Margaret Lindsey is not by nature an angry person. Most of the time she's as good-natured as she is now, standing over the kitchen sink of Blondie's. In her short cutoff jeans and closely cropped marigold hair, the La Porte bar owner dutifully peels 25 pounds of shrimp by hand in the sink, like a mother who goes out of her way for children who don't realize the effort. Tonight, she explains, is the "town pervert's" birthday party. To not peel fresh shrimp by hand on her friend's birthday, she says, is simply wrong.
It's only when someone tells her that she can't do something that she unleashes a thunderstorm of cuss words. Tell her that she can't do it because she's a woman, and she'll prove you wrong. Wrong her, and you won't forget it; she won't let you. Consider her first husband, a rig welder. Slick wanted Margaret to stay home in the kitchen. Instead, she became an electrician (and later, the first woman to finish the four-year apprenticeship at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union in Galveston). "I was really pissed with him because I used to pull his boots off when he came home and wait hand and foot on him," she says in a tone that reveals she's no longer angry. "When I went on my first construction and found out that welders didn't do nothing but stand around and smoke, telling others what to do, I wanted to smack him."
As the only female on construction sites, Margaret learned how to deal with men, men who assumed she was not as intelligent as they were, who implied she should sleep in the right beds if she wanted to keep her job, who tried to push her around. So years later, when she ran into problems with the men at La Porte banks who seemed in collaboration with the men at city hall who told her she could not expand Blondie's, she got right in their faces and shook her fist at them. She hollered at them in unladylike ways when city officials denied her a building permit, when police officers pulled her customers over as they left her club and when the city protested her lingerie shows but not those at another bar. Even if La Porte is a small town where a handful of men run the place and have run other businesses out of town, Margaret Lindsey fights them all the way.
The baby of eight children, Margaret, 52, has lived in La Porte since she was three. She married at 16, then married three times more. She loved them all, always will. Ex-husbands have lent her money in hard times and still come by Blondie's with their friends and wives. ("I call my ex-husbands' wives my wife-in-laws.") Her first marriage, to Slick, lasted ten years, but he traveled often, and the couple grew apart. The next three were short-lived. "I just can't keep a man after 18 months," she says. "My last three husbands were 18 months." She raised two girls by herself: Tina and Tanya, a good one and a bad one, she says with a laugh. Their initials are T.L.C. She also raised a stepson. The girls were teenagers when Margaret first opened her bar, and they darted about, scooping ice, moving beer boxes. Sure, Margaret has lived in other places, but never for long, always returning to La Porte, where she has five grandchildren, where her twin brother lives right over in Baytown.
La Porte is a blue-collar town that covets, of all things, the calculated suburban sprawl of First Colony. The city dreams of cruise ships docking and waterfront condos, large shopping centers inhabited by chain stores and fountains surrounded by carefully placed trees. After all, it already possesses the lovely French name appropriate for such aspirations.
But at 32,000 people, it remains a small town. La Porte is the kind of place where you meet people when you're five and grow up with them. Your classmates marry each other, and you think they're your friends, until one day they turn their backs on you even though they know that what the city did to you was wrong. They know the city doesn't want to see your eyesore of a bar right smack in the middle of town, doesn't want those blue-collar types hanging around so close to the nice new hotels. They saw your loan papers approved at the bank but didn't say a thing when, abruptly, your loan was denied. What the city did to you, it could do to me, they explain weakly. They know, and they're sorry, but they sure aren't going to speak up for you, not if it means doing it in front of the city. Not in a town where people are afraid to talk.
Margaret's not afraid to talk, though, getting straight to the point with blunt words. One time the city refused to cover a ditch after sewer work; Margaret didn't want her intoxicated customers stumbling into a ditch. "I went down to city hall and threw a Tasmanian fit, talking real bad, 'motherfucker' this and that," she says. The city filled the trench promptly. Margaret is sometimes naive, but always hardheaded. She has picked herself up from the dirt so many times that if someone pushes her now, she pushes back. She has been so furious that she has passed out. She felt so angry, so singled out, that she scraped her money together and sued the city for violating her civil rights.
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.
