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Remembering Rudy

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 Spurs' feet).

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 'motherfucker.'"

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?'

Yes.

'The one who often wears a jacket while working when it's cool out?'

Yes.

'The one who's worked there forever?'

Yes.

I had one woman go all the way to: 'You know, the one with that tropical look?'
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 few:

"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."

Posted by Elaine Wolff on 6/4/2008
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