I was an employee of the Royal Street Grocery when The Times-Picayune published a memorial piece on my then boss (Robert Buras) and his father, who had initially opened the store. However, there is very much a story worth telling of the surprisingly long time during which Robert neglected his law career in honor of his dad’s final wishes for the business to remain open.
The two other Buras siblings, who could have afforded the venture, were far too accustomed to their defense law and judicial careers to attempt to run a grocery store. Although I never had the honor of meeting the man behind this enigmatic local institution (Robert’s father), based on the wonderfully written article along with stories from Robert’s family, employees, and longtime regular customers, The Buras family patriarch had been known to all as a great man. Also, I presume the store’s founder had been quite savvy in naming the place a “grocery,” even though the vast majority of sales were those of a vast array of beer, rare liquor, a cornucopia of tobacco eccentricities, not to mention the piece de’ resistance, their fresh cooked deli menu. Because of this (I always figured but didn’t dare ask) the “grocery” only had to deal with taxes when it came to the cashiers.
How It All Began
The first time I set foot in The Royal Street Grocery I was 18 years old, living in my first apartment on the corner of Elysian Fields and Burgundy, spanging (asking people for spare change) while job hunting. Hence, I looked far more presentable than most “spangers.” I was determined to NOT mooch off of my very generous and also very protective older male roommates. One roommate, Matt, who eventually became my boyfriend after we left that dump, had trouble waking up for an 11am bike delivery shift. So his ex-girlfriend would often have to give up her priceless French Quarter parking place to drive down to where we lived in the Marigny and nearly kick down the front door in her then favorite Rocket Dog shoes. Even in these comfy, yet very tall shoes, she stood at only five feet (at best), but hell hath no fury like an ex-girlfriend/coworker who has wasted a large portion of her workday (as well as a great parking spot).
Eventually, I did find a job a Cafe Beignet on Decatur through a friend. The place was utterly horrible, and the owner was quite unpleasant. My shifts began before sunrise, but I was walking distance from work. Since I was already planning to rendezvous with Matt and Suzy, the door kicking cashier ex-girlfriend with whom I had become fast friends, I saw an opportunity to embellish the pittance I was making at my health code violation wrought job at Cafe Beignet. Matt began to take on cooking shifts after a former cook had been fired. The other bike delivery guy at the time, Laurence, wore his boredom on his sleeve. Usually, Laurence was satisfied with his tips from the morning shift and not too interested in carrying out the slower, later part of his shift. The drill was simple: “Hey, Laurence. You feel like taking off early?” For the most part, he gladly complied, cashing out and switching over the delivery funds and tips as well as the vintage Schwinn (The Tank) that was completely necessary for braving the countless potholes and insanely reckless, often drunk drivers putting the rider of the store’s bike in constant peril.
After I happily left the job Cafe Beignet, I found a housekeeping job at Hotel St Pierre. The hotel was on Burgundy and had stairs and walkways only. The management would sooner rush the other women and me off of the clock than have the hotel pay each maid $6 more for the extra hour that would have allowed us to clean the hotel rooms PROPERLY. So again, I would march over to The Grocery to make some extra pocket money. When Hotel St Pierre “took me off of the schedule temporarily” Laurence was leaving town, so I gladly took over full-day bike delivery shifts. From then on, I worked for The Grocery on a full-time basis.
Among the original cast of characters who staffed The Royal Street Grocery as well as frequented it, there was an older lady named Mary Ann who noted every “no sale” she pressed on the cash register when a customer paid exact change, or she knew the change from memory. It was no secret that Mary Ann’s shifts ended with her taking a trip to the bathroom before pulling her drawer where she put the sum of the “no sales” in her drawers. Robert called this her retirement plan. Unfortunately, Mary Ann got bitten by a Brown Recluse Spider and while being treated for the poisoning was diagnosed with cancer, which later proved to be terminal.
Far before my official employment, there were two cooks; a gay couple named Jesse and Daren. Jesse was quite mild mannered and of slight build, yet was known for doing a number on a would-be mugger with a Kryptonite bicycle lock while running a delivery during a busy evening. His boyfriend, Daren, was a lousy drunk. I first became acquainted with this poorly matched pair during an evening shift. I sat at one of the tables listening to Daren paint his partner, Jesse, 10 yards away as a despicable jerk. Matt suggested that Daren and I take a walk. After witnessing Daren’s hissy fit over a bar’s shortage of ashtrays, I knew I had been a pawn. After the ashtray debacle, a street singer offered to serenade us because we were “such a beautiful couple” (to draw a crowd I figured). Daren rudely told the man that HE was gay and WE were not a couple. I managed to persuade him to accept the free serenade and brought him back to The Grocery livid about the situation pawned off on me. Eventually, the two cooks were fired – though they used the store phone book to call the Better Business Bureau and other government agencies to complain. Even Miss Joan Goode, the proprietress of a successful jewelry store a few doors down called me into her shop for the scoop on the absurdity of the situation. Disgruntled ex-employees, end of story.
