Ode to K&B

Gonz’s note: Today is the last day Plastic.com is open. Someone called “Last Call” wrote this utterly brilliant sign-off. I liked it so much, I didn’t want to ever lose it, so here it is, reprinted in its entirety.


“Ain’t dere no more” has become a sort of cottage industry in New Orleans. We’re surrounded by things that aren’t, which is so fucking stupid I can hardly stand it. We spend hours, days, lifetimes talking about stores that are no longer selling, people who are no longer breathing, bars that are no longer serving, streets that are no longer breaking up and buildings that are no longer falling down. We’re obsessed by what isn’t.

What actually remains, we’re not sure. We are damn sure it’s inferior, though.

And, no, don’t give me that sympathetic “Oh dear, he’s talking about Katrina again, let’s all lower our voices to a whisper” bullshit. It was like this a LONG time before the Big Puddle.

McKenzie’s Bakeries, Schwegmann’s Grocery, the A&G, Maison Blanche… I mean, look, I’m not claiming I WENT to these places. But you hear the jingles as a kid, they worm their way into your brain, and create a kind of mental addiction there (sort of like ABBA).

For example, sing this to any New Orleanian: “Rosenberg’s, Rosenberg’s…” and every one of us, masculine though we might pretend to be, will switch to a little girl’s voice and say, with real joy and delight, “1825 Tulane”. I have no fucking idea what that means. Why am I singing in a falsetto to strangers?

(By the way, I WENT to 1825 Tulane recently, just to see what the hell that old commercial was singing about. And boy, there ain’t NOTHING dere no more. Not an address, not a building, not a neighborhood, just a giant empty sandlot protected by fences. I guess the fences are to prevent terrorists from stealing the emptiness by sneakily putting things there.)

So anyway, you build this psychic landscape of laundromats and corner stores, bowling alleys and poboy stands, and then one day–POOF– they’re gone: replaced with some horrible chain from Chicago that makes really shitty french bread and isn’t open on Sunday, or some other unbearable thing. It’s just a New Orleans tradition to bitch about this.

But the one that really hurt, the one that stung our collective pride, the one that was sort of like watching the guy who just bought the house you grew up in talk about “how much better the lot will look once someone’s cut down all those trees”… the absolute KILLER was the loss of the K&B.

Let me back up a little bit. So in nineteen-oh-something, when these sorts of things could still happen, two pharmacists met up in New Orleans, got a wild hair up their collective asses, and decided to open their own drug store. Gus Katz and Syd Besthoff borrowed the $25 it took back then to bribe the city council, rent a storefront, buy all the inventory they needed, hire a staff and have neat white-starched uniforms sewn up for everybody, and boy if they didn’t clean up like a couple of kabbalah gangbusters.

As the story goes, they bought a bunch of unwanted purple wrapping paper that was “too garish for Mardi Gras” and made it their official trademark. K&B Purple was born, and before long the city was drenched in it. I used to drink bright purple cough syrup as a kid that my folks bought there, and I swear it TASTED like K&B.

Gus died some time around WWII, and the Besthoff family took over, in the person of Syd Jr., who assumed the position, as it were, after his dad got too old to run the company. Junior leaped head first into the “drug store as a soda-fountain social hangout” tradition of the 50s (and we wonder how the 60s happened… hey, let’s send our kids to grow up in a pharmacological wonderland), so that before long, K&B’s were the festive hub of a city that is over the god-damn-moon for festive hubs.

Then, when Syd Jr. started flagging in the 1970s, his son Syd III took the helm. By then, K&B’s were strung all across the Gulf Coast like a strand of really cool purple beads, and they were so saturated in New Orleans that the very word “kayandbee” replaced “corner store” in our vocabulary. The corporation built a colossal headquarters building downtown, decked in fancy 1960s modern art that looks horrible today, but back then must have blown locals’ socks off. I’m pretty sure this is the sort of tricks kings and pharaohs used to keep people in awe and off the picket lines way back then. It still works.

Their store-brand ice cream was good too.

So here we are in the 1990s. Syd III is now an older feller, but he’s navigated the roaring 80s like the lifetime-pro he is, and the stores are doing just peachy.

But the company is still in dire straits, because Syd III lacks something Syd and Syd Jr. took for granted: a male heir. Syd had three daughters, all as successful as you please (they went to the best schools, which would explain why I never crossed paths with any of them…), but none, I suppose the rationale went, had the business acumen necessary to run a major Dixieland Pharmacopoeia. Ah, chauvinism, is there nothing you can’t destroy?

Rumors of K&B’s impending demise began to burble up in the early 90s, which is where your humble narrator pisses all over the story.

These were the salad days, when I was young and hung and fuller of fire than ire. Specifically, I had just gotten kicked out of college the first time, due to an honest misunderstanding, and I was working at The Club Ms Mae’s. This was, to put it delicately, not a fancy joint. For reference, there was a big swill last month–in 2011!–after they controversially raised the price of a drink from $1 to $2.

