The strangest business cards I ever saw used to be in circulation at the Paris Blues Bar and Lounge, a drinking establishment at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 121st Street in Harlem. Printed in vivid royal blue, they listed not only the proprietor’s name — Samuel J. Hargress Jr. — but the names of every member of his staff.
There, in black against the background, was Sue Kelly, the day manager; a certain Mr. Wilson, the night manager; John Henry, the Disco #1 Man; and, of course, the evening’s hosts: Gilda, Peanut, Yvonne, Dot and Flo.
I used to visit Paris Blues in the early 2000s, when it served as a favorite spot for man-on-the-street interviews, and I always left impressed by the egalitarian spirit of the place, exemplified by its democratic card. There was something appealing in that long list of names, as if everybody mattered at the Paris Blues, no matter how mundane or trivial their task.
But much had changed on a recent afternoon.
“Now, look at that,” the barman said when presented with a timeworn copy of the card. “Yo, Sam, get a load of this.”
A mustached fellow at the bar glanced up from his inventory sheet. “Yeah, what’s that?” he said.
“Kid here’s got your business card. The old one.”
The mustached man was Mr. Hargress, the proprietor himself, and visibly excited by the sudden re-emergence of a relic, he entertained questions about what had happened to his workers in the years that had passed.
Sue Kelly? “She’s all right,” he said. “Wednesdays, Thursdays, same as always.”
Yvonne? “Nobody knows exactly where she’s at. I think she moved down south.”
Peanut? “Oh, he’s still in the neighborhood, but retired now. Can’t stand no more. He was a dancer, you know, a professional. He went and danced his legs out.”
And what about John Henry, the Disco #1 Man?
“I got bad news,” Mr. Hargress said. “John passed a couple of years ago. He was a boiler man and always working in a basement. Pneumonia took him out. He was 45 — young.”
The Paris Blues itself is 41 and was founded in 1969 after Mr. Hargress, a Francophile, earned his discharge from the 82nd Airborne. Its décor is simple, even plain: 10 pleather swivel chairs, photographs of boxers, a makeshift stage in back, only slightly bigger than a phone book.
The drinkers here — and there are few — tend to take their alcohol in silence. A gloomy darkness permeates the room, even at the height of the afternoon.
Years ago, the Paris Blues was a hotbed of antigentrification, and its patrons often wondered about the underlying motives of the newly arriving whites. Now, it may be the only watering hole in Harlem where Rudolph W. Giuliani is thought of as a hero.
“Giuliani cleaned Harlem up,” Mr. Hargress shouted, setting down his goblet of ginger ale. “He had that prosecutor’s mentality. If Giuliani hadn’t come round, I’d never have been able to keep going. God bless Giuliani!”
What a difference a decade makes.
As for those business cards, they haven’t yet experienced a similar revision.
“Don’t have any at the moment,” Mr. Hargress said, “but I’ll be making new ones soon.”