The Circle Bar was one of my haunts for a while. It was once the home of Elizabeth Cohen, the first woman doctor in Louisiana, back in the late nineteenth century. I enjoyed drinking in what had been an examining room Its ceiling was adorned with a huge clock acquired from the headquarters of the now defunct K&B drugstore chain. We used to joke that when you danced under that clock, the concept of time lost all meaning. You could emerge from the Circle Bar and either discover you had only been there an hour or that it was now the next day.
Circle Bar occupies a powerful place in my memory because of a special night I spent there right after Hurricane Katrina. This blog doesn’t focus on what locals call The Storm much, except in the context of a bar closing or reopening due to its impact. In many ways the city has moved on, and I don’t want visitors to feel it is all we think about. But for those of us who lived here and came back, it was a transformative experience. And many of the moments that kept us sane amid the craziness happened in bars.
I evacuated for two months after Katrina. Once I returned in early November, the city was just beginning to fill, and not a lot was open, but whenever possible I tried to meet up with friends I had not seen in months. One spot where we often went was the Circle Bar. One night in particular stands out. I went to hear a band, Egg Yolk Jubilee. This band is huge, eight or nine players, plenty of horns. The Circle Bar is fairly tiny. There was barely enough room for the band and the audience. At one point they launched into a rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” a song that got a lot of play during that time. The listeners and the musicians, we were all mingled together, surrounded by this sound. It was a joyous and terrible cacophony of hope and despair.
Every time I go there now, consciously or not, I think about those evenings and that difficult time in my city’s history. And writing this blog has merely cemented what I already knew. That bars may be places where we make memories, but they are also repositories of them. And how we think about a bar is defined not only by the decor or the drinks or the patrons or even the bartenders, but also by what happened there. The K&B clock is no longer on the ceiling. It broke and now rests in pieces on the wall of the men’s room But in my mind, it is still above us as we raise our hands and dance, as we raise our glasses and toast, with trepidation and hope.