"I was pissed, really. Because I didn't really get any money, and it was like I had them in a bind, but they had me in a bind too," she says. "I wanted everyone to know what they had done to me. But in my lawsuit it said I couldn't discuss this or else they'd turn around and sue me."
Let's say you haven't seen Margaret since grade school. Last time you saw her she was so shy that if you spoke to her, she cried. To ask her a question, even if you were a teacher, you had to go through her twin brother, the only person she talked to. At recess she clutched his belt loops and he steered her to the restroom and playground.
Let's say, with this image in mind, you walk into Blondie's one day and see her carrying on, launching words like missiles -- of Looney Tunes' Acme variety. Margaret herself never thought she'd own a bar. And now, she claims, Blondie's is famous. This Blondie's? This ordinary-looking bar? Well, she concedes, nomadic construction workers know about it, people from Louisiana and the ship crews, some of them foreign, the guys who live from port to port. As T.K., one of Margaret's customers, explains proudly: "When the seamen come here, they go to Wal-Mart and to Blondie's."
What really put her on their maps, Margaret says, were her lingerie shows. Women modeled racy bikinis and silky negligees, men got a little rowdy, and the cash register rang all night long. In fact, Blondie herself used to model some outfits, back when she had a nice figure. But there's another figure she likes better: $4,000 in a single night. Blondie's was so packed there was hardly room to move.
Ever since Blondie's opened, Margaret featured lingerie shows once a week. So she was dumbfounded, she says, when in the summer of 1996 the city protested her shows. Although La Porte does not consider bars with lingerie shows to be sexually oriented businesses, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission does. So Margaret applied for a city SOB permit. City hall, in turn, feared Blondie's meant to go topless.
The main issue though, says Bruce Coplen, Margaret's lawyer at the time, was selective enforcement. Margaret ended the shows in October. Business hit bottom. Yet, another bar continued to offer lingerie shows unbothered.
"I don't know if her advertising on her sign bothered them, with people going to city hall and the chamber of commerce," says TABC agent Don Horton, who acted as a messenger between city hall and Margaret. "I don't really know what their objective was. But they seem to have gotten crossways." Horton did notice, though, that the city never protested Sam T's, now called Sam and Daves, another bar that lures customers with lingerie shows twice a week. Sam and Daves is a nice bar with high ceilings in the newer west side of town. City employees drink there.
Margaret also felt singled out when it came to inspections, which dropped on her like bombs after she was approved for a $300,000 small-business loan in July 1996. Financed by Houston firm Independence Funding, Margaret purchased the adjoining property, paid off La Porte State Bank and planned to use the remaining 80 grand for a face lift to Blondie's.
But when, on July 31, 1996, she applied for the necessary building permit at city hall, building official Debbie Wilmore informed her of an unfortunate discovery: Blondie's was located in a floodway. Margaret must not build anything anymore, or else she could exacerbate flooding.
That evening, fire marshal Paul Hickenbottom and fire inspector Teri Crate issued Margaret 14 citations, including two that cited her vent hood for improper location, although it had passed previous inspections in the same place.
The following day, Margaret says, Wayne Wade from the Harris County Health Department visited to tell her and her staff that the city had asked the Health Department to write citations on Blondie's until it closed. In an interoffice memo to human resources, Hickenbottom says he doesn't recall that request. Wade did not return repeated calls from the Press.
Then, Margaret says, Al Fields, president of Bayshore Bank, called Margaret's loan officer at Independence to advise him that she had applied for an SOB permit. And was he aware that sexually oriented businesses are not eligible for small-business loans? Without funding, Margaret could not make improvements to Blondie's, or worse, the lending firm could foreclose on her property. Fields denies making any calls. "We certainly were not her lender, and were not aware of the situation she had," Fields says. He adds, "It's really inappropriate to be into a discussion of her business. Any dealings with Ms. Lindsey are confidential."
Yet Bruce Hurta, Margaret's loan officer, remembers the call well, because bank presidents rarely call other lending institutions. "It was funky to get that call from him," Hurta says. "Obviously he didn't want her expanding her business, I would guess that's why. They are across the bayou in a pretty bank building, and she's in a shabby bar building."
