The Hours Leading Up to the Up Stairs Lounge Tragedy
Hustling, Bar Fights, and Revenge: A Dark Night in New Orleans
Roger Dale Nunez stumbled through the door of the Up Stairs Lounge and into the beer bust. Through his forays in and around Iberville, Roger had visited the Up Stairs Lounge on several occasions, although the regular patrons, nonjudgmental as they were, hadn’t exactly welcomed him. Roger, who was more of an outsider in a jovial society of buddies, functioned better in the hustler bars, where men went alone. Although many on Iberville had seen his face, few had taken the trouble to learn his name. Ricky Everett vaguely remembered seeing Roger at the Lounge, but it’s telling that even kindhearted Ricky didn’t consider Roger a friend.
Roger looked rough and drunk enough that night to be a hassle. Steven Duplantis remembered hearing an audible reaction to the guy’s presence, as if people were saying, “He’s here again?” Behind Roger walked Mark Allen Guidry, the younger hustler. Ignoring the wisecracks, Roger headed straight for the bathroom before he could be served, which left Mark Allen Guidry standing alone. Mark must have felt stranded, socially speaking, after the less than enthusiastic reception, and he didn’t stick around long. Roger didn’t seem to notice. He stationed himself in one of the two men’s room stalls and began gawking through a peephole at patrons using adjoining facilities.
According to those present, Roger whispered comments of encouragement or harassment to those in the neighboring stall, perhaps hoping to win a friend or torment a quick lay from someone with a fragile ego. But his tactic created a bottleneck. The line to the bathroom soon backed up past the bar, and patrons began to get testy. Buddy seemed preoccupied. An 18-year-old named David Dubose, a youngster not in the bar’s employ, was gathering empty beer mugs and attempting to return them en masse. Dubose wanted to claim the 50-cent deposit on the mugs and use the proceeds to further imbibe. But Buddy and Hugh caught him in the act and refused the extra coinage. In retaliation, Dubose began “pouring beer on the floor, kicking the customers, and being loud.” It was teenage revenge.
After a raucous but hardly uncommon afternoon-into-evening session, the beer bust ended at 7:00 pm, and people stood and sang “United We Stand.” Beer pitchers returned to ordinary prices, and half of the crowd had departed as Dubose headed for the bathroom. He cut in line, to the chagrin of other patrons like Robert Vanlangendonck, who had been waiting his turn. Dubose began pounding on the occupied stall door, the one holding Roger Nunez. He repeatedly cursed at whoever was inside and refused to come out, but then he noticed Steven Duplantis standing at the sink.
Dubose grabbed at Steven and proposed a blowjob for five or ten dollars. Although they were around the same age, Steven was unimpressed. Steven rebuffed him with a “No, you’re just trash,” but Dubose failed to take the hint. “He wouldn’t leave,” remembered Steven. “So he stayed in the bathroom. I went straight and told Buddy.” Hustling was a rule violation, and Steven’s report would mean immediate ejection. However, just as Steven blabbed, Michael Scarborough entered the empty bathroom stall and heard Roger Nunez’s whispers.
Evidently, Roger said the wrong thing to Scarborough, a man who had grown up tough. Michael’s father was one of the biggest bail bondsmen in the city, a strongman who made employees call him “sir.” Having learned to stand up to that domineering figure, Michael wouldn’t just accept the taunts of a drunken stranger. Enraged at the Peeping Tom, Michael left the bathroom and reported the conduct. Buddy Rasmussen weighed whether to act first on the Peeping Tom gumming up the bathroom or the hustler pouring beer, and decided to start by clearing Roger out. Buddy and Hugh Cooley entered the bathroom, pulled Roger Nunez from the stall, and told him to leave people alone.
“The Nunez altercation and Dubose’s ejection had certainly caught the attention of patrons and become fodder for conversation, but the ruckus in no way ruined the evening. No one would mistake the Up Stairs Lounge for a high-toned establishment.”
Suspicious of a snitch, Roger began looking for Michael Scarborough. Spotting Michael by the piano, the highly inebriated Roger ran at him. Michael was sitting at a table with his lover, MCC patron Glenn Green. Born on All Saints Day, Glenn was a gentle soul and the steadier of the two lovers. He had grown up in Michigan with two macho older brothers serving in the army. Glenn himself enlisted in the navy. He’d been stationed in Okinawa and spent three years in the service of a high-ranking admiral. But, according to Glenn’s sister, Naoma McCrae, he was caught having sex with another man and discharged for “medical reasons.” Now in New Orleans, Glenn worked as a clerk at the International Trade Mart. On his off days, he helped elderly neighbors.
