New Orleans Nocturne

AMERICA

HAVE YOU EVER WORKED on Bourbon Street?"

"No."

"Have you ever been a cocktail waitress?"

"No, but I can wait tables. And I'm pretty fast."

Cookie smiled down at me from her six-foot six-inch height on heels. Her hair was a foot tall white mass piled high on her head and her voice was husky. "Here's you application and your W-4 form. Sit down here at the bar. You got a pen, honey?"

I pulled one out of my pocket and stuck it in the air for her to see. This was the first time I'd ever been hired before completing my application. My hand shook as I wrote. I got a job.

I handed both papers over to her. "Come on back here, honey. The music is too loud out there." I followed her to the back room and, as she shut the door behind us, the sound of the Dixieland band softened. Cookie looked down at my W-4 form. "What are you exempt from exactly, honey?"

"From taxes. I don't think I earn enough to pay taxes."

"Then you put a '0' in the blank. You are not exempt. This is how we work. You bring a person in and serve him two drinks when he sits down--that's 25 cents for you. For every drink after that it's 15 cents for you. We work on straight commission and tips."

"No wage?" (Stay calm, you don't get a wage searching for another job either.)

"Straight commission and tips."

"About how much does that come to...on the average?" I asked.

"Well now, that all depends. Some people make from 40 to 100 dollars a night. But you have to learn to hustle." When I looked up with a worried question in my eye, she laughed: "No honey, I mean hustle drinks." I breathed. "We'll start you down the street at our other club if you like Rhythm and Blues better," she said.

I walked into the bar down the street the next night and shook hands with another tall person. This one, Bill, had a head of black fuzzy hair and dark glasses. I am sure that he tried to crush my hand in his. I could barely sense the bones in his hand for all the fleshy padding on his palm.

"Did you bring your pictures?"

I handed him four mug-like shots of myself. "Why do you need these?" I asked. So they can identify the body? I wondered.

"Go put them with your application behind the bar."

I obeyed.

IT WAS A FRIDAY NIGHT, so no one really had the time or cared to show me how to be a cocktail waitress. A hunched-over waitress Janie took me under her wing and called me "Baby." I felt the name fit snugly. I didn't know they used "Baby" just like "Honey" and "Sunshine" for any girl, just as they used "Tiger" for the tough girls and "Kitten" for the playful and easily tamed. Janie set me loose soon, and I began to learn the drinks slowly--Tom Collins, Singapore Sling, and Hurricane. The beer foamed up in the glasses. When I wasn't serving I stood by the big cast-iron door hustling people in next to big Bill. The air was steamy and I could hear the music from the nearby nightclubs relentlessly competing and clashing in the street. A barker swung open the door to the club across the street exposing a stage full of "girls" wearing paste-ons and G-strings. A plastic leg with a red high heel poked out of an upstairs window. It was all pretty joyous. I smiled to the outside travellers walking slow as a happy herd through the furnace of the late New Orleans air.

"Come on in."

"How many you got there, sir?"

"No cover charge."

"Two drinks, ma'am, $5.20 per person."

Big Bill would look at me through his dark glasses and wink (or was it a twitch) and smile (or was it a leer), and say to whomever happened to be sitting on the wooden stool next to his, "What a smile. God, she looks mischievous! Look at those pretty lips." I thought of Red Riding Hood--the better to do what with? I got attention, kisses on the hand, compliments. One of the waitresses came up to me.

"Don't let that Lou be kissin' on you. I see him kissin' on your hand. If you lets him do that, he be kissin' on your cheek and on your mouth. He don't know where to stop. Besides he a funky dude."

"Funky?"

"I mean musty," she pouted. Another waiter piped in, "He smell like what he been out with the night before." I understood, naturally. But he thought it went right over my head, and made a gesture with his hand like an airplane taking off in front of my eyes and skimming my brow as it flew over my head. He thought I didn't understand and he wanted to teach me. He pointed out that most of the people at the bar were queens or prostitutes. So I looked at all those elegant women with dresses slit high up the slim leg and cut low down the smooth chest, and asked whether our barmaid Mickie was a man.

Bob nodded.

I felt at home with that, for she had broad shoulders and a deep voice. But really, just as Bob said, she was a woman in a man's body. She didn't belong there.

"Is Cookie a man too?" I asked, supposing I knew the answer.

"No...not anymore. She had an operation."

"Oh," I paused. I was getting comfortable with that fact too--a changeover. Yet, I had trouble sorting things out every time Mickie shimmied her shoulders at a man. Let's see--she is gay, so you expect her to flirt and lean on the bar with other women since she's a wom--oops. She's a man, she's a man, she's a gay man, so she flirts with the men at the bar. But she looks like a woman flirting with a man, for she is more a woman than she is a man. And a "woman" naturally tosses her head of hair, winks, and speaks in a low, sexy voice to a "man." Everything looks fine. Like adding two negative numbers and coming up with a positive one, it is confusing but it all makes sense.

BY 5 A.M. the last blues set was over and the place was getting empty. Only the most convincing queens and a few prostitutes sipping orange juice remained: a room full of "women" and "girls." Soon even they disappeared to some unknown corner. Big Bill and Mickie sat at the bar counting money and empty bottles. As I wiped the bar down, a two inch cockroach crawled over it. I started to kill it, but Bill stopped me. "Leave it alone. They watch the place when we're gone."