And according to an affidavit filed by assistant city attorney John Armstrong and a fax from Bayshore Bank to Armstrong, Fields did contact the city about Blondie's funding and the loan regulations. "They've got everyone's balls," Margaret says of the bank's power in La Porte. "And I don't even have any."
With funding secured, Margaret filed a variance regarding the floodway, writing that she just wanted to add three walls to an existing slab of concrete. The city pointed to Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations (Look, it said, it's not us. It's FEMA.) and required her to provide no-rise certification, technical data stipulating that construction would not increase flood levels. From January to June 1997, Margaret spent $10,000 on an engineering firm that verified no rise in floods.
In the process, the engineers noticed that the 1996 FEMA maps were outdated and didn't reflect the 1985 channel improvements to Little Cedar Creek Bayou. Based on the improvements, the firm wrote the city engineer, Blondie's "would be in the floodplain, but not in the floodway," a distinction that determines who must obtain a no-rise certificate.
In fact, according to the questionable 1996 map, McDonald's and La Quinta Inn across from Blondie's on Fairmont, and Bayshore Bank and the Comfort Suites next to Blondie's, are all in a floodway too. Of those, only Comfort Suites, which opened this year, has a no-rise certificate. Margaret is livid, saying, "Everybody got to build but little old Blondie."
Not so, says former La Porte planning director Guy Rankin, whose duties included regulating the floodplain. The other buildings could have been constructed when they were not in a floodway according to maps at that time. Floodways can move. "She makes it sound like a conspiracy. That's not true as far as my office was concerned.I don't bend the rules for anyone, not for Blondie's, not for Jesus, not for anyone."
Maybe not in his office. But the rest of city hall plays favorites, says one former city employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If they don't like you, it's not going anywhere. They make so many demands to do this, this and this that it's impossible for them to attempt it," the source says. And the people they don't like include minorities and blue-collar folk, both those who work for the city and those who come to city hall to apply for permits, like Margaret. "They made her go by the book, but with other companies they worked with them around it," the source says.
"She's a rough woman, and what really ticked them off was how she had put a sign outside her business saying everything the city was doing to her. She fought them publicly."
The city made a concerted effort through many departments to thwart Margaret, the source says, including the police department. One chilly Sunday in February 1997, she held a crawfish cookout that turned into an impromptu biker convention with Harleys and Gold Wings parked all over. Three hundred and fifty people were digging in and listening to the blues when the cops arrived, checking customers for their ID's although no one was rowdy. "They were taking down the information from motorcycles. They wanted them to know they were calling them in and making sure everything was legal," says Elisa Yates, a friend of Margaret's. The cops, Elisa says, stayed at the club for more than an hour, causing patrons to roar off on their bikes. In an affidavit, Bobby Powell, police chief at the time, stated the officers believed some of the bikers were gang members. Elisa says police had an ulterior motive. "That was the beginning of the end," she says. "To this day, people stay away."
Over the next eight months, Margaret says, La Porte police pulled over patrons as they left her bar and sometimes followed her employees home. Business and staff dropped like flies in the summer heat.
Powell says records indicate only six stops occurred on Blondie's property in 1997, not an unreasonable number, given the club's proximity to the police station. But customers tell a different story. "You didn't dare go outside, because they'd be waiting to pull people over," Jay Legg recalls. "They harassed people, so they didn't come in. Everybody was scared. They used to come in, and you didn't dare say anything or else you might get a [public intoxication ticket]."
Even Rankin is stunned by all of Margaret's problems. "That city is its own entity; a small group of people have been there for a long time," he says. "But they didn't put any pressure on her. It looks like a lot of that dropped on her from the city, but that's just a lot of coincidences.They were all isolated, as strange as that sounds."
Eleven months after Margaret first requested a building permit, she received it. The piece of paper taunted her; now that she had a permit, she had defaulted on her loan from lack of business. In October 1997 the TABC shut down Blondie's because Margaret's liquor license was in a friend's name. A month later the city denied a mixed-beverage permit to Margaret because she owed the city $7,000 in back taxes. And then, as if in a fairy tale, a tall, dark stranger walked into Margaret's life and offered to form a corporation with her, helping with the payments on Blondie's. Ernest Musquiz Junior was genuinely nice for a businessman -- and a sugar daddy. "My lawyer asked me if I was sleeping with him," Margaret says. "I said, 'Hell, yeah. A girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.' "
With Junior making the payments, and Margaret's daughter, Tina Magello, applying for a beer and wine permit, Blondie's reopened as a steak house. Since Tina and her husband now managed the place, they wanted to change the name. No way, Margaret said. "I want them to drive by it every day and see it."
