, we carousers would stagger nightly up the street from La Casa de los Marinos to this Dionysian temple of dance.  The ancient place won’t be found anymore, even on the Internet.  If you remember, upstairs was the Acropolis Restaurant.  Maybe that’s still there.

You entered the Gin Mill between a long bar and a row of booths, past a bellowing juke box, and then came to the larger room with more booths and tables around the dance floor.  Only ghostly traces of a former grid of tiles remained on the worn concrete floor.  The place was generally overflowing—if a ship was in port, and there usually was one—with swarthy sailors, friendly ladies of the night, and at least one equally friendly faerie.  Yours truly.

The landmark of the Gin Mill was its barmaid (and bouncer), Jackie, who weighed in at well over 300 pounds and had a lover on every Greek ship.  (Greek sailors loved fat women—and skinny boys.)  Jackie kept a motherly eye out for the safety of my skinny Tulane student body, but I still managed to put it in many delicious positions of jeopardy.

The great attraction of the Gin Mill, besides the seafood offerings, was the fact that Greek sailors would dance alone—or with each other.  Even before the incredible “Zorba the Greek”  hit the big screen, I was doing those fantastic Greek dances  and feeling like a gay Melina Mercouri , but I’d do it on Sunday too.

The song I found most poignant for some reason was “Thessaloniki mou, but just those first evocative notes of Mikis Theodorakis’ Zorba suite can bring me to tears.  (I’d give a link to it, but the computer god won’t let me.)

I learned so long ago in the Gin Mill to cut that rope and soar free.  In La Casa I was initiated into the ecstasy of dance, but it was in the Gin Mill that I learned its philosophy and experienced its liberation.

This seems to have turned into an elegy for the fantastic New Orleans that once was, that bawdy old river port with its international culture of sailor dives along waterfront Decatur.  In my own time, the river still ran right behind the levee at the front of Jackson Square, and there were wharves along behind the French Market.  The beautiful Jax Brewery was in full, fragrant brew right across from my beloved La Casa de los Marinos.  The Gin Mill just up the street…

How terrifically blessed I was to carouse then in those legendary dives, how privileged to know the joy of pristine debauchery worthy of a novel by Jean Genet Back then I felt just like Our Lady of the Flowers.  But that wild world has been swept off away down the eternal river.  Sigh.  During the 70’s the glorious old city finally got transmogrified by twentieth century commerce, and the historic waterfront became one huge shopping mall.

A few years ago, for old times’ sake, I escaped from the cold New Mexico winter and spent a few warm months in a slave quarter apartment in the Vieux Carré.  It was just up St. Peter Street from what used to be Dixie’s Bar of Music, a legendary gay bar where I’d met a number of paramours (now a deafening karaoke palace).  Only later did I learn that while I was there, Miss Dixie herself passed on at 101.  [link]  The sentimental sojourn proved very graphically and painfully that the past only exists in my mind, and it’s uniquely my own.  That’s what makes it so precious.

La Casa de los Marinos

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 MarinaVamos a La Casa!

La Casa de los Marinos - New Orleans

La Casa de los Marinos – New Orleans

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 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.