Fourth of July on Bourbon Street, hot muggy and so crowded you couldn’t move on the street or in the bar. I squeezed my way into Lafitte’s past the doorman checking ID’s and stood a minute by Steve Wiley, our manager who was surveying the door and the crowd. “It’s nuts, been like this all day.” I could tell. The floor of the bar was a mess and the music was pumpin’. Steve was a guy who weighed 350 lbs. He was huge and it wasn’t all muscle. He was sitting on a stool sweating. He used to tell me about trying to exercise, he had a pair of gravity boots. He’d hang upside down. I always wanted to take a picture of me next to him holding a fishing pole like I’d caught the big one.
He motioned me through and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Noah and Jerry, the owners standing up front near the flame. Kinda unusual that they were there, usually they didn’t come in on big nights. I fought my way through the crowd and into the back with the other bartenders and barbacks. The afternoon shift was starting to get off and come back which meant we got ready to go in. We were like a baseball team where we each took our base right behind each other to get our cash register drawer in just as the other bartender took his out. We had this down to simple moves and I slipped right into his place and began working. I was going fast, popping beer cans open two at a time and setting up go cups of shots. These guys were having some fun. Max and Jason and I and the barback were kicking ass back here. I loved big busy nights like this, the DJ was pumping the music up and the testosterone was climbing and I was going with the beat of the music, pouring and reaching and flirting and ringing and stuffing that cash register- when I started to hear some yelling at the front door and it was even louder than the music. The guys in the bar started to turn and watch.
The yelling got louder. I noticed Steve Willey was up and blocking someone from coming in, and worse so was Noah the owner. Then the crowd backed up from the front door and it was looking serious when I saw Noah get grabbed and I saw it was a cop and they grabbed him hard. Steve just then threw something right at Jason and it hit the bar slats. Max’s eyes were wide. We both saw it at the same time.
It was a gun.
Max kicked it to me. I kicked it like a soccer ball to Jason at the back station by the fireplace and the barback grabbed it and ran through the back door into the alley or somewhere. What we had just done I had not realized yet.
“TURN OFF THE FUCKIN MUSIC AND TURN UP THESE LIGHTS NOW!!! The cops were yelling. Brian the DJ turned off the music, I turned the lights all the way up and the customers looked like deer in the headlights. What the fuck was going on?
“I’M GONNA TELL YOU QUEERS ONCE YOU STAY WHERE YOU ARE AND WE ARE GOING TO BE SEARCHING YOUR ASSES ONE AT A TIME. YOU UNDERSTAND? YOU BARTENDERS STAND RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE.” And nobody moved.
The search didn’t begin right away. I saw another scuffle with Tom, and he was pulled out the door with Jerry. Steve Wiley wasn’t saying anything. Some sort of discussion was going on. The bar was quiet and bright. Guys were trying not to move but emptying their pockets of anything illegal right there in the bright light dropping it to the floor. A cop came and stood at the point station with Max. None of us moved and we could tell the cops were mad.
I began to wonder if the crowd was going to take it. It was getting restless and hot, some guys knew they could get out the back alley. Jason was working to block that the cops didn’t get that far back.
Finally, some of the searches began. Some guys had their shirts off. They were patted down and roughly pushed out. I glimpsed Noah in the back of a patrol car parked on Dumaine at the entrance.
Then Steve Wiley Came to the bar. “Where is it?” he asked Max. “I don’t know,” Max said. “I kicked it.” He looked at me. I nodded yes and pointed my head to Jason at the back station. Jason nodded at me and at Steve. It was understood we did not have it. But it was somewhere in the bar. And then it became a hostage situation.
The cops had come in on an occupancy complaint threatening to shut the bar down for overcrowding. This was strange, every bar was packed for the Fourth of July every bar overcrowded. We were being targeted, someone had “dropped a dime” to target the queers. Noah was always gutsy and when it came to a cop getting in his face, he’d taken the cops gun from his holster and tossed it to Steve. The cop only became aware of it after it happened but not quick enough to see it tossed.
NOPD would not stand for a queer bar to take a cops gun. That gun had to be returned somehow. And Jerry the other owner was going to trade it for Noah and the bar.
It was tense. The AC was on but we were sweating. No one was moving. Then they began letting some of the guys out clearing out the front of the bar to make some room. “YOU BARTENDERS STAND BACK TOGETHER” and we did right by the beer box. We didn’t move and I swore I could hear our hearts beating. There was some movement towards the back by the fireplace and the door to the back alley and count out room, a cop was back there. I just stared at the front door.
Steve Wiley went out the back door then too. The barback raced in scared and said they were still yelling and searching the alley and the office and liquor room. Still no one moved. This had been going on for over about an hour now and the bar was still two-thirds full.
Then there was some movement up front at the front door. The cops went out, the one in the back came out and so did Steve. Jerry was on the sidewalk at the patrol car with Noah in it. The patrol car moved out of view. We were looking at each other and had no idea what the fuck to do.
Steve then came in behind the bar. “You saw nothing here and we are going to get back to normal but not till I yell its clear. Keep everyone out of the back, especially the barback keep everyone calm,” he said. By now the bar was about half empty, the guys were leaving if they could. The searches seemed to have moved to the sidewalk and out of the bar. Most of the customers were now crowded at the front point of the bar. Jason and Max and I just looked at each other. Are we getting arrested? Max and I didn’t touch the gun, we’d kicked it. I asked Jason if his fingerprints were on it. I thought he’d faint. We nervously laughed.
Then Steve Wiley finally slowly came in watching the door for about five minutes and said, “Tell Brian to turn the music back on but keep in low and turn these fucking lights about half down. Pour everyone a drink.” I started pouring shots. A few guys came back to my station. They were a tough group. There was an air of fighting back now in the bar as word of the raid and the gun trade spread.
Within the hour the bar was starting to build up back to normal but we only got about two thirds full for the rest of the night. The guys were at the other bars and probably nervous.
Noah and Café Lafitte in Exile held its ground. That news spread like wildfire through all the queer bars of the Quarter quickly. I looked at that torch at the front door with respect. We weren’t gonna take it and we weren’t going back.