That year Margaret spent Christmas in a San Antonio motel with a couple she didn't know too well, but with whom she drove across the Southwest. They took turns at the wheel of Margaret's maroon extended cab with a camper hitched to the bed. Margaret was on her way to California for an electrical job. In the camper, she removed her jewelry, dropping it in her right front pocket, and wrapped herself in a comforter. She had been feverish to leave La Porte and her Blondie's troubles. And she needed money. But now she worried that she had made a mistake by leaving her daughter with the burden of the bar. Maybe she should return to La Porte. She prayed, asking the Lord to show her a sign, then fell asleep. Next thing she knew, she awoke in the hospital, her head busted above the right eyebrow, her crushed arm wrapped in gauze, her right knee split open so wide it couldn't be stitched.
Another vehicle had hit the truck in Phoenix, sending Margaret across three lanes of Interstate 10, where she slid 65 feet -- so hard that the jewelry in her pocket was embedded in her breast.
Then a car ran over her left hand.
"I had four hot checks and a warrant out for driving without insurance. I'd never been in so much trouble. I asked God to show me a sign. I'm always hardheaded, but I didn't have to land on my head on the freeway. He could've been gentler."
Margaret returned to La Porte in a wheelchair and closed Blondie's while she recovered. Business was bad anyway, her reputation smeared by the SOB fiasco. She had had enough of the nickeling-and-diming, enough of the permit delays and frequent inspections. She started a small-business owners group, and others told her that the city had given them the runaround too. They shuddered at the mention of long-closed restaurants, launderettes and bars. They were afraid; Margaret was mad.
"I have fought this battle for so long for the people who have businesses and are trying to survive," Margaret fumes. "I want them to know how crooked and sorry these politicians are in a small town." In March 1998 Margaret sued the city of La Porte, the mayor, the city manager, the assistant city manager, the planning director, the police chief and the assistant city attorney for violating her civil rights and conspiring to run her out of town. The city officials claimed immunity.
Rankin, who was named as a defendant in the suit but later was dropped, says it's nonsense that the city desired her property. "It's in a floodway; it's in no prime location.Like people sit around and say, 'What are we going to get rid of?' That doesn't happen."
The lawsuit dragged on in the tedious way lawsuits do. And it drained Margaret, spiritually and financially. In June she left for an electrical job in Hobbs, New Mexico. Then in January of this year Hurta called to say that foreclosure papers were coming her way. Junior, entangled in his own business troubles, had stopped making the payments. Margaret immediately borrowed a friend's rental car and drove straight home. Home is where your troubles are. Junior had broken their business deal, Margaret explains. "So I said, 'You just lost $87,500, you son of a bitch.' That was the last I heard of him."
In February of this year a district judge dismissed Margaret's lawsuit on the grounds that she failed to plead facts that would overcome the city officials' immunity. She blames her lawyer, who forced her to pawn her diamonds when she ran out of cash. "I'm real bad at picking men," she says with a sigh.
Not only did she lose the lawsuit, but Margaret was in danger of losing Blondie's, too. Unable to make the payments any longer, she sold the pool tables and started cleaning. She had no choice but to sell her club. Margaret was tearing Sheetrock off the back wall when an old lover walked through the door. Once, she had thought Kyle Smith would be her Sir Galahad on a white horse. Turned out he had a white welding rig. Kyle offered to start a partnership with her and reopen the bar in his name. Margaret shrugs. "It's like the Lord keeps sending me the men."
