Losing the lid in Old Panama

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Losing the lid in Old Panama  (1919) 
by Willis Fletcher Johnson
A syndicated column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1920.

"Believe me, Friend Pancho," Bert Harte's immortal Enriquez would have said, "these elevation of the lid, it is nothing?" So would he have said, had he been at St. Louis the other day, when for a space a Federal court writ lifted, or tilted, or perhaps merely tip-tilted, the prohibition lid, and let old Spiritus Frumenti ooze forth again, like the Fisherman's Genie. To long-restrained Missourians, thirsting to be shown, it may have seemed an opening of the golden gates of joy. We are told that in one nuit blanche eleven patients were received at the City Inebriate Ward, the police reported 210 violations of the fuel regulations, and a total of 510 infractions of laws and ordinances occurred because of the aforesaid lifting of the lid."

"But what are they," the exultant Missourian might have demanded, "among so many?"

"Believe me," Enriquez would have said—and so should I—"it is nothing!"

For he—and I—have memories of another occasion, in another city, when the lid was truly lifted, and not only lifted, but quite lost; and yet the city inebriate ward, if there was one, reported not eleven nor even one eleventh part of eleven patients received in all that night.

It was at Panama, in the good old days before the canal; or when what was to be the canal was nothing but a ditch in the mud, and the street cleaning department consisted of innumerable black vultures, and Col. Gorgas—he was only a colonel then—was teaching us that the only way to be saved was to live under mosquito nettings. Those were the days of the water wagon, too, the real, Simon-pure, honest-to-goodness water wagon, made of a hogshead on two weels, with a donkey between the shafts, and a Castilian Hidalgo perched above, purveying the product of suburban wells to urban housekeepers. Still, the aqueous chariot was not the supreme emblem of Panaman social cheer—in the good old days; though now, they say, the lid is on there tighter than in Maine or Kansas. O tempora! O mores!

It was fifteen years ago, this very month; and though "distinctly I remember" it was most emphatically not a "bleak December." On the contrary, it was an uncommonly joyous season. Panama had got her independence; we had got the canal, Gorgas was "getting" the mosquitos; Roosevelt was re-elected; Huerta's incipient revolution was snuffed out; and Taft had come down there to make everybody happy. At the end of Taft's visit it was necessary to have a celebration, in which the ancient city should fairly out-do itself and quite distance all other places in the world. So the President of the republic, and the Mayor Alcade of the city, and various other distinguished functionaries, got together and prepared a programme.

Of course, there was a dinner. There always is. And I remember that my vis-a-vis explained to me that we were having more different kinds of things to eat and drink, from more different parts of the world, than had ever been served at a single banquet since the lamented demise of the late Gen. Lucius L. Lucullus, of Rome and Pontius. There was a speech, too, from the guest of honor; for the embellishment of which he was coached to ejaculate, in choicest Cincinnati Castilian, "Viva la republica de Panama! Hasta manana! Adois!" Also there were fireworks. Oh, boy! You boy, fond of your firecrackers on the Fourth of July; fonder still of an occasional cannon cracker; fondest of all of igniting a whole pack at once, within the cavernous and resounding recesses of an empty barrel. Think of what I saw, and likewise heard, in the multitudinous detonations of a string of cannon crackers thirty inches in diameter and thirty feet long. A string, quotha? A rope, a cable! How many hundred of thousand gross of individual crackers there were in that Brobdignagian mass, deponent sayeth not; but I know that the chief engineer of the canal went upon the old sea wall and wept bitter tears, to think that the thing had not been laid along the yet uncut Culebra Cut!

All these were, however, merely the preliminaries, the hors d'oeuvres, as it were. The piece de resistance was yet to come. And it was—what?

That every bar-room fronting on the Cathedral Plaza should be wide open for two hours, at government expense!

Let us consider that proposition, with calmness and restraint.

The Cathedral Plaza was the chief park of the city. At one side was the great cathedral, with its spires shingled with big slabs of opalescent, iridescent mother-of-pearl. At one end was the Palace of the Archbishop, with the offices of the Panama Lottery on the ground floor. At the other end was the big building of the Canal Administration. But beside these its circumference gave ample room for numerous thirst-destroying establishments, chief among them being the Grand Central Hotel, whose gigantic barroom was sure to be the cynosure of Panama that night of nights.

True, the Cafe of All Nations, whose glittering sign proclaimed "All Nations Welcome—Except Carrie!" was far away on the road to Section, and there were others scattered elsewhere throughout the city. But for that night all the city was in Cathedral Plaza.

Being myself an approved immune, from the land of the W.C.T.U., I felt quite safe in going to see the sight. I did my duty toward the others, exhorting Young to remain upstairs at the Grand Central, and Barrett and Lee and Schafer to stick to the Legation, and Bailey and Eland and Payne and the rest to keep somewhere out of harm's way, while I alone went forth, armored in stern sobriety, to witness the Lifting of the Lid.

My coign of vantage was an upended cask in one corner of the bar-room of the Grand Central Hotel, a spacious room, from which the many little round tables at which we used to drink lemonade and play dominoes had been removed. From end to end ran the bar. Behind it about a dozen agile acrobats, handing out thirst-quenchers with both hands at once. At one end a combination of football center rush and subway jam, pouring in, pouring in, pouring in, something like Southey's description of the way the water comes down at Lodore, only more so. In front of the bar, from end to end, an incessant football scrimmage at the goal line, three, four, six deep. At the other end, a reluctant yet rejoicing throng, pouring out, pouring out, pouring out into the purple tropic night, where the moon was weaving arabesques of palm leaves on the broad paths of the Cathedral Plaza, and the orchestra at the Commercial Club was playing "La Paloma," and the Southern Cross hung low over the Isles of Pearls.

I'm not sure that they paid much attention to "La Paloma, or to the moon-woven arabesques. They were probably more interested in the bounty of the republic of Panama, which they bore beneath their arms or closely clasped to their manly bosoms. For there were no single drinks dispensed at the bar that night: Not a cocktail nor a highball nor a rickey nor a fizz, not a straight nor a royal flush. Such picayune hispitality would have been beneath the dignity of the republic of Panama.

No, my Missiourian friends, there was nothing less than a bottle, the cork undrawn, to each and every guest. And it was "Nominate your poison, gentlemen!" Whatever one's thirst or fancy coveted, that did he get. It may have been beer, it may have been champagne; for some it was Bourbon, for some rye, for some Black and White.

And so the lid was lifted, in a fashion truly worth while. For two hours, all too brief and floating, it was not only lifted but lost and quite forgotten. Then I climbed down from the cask and went forth to see the appalling results of this most disgraceful and disgusting orgy. For of course there were innumerable fights and the police cells were crowded and ——

Hold hard, Missouri! "There wasn't no such animile!" In all Panama that night there was not a single fight. In those two strenuous hours I saw not a blow struck nor heard an angry word spoken. The police cells remained empty. The policemen had nothing to do but to watch the fun and to edge in for their bottles when they had a chance. And the only individual I could find that night who was perceptibly "under the influence" was—well, he was a man from the United States, who claimed to have been the original compounder of the ambrosial beverage described by Kipling, champagne and curacao, half and half!

Remembering that, then, when my Missouri friends expatiate upon their lifting of the lid, and when in little old New York the perennially hopeful talk of a brief tip-tilting before the fateful days of mid-January, I say, with the mocking wraith of Harte's Enriquez, "Believe me, Friend Pancho, eet is nothing!"

Remembering that, too, I wonder and wonder and wonder. Shall I, or shall I not, revisit Panama and see the Cathedral Plaza with the Lid On?


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1931, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.