The $1 price point held sway in 1990-something with me behind the bar, nearly too young to drink, when a curious-looking guy in a clown suit slouched in and, swaying like a top, found his way just barely short of a booth.

The owner, Flo–who was ancient even then–has a strict policy about drunks: they are to be steadfastly encouraged. So I hustle out and pry the clown up off the ground and onto a bench. On closer inspection, I realize he’s not so much a clown as a comically-exaggerated tramp. For example, what I had previously thought were jokey clown shoes were actually functional shoes, but so expensive looking and outlandish that they look like props. His feet are enormous. Similarly, he’s wearing a mishmash of formal attire and crusty thrift-shop cast-offs: Smoking jacket and T-shirt, wool slacks with no socks, it’s just bizarre. I had presumed his massive wad of curly black hair to be a wig–but no–up close and personal it’s a real, all-natural Polamalu.

Normally, you order at the bar, but sometimes you have to bend policy to circumstance.

“Can I get you anything?” I say, but then on second thought I realize he just might ask for an ambulance, which would violate Flo’s Keep-Em-Drinkin Policy, so I add post-haste “you know, to, uh, drink?”

He rolls forward onto the table, takes a moment contemplating his own shiny nose, which is indeed visible from any angle, and says “Whiskey and water, but you know, separate.”

I’ve seen people do that, if they have a real taste for scotch: sample the tiniest bit of some single-malt and then add just the right touch of water for their palate from a separate glass. Of course, nothing you get for a buck at Ms. Mae’s would possibly fall into the “fine scotch” category, but Flo didn’t pay us to judge these people.

Back at the bar, the other barman Bruce has been watching our new guest, and describes him better than I ever managed: “He looks like a carricursha, you know, like they draw in da Quata. Big ol’ head all crazy lookin, tiny lil body added on too fast! Who da hell is dat?”

Ah, New Orleans, always asking “who dat”, never getting a sensible answer.

I bring him his drink all the same, at which time he swallows the entire whiskey in a single determined gulp, slaps a five on the table, and asks for a second. Another happy customer!

Three drinks in, and about five minutes later, the water is still untouched and Bruce and I are discussing whether we should expect this obviously-professional drinker to start ordering from the bar like everybody else. I’m of the opinion that if he can’t make the 10-foot round trip, maybe we should just let him sober up for a few hours. Bruce, bless him, thinks it would be rude of me to stop serving him after bringing three drinks out to his table. Rank was pulled and we settle on following the precedent I’d set. You know how it is when you’re dealing with some freakish madman who looks like he just escaped from the mental ward of hell, you get curious and you can’t help but toss in little bits of conversation. At least, that’s how it is with me, which probably explains some of the scars.

And so it was that, about an hour later when my shift ended, I find myself at the little caricature clown’s table, listening to his story, which really started and ended with his name: Sydney J. Besthoff-Voicin… “or, I don’t know, I guess I’m Number 4.”

I didn’t know the Besthoff family at all (I was about as clueless then as I am now) so he has to spell out for me what it all means, the long-unwinding story of Mr. Katz and Mr. Besthoff, and how they had made and lost fortunes together, etc. etc. See above, obviously.

“So you’re K&B’s son?” I ask, demonstrating again my mastery of English.

“Bastard son, technically. He didn’t even know I was around until a couple years ago. Mom decided to name me after him, but never mentioned me to Big Syd III at all. At least, that’s her story.”

He had grown up somewhere in Bay St. Louis, he said, the result of an unexpected liaison between his hotel-employed mother and Mr. B during one of the elder Besthoff’s many regional business trips. Much like me, he didn’t know much about the Besthoff family, grew up calling himself Syd Voicin, and that was that.

But, for whatever reason, a couple of years prior, he had done some research and moved to New Orleans to find his dear old dad. Now, I’m just recounting a drunken story told by a complete loon which, frankly, I have trouble remembering these many years later, but here was the gist of it:

He came to town and presented himself to Mr. B. The resemblance was, if not uncanny, at least not implausible, and in the wake of some blood work, Mr. B took his little clown of a son in and, though never welcoming formally him to the family, at least allowed him into their orbit. There was hemming and hawing on all sides about the scandal, but fuck it: believe it or not, the world moves on, and after a year our clown Syd got the sense his dad might actually be grooming him for, well, not control of the company, but at least some sort of role in the family business.

It was then that things started to fly apart for poor little Syd. Perhaps it was the stress of being thrust into a new family, perhaps the pressure of looking at a serious career for the first time, perhaps the many temptations of living in the big city after a childhood in the sticks, but the wheels came off.

