I first met Smitty when I started hanging out at The Abbey. I remember passing The Abbey quite a few times when I first moved New Orleans, and I was always struck fact that people where always spilling out of there at six or eight in the morning. There are always a few gutter punks hanging around outside of The Abbey in their dirty Social Distortion t-shirts and their leather and chains. Dirty Mohawks mingling with a rockabilly pompadour and pork chops.
Smitty was one of those characters that one came to know the more you hung out at The Abbey. The Abbey is one of the coolest bars in the Quarter, with its darkness and grime. It is always dark in there, no matter how light it might be outside. The doors never closed, and for years I never even realized there were actual doors there. In the door hung a plastic curtain like you find in a restaurants walk in refrigerator, which kept it real cool in the summertime.
When I met Smitty, he was sixty-three. He was balding on the top, and the rest of his thinning tresses were tied back in a small ponytail. Smitty had a face full of hair with a thick and shaggy beard. He was thin, and looked many years beyond sixty-three. At first, Smitty reminded me of an old biker with his black t-shirt and jeans. In the winter, he would wear a jean jacket with the fake wool fur around the collar. He was always there; every day he went to The Abbey.
He would show up sometime between six and ten in the morning, and that is where he spent the day. He would order a tall blonde and a short redhead, which meant he wanted a Miller High Life in a bottle and a shot of Cinnamon Schnapps. Sometimes he would order a shot of Jameson instead, in which case he asked for a tall blonde and a shot of (wink) Jameson. Have one with me, he would offer the bartender. And, of course, any Abbey bartender would take a shot with the old man.
Smitty had once been a merchant marine, and he was tough as they came. He often spoke of all the places he had been. He did not brag about his escapades, but the stories just came about as he talked. He was gentle and kind with his raspy voice and harsh laughter. He had been married to several strippers along the way. My best friend referred to him as “the last American badass.”
Smitty was witty in his old age. He was the first to pipe up if someone was talking nonsense at the bar, which happened a lot in the daytime at The Abbey. I worked that day shift for a while, and some days I would swear that a cuckoo had made a nest on top of that building on Decatur Street. All the cuckoo babies were missing the nest and somehow landing in the bar. Smitty knew them all. He knew all their stories and could decipher all of their strange languages. You would be surprised how many truly crazy people will show up at certain bars in New Orleans during the daytime.
I remember one Monday morning I had just come onto my shift, and it was just me and Smitty in the bar. We talked over our usual ten am cocktails, him drinking High Life and me Woodchuck. The next customer to come in had a baby face and was dressed in a nice sweat nylon sweat suit. He had a boyish grin and was constantly giggling. Smitty rolled his eyes as this customer walked in. I think his name was David, and Smitty told me that. David ordered a gin and tonic, giggling as he sipped his cocktail.
Then, next enters James. Now James I had met before, and thanks to Smitty I was finally able to decipher his drink order. James was a thin black man I would guess to be about fifty. He always had on a childish baseball cap on that reminded me of the kind with the propeller on top turned backwards. James did not speak very much and just signaled for his drink. Smitty told me just to give him a vodka and cranberry when he made that chopping hand gesture. On the occasions that James did speak, it often did not make sense. He told me he lived on a spaceship in the Mississippi River, and God said I could come visit it because I was so nice to him. Smitty told me he had once been a top waiter at Pat O’Brien’s when his wife left him taking the kid. Shortly after, James started cracking up and was eventually reduced to talking nonsense.
About the time James starts talking his nonsense, I finally hear David speak aside from ordering his drink. “Sounds like a big ol’ fart to me,” he says out of nowhere. He starts giggling worse than before. His rosy and plump cherub cheeks remind me of a mischievous child. I turn to look at him, also giggling and I see Smitty is just shaking his head. Periodically throughout his stay, David would lift the back of his hand to his mouth and blow with all his might emitting a very loud fart sound. He said little else, but his fart sounds would send him into a fit of laughter.
