I’ve met bankers and ballplayers, business and political types, and even a few reasonably well-known actors and musicians over the course of my writing career. But none of them were larger than life the way Louie Canelakes was larger than life.
Louie died over the weekend, news that was as unexpected as it was unbelievable. Institutions don’t die; they last forever, and they give the rest of us the strength and the wherewithal to get through the day. Once, when I was enduring about as rough a patch as someone like me can go through, one of the things that kept me going each week was that if I made it to Friday, I could drink beer at Louie’s. Most of the time, that worked.
Louie ran a bar in Dallas (called Louie’s, of course), which doesn’t sound like much. But in this town, most of which was dry in one form or another until a couple of years ago, that speaks volumes. And that he did it for almost 30 years is even more telling, given that Dallas churns out bars, restaurants, and clubs the way teenage girls get band crushes.
Louie had one rule — if you had the money to drink at his bar, you could drink at his bar. Otherwise, he didn’t care who you were. It was a neighborhood place, but the neighborhood was all encompassing. The rich drank there (the mother of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who came in her limo, was at the bar next to me one night), as did assorted newspapermen and TV reporters, and even the powerful and famous, including former Dallas mayor Laura Miller.
One of Louie’s customers was one of the most despicable human beings I’ve ever known, the kind of guy who gets into trouble with people who hurt other people for a living. One day, a couple of leg breakers showed up looking for the guy, and Louie sent them away. I asked him about it, knowing that Louie didn’t much like the guy, either. “Siegel,” he said, because he called everyone by their last name in that Midwestern high school way he had, “he’s my customer. You tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
Louie and I didn’t meet until we got to Dallas, but the joke was that we had grown up together. He was from Waukegan, north of Chicago, and I’m from nearby Deerfield. We were in high school at about the same time, and my mom worked for the Waukegan school district and ate at his father’s Waukegan restaurant. That meant we shared an affliction for the Chicago Cubs and saw politics as a spectator sport, which gave us plenty of giggles in Dallas.
Louie is the only person I’ve ever lost a cheap wine argument to, which should tell you everything you need to know about how much he loved to argue and how he ran the business. Louie’s, for all its strengths — some of the best food in Dallas, bar or no, and easily the best-made drinks in town — serves crappy wine. Once, when I was feeling adventurous or stupid or both, because Louie was famous for ignoring customer advice, I offered to help re-do the list so he could serve better — but still cheap — wine. “Siegel,” he said, and I can hear him growling at me as I write this, “why would I want to to do that? What I’m doing is working. Why should I change?”
I am not a sentimental man, and rarely nostalgic. But I can’t imagine Dallas without Louie, and I don’t want to. So I’ll play this, and see if I can find an Old Style or two, and remember. Because people still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performed, and Louie performed enough to put the rest of us to shame.