Glenn Green likely tried to ignore Roger. Michael, however, would let no one insult him. So when Roger shouted a few epithets, Michael stood up and leveled Roger with a punch to the face. “He came over and started agitating me,” Michael said later, “so I jumped up and just knocked him down.” Roger fell to the floor and, groaning in pain, stayed on his back for a minute, until Buddy and Hugh gathered him up. Now Buddy had another decision to make: eject Michael for fighting Roger, or eject Roger for inciting the fight. Since Michael was popular at the bar and Roger was too intoxicated to be served anyhow, Buddy moved to eject the injured man, who would probably bother more patrons if they let him stick around. Before he could stand up on his own, Roger yelled something Michael heard as “I’m going to burn you all out.” Close to the altercation, Steven Duplantis heard Roger say, “I’m going to burn this place to the ground.” It’s worth underscoring that, even above the teeming noise of the bar, both men heard the word “burn.” Buddy and Hugh proceeded to drag Roger toward the bar entrance as Roger kicked and spat. “It took two or three people to get him to the upstairs door,” recalled Steven. “There was an altercation to get him out,” Steven continued, “even out on the landing.”
The violent scene shook Steven out of his reverie. He checked his watch and realized it was time to leave. He knew he had to go right then to reach San Antonio by sunrise. He’d be driving at top speed through the night to make it back to base, but something about that guy screaming “burn” felt wrong. “Especially the way that he said it,” Steven remembered. He turned to Stewart and Alfred and told them, “Y’all need to leave here,” to clear out and head elsewhere. “Stewart was having fun and hearing none of it,” Steven continued. Alfred took Steven’s side immediately, but Alfred suffered from frequent bouts of paranoia that made Stewart roll his eyes. “Alfred says, ‘I want to leave,’ ” recalled Stewart. Steven tried to persuade Stewart further, but he couldn’t wait any longer. Having passed the message, Steven kissed his friends and took off. With Steven gone, Stewart tried to dismiss any notion of leaving, but Alfred persisted until Stewart had to listen.
Meanwhile, Buddy and Hugh dragged Roger down the staircase and out the front door by his shoulders. They returned to find David Dubose, the teenager, as defiant as ever, dancing with two beer mugs that he hadn’t paid for. Having hustled and attempted to steal, Dubose was clearly not welcome anymore. They dragged him, mugs in hands, down the front stairs. Buddy told Dubose to “leave and never return” and tossed him onto Iberville Street. Realizing that he was still holding the mugs, Dubose threw them at Buddy in a rage. They shattered in the bar’s entryway, littering the inside foyer with glass.
Dubose stumbled away, and Buddy asked Hugh to sweep the entrance while he went back upstairs to man the bar. Perhaps sensing an opportunity in an out-of-control teen, an older man named James Smith left the Lounge and caught up with Dubose. Smith proposed a sexual fling, and Dubose accepted. They staggered back to his apartment, where Smith cooked Dubose a meal and then gave him a blowjob for ten dollars. Eventually, Smith drove Dubose to the Golden Slipper Lounge on the northern edge of the Quarter.
Back upstairs, the Nunez altercation and Dubose’s ejection had certainly caught the attention of patrons and become fodder for conversation, but the ruckus in no way ruined the evening. No one would mistake the Up Stairs Lounge for a high-toned establishment, and Buddy and Hugh had handled things quickly and efficiently. “The fight was over just like that,” recalled Buddy. Still, Mitch and Horace must have been glad that they dropped off the kids. They tended to think of the Lounge as a family place and, the previous year, had held their holy union ceremony and reception in the bar area. As such, they sometimes brought Duane and Stephen along on beer bust night, but this evening’s violence would have been confusing for children to witness.
Down the street, at the Walgreens on the corner of Iberville and Royal, a white man in his mid-twenties walked through the doors. He had dark brown hair, a ruddy complexion, and a medium build. Standing behind the register, cashier Claudine Rigaud made a practice of greeting her regular customers by name, but she’d never seen this man. He walked directly to the counter and asked to buy a can of lighter fluid. He appeared to be heavily intoxicated. Rigaud showed him where the fluid was kept and noted the sizes available. Ronsonol, the iconic lighter fluid in a yellow can with blue letters, had long been sold at French Quarter drugstores. It’s a petroleum distillate commonly used as fuel for Zippo-style lighters.
“Searching pockets for a lighter or match, the assailant then dropped two ten-dollar bills, which floated down unnoticed. A spark was lit. Then the unmistakable smell of smoke.”
