Thank you, Deb, for responding to my plea to “Throw me somethin’, Mister,” with a true New Orleans tale!
By Deborah Wilbrink
Joanne and I arrived at Bourbon Street. We were teens come to the Big Easy on false pretenses of scouting Tulane University, but actually there to experience Mardi Gras.
Chaos was Queen of the Quarter. People ebbed and flowed in the blockaded streets like a river, in costume, en flagrante, and in their cups. We stopped in front of a stage erected in an intersection, where a glamorous burlesque dance competition was in progress. I had never heard of drag queens, but I was seeing and meeting my first ones tonight! Joanne and I ogled as the dancers elicited screams of delight from those all around us.
A couple of guys in cowboy hats invited Joanne and me into a bar for a drink. Would my fake ID pass? I was fifteen, Joanne was fourteen, and our student IDs stated eighteen, the legal drinking age in 1971. The darling bouncer waved us in with a smile; I was in a bar for the first time. Over a beer, I learned that “my” cowboy, redheaded, long-haired and bearded Calvin, was a student at the University of Arkansas. He was flirting with the waitress. When I excused myself to the restroom, I discovered what was under the drag array of one of the customers. Returning to my seat, I watched Calvin continue to flirt. When the waitress receded, I asked him with concern, “Don’t you know that’s a man?” Now, probably Calvin did know, but he expressed great surprise.
“Let’s get some food,” he suggested. He led us into an alley, up two flights of tight winding stairs, and into a small room where supper was being passed around: free soup and sandwiches. The soup was thin but hot, and I was hungry. A preacher walked to a small stage and offered thanks for the food. He went on serving more of the Gospel. Calvin jumped up, cursed, threw his sandwich and fled toward the door. What in the hell? I wanted that sandwich! But we got up and followed him. “You can’t bribe me to listen to that crap,” said Calvin, as the four us plunged down the stairwell and erupted into the night.
A sign across the alley and a shill cried “Seven beers for a dollar!” This time the stairs to heaven went down. Seven 8-oz. beers came on a tray and we happily bottomed up more than a few trays of them. The juke box prompted Cal and me to promenade around the floor; it was my first two-step. As we paused for another round, a hump-backed dwarf wandered over. “Do you want to dance?” he asked me. I could not refuse.
There was a reason for dancing. Music greatly moved me! Yet, I was a nerdy bookworm without any chance of being asked to dance. Suffering not only as a wallflower, but as a feminist who risked asking boys to dance—and inevitably was always turned down—had inspired a promise. I had vowed to ALWAYS ACCEPT any invitation to dance. To my own and others’ amazement, now I was dancing with a man half my size, and he would join our group of revelers for the rest of the night.
I would have another dance, this time at a true dance hall on New Orleans’ West Bank. Women in hairdos stacked like beehives—or hanging like the aftermath of tornados—clung to men in boots as they gracefully twirled to the sounds of country and Cajun and zydeco music.
Suddenly, a man appeared at my side. “Do you want to dance?” He was not my type: too old, hair slicked back, a drooping black mustache, encased in a vest and pants made for romancing. “Yes,” I said. “I don’t know how to dance,” he confessed as he pulled me onto the floor. Surely he was being politely humble. We reached the center of the floor and stopped. “So, where are you from?” he asked, clutching my hands. It dawned on me that we were not going to dance. He continued to make small talk in the center of the dance floor. I suffered though this “dance” with what must have been a foolhardy man. In Louisiana, I came to know, dance meant something in and of itself. Unlike back home, it was not a means to meet or even to touch a girl. It was an art form. If you had not had the grace to learn the steps before you said “Yes”, well then, the Louisiana men would swiftly set you down again against the wall.
Adventures and their revelations came fast and thick that evening. But as the dawn approached, our gang drove to a nearby bayou. We stumbled over the downed trees and through the brush to swim naked as the sun rose. I felt baptized. It was a beginning. How many firsts were mine at that Mardi Gras? First skinny-dip, first homosexuals, first bar, first parade, first serenade, first charity food, first two-step, and more. The Big Easy also showed me for the first time a society of tolerance and acceptance. It took some lies to get there. But for the first time, I freely explored the infinite paths of what it means to be human, what it means to be me. The Dance was just starting.
© 2018 Deborah Wilbrink
Deborah Wilbrink is a ghostwriter and owner of Perfect Memoirs. She is also writing her memoir: Coming of Age in the Sexual Revolution. She is also the author of Time to Tell Your Personal & Family History, which I reviewed on this blog in 2016.