The drive east from Houston to La Porte, through Pasadena on Texas 225, is a tour through exposed metal, mazelike pipes, giant vats and dragon-burst flames. The petrochemical plants loom large and expansive, defining the landscape like so many has-been Emerald Cities in the midst of a vicious industrial revolution. White spheres hum on the grass, like giant eggs nesting. Smoke constantly billows, gray clouds morphing shapes but never dissipating. Now and then an incongruity nicks the monotony: Palm trees ridiculously line one stretch of the highway; cows graze before gargantuan cylinders, heads drawn to the ground like magnets. At night, the plants glow like cities, countless points of light in the distance.
Most of Blondie's patrons work in the plants. Some have been coming to Blondie's for just a few years, most for at least ten. They can't quite remember when, but they can tell you where the bar was when they first drank at Blondie's. (The counter moves each time Margaret renovates. Now it's on the north side of the building.)
To come to Blondie's is to love Blondie. She helps her customers (friends, actually -- they're the same at Blondie's) when they need it, and they gladly return the favor. They sit at the bar in their jeans and boots, baseball caps and running shoes. The men are site supervisors, pipe fitters, maintenance supervisors, crane operators, rig welders. The women are secretaries or plant operators.
Blondie's is no lovely place. The building is the color of a manila folder, built of wood like carefully arranged Popsicle sticks. It lacks a heaviness, a feeling of being solid. There's no landscaping and not much of a parking lot, not a paved one, anyway. On the south end, facing Fairmont, an apartment squats over the club, Margaret's home at one time. Inside, the club is dimly lit, the windows few. Behind the bar a black-and-white poster in dotted-cartoon pop-art style portrays a man in suit and tie thrusting a frothy beer mug forward. "BEER," the poster proclaims, the man flashing a gosh-jolly grin, "Helping ugly people have sex since 1862!"
At Blondie's everybody talks with a bit of a twang. They feed their dollars into the jukebox by the door to maintain the flow of Def Leppard, Johnny Cash, George Strait and Bonnie Raitt. They spin on the smooth wooden dance floor to Alannah Myles's "Black Velvet." At noon they arrive by the group for home-cooked hot plates of beefsteak, beans and rice. On Fridays they gather to hear someone play the blues. But mostly they come after work for a few Budweisers, maybe a game of pool and definitely for the gossip, the familiar faces. It's just a place to socialize, says regular Jay Legg. "Some people go to church, some go to market. We're just a little different."
One Friday afternoon, Tim and Adele Karl play arcade golf in the corner before T.K. is off to his night shift. They met here two and a half years ago during Adele's two-week stint as a bartender (Margaret fired her) and married in Blondie's, the club streaming with white and yellow. "People still talk about it," Adele says, beaming. Her mother had never been in a bar before but said it was a nice place for a wedding. Blondie's is, after all, family-friendly, T.K. says. He has no problem bringing his ten-year-old son here from time to time. "It's clean, and there's no dirt nowhere," he says approvingly. "They have no class at those other places. We keep our home clean, and we don't want to drink in a place that's dirty."
There's no violence either, he adds. No more than your average bar fight now and then. Sometimes Margaret calls the police, but most of the time she just freezes them with a massive "HEY!" Blondie's has never caused trouble, the regulars say. So what happened to Margaret isn't just bad luck, they say, it's a downright attack by the city. No one claims to know the details, but everyone's got an opinion, a conspiracy theory.
"The city wants her property. Would you want a rowdy bar on the main [thoroughfare]?" says Bud Yates, who has known Margaret for 25 years. "Now they're talking about casinos, the port and Sylvan Beach. It really wasn't an issue till all that."
Yet no one has offered to purchase her property. Maybe it's not that the city wants her property, but that it would rather see something else in place of Blondie's, something in pale pastel stucco with a familiar chain name friendly to future tourists.
"I believe the bank and city are in this together to try to get her whole property for hotels or something," says a man who goes by Tom Cat. He has a cell phone on each hip and a pager clipped to the front of his thinning T-shirt. "Their idea of making a city pretty is trying to force people out of their small businesses. They really forget who brought them to the dance."
Kathy Ratliff, Margaret's niece, touches a customer gently on the shoulder, smiling her wide smile and turning her head in a swooping arc so that her long blond hair flutters behind her. She performs a show-and-tell of her outfit: a sheer white teddy with fluffy trim and an ample view of her back. The bedwear is available for $39. For two hours she and another blonde float in and out of the kitchen, changing outfits.