Rigaud thought nothing of the man’s request. This store did a good bit of business in tobacco products, in this era when smokers could light up almost anywhere. But something else did pique Rigaud’s attention: the man’s hands were visibly shaking, and he seemed to be, in her words, “emotionally upset.” No stranger to Iberville Street culture, Rigaud assessed that this man—soft-spoken and “feminish”—might be gay. Nevertheless, a customer was a customer, and Rigaud was about 20 minutes from her evening break. Apprised of the can sizes, seven and twelve ounces, the man asked Rigaud if a smaller can was for sale, but she informed him that the smallest and cheapest of cans, four ounces of Ronsonol, had recently sold out. So the customer reluctantly purchased the medium-size can and left.
Meanwhile, aggravated to be departing from the bar so soon, Stewart tramped down the staircase with Alfred, whom Stewart thought must be experiencing another emotional episode. They halted at the landing and shouted in a couple’s row very likely witnessed by William White and Gary Williams—two teens poking their way around wild French Quarter bars. White and Williams, jittery youths, bolted as Stewart and Alfred took their argument down the stairs. Trailing them all was Regina, born Richard Soleto. She and Reggie had dinner plans with Buddy and Adam, but they needed money. Reggie offered to run back to their apartment, but Regina insisted that she do so. They pecked, and she left.
At the bar, Buddy counted out his register and prepared to formally hand over duties to Hugh Cooley at 8:00 pm. The night had been wild, and Buddy just needed to go to the storeroom, secure his money in the safe, and call it a day. By the Chartres Street wall, Piano Dave was chatting up patrons, perhaps speaking with a few frequent tippers who had taken a liking to him, and Bud Matyi played exuberantly at the bench. A few of the drag queens scheduled to perform for the charity benefit for the Crippled Children’s Hospital had yet to arrive, but time was loose on beer bust night. Matyi’s hands danced across ebony and ivory. Hammers hit piano wires as, down below the Up Stairs Lounge, someone stood at the base of the stairs. This person—very likely the Walgreens customer but unwitnessed in the act—proceeded to empty seven ounces of lighter fluid from a yellow Ronsonol can onto the left side of the second step and then drop the canister. The porous wood of the staircase, more than 100 years old, drank the fluid effortlessly. The red carpeting, running like a ribbon over lumber, sopped up the rest. On the second step, a patch of wet carpet sat ready like a wick. Searching pockets for a lighter or match, the assailant then dropped two ten-dollar bills, which floated down unnoticed. A spark was lit. Then the unmistakable smell of smoke.
Harold Bartholomew, an attorney, was driving his kids from a downtown event when he hit traffic on Iberville. Bartholomew laid on the horn until he noticed the driver in front of him gaping and pointing. With his car windows rolled down, Bartholomew heard someone shout, “I’m telling you, you better get out of here!” Bartholomew saw a white man in his mid-twenties come out from beneath the dark canopy marked “Up Stairs.” A second man, wearing a T-shirt with writing across the back, approached the first man and slapped a hand over his back to hurry him along. “That’ll fix the mother-fuckers,” Bartholomew heard one of them say as they ran. An unnamed witness in a neighboring building thought he saw the two men get into a honking car. Everything was happening at high speed. Continuing to beep his horn to move traffic along, Bartholomew pulled his vehicle almost parallel with the canopy. His kids screamed. Acrid black smoke suddenly bellowed from the entryway. Across the street from the Up Stairs Lounge, Katherine Kirsch hit a commercial break on her TV program and ducked out for a pack of cigarettes. Her feet hit the sidewalk, and Kirsch heard someone say “fire” as she crossed Iberville toward Walgreens. She looked into the doorway of the Up Stairs Lounge. Flames gathered on a front step. It was about 7:53 pm, and the sun had yet to set.
Kirsch started yelling and ran into the nearest bar, the Midship, to sound the alarm. A retired soldier sprinted out to assess the emergency situation. Maybe he could douse the flames with a pitcher, but the blaze crackled stubbornly in a small pool that looked to be fueled with oil. The fire spread from the second to the third step as the veteran ducked back into the Midship. He shouted for the barmaid to call the seven-digit emergency fire number (911 did not yet exist in New Orleans). It was 7:56, and help was already en route from the Central Fire Station, which was located just two blocks away. The soldier ran back to see the fire snaking aggressively up to the top of the stairwell. “It sounded like firecrackers going off in there,” he later told the States-Item (New Orleans’s other daily newspaper at the time), perhaps hearing the shorting out of electrical wires. “That stairway was gone.” No one was going into the Up Stairs Lounge now, nor was anyone coming out.
From Tinderbox. Used with permission of Liveright. Copyright © 2018 by Robert W. Fieseler.