Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
Rollins “Bullet” Garcia Sr. is a longtime New Orleans barkeep and owner of the legendary Bullet’s Sports Bar. A victim of a shooting that earned him his nickname, Bullet is a devoted member of the Seventh Ward neighborhood. If you ask him, his bar is off the grid—a place you go to if you’re in the know. Deep in the heart of the Seventh Ward, you’ll find the eponymous Bullet’s with a food truck outside. It’s slinging wings and po’ boys while the bar’s busy sending out beers and “setups” (a drink order that gets you a half pint of liquor, a mixer, and ice) to a crowd eager to hear live jazz, in a spot where some of the most legendary musicians cut loose.
I walked into Bullet’s darkened bar an hour before Nayo Jones was set to play on Tuesday, and he told me why Cheers can’t compare to his bar, what it was like to meet Champion Jack Dupree and Ernie-K-Doe, and why the pony beer is a dying breed.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Bullet. So, how’d you earn your nickname? Rollins “Bullet” Garcia Sr.: I got shot going to get a pack of cigarettes when I was 18 years old. They were robbing the place, and at that time the record “Eighteen with a Bullet” was out. A friend of mine nicknamed me that, and it stuck with me forever.
You opened Bullet’s about 17 years ago. Why are people coming here? People come here because this is the New Orleans Cheers. The Cheers that they have on TV has nothing on this. We have people that went to school together—grammar school, junior, high, college. They work together and now they’re tied together and come in. Then you have people who moved away that went to St. Augustine High School up the street, which is a prestigious school. They’ll be sitting there and say, “Hey, you seen so-and-so?” And I’ll look up at the clock and say, “Oh, he should be in around five or so.”
There’s a huge jazz scene at Bullet’s. You have people coming from all over the world to see musicians play. Oh, yeah. They’re coming from all over the world. Actually, the night of Katrina, Kermit Ruffins was scheduled to play here. That was, I want to say, a Saturday—if I can remember correctly. After it was all over, and I think Kermit was out of town in Texas, he came back and said, “Well, Bullet, what about Tuesday?” And I said, “Tuesday? Kermit there ain’t nobody coming out on no Tuesday.” He said, “Well, let’s try.” I said, “OK, boss. If you want to try, we’ll try.” We’re going on a ten-year stretch right now.
You have all these amazing musicians coming through. Do you learn anything from them? The best musician that I met is a guy who is a classical piano player. Or was, I should say. He told me the Klu Klux Klan burned his mother and his house down in Thibodaux or whatever. Must have been in the 50s. He later left and he never had come back to the US until then.
I met him with a guy named Rip Roberts, who was very good friends with Fats Domino and Ray Charles. As a matter of fact, he toured with Fats Domino as his valet, and I got to meet this little guy. Man, this little guy—Champion Jack Dupree, you ever heard of him? Man, this little goon. He was about five-foot-six, if he was that. He wore a jacket like a fighter, and he cursed like a sailor. Ugly as sin, but when he got on that piano he played like Liberace. I got to meet him, and then about two years later he died. You know, that was a great thing.
But man, all the musicians from all across and all the locals have come. I got to hang out with Ernie K-Doe when he came to sing “Dynamite Red.” All the locals, man. It’s just that when I’m not doing nothing on a Tuesday night, at the same time that most people are doing nothing, they’ll all pass through here.
We’re coming up on the ten-year of anniversary of Katrina. How tough was that on the bar and the neighborhood? It was tough. I still want to say that they should have had help quicker for the people. The President was standing flatfooted and lying to the people of New Orleans. It was tough, and it was an experience. I never left for Katrina. I was upstairs. Matter of fact, I got all kinds of Katrina pictures that I took, but I would never want to go through it again for the people who suffered.
It wasn’t so bad for me because I was prepared. I took in a lot of people; I had generators, gas, food. My wife had passed away the year before, and almost a year to the day we were expecting another little storm, but it turned before it got here. I was prepared for that storm. Every now and then I sit around and think about how we lost a lot of good people. It broke up our tightknit neighborhood. We got a lot more diversity in the neighborhood now. We got whites moving in that, at one time, would never have come. Now every other block you got them. I’ll stop and talk to them while I’m walking to the place.
But Katrina was trying. I stood here with the community when the water went down. Me and ten other guys walked around and made sure our houses weren’t being looted because I know some of the responders that came down were some of the ones doing it. You have people that was so ready when they got up, but most of the stuff they were prepared to take got left right where it was at when they realized we weren’t going to let it come together.
I just don’t want to go through it again. It didn’t scare me, but for the grief and what I seen happen. I lost a lot that wasn’t insured, but I wouldn’t want to do it for the grief on so many people’s faces.
I don’t cater to them young people. As far as that scene with the pants on their booty and all that, I don’t go for that.
A lot of people who are moving here are opening bars. What would you say to them? The bar business is a rough business. As you can see, we don’t deal with no young people. None. I don’t cater to them young people. I don’t knock it. I was young once. If a young nephew wants to come in with you or some girl want to come with their mother, that’s fine. But as far as that scene with the pants on their booty and all that, I don’t go for that.
I would say New Orleans is a fine place to get in business because you see and hear all sorts of things. You got ghosts, you know? I got a friend…
[At this point, Bullets recounts a story involving the spirit of Marie Laveau. I believe he suggests his friend killed her ghost, but the audio transcript is muddled by what sounds like an otherworldly woman’s wail. Seriously.]
I was hoping you could explain the story behind the “setup.” I don’t know the story exactly. It’s just old-time drinking. You ever heard of a pony beer? The little seven-ounce. They have the thing with the pony beers and the half-pints. Back in the day that was the thing, you know? This neighborhood consisted of bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers, and usually when they came in, they came in as a group. They would either order a pitcher of draft beer or they’d get a setup. From the setup, they might pour three drinks out of it. But most places don’t do it. It’s something that’s fading out.
Yeah, there aren’t many places left. No, and I don’t make money on it. I get beat up by it, but it’s a part of what I’ve been doing. This is an old timers’ bar, I’m old-school, and so I still do it.
Is there any other advice you’d like to give me?
I think when people come to the city they should seek out some of the nice establishments that’s not in the Quarter. A lot of them are hurting—a lot of them are
hurting from Katrina. I do well because I do real estate, but there are days that I don’t make $250 in here. That’s hard to believe if you look at a night like tonight, you know?
I mean, people like Willie Mays Fried Chicken. That’s a lady I knew. I grew up with her people. Ms. Dookie Chase—I grew up with her people. They got recognition, they got a lot of financial help, but I’m still trying to stitch the bulbs on the side of my building. That’s just the way it is, you know what I mean? The government came in here and looked around, and I didn’t get a dime. Since I was here already, I repaired it myself.
But I think the people who are coming in from out of town ought to venture out a little bit. I mean, make sure it’s safe. We got it locked down on the street here. I have the whole block lit up, you know? I mean, New Orleans is more than the Quarter. The Quarter is also super nigh. That beer you have right there [he indicates my Miller Lite] cost you $3 here. In the Quarter it’d cost you five or six. You know?
Alright, Bullet. I appreciate it.