Next walks in Jason, who is otherwise known as “The Copper Cowboy.” It happens to be Jason’s day off, so he is dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. His fire red hair sticks out from a brown cowboy hat and his coyote in the desert tattoo peeps out from his shirt sleeve moving slightly on his well chiseled arm. Jason is a street performer who wears a copper painted cowboy outfit and paints all his exposed body the same copper. He stands completely still in Jackson Square on a crate until he sees an unsuspecting or interested passerby when he springs into action with his cap gun making gun noises with his voice. People drop money into his copper spittoon. He really is a good performer as far as mimes are concerned. It is weird to see him in normal human colors because I am so used to him painted copper.
Jason comes in already half lit and in full throttle. He recognizes the crazy faces sitting there at the bar, and he starts fucking with them. Before Smitty and I realize it, Jason has challenged these two to a run down the block. Winner gets a beer from the losing two. Suddenly, the three of them outside are talking shit and making farting noises when they start racing down the block and back. Jason breezes past the other two, sprinting back into the bar minutes ahead of both James and David. The two loonies come panting in behind him, claiming that the cowboy has cheated. Jason just challenges them to another race, with a third beer being at stake. Smitty is just shaking his head.
Before they return, the mailman walks in also shaking his head. He has a look of both amusement and bewilderment on his face. He looks at me and says, “Zembower will just let about anyone in here these days, huh?” Zembower is the owner of the bar. The mailman just sets the mail down on the end of the bar and walks off still shaking his head. The sprinters return much like before, and Jason wins three beers from James and David. Smitty knows this is not out of the ordinary for a Monday.
Smitty had been hanging out in the day, drinking on the lower end of Decatur for so long he knew all the weirdoes. He acted like the liaison, telling the bartenders of all these crazies’ quirks. Smitty was a fixture there, selling nickel bags of weed to supplement his social security check. Sometimes Smitty would sell various prescription medications, and he could always be counted on to point you in the direction of any drug you desired. Smitty would take an occasional bump of cocaine, and back in the day he had done a lot of heroin.
I remember Smitty told me one time that he still had his old kit in case of emergency. He finally had been accepted into the subsidized housing for the elderly on Frenchman Street. He finally had his own apartment after crashing on couches for years. He said in his bathroom he had his old kit containing his works and a bag of heroin. Just in case he got too sick one day and could not take care of himself anymore, he planned on just taking a fat shot and peacefully drifting off and out. I imagined his needle to be an antique metal one that fits over your fingers like the kind a dentist uses to give you a shot of Novocain. It sounded like a good idea for an old person whose health could fade any time. Little did I know he had probably thought a lot about getting sick.
The last year I knew him, Smitty was almost blind. He had been living on Frenchman Street for several years and knew the path between his apartment and The Abbey by heart. He guided himself by the sounds of the city, and he would never appear blind to a stranger passing him on the sidewalk. He recognized people he knew by their footsteps only sometimes, and he would ask if that was you as you approached. I had not seen him in a few months, and he still heard me coming calling my name as he approached my path. He never carried a cane; instead he just walked slower with more measured footsteps.
No one knew Smitty had cancer. Not even Gracie, who was his closest friend and was more like a daughter to him. Smitty had been getting sicker and sicker, but he refused to show it. No one noticed, except he was a little more tired, as he started retiring to his apartment earlier and earlier. He did not see doctor near the end because he did not want die in a hospital. He did not want to leave the comforts of the bars on Decatur Street to lie in a hospital bed.
He came to The Abbey one day when Gracie was bartending. She said he had his usual tall blonde, but refrained from the short redhead. In the early afternoon, Smitty lumbered over to the booth in the corner. He indicated to Gracie he was just going to lie down for a few. That corner booth was often known to have a nap or two hosted there, and Smitty had been known to take a nap from time to time. It did not seem unusual even when Gracie woke him up at six just before she went home for the evening. She walked Smitty home, telling him to get some sleep and she would see him in the morning. It was nothing out of the ordinary, really.
The next morning when Smitty did not show up by noon, Gracie started to get worried, and she headed over there in the early afternoon. It was nearly two o’clock and Smitty had not been by The Abbey yet. Gracie knew something was wrong. Smitty had been at The Abbey before noon almost every day for at least ten years. Gracie found him sleeping peacefully in his bed. He did not wake up. He was almost seventy years old.