By. David Perkins
There are places tattooed around the city of New Orleans that are intrinsically connected to the stories of people, both past and present. To walk up to The Club Ms. Mae’s, a local watering hole at the corner of Magazine and Napoleon, is like walking up to an old Sequoia, whose cracks and rivets etched in the green and white paneling flow down the sides like time. The red neon sign that hangs over the front door doesn’t have the same devilish seductiveness at 9 in the morning as it does in the mask of the night yet walking up to the entrance of the bar there is a palpable energy either from the glow of the sign, or the jangle of glasses being stocked by the bartender inside.
With the festivities of Mardi Gras in full effect, every bar in the city prepares for an influx of customers, newly and happily acquainted with open container laws, and the rowdy nature of their surroundings. Ms. Mae’s is located on the path of many iconic parades led by Rex, and other famous krewes that draw crowds by the thousands. The workers and bartenders at Ms. Mae’s have a challenging week ahead, but as history shows, the bar has been through it all and no amount of chaos can kill their success.
“You go to any f*cking bar on Magazine Street, and someone has been murdered there,” said Evan Lowe, a patron with gray streaks in his beard, and a blue hat that rested comfortably on his head. The building that Ms. Mae’s currently called home was no exception to this grisly rule.
The history of the bar extends decades before it was bought by Florence Bingham, better known as Ms. Mae, in 1999. The bar first opened its door in 1906 and has been a staple in the New Orleans community ever since, continuously adapting and surviving in chaotic and violent times. During prohibition, the bar changed its name to the Library Café, serving breakfast food and beverages like coffee, but with a little twist. In 1934, the bar was sold to Henry Englebrock, who humbly named the bar the Englebrock Café until 1963, when the bar became a club under the ownership of Joe Bisso. At the club, having a rough night meant a whole lot more than ending up with your head on a toilet seat.
“People complain about the violence in popping up in New Orleans, but come on, New Orleans has always been violent!” declared Lowe. “In 1976, it was a late night, well it was always a late-night bar,” he quickly shifted that comment aside with the dart of his eyes, “and a couple in their 20s were arguing with each other, getting violent with each other. The bar tender tried to break up the fight, the guy pulls out a knife, stabs him in the throat. The couple then takes an icepick from the bar and stab him 45 times. He dies right here,” he nods at the counter where he nonchalantly rested his arm, “bleeding out right behind the bar, and the coroner who declared him dead on the scene is still alive, Frank Minyard.” The bartender working that day only recently heard the unfortunate story of her predecessor, but she claimed to have stories of her own when Ms. Mae took over the bar. “She (Ms. Mae) was rough man but loved the bar and was in the bar all the time. Oh, she had stories, but nothing I would want to be in a recording.”
In a place where day melts into night, and peculiarity is a regular customer, the upcoming Mardi Gras does not phase any of the workers. “We have a system, all drinks are doubles, cash only, but it’s an ordeal, it’s a pain in the ass, but we make a lot of money so it’s no big.” In the back, suppliers unloaded cases upon cases of Jameson, Southern Comfort, and other hard liquors to stock the bar. Ms. Mae’s is ready for anything and will thrive in the Mardi Gras season much like it has done in the past.