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Not Even Hurricanes Force French Quarter Bar to Close Its Doors


"Let the Good Times Roll" is a famous saying in New Orleans. Yet since Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29th and the city was flooded, then almost entirely evacuated, good times there have been rare indeed. Rare -- but not unheard of.

At the corner of Bourbon and Orleans Streets in New Orleans' French Quarter, amid the abandoned restaurants, moldering antebellum homes, and fallen trees, there is life - at Johnny White's Sports Bar.

Bartender Larry Hirst pours another drink for an old man named Sam and points to a sign near the cash register… "'We never close,'" he proudly reads, "and the sign is 14 years old!" Sam pipes in "What you gonna close for? If you're gonna die, die happy!" Both men share a laugh.

Marcie Ramsey, a loyal customer who sometimes tends bar, says she and her pet Chihuahua will stay here for the long term.

"This is our community center for everybody to get together and not be cooped up in their houses and hang out and have a couple of drinks," she says. "Nobody gets turned away. People who don't have a place to stay sleep on the floor. So we're taking care of our own in our own neighborhood, so we can stay and rebuild our city the way it should be."

Maggie, a long-time Johnny White's regular who sports a Mohawk hairstyle and tattoo-covered arms, nods in agreement. "You don't abandon your friends and neighbors! Period! The end! Amen!"

Thousands of New Orleans residents who found refuge in shelters have been flooded with supplies from the government and private organizations. But Larry the bartender says the French Quarter has no distribution center.

"We send our own people to go to other disbursement centers to get MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), to bring water in here, bring juice," he says. "We've got food, we've got books, we've got clothes, we've got CDs -- if you have enough batteries to run a CD player!"

While Maggie serenades Sam, Denny, and the rest of the group on her guitar, Larry the bartender says Johnny White's embodies the New Orleans spirit. He loves the spirit at Johnny White's.

"The spirit is a big heart. The spirit is camaraderie between people," he says. "We are multi-cultural. There is no discrimination in the French Quarter about age or anything else. Everyone has their own opinion about things and they espouse that with humor. And that's why I love the French Quarter and why I'll never leave the French Quarter."

Larry Burkey, a loyal customer, did leave the city with his wife, then returned without her.

"She's 65 years old. She's finished," he explains. "She's lost her job and lost her home." He looks down at his drink, then says "My wife says she's never coming back and 'if you go back, you and I are finished!' I said 'honey, let me put it in very simple terms: New Orleans is the greatest city in the world. It's gonna cost me a divorce!'"

The official order to evacuate New Orleans is still in effect. I ask Marcie Ramsey and Steve Bartlee, a local who has been guarding a nearby bar against looters but who drinks at Johnny White's, whether the authorities have come around to shut the bar.

"A couple of times," says Ms. Ramsey, "but they've pretty much backed off of us for now because they've got bigger fish to fry in other areas of town." Mr. Bartlee was quick to add "We've been avoiding them any way possible Maybe they are going to come in one of these days and say 'Okay. You guys all gotta go. We're closing the doors here.' But so far - thank God! - it hasn't happened yet." He seems to express the opinion of many when he says "I didn't want to go camp out with 10,000 people in the Astrodome… We're the real survivors. It's been like a family affair."

But Marcie Ramsey adds that, as with any family affair, there are stresses. The near-constant police and army helicopter patrols overhead probably don't help.

"I had to walk out of here the other day. I couldn't take it any more," she says. "Too much testosterone! I'm one of the few females left in the city and I just had to go." But she's back, and along with her friends, hoping that the city will come back and working to make it so.

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