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?"