At the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Decatur Street, Check Point Charlie has just kicked off happy hour. The 24-hour bar has drink specials from 4 to 7, both a.m. and p.m. Inside, a bouncing reggae beat plays on the stereo and the smell of frying burgers fills the air.
Bartender Caroline Koch, a petite woman in a Bob Marley T-shirt, keeps an eye on the grill as she tidies up the bar. She's been working the 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. graveyard shift for three months. "Everybody has had their day and their night, and I'm just waking up," she says. "10 a.m. was hard the first week, but I've adjusted."
Crowds often pour into Checkpoint Charlie when other bars in the Faubourg Marigny shut their doors at 4 a.m., but late-night traffic is unpredictable. Most of the customers work at restaurants and other bars in the French Quarter. "If they have a good night, on the one hand they are likely to come in and get drunk," Koch says. "On the other hand, when they have a good night they are often too tired to go out."
Tonight the crowd is sparse. A middle-aged man glumly plugs quarters into a video poker machine. A clean-cut young couple leans in to talk across a table full of drinks, burgers and fries. At the bar, a slender woman wearing long chandelier earrings chats with Koch.
Across town at Igor's Lounge on St. Charles Avenue, at 4:45 a.m., a boisterous crowd fills the room. It's the bar of last resort for many night owls. Up the street, the atmosphere is more subdued at the Avenue Pub. Nearly every bar stool is occupied and everyone seems to know each other. It's like Cheers, but the patrons look a little more worn out and the bartender, Gabe Heckler, doesn't get a roar of laughter when he cracks a joke.
A woman sporting a tapestry of tattoos on her arms finishes her drink and asks Heckler, "Can you call me a cab?"
"You're a cab," Heckler says. A few people giggle. "I can't believe people are still laughing at that shit," the tattooed woman says.
"Everyone here works at another bar," Heckler says as he gestures across the room. "They've put up with drama all night, and they don't want any more." And, Heckler adds, they tip well. "I've been here a long time," he says. "The clientele, I love 'em."
When the bartenders go home, Heckler can never predict who will walk into Avenue Pub as the sun comes up. "Sometimes I've got nobody here in the morning, and sometimes I've got 50," he says. In the summers, when the tourists clear out, the homeless often wander in and demand discounts on drinks. "I tell them that they wouldn't try to negotiate at McDonald's," Heckler says. They learn quickly not to expect a special deal at the Avenue Pub.
Ms. Mae's on Magazine Street has a more varied clientele. According to bartender Al Foret, the Tulane kids fill Ms. Mae's from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., then the service industry crowd, and finally around "8, 9, 10 a.m., the older men who get up and come straight to the bar."
There is plenty of drama at Ms. Mae's, perhaps fueled by some of the cheaper drinks in town. Strippers from the Hustler Club have come in after work, Foret says. "They take their shirts off, and before you know it there's a naked girl dancing around."
One night, Foret says, he had to toss out a drunken woman dancing on a pool table. When he first asked her to leave, she kicked him in the face. An hour later, she came back to Ms. Mae's. From her blank expression, Foret guessed that she had no memory of being ejected from the bar earlier that night.
This morning, there are no strippers. The Cure blares on the jukebox, making it impossible to talk without shouting. A few young guys play pool in the back. Around 6 a.m., I finish my $2 Bloody Mary and walk into the morning sunlight. The streets are full of people driving to work. No one inside Ms. Mae's showed signs of leaving anytime soon.