By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
And she lost; the court threw out her lawsuit. As far as the city is concerned, that's the end of the story. La Porte officials declined to speak to the Press. But in a way, Margaret won; she hung on, and Blondie's is still open for business.
"I was fighting it with all I had," she says. "That was my mouth."
From the doorway to Blondie's, balloons glimmer like hallucinations in the dimly lit neighborhood bar. At the counter, all aglow, people lean on their drinks beneath rows of dangling glasses. Lean, not as on a crutch, but loosely, as if against an old wooden fence, or against a car with a lover pressed close. They lean as if they've leaned against that counter for a long time.
Lots 17 through 24 of Block 172 in the city of La Porte, commonly known as 1026 South Eighth Street, have always served as home to a bar. In 1956 Phil Smith built his tiny beer joint by Little Cedar Creek Bayou at the corner of Eighth and J streets and called it Smittys. It was barely big enough for a counter and five or six bar stools. As the building grew, so did the names: Breezeways, L&L, Jaimsons, Marlene's, Blondie's, Hot Rod's Bar and Grill, Spennies, Dagwood's and Blondie's again. For a brief time it was a restaurant; the sign on the roof still advertises "Blondie's Steakhouse" in a bouncy typeface, but everyone knows it's Blondie's Club on the Bayou. And everyone knows Blondie, or Mommy Dearest, as they sometimes call her.
In 1980 a freshly divorced (for the third time) Margaret Lindsey opened her bar on Eighth Street just to annoy her ex-husband, who had always wanted to own a bar. "Every woman going through a divorce needs to buy a bar for your ego and spirits," she recommends. So many different people sat at her bar, confiding in her with their problems, that she soon forgot her own. She had left her ex-husband, 19 years her senior, after she could no longer live with his half-gallon-of-scotch-a-day habit. Sometimes she'd come home to find him passed out in the flower bed. Until she met him, she had never set foot in a bar. Until she divorced him, she had never worked in one.
And she had no idea how to run one. When Margaret applied for her first liquor license, the auditor asked how much she'd serve her customers. "Till they run out of money," she declared, not knowing there are regulations and limits to these things. But Margaret learned with the help of her friends Marcy and Darlene; they called the bar Marlene's. The three women were blondes, as flirtatious and obnoxious as the stereotype. Men marveled, and helped fix the bar. Coming there, they said, was like walking into a frame of the comic strip Blondie and Dagwood. In the cartoon, Blondie always gets Dagwood to do things for her without his realizing it. Men, Margaret says, just always seem to help her. "You have to make a man think it's his idea," she coaches. "That's how you work with men, by blowing smoke up their tailpipes. Because as far as they're concerned, you have no brains."
In 1983 Margaret wanted to buy the building she had been renting from Phil Smith's wife, Ethel, so she applied for a loan at Bayshore Bank. Then four hours before finalizing the title, without a warning or reason, a bank official canceled the loan. "I started to cry like a dumb woman," Margaret recalls. "This was before I got calluses on my heart."
That bank official, Al Fields, is today the president of Bayshore. He says he has no recollection of such an incident. Ethel financed the building herself, and Margaret forged ahead as planned, adding new bathrooms and a kitchen to Blondie's.
Then, through a sister, she met husband number four. Margaret looked once at Bob Helms and felt as if she had married him 200 times in past lives. She left in 1987 to live with him in California, leasing the property and all the while worrying about it. After all, she was being sued by a guitarist who played and drank at Blondie's one night, then crashed his car, disfiguring his face. Bob wanted her to sell the bar. No problem. She put the property in his name, and for two years Bob didn't know he owned it. Margaret just couldn't let go of her hometown and the bar, her life's work, logging countless miles between Lancaster, California, and La Porte. Fed up, Bob issued an ultimatum: me or the business. And Margaret returned to La Porte in 1993 to renovate Blondie's. Spending $6,000 on a lawyer and an accountant, she incorporated Blondie's in order to apply for a small-business loan. La Porte State Bank smiled broadly, approving an interim loan of $152,000. Then, déj$agrave; vu. Margaret walked through the glass doors one day to find a new bank president, Michael Skowronek, who refused to give her the loan. She didn't waste tears this time. She hurled a couchlike lobby chair at him.
With the help of patrons who volunteered materials and time, Margaret managed to expand the bar area and add a walk-in cooler anyway. Longshoremen, who build shipping crates, pilfered lumber for her. Later, the old president and likewise-replaced CEO sued their former employer. Someone told Margaret that she ought to sue too because the bank had broken its commitment. Oh, she said, what do I know about the law? Margaret is dyslexic and has only a ninth-grade education. She and La Porte State Bank settled out of court for the $6,000 she had spent and the interim loan they had promised her. But not to her satisfaction.