It’s strange that people with access to money always crash so much more spectacularly than the rest of us. He told me that exactly one year to the day previous, he had crashed the high-society wedding of his half-sister, which was taking place at Temple Sinai on St. Charles, and had been ejected with such extreme prejudice that when he came to, he was being arrested for breaking into Audubon Zoo. He swears Mr. B’s “goons” tossed him into the lion pit, but I’m pretty sure he threw himself in there (if there’s any truth to his story at all). Just a hunch.

Anyway, back in the bar, the long and the short of it is that Number Four is convinced that it’s his personal failures that have convinced Mr. B to sell the franchise, because there’s simply no way in hell our fuck-up generation will able to get our shit together long enough to make a fortune selling Coke and condoms to the masses. And, you know, he kind of has a point there. On the other hand, I tell him, Mr. B has got to be a bright guy and I’m sure if all it took was one idiot bastard kid to ruin his family legacy, then fuck it, K&B was doomed anyway. I’m not sure if that was helpful or not… Number Four wasn’t taking it too well.

So I stand up, ready to leave this poor bastard, and it occurs to me “hey, maybe I can reconcile this guy with his dad. He seems like a reasonable bloke, not inherently mean, just a little dumb and sensitive, maybe, like a lot of kids without dads. Maybe I can save K&B!” I had this vision of us all out drinking together, with teary confessions and wild stories and hugs and new understandings.

I mean, like I said, back then I was a lot stupider.

But, looking down at his defeated mug, I had a realization. You can’t save everything. Even if you buckle up and give it all of your might, clear your head and give it your best plan, drop the bullshit and give it your most brutal answer–which frankly was never on the table with me for poor Number Four–sometimes you can plainly see that you are still totally fucked.

“Bruce” I said, “another one for our friend here, on me.” And off I went, and I have not seen that goofy specter since.

A few years later, K&B sold out to Rite Aid, which is just as horrible as you can possibly imagine. Worse than the loss of the high-fat ice cream and the K&B brand liquor, worse than the shuttering of those magnificent downtown offices, worse than knowing a brand New Orleans had created and foisted on America had been wiped from existence with the swipe of a pen, was the loss of the Purple. Rite Aid’s branded color is the blandest red ever dreamed up by a marketing exec, and they plastered it on everything. Today, the once-distinct K&B’s look like tiny Target outlets, and they don’t sell anything you can’t get at Walgreens. Well, except for beer (I didn’t say they were all bad).

You know, it reminds me of something my grandfather told me once: “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can fucking imagine.”

What he meant, I think, is that sometimes the best thing that can happen is for the stuff you love to go away for good, because then it’s crystallized inside of you. Nothing can touch it, no bad experience can sully it, and it just burns there, becoming brighter and more precious with every passing year. K&B is gone, and now it’s immortal, free to grow to impossible proportions as we all tell each other that, sure, Creole Creamery ice cream is awesome, but it will never be as delicious as K&B Neapolitan was. Or as cheap by the gallon.

So, looking ahead a few days, when Plastic ain’t dere no more, here’s my prediction: With every passing year, the internet will grow more spectacular, but so will our memories of this little site, which will in turn grow more and more remarkable by comparison. The imperfections and the trolls will get ironed out by time, until all that’s left is the perfect essence of debate and discovery: Every topic epic and every comment brilliant.

And that’s not too shabby of a legacy.

Oh, by the way, where am I off to? Nowhere, I’m perfectly happy here in NOLA. By the way, drinks at my place if anyone’s interested. It’s never too early to start reminiscing, right?

Two Screws Left

I first met her around the time of my nineteenth birthday.

She was a present, in the same way that getting clothes for Christmas when you’re eight is a “present”. I didn’t have my own car, so tensions between my brother and I were running high as we fought over the use of the white one with increasing frequency and furor, and this was the solution.
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Past Expiration Date

I awake on the floor.

It is almost 2PM. I have dim recollections of most everyone I care about wishing me farewell before they head out to a brave new world, and TG giving me instructions pertaining to what will likely be my final exit from his house tomorrow morning: cut the breaker to the water heater, turn the AC to off, etc. But then again, that was so long ago, to my mind, that the woolly mammoth may as well have been walking the earth still.
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The Keg of Glory

North by Southwest

The flight(s) up were catastrophic in a lot of ways.

The first one was hours late. Then, the pilot decides to head north to get out of the way of some weather – adding another entire hour to the flight. Then, after running through the airport like a fucking marine, bag over my head, knocking two people down on the people-mover (yes, I really did), and almost getting arrested for breezing through a checkpoint, Southwest decides it suddenly reveres punctuality – my flight left three minutes ago.
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Taking the Alley

The alley, along with everything else today, was drenched in the dry summer heat that everyone pretended not to notice. It was always just a little out of place; the only of its kind in the city, the one place where things just didn’t meet up perfectly. One side of it, the one on Frank’s left, was the result of the ass-end of a shopping mall; the other, the sides of a block of retail stores. The bricks had been painted over several times, but were a deep maroon now, with flakes of yellow showing through on both sides.
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