The rodent infestation (of which no employee was allowed to speak as long as The Royal Street Grocery remained open) was arguably one of the worst kept secrets in the French Quarter. Since Robert and the rest of his family were Sicilian, the front display window had a yearly St Joseph’s Day altar including the best Italian bread and pastries. This was equivalent to Thanksgiving for the mutant French Quarter rats which, let’s be serious, infest more than half of New Orleans. My first rat run-in was the first time I used the store bathroom. I was, fortunately, washing my hands by the time the mammoth thing emerged from behind an unused wooden door which rested the bathroom wall. I screamed so loudly that, as I was told, passers-by and everyone in the grocery heard me. Momentarily, my then-roommate retrieved me from where I stood on top of the toilet lid and carried me back out to the common area. For the next several years I would open the restroom door from the outside, kick up the toilet seat, hop onto the rim, and hover as if out in nature.
At one point, Robert took a cue from former Sheriff Foti’s approach to City Park’s nutria infestation, paying off duty officers per nutria carcass for shooting them while off duty. Foti was notably successful with this strategy, so when Robert learned that one of Matt’s friends had a pellet gun, he paid them per rat slain with it. The three of us would sit perched inside the bay windows on an ill-equipped rental apartment above the store some nights overlooking the back courtyard. I watched while the two men took turns wielding the pellet gun as we all quietly waited for the rats to start emerging into the center of the courtyard. The two did kill a good number of the disgusting pests and made some pocket money in the process. One rat took a pellet fired by one of my companions but still scurried under the metal courtyard gate onto St Ann Street. We heard a drunk guy walking from the direction of Bourbon Street say, “Hey, rat!” followed by a stomp and a piercing squeak. I certainly hope that they received payment for the one the inebriated stranger finished off, particularly since the festering carcass remained a few feet from the window through which I retrieved fresh deliveries until it decomposed in the sun.
Eventually, Laurence left town. I began splitting the week with John, a local musician whose band at the time held a regular gig at The Spotted Cat during our busy season (fall and winter mostly). While delivering food on the old Schwinn, I was in constant peril, nearly being killed by bad drivers daily. I dodged many shuttles and even a mule when the female carriage tour guide turned her to face her passengers while the mule was about to trample me. As payback for the near-fatal discourtesy, I told tourists considering rendering any of these people’s services to ride with anyone but her; she lets her mule run people over in various ways each time. None of the negligent woman’s competition seemed to mind.
To Turn A Phrase
After fully healing from an injury and following surgery on his foot, a close friend named Wayne became a more relevant part of my young adult life and the memorable cast of characters which comprised The Royal Street Grocery staff, friends, family, and surrogate family alike. Eventually, Wayne took a job cooking alongside Matt. Wayne was an unhealthy weight, and not at all in denial of this. But he was incredibly generous and loyal, sometimes to a fault. Wayne had a way of phrasing his thoughts that was almost an art form. Regarding our collective boss, Robert, for example, Wayne would say, “That dude just falls in s**t and comes out smelling like roses!”
Many mutual friends both in the employ of The Royal Street Grocery along with their close friends gathered in various groupings, either at my place of residence (shared with Matt) or that of Wayne (sometimes both were unanimous.) We (mostly guys ranging between their early 20s through 50s or so) were avid movie buffs, and a couple of common fixtures in social settings had vast collections of movies on DVD and video games which they would bring for all to enjoy.
Wayne and I became somewhat fans of the small yet respectable enough early career of a certain film actor. We, among thousands of others, turned on this person after his participation in the desecration of a late, great, film director’s masterpiece. (Hint: On the Netflix series, “Love,” during a cameo, Andy Dick MAY have slipped up while ad-libbing about this aforementioned person.) Wayne and I were sitting outside the grocery on a cigarette break on the corner of Royal and St Ann when I was pretty sure I saw him coming around the corner from the Oz and Bourbon Pub. He walked by, desperately coming onto a young, attractive gay man who seemed none too impressed. Wayne, sitting next to me, squinted in the sunlight, trying to place the familiar face. The look of terror that crossed it was confirmation enough.
Stop It, Jim
One young female cashier sold marijuana over the counter under the guise of a carry out orders frequently. When a regular customer phoned the Grocery, she answered, they put in their request, and then came for their regular cigarettes, wine, etc., and the pot stapled inside one of the small paper bags commonly kept in French Quarter stores to allow customers to carry glass beer bottles legally down the street. Most of the staff were also frequent patrons of the woman’s side business.
There was a homeless man named Jim who somehow had an ATM card, presumably to collect disability funds for his coffee, rolling tobacco, and other necessities. Jim was a real card, as they say, always breaking the monotony during slower parts of anyone’s workday at The Grocery. He enjoyed talking to me in particular. At one point over a cigarette, the wisecracking, wizened man tried to convince me that I needed to watch out for “the one-armed man.” He then summarized the entire plot of The Fugitive to me. Perhaps years ago, Harrison Ford had made an appearance while Jim was there? Who knows.