With the knowledge that lingerie shows are legal, Margaret has resurrected hers. Only this one pales in comparison to the ones she once held. Back then at least five women modeled. And men crowded Blondie's, cashing their paychecks. This is merely a quiet parade among a dozen customers. A complete flop.
Business has been bad ever since Blondie's grand opening in May, the fifth in its history. Or sixth, maybe; Margaret has lost count. She's doing what she used to do: karaoke shows once a week, live music on the weekends and Bloody Mary Sundays. She still feeds the homeless. This Thanksgiving she stayed open for those far from family. (At Christmas she'll do the same, making several trips to Morgans Point to shuttle seamen.) The faithful customers always show -- they'd follow her anywhere -- but the rest don't come anymore. Some days she wonders how she ever got into this mess, what she'd be doing if she didn't have this bar. She's even allergic to cigarette smoke. She promises her daughter Tina (the good one) that she'll sell the place. But in September she took Blondie's off the market. Truth is, she has had this bar for so long, she doesn't know what she'd do without it.
There have been no further incidents with the city. At least not since Margaret threatened to sue the city again on two occasions: once in February, when the city refused to turn the water on, saying mysteriously that it needed to hold a meeting about Blondie's. And again in May, when it repeatedly postponed a plumbing inspection. Margaret has fought a good fight for the little people, says friend Don Kellogg, whose wife, Margie, used to manage the bar. Don once believed that officials were fair in a small town like La Porte, where people know each other. But witnessing Margaret's plight has changed his mind.
One morning right around the time when Margaret's lawsuit ended, Don was drinking coffee at the Donut Factory, an inconspicuous strip-mall shop. With Mayor Norman Malone and several police officers as audience, Don let them know the city got off easy. "I said I know what went on there," he recalls. "I saw her plans approved and delayed. I know that with the right approach Margaret can win. I believe that. Some people could go to jail.That's why they changed their tune."
Other business owners have not been so lucky, or obstinate. Bubba Robertson says he "lost part of [his] livelihood" when the city rezoned his bar property as residential. Now he's just trying to sell it for what his father paid for it in 1949. "The tactics they use to drive them out of business are atrocious," Don says. "Most people leave, they get disgusted and leave, and that's a shame."
But that's part of doing business. Hotels keep rising, joined by a new Signature Kroger, its logo in an elegant cursive that seems out of place in La Porte. Margaret can't understand why the city never saw that she's pro-development too. She also wanted to grow, expand and improve Blondie's.
She wants to remodel old homes. She enjoys the hours of building, of saving the old by means of the new, of working with her hands. When she was in the hospital, nurses told her, she threw a tantrum until someone fished through her smashed truck and brought her orange-handled hammer to her bedside. Margaret doesn't remember it, but she doesn't doubt it. She loves her tools, their weight in her hands. For now, she has started a cleaning company to scrape windows, wash walls, hang marble and otherwise polish the details right after a building has been constructed but before it opens. Her vision, though, is to bulldoze and start fresh with a quaint Blondie's bed-and-breakfast, complete with a home-cooking restaurant. And of course, the bar.
Except she's so tired of the bar. She wants her daughter Tanya Conner to run it, Tanya "the wild child" with her glimmering eyes so heavily outlined that she looks as if she's about to cry. Only Tanya doesn't want to run the bar, feels burdened by the thought of it. But she probably will, for a while at least, for her mother whom she mirrors so unintentionally. Tanya is the "bad one," the one with a broken marriage and two young children. Men approach her easily as they still do her mother, so many men, but none of them the right one. She, like her mom, just wants a good man and a better life for her kids. She is 31 now; Margaret was 31 when she first opened Blondie's.
If Margaret can help it, Blondie's will always be here at the corner of Fairmont and Eighth. Even after she's dead, she says, she wants her grandchildren to keep Blondie's open. A curse perhaps, with its troublesome past. A legacy for sure, of its unwavering founder.
"This is my hometown," Margaret says firmly. "I said, those sons of bitches just got here, and I ain't leaving."
E-mail Melissa Hung at email@example.com.
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