Mobile, Alabama. Photo by Peter Clark.

Share This

On Dauphin Street

September 8, 2017:

So we walked into this storefront bar on Dauphin Street. From its opaquely tinted, unmarked windows and glass door, we couldn’t tell at first if a bar was what it was.

Earlier that day, Cheryl and I had driven from New Orleans, where we live, to Mobile for an overnight stay. She had paintings in a show at a co-op gallery opening there that evening and had made a room reservation weeks in advance. Which was lucky for us. We found the downtown hotel lot crowded with cars and trucks from Florida. On the way over—Cheryl drove our trusty little compact while I caught up with reading students’ writing—we’d seen the thick traffic inching west on the opposite side of the interstate and remembered evacuating for Katrina twelve years before. The hotel lobby teeming with people and pets reminded us again of how fortunate we were this time. For days it had been unclear whether Hurricane Irma would hit coastal Louisiana. Now the storm was expected to roar ashore in south Florida within the next few hours. Where we were, one state over in south Alabama, the fading late afternoon was cloudless, still, and tinged with gold.

Feeling guilt at having a room when many didn’t, we’d checked in nevertheless, freshened up, and walked the few blocks from the hotel across wide, hectic Government Street. On a narrow, shaded side street, we passed a cathedral and its square to reach Dauphin, the city’s lesser, second artery.

Cheryl’s and my long marriage has its imperfections—I don’t know of a marriage that doesn’t—but we travel well together. I see us now, holding hands (she’s big on that), in no hurry, making slow progress up a placid stretch of Dauphin Street, too early for the art show but, after hours in the car, ready for a drink: silver-haired Cheryl, a small woman in flip flops, tight pants, and a sort of scarf-and-cape top like the unconventional person she is—and me, in my comfortable shoes, dark jeans, and shirt with useful front pockets, a small, whitish bearded man, old in years but who, so far, hadn’t fully felt them. I expected we’d have to settle for a drink in a pricey place and was resigned to that or whatever we found. Then we happened on the tinted storefront. Before it, two middle-aged, brown women sat with drinks at a small table on the still sun-warm sidewalk.

We were wondering aloud if this was a bar when one of the women overheard us and declared, “Sho’ it’s a bar! You go right on in!” She waved us through the door.

Inside, as my vision adjusted to the indirect lighting, I noticed the silhouettes of a drum kit, keyboard, and mic that seemed stored near the front door, then a long, meander-shaped bar and half a dozen or so patrons, none in pairs, sitting on high stools along its length. Muted and ignored, a tennis match animated the several flat-screen televisions mounted high above the bar and farther back in shadowed spaces beyond it. Other than the athletes on the screens, we were the only white people there.

The opulent, stone bar top was cool under my arm as we climbed onto the metal stools. One stool over, on the other side of the bar’s curving, rounded corner, a large, dark man tipped his tall beer glass in greeting. I smiled and said, “How you doin’,” or something like it.

The young bartender came to us at once, welcoming and friendly in a becoming, loose silk shirt. We exchanged names—hers was Nia—and at once she and Cheryl fell to compliments and talk, first about the material Cheryl’s top was made of, then about Nia’s haircut, which was shorn along the sides but full and bleached blonde on top. Then they discussed the margarita without ice that Cheryl requested. Nia wanted to get it right.

She was apologetic when it was my turn and I asked for a PBR. The man to my left laughed and said he had grown up in Milwaukee and had come into this bar, for almost the same reason, to order a Miller. (Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life are cheap, old-time beers originating in Milwaukee.)

“Craft beers on tap,” Nia said, perplexed about it and apologizing again, was the only beer the bar stocked, she didn’t know why. I gestured toward the man’s glass and asked to have what he was drinking. Nia’s efficient, considerate manner reminding me of something I couldn’t place, she insisted on giving me a sample in a shot glass—sort of like what they do in ice cream shops. I couldn’t tell much about the taste of it, but said sure, that would be fine.

The man’s name was Mark. He wore a ball cap and a tank top, both proclaiming him a veteran—his gold watch and a gold chain maybe signs of affluence. Cheryl and Nia chatted and laughed, already on to political, red and blue differences between Mobile and New Orleans, where Nia, who was originally from Maryland, hoped to live someday. Meanwhile, Mark and I made small talk across the curved corner of the bar and agreed that the pale beers Nia had drawn for us weren’t bad.

A stout, attractive woman came into the bar and stood by the stool to Mark’s left. Apparently his wife, she was occupied with her phone, trying to find lodging, as he’d said she’d had been doing for some time. She fussed at him good naturedly about running from the storm—she’d been for riding it out; he thought it best to leave. After she went back outside for a better connection, he told me they had been on the road for thirteen hours, having evacuated early that morning from the small Florida town where they lived.

Not that it had been so bad, he said, trying to be positive. The people you met in a crisis, people from all over our country, that was what mattered, people, all kinds of people. It seemed we were talking in code, and then we weren’t. More memorable than what we said was the ease with which we looked into each other’s faces. I mentioned that my daughter in New Orleans had reserved a room north of us in Mississippi when we thought the storm would come to Louisiana, and he seemed to take it as a great kindness when I offered to call her to see if she hadn’t yet canceled the room. But he tapped the top of my hand and said we should wait about that because his wife had a line on something. He spoke again of the importance of other people in a crisis, and likely influenced by the strain of his day, a tear welled in one of his eyes, then spilled down his cheek, convincing me he was speaking what he believed. In that spirit, I tried to express my belief, which is in the value of writing, and my hope to write something sometime that affirmed the belief in people that he’d expressed.