Jim was liked by all. One evening, while leaving Suzy’s long-sought parking spot to head home from work, it began to sleet. We spotted Jim with a massive rip in the back of his pants. We called Robert, who was still behind the register and told him. Apparently, Robert and a few other business owners who were still around pitched in money and purchased Jim a pair of pants from a clothing store which had not yet closed its doors for the day. The only thing that Jim was not allowed to do while mingling around inside the busy Royal Street Grocery was mess with the cats Robert kept around the store. Naturally, this was exactly what Jim would do, especially targeting the most skittish of the felines when feeling mischievous.
During crawfish season, I was not scheduled for delivery one day, and needed a little extra money. It was already a running joke that Robert “found ways to put me on display.” On this day, it was very literal. I was given leftover, cold crawfish from the previous day’s boil and told to peel tails for a future daily special dish from the kitchen. Robert rearranged an entire corner of the store and seated me behind an empty display case with the tails and two bowls. I was honest with Robert that peeling crawfish tails, even while eating them, was far from my specialty. He told me to simply peel what I could and if anyone asked me what I was doing point them in the direction of the fresh boiling crawfish across the store. This proved a good plan; although I probably would have been fired had my employment been solely based on my crawfish peeling ability, I WAS able to draw the eye of almost every male tourist who walked in. They would use my peeling crawfish as an excuse to chat me up. Practically every one of these men bought at least one serving of the fresh boiled crawfish I pointed out to them.
Every summer, the delivery window doubled as a snoball window during summer. Robert was extremely particular regarding his prized snoballs. The first rule was that there were no snoball guys, only girls. Making snoballs had to be “an art form” – that was Robert’s mantra while showing any employee how to use the machine. I, too, had served snoballs in the past and learned that the less pressure one puts on the machine lever, the finer the ice that sprayed out of it. For some reason, a much older snoball machine was far more effective and provided better results than the newer backup only used when the older, better device was in the shop. Another thing which made the Royal Street Grocery Snoballs stand out from most others was the tedious, yet visually pleasing process of forming the top of the beverage into a round shape and showering it with additional flecks of chipped ice before adding the last bit of flavoring syrup. God help a snoball girl who collapsed her actual snowball-like formation and had to start over!
The first summer I was left working seven days a week due to my musician delivery counterpart, John going on tour with his band. One morning, I woke up knowing I could not go without a day off any longer. I sat down at my friend Maryellen’s kitchen table and drew a rough map of our delivery range, clearly indicating in which directions the streets parallel and perpendicular to river’s addresses ran, as well as on which side of either of these two kinds of streets running through the Quarter the odd and even address numbers could be found. I then called Robert, told him that this was not a negotiation and that Maryellen would be serving as both snoball girl and delivery girl that day, threatening to quit if he even tried to argue. Based on past verbal altercations, he knew I was not bluffing. When Maryellen returned with more cash than I had made working either position alone, the scheduling problem was solved, and she and I took turns on the $6 per hour snoball girl wage and the delivery tips.
This arrangement came to be just in time for Robert’s next venture, the snoball truck. He would park it near certain events and functions such as the Bywater Book Sale which, that year, took place in a building that his family owned. Sometimes Maryellen would drop me off at the truck’s location and go work the store window and delivery, sometimes Robert had someone else cover for both of us, placing us both in the 1964 Ford Bread Truck which was the snoball van.
Robert’s son, Justice, attended Jesuit High School and was in the marching band. When the school held a pep rally, Robert paid me to ride out to Jesuit’s campus (standing in the middle of the back area, feet braced, and one hand holding up the snoball machine and the other the bottles of flavoring itself) while Robert drove over the bumpy streets between the Quarter and Midcity. Since it was known to all that Robert never brought the vintage truck to the repair shop despite the less than fully functional brakes, I was the only person who was willing to ride in the vehicle. Although the snoballs were proffered to the Jesuit students, parents, and staff, I was paid a little more for my willingness to even take that rather scary ride to and from the high school.
Eventually, I became fed up with dating Matt in particular who could not hold onto a third of the $400 a month in rent the apartment he, Suzy, and I shared and other lazy and inconsiderate behaviors and the stress and danger of my job at The Grocery. I was also planning to enroll in UNO for the following Fall semester. At the time, Matt, Suzy and I were staying with our Wayne in Destrehan, and I planned to move in with my father at semester’s beginning and break up with Matt. Luckily, I did not have to wait that long; I found a job at PJ’s on Magazine street near my dad’s and neither had to endure the grueling bike delivery work or being around my soon to be ex-boyfriend 24/7. I visited the grocery during Mardi Gras a few times after severing all official ties until I learned that after decades of close calls and some risky corners cut, The Royal Street Grocery eventually went out of business.
I imagine that Robert’s father would have been incredibly proud of and impressed with his son for how long he managed to carry out his final wish. Countless numbers of people may never have had the pleasure of visiting the quirky, charming establishment were it not for the sacrifices and savvy of Robert Buras and his delightfully eccentric staff.