Friday, March 28, 2008

Bertha's Place

1523 Basin Street
February 25, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

We were misfits.

Locals in first-name friendships with Bertha Bradley, the owner and bartender, wore fedoras and shiny-tipped shoes. The sign outside said, "No one under 30 allowed." None of us met the age requirement, but a girl in the group had met Walter "Wolfman" Washington, the night's act the week before.

Bertha said we were ok.

Bertha's Place is on the corner of Basin Street, curved like several of New Orleans' streets. Her bar sits where the road begins to straighten. I'd driven by it often, noticing the bright purple and white sign, a portrait of Bertha in a white hat bookending the right-side.

"Bertha's Place. Where customers become family," the sign says.

We found her on a Monday night. The group walked in and stood out. People watched us order drinks, talk in the corner. I felt out-of-place. This wasn't our spot. We were too young, too pale to be inside. But Bertha came over and introduced herself after setting down the buckets of beer. This was her place, she said. Thanks for coming.

The music and friendship were what you look for in a night on the town--good-natured and hassle-free.

Bertha moved to this corner 13 years ago when the area had seven bars. It was spot of hot nightlife for the Treme (tra-may) neighborhood. Today, Bertha and one other are the only ones left. Treme, New Orleanians say, is where New Orleans musicians are bred. When you talk to someone from the neighborhood, they tell you how Treme kids learn on trumpets taller than them.

Historians call Treme the oldest African-American neighborhood in America. In the late 1700s and into the early 1800s, African slaves who obtained freedom were able to purchase property in Treme. Hundreds of properties were owned by free people of color in this neighborhood during an active-slavery era in America.

Bertha's business takes work. She spent 80,000 dollars to repair from Katrina's damage. It's a lot of money for a woman who charges three bucks a beer and offers free catfish and potato salad on Monday nights.

"It's been tough," she said.

Most times, when insiders talk to outsiders, they give the glossy-eyed answer that's been in circulation during year two of the recovery. The "we're plugging along and we'll be back" answers. I've noticed this often in the outsider role.

Bertha was different. She teared up. Tired now of being one of the few small business owners to come back in this section of the City. Afraid of ending up like bar-owners who end up old and penniless.

"I don't want to grow old in a bar," she said. "But I felt I needed to come back."

Bertha is originally from Pensacola, Fl. She moved to New Orleans and worked for the phone company in the 80s. She also was a bar-maid at Club 38 in the area of
town she's now synonymous with. "I always wore gloves and had my hair done," she said. "We knew what brought the men in."

Today, close to 60, she's the same way. "I always need to have a hat on," she said. "I feel naked without one."

She treats her employees like family too. In this business, she says, if the bar-owner doesn't make money, neither does the help. Too often, she's heard stories where the help didn't get paychecks.

"She paid us out of her own pocket," Maura Batiste, an employee for Bertha since 1996, said.

Walter "Wolfman" Washington plays here every Monday. It's new, she says, acknowledging that Washington is helping her increase business on a typically slow

"1985 was the first event Walter worked for me," she said. "He said it was an honor to come back."



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