What happened next, I didn’t understand and I’m not sure I do now. The patriotic logos on his cap and tank top seemed to beckon acknowledgment. Tensely sensing what his response would be and not knowing how best to say it, I simply thanked him for his service. As I hoped wouldn’t happen, that made him assume I’d served too. “You?” he said.

My answer was to tell him a truth I’m not proud of and almost never volunteer: that my war was Vietnam, and I’d neither gone to it nor to war in the streets protesting it. Instead I dodged everything, through the improbable luck of finding on my initiative alone a coveted place for myself in the Air Force Reserve. I probably didn’t need to tell him that my luck included advantages based on an educated ability to negotiate a system that many young men of color who were sent to their peril could not.

He shrugged, conciliatory, affirmative. “You’da gone if you were called up.”

Which was true, but only because I absolutely would’ve had to.

Unprompted, he described his service, which was less arduous and daring than his cap and tank top implied: “Ten years in the navy, most of it under Reagan.” He smiled. “No wars.”

By then, his wife was back with news of luck of their own. She’d found a room on the Mississippi coast where they could stay as long as necessary. Cheryl moved around the end of the bar to stand next to her. The women introduced themselves—her name was Teresa—and they began to talk.

Soon it was later than we realized, almost time for the award ceremony at the gallery, so I settled our short tab with Nia, and Mark and I said good-bye with our eyes and a firm, protracted handshake.

Nia came from the kitchen beyond the bar with crisp, bulging grocery bags of take out that Mark and Teresa had ordered. She gave us go cups, and as Cheryl hugged both women and gave Nia her number in case she came to New Orleans, I realized that Nia reminded me of the independent, idealistic, super capable graduate students that for years I’ve enjoyed working with in classes. She and Teresa waved to us vigorously, and Mark was unsnapping his wallet as we ducked back into the fading sunlight.

Once we started toward the gallery, Cheryl took my hand and grinned. “I paid their bill.”

At first this alarmed me. “What if they’re offended!?”

She scrunched her cheeks, squinted, and shook her head almost imperceptibly, her usual way of dismissing my worries: “Teresa was fine with it—he’ll be fine too.”

She mentioned Katrina, our harried evacuation from New Orleans to central Mississippi, and I thought of the lineman down with a crew from Nebraska to restore power in Jackson, a man who insisted on giving me a fifty-dollar bill. Also the Cracker Barrel manager who at first let evacuees eat for free; and the dear family from India who ran the blacked-out chain motel we spent our first week in and, in particular, their aging countryman, Babu, who worked for them, who doted with wholesome tenderness on our three-year-old son, and who months later telephoned from Mississippi to wish us all a Merry Christmas.

Feeling my love for her and in a sudden flood of happiness, I squeezed my wife’s hand, and we walked on up Dauphin Street.


The co-op gallery was packed with white people, except for a heavy-set black teenager in shorts and a T-shirt who was welcome to help himself at the hors d’oeuvres table throughout the event. Cheryl didn’t win an award or expect to, but we liked being at the gallery. And we liked the regional artists who, though some occasionally sell work, are, as Cheryl is, skilled amateurs who paint because they love it.

Afterward, we had dinner in a busy, informal restaurant across the street. When we came out, it was dark. Galleries and neighboring businesses were open to celebrate “a night out for the arts,” and Dauphin Street was blocked off to traffic and framed in the sheen of low, arched street lamps. Among streams of locals, some pushing small children in strollers, we walked in the street in the direction we had come from. The door to the bar was open, and I glimpsed musicians setting up, but we didn’t go in. Cheryl was tired from the day’s drive, and though I would have liked to have listened to the music, which Nia had described to us, we knew she wouldn’t be there—her shift ended at 6—and Mark and Teresa were probably in their hotel in Mississippi by then. So we walked down Dauphin and before long were in our hotel too.

The next morning I woke early as usual. As I lay in the unaccustomed luxury of a vast, soft bed, my first thoughts were of the afternoon and evening before. I tend to overthink situations that have meaning for me and, no matter how well they go, often discover something in them to regret. I thought and thought about the short while we spent in the bar—and found nothing to be troubled about, only unexpected accord. I thought of Mark learning, after we left, that Cheryl had paid their bill, and I imagined him being pleased with the gesture—as I had been when near strangers were kind to us in the wake of Katrina. It was better that I hadn’t thought to do what Cheryl had. She had managed it smoothly; I probably wouldn’t have. I was glad they’d ordered a lot of food.

As I lay in comfort, it occurred to me that we could have driven home after the art show and left them our room. I was on the verge of feeling bad because that hadn’t occurred to me. Then I had to recognize that how things had happened was fine: the room Teresa found was a better option; they could stay there indefinitely. If I’d offered our one-night reservation and they’d accepted, they’d be back on the road today.

Lying there, my thoughts turned trivial and I remembered that the plastic go cups Nia had given us had something written on them, something—probably the name of the bar—that in the pleasure of walking to the gallery I didn’t read before we dropped the cups in a recycling bin there. But that was fine too. Though I like to know the names of things, what, really, did knowing what the bar was called matter?

When Cheryl woke, we checked out right away so someone in the glum throng camped in the lobby could have our room. Then, taking our time on the shaded side street, we walked to Dauphin Street and had an excellent breakfast in a café we’d noticed by the Cathedral square. After that, we idled back toward the hotel for our car, joined the westward congestion on the interstate, and rode home, having enjoyed moments that made me want to put them here.