We lost Lee about three weeks ago. That’s what Arthur told me.
It was Friday morning, early. And when I’m up around sunrise in the city of New Orleans, it seems my feet still automatically take me to Igor’s so I can usher in the new day on St. Charles Avenue with the leftover drunks and morning tourists.
I caught Arthur as he was cleaning the grill behind the bar. That’s where he gave me the news about Lee.
Lee was the porter at Igor’s restaurant next door back when I worked the bar, which is now 20 years ago. A deep and abiding case of the sugars motivated doctors to begin cutting him down from the ground up: First one of his feet, then the other, taking off his legs in slices until there was nothing left but nubs.
I didn’t think the tough old bastard could have lasted that long, I told Arthur.
“Neither me,” he said.
“Porter” is a New Orleans term for the person who cleans up the bar in the morning. Sometimes the porter is old, like Miss Hattie who worked the Uptown bar circuit from TJ Quill’s to Fat Harry’s until the day she died. Sometimes the porter is young, like Burma Jones, who swept up at the Night of Joy nightclub in the book Confederacy of Dunces. Some porters are gentle and some are mean. Some drink and some don’t. But New Orleans porters are always poor, and they are always black.
Arthur was my porter for most of my tenure at Igor’s, a smiling countenance amid a barroom full of morning drunks. He was preceded by Herbert Valentine, who was somewhat less enthusiastic about the gig — he often wore a black T-shirt that read: “Don’t ask me 4 sh*t” — and eventually lost the job when he pulled the cardinal sin of the New Orleans service industry: No call, no show.
Another porter by the name of Mr. Andrew was on the clock during those years as well, a long pencil of a man whose wife Miss Anna cooked at the restaurant with Lee. He was getting on in years when I knew him, had been with Igor since the 1970s and at that point in his career didn’t do much but swipe the mop around while Arthur did the heavy lifting.
Mr. Andrew died before Katrina, Miss Anna shortly after. There’s a new guy sweeping up at the restaurant; he came on when Lee moved into his wheelchair.
But Arthur’s still going, 20 years strong, as dependable as the morning sun that scatters through the oaks along St. Charles Avenue.