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Freezer Burn 

If your air conditioner is busted, don't bring it to the Saturn Bar. After 20 years of repair work, Neil has had enough.

Neil -- "just Neil," he says -- owns the nearly world-famous Saturn Bar, but similarities with other business owners ends there.

For one thing, he's not interested in marketing. He doesn't own a computer, is not on the Internet and is surprised to learn that dozens of Web sites list his Bywater dive as a spot in New Orleans that absolutely must not be missed.

For another, he doesn't want any more customers. Too many freeloaders, like the guy the other night who brought in a quart mayonnaise jar and asked Neil to pour his highballs in that. Or another guy who scarfed down bowl after bowl of free potato chips and then had the gall to ask Neil for some dip. "Cheeky," Neil comments with a raised eyebrow.

And even though he's become known over the past 20 years for fixing people's air conditioners in the back of the Saturn Bar, Neil quit last year -- and he definitely doesn't want to fix your damn AC. He's done. Don't even ask.

This is Neil's first air-conditioning-repair-free summer since the mid-1980s, and he's delighted. "I'm retired," Neil says, standing behind the bar and picking through flats of Creole tomatoes that he just bought from a produce vendor. ("These aren't so great, but they're OK. I'll put some in a bag for ya.") The business of fixing air conditioners, Neil explains, was actually costing him money instead of earning him some extra cash. It was also creating too many headaches.

"Half the time I'd do it as a favor for a friend, you know? Half the time I'd charge $25, $35. And you fix it one time, it breaks -- you gotta fix it again for free. They don't care if they only paid five bucks for you to do it the first time. If it breaks again, it's my problem."

Neil is a tinkerer. He obtains stuff that's broken and cheap and either fixes it or stashes it for a future project. In the "junk room," the back room of the Saturn Bar in which he used to fix air-conditioning units, his work table (a sawdust-covered pool table) groans under the weight of lumber, tools, brushes, oil, plaster of Paris. There's an old screen printing machine he's had about 15 or 20 years on which he prints Saturn Bar T-shirts. He owns six houses and has plenty of projects to keep him occupied, and now none of them involve fixing other people's stuff. Not that people don't ask. "People bring all kind of shit over. 'Fix this, fix that.'"

Neil's penchant for tinkering got him into the air-conditioning repair business to begin with. It was 1983, he had just forked over $500 for someone to come fix his air conditioner and beer cooler, and he was stewing over it. "I thought if he could do it, I could do it," he says. He enrolled in refrigeration repair school that year. "They called me Pops in the classroom, all the kids in there," he recalls.

Neil got a job with a mechanic for a while to get experience, and before he knew it, people were asking for his help left and right. Sometimes he'd troubleshoot from the other side of the bar. "They would say 'My AC is broken.' I'd say 'What's it doing?' They'd say, "HMMMM," I'd say 'Your fan belt's out.' That kind of thing."

Neil never advertised himself as an air-conditioning repairman, but it didn't take long for him to amass a list of customers eager for his services. "You do people favors and shit like that, before long, they're saying to others, 'Call him up, he'll take care of you.'" Total strangers were ringing the bar to ask if Neil could stop by and take a look at their air conditioners, or maybe come pick up their window units to bring back to the bar with him. Neither option appealed to him. "It's hot up in there, them old houses don't have that exhaust unit," Neil says.

As for hauling air conditioners to the back of the Saturn Bar -- "them units are heavy, too, baby." All that running back and forth between the junk room and the bar got tiresome. "You gotta wash your hands, then come back up here and wait on someone." He also had his share of people who'd beg for his help, assuring him they had checked for all obvious problems and desperate for their air conditioner to work again. "And I would get there and take the entire unit apart and there'd be nothing wrong with it. I'd say, 'You sure it's not the circuit breaker?' They'd say 'Yeah, yeah, I'm sure.' And I'd go check and sure enough, it's the circuit breaker."

So no more -- no more lifting heavy window units, no more trying to convince people they'd save more money getting a new energy-efficient model than attempting to revive an old one. No more figuring out how to fix increasingly complicated air-conditioning units. ("They got the computer board in there now. I didn't learn that shit when I went to school.") No more climbing on his hands and knees up in other people's houses. No more attics for him. It's too hot, he says, and he's too old.

Neil is now 65. He's not only a tinkerer, but a collector, too. When you're in the Saturn Bar, you spend most of your time just looking around. Some things have been here since Neil took over the bar in 1960, at age 23 -- back when he thought he'd try out bar ownership for six months -- such as the multicolored neon lights in the ceiling, and the beer cooler. Other things acquired over the years include a stuffed Japanese cat, a Cardio Glide exercise machine, pictures and paintings on every inch of the wall: Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, a clown. A stuffed rooster, gumball machines, old baseball caps that say "Virginia Beach," "Only In Louisiana," and "Houston Police." Three vintage jukeboxes, only one of which actually works; it plays Brenda Lee, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Elvis.

Under a taxidermied duck sits the liquor cabinet, holding ancient bottles of booze that reside alongside newer bottles of Rumple Minze and Grand Marnier. A sleek bottle of Grey Goose vodka looks too contemporary and out-of-place here. Other shelves are crammed with memorabilia: ancient 7-Up bottles, statuettes of the Budweiser Clydesdale horses, a plastic toilet throw from a Krewe of Tucks parade, statues of saints, voodoo dolls, old Mickey Mouse ears, a Statue of Liberty lamp that Neil bought broken for $25 and fixed. A bumper sticker: "I'd Rather Be At The Opera." A mummy hanging from the ceiling -- the vestige of a Halloween party held about 25 years ago. A vintage desktop pay phone.

"It just quit on me last week," Neil says, picking up the headset and punching the switch several times. He thinks one of his customers broke it. "They get pissed off when it clicks off after a few minutes."

A bag of poultry feed in the junk room is for the chickens that Neil keeps in his yard at his home in the Bywater. "You gotta take care of the animals, baby," he says as Stripes the cat stretches out on the bar.

Now that he's no longer fixing air conditioners, Neil has time to explore other interests. He first grew carrots in a Victory garden in the fourth grade, liked it, and is getting back into gardening. He's growing fruits and vegetables like crazy in his yard: tomatoes, figs, bay leaves, lemons. Grapefruit, satsumas, plums, cucumbers. Okra, eggplant, strawberries. He's lately been dabbling in art, too. A folk-art rendition of the devil, hanging on the wall (with a warning "You Are Being Watch") turns out to be Neil's creation. He recently started painting and drawing, "just fooling around," and has been giving his finished works to friends.

Next to the bar hums a giant old air-conditioning unit. Installed before Neil went to refrigeration school, it's a three-phase model that uses three lines instead of two, he explains. "They don't make 'em like that anymore."

It's throwing off a fair amount of cool air, but the machine is not long for this world. "It's still working but it's on its last legs," Neil says. "I don't think it's gonna last the summer." But surely, when it does go out, Neil's going to try and salvage it ... isn't he?

Neil gives a little laugh. "You kiddin'?"

Continued ...

click to enlarge Fixing air conditioners isn't worth the bother, says - Neil. "Half the time I'd do it as a favor for a friend, - you know? And if it breaks -- you gotta fix it again - for free. They don't care if they only paid five bucks - for you to do it the first time. If it breaks again, it's - my problem."
  • Fixing air conditioners isn't worth the bother, says Neil. "Half the time I'd do it as a favor for a friend, you know? And if it breaks -- you gotta fix it again for free. They don't care if they only paid five bucks for you to do it the first time. If it breaks again, it's my problem."
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