A late-night email last week reminded me not to take even those most
irregular of constants for granted. Rudy Williams, a Liberty Bar staff
fixture until last year, died suddenly May 28, just a week after we
published news of his rogue hamburger-stand venture during
Spurs home games (much as it's tempting, we won't lay this loss at the
Rudy was a character. As in a character from Roman mythology.
Janus, to be precise.
"One day, two female bartenders from Good Time Charlie's came in for
lunch and sat at the bar," wrote artist and former Liberty bartender
Nate Cassie, one of a few folks I asked for anecdotes and fond Rudy
memories. "Sam was working and they asked if he knew Rudy. Sam said he
did and the two women just went on about how nice Rudy was -- he used
to stop in there on his way home occasionally. Sam asked if they were
sure they had the right Rudy and they said that he had told them he
worked at Liberty Bar and described Rudy physically. Sam said that he
must be a different Rudy at their bar because for the first two months
he worked with Rudy he was sure that Rudy thought his name was
With one face for his beloved customers, another for his fellow Liberty
staffers and patrons who irritated him (usually for reasons they
couldn't name if asked), he was either adored or loathed and feared in
return. There were customers who refused to sit in his section, and
customers who refused to be waited on by anyone else.
"As a bartender, I answered the phone a lot," recalls Cassie. "People
would call and ask if Rudy still worked there. And I would say yes.
They would say, 'The one with the creased jeans?'
'The one who often wears a jacket while working when it's cool out?'
'The one who's worked there forever?'
I had one woman go all the way to: 'You know, the one with that
I said, 'Yes, Ma'am, he's black and yes, he still works here.'"
Unlike some of his genteel clientele, Rudy didn't shy away from
discussing race, usually with his signature dismissive wit. During one
of our too-frequent stops at the bar, Rudy took note of my husband's
last name, which he shares with a major thoroughfare in Houston. "Are
you related to the Houston Westheimers?" he asked, his eyes enormous in
those thick glasses of his. Yes, said my husband. Sure enough, Rudy
knew his aunt and uncle because many years back he was married to my
husband's second cousin -- a relationship that he recalled with a mix
of sugar and bitters because not everyone thought the redhead-afro
combo was beautiful.
"No one person taught me more about jazz music or what it was like to
grow up in San Antonio in the '40s and '50s as a black man," says
Cassie. Rudy's take on racial PC, he adds, went like this: "I've known
some colored folks in my day, black folks, too. Hell, I've even known a
few niggers. But I have never met an African-American. Can you explain
to me what that is? Rant goes on from here ... "
Another story: Rudy and other members of the Liberty crew were
discussing the day's news when the topic of Strom Thurmond having a
daughter with a black woman came up. Owner Dwight Hobart
asked him, "Well, Rudy, what do you think about all that?" Rudy didn't
miss a beat. "Well, boss, you don't think I got off the boat looking
like this, do you?"
On that jazz note, Rudy was a musician -- a good one, say those who
heard him play. "In remembering him and searching for representative
moments from our relationship, I find myself going back to
conversations about music, especially jazz," wrote John Navarro, a San
Antonio native, artist, and former Liberty bartender. "Rudy was a
trombone and piano player for many years before working for the
railroad and then moving into restaurant work. Rudy would usually have
a comment about the music playing at the bar if it was jazz-related,
particularly bebop. He had the highest regard for Duke Ellington and
Miles Davis. I enjoyed his insights and stories from his rich and
varied life and will miss him dearly."
He'll be missed dearly, too, by those of us who had less frequent and
personal contact with him, but for whom he represented the best of
Liberty Bar: the feeling that we'd arrived home for the reunion all
those heartwarming quirky movies encourage us to fantasize about. If
Rudy liked you, he was thoughtful to your family, too: your spouse,
your folks, your kids.
"To me, Rudy was the Liberty Bar," wrote San Antonio native and writer
Mimi Swartz. "I always feel special affection for anyone who is nice to
my dad, and Rudy always was. He knew when Dad wanted crackers, and when
he wanted bread, and when he wanted just a splash more of red wine, and
it was there before he could ask. I know these sound like small, silly
things, but everything Rudy did he did with grace and affection, and so
you felt special in his presence. He watched my son Sam grow up, and
always greeted us like long lost friends, which, I think, we were."
I felt like I'd stumbled upon a long-lost friend when I ran into Rudy
at Central Market a few weeks ago. He was one of the more recent
departures in an accelerating Liberty staff attrition (one of
whom was biological family), rapidly turning the place where everybody
knows your name into the place where nobody knows what the pasta luego
is (Edith and Stephen excepted, of course). He looked the same as ever,
if a little more tired, and he assured me that retirement was his idea
and that it was wonderful, before talking up his burgers-and-beer
enterprise. Now, of course, I wish I'd lingered longer, provoked him
into one more Rudy pronouncement, like this one, also from Cassie, a
perfect epitaph for a man who asked for no concessions and offered very
"He was teasing [bartender] Michael Campbell about being a vegetarian:
'When they put me up on that slab after I die, they're gonna know what
killed me.' Of course, this was said between drags on a Benson Hedges
100 and sips of scotch, neat."