1979: A thunderclap woke me up and then loud voices. I hadn’t gotten much sleep but wasn’t hungover. I felt a buzz all around me, I had no idea what time it was but could hear guys laughing in the courtyard and then the door was opened and in came Louie and Clyde. “Get your lazy ass outta that bed boy, we got some people to meet.” It’s Mardi Gras day an nobody sleeps through that! “Downstairs now, get in that shower.” Clyde bellowed. Louie just smiled at me and laughed. “You have a good time last night Curtis?” I smiled. “Get ready and meet us at the gate and I’ll fill you in on anything you don’t remember,” Louie said as he closed the door.
I sat up, shaking off my sleep and felt excited. I remembered every little bit of last night and could still smell Dennis all over me. I got out of bed. I have found myself in the middle of gay New Orleans, I thought, with all its intrigue and gossip and maneuverings, wondering again how the hell I got here and thinking I wasn’t going back anywhere near California.
I jumped into the shower, luxuriating in the hot water, and then changed into my jeans and boots and a tank top. There was coffee in the kitchen and George put some into a double plastic cup for me, and said ” Go on, they’re all waiting for you outside.” I drank up some coffee and wandered out to the gate where there must have been 15 guys, a mix of house guests and guys cruising the street, hangin on the stoop all with cups in their hands drinking. I came out and immediately was grabbed and played with, had some beads put on me, then Louie handed me two cups. One was a screwdriver and the other I thought was schnapps like I’d had the night before. I downed it. It was bitter and not liquor. He winked. “That one is gonna get you through your whole day Curtis” He called it a whammy. Louie then took a prized set of elaborate crawfish beads that were heavy and put them around my neck. I was feeling an immediate surge of energy and sudden horniness “C’mon let’s head on up Bourbon and get into the crowd” said Al. Our herd of men began to head that way.
The air was a humid and warm, a threat of thunderstorms but so far no rain. As we got closer to Bourbon Street the costumes got both more elaborate and skimpier and the guys more friendly and cruisy—and so was I. Louie and I hung together getting the most notice, being bartenders, getting hugs and more beads, cruisy grabs, fun bantering flirting, and even making out some. “Now Curtis, Louie said with his southern drawl, “I think we might want to avoid your place of work today with all of us hanging as a group. Let’s head on over to the Golden Lantern instead. We’ll introduce you to Blanche.”
So we turned on St Philip Street making a circle and just meandering. “Who’s Blanche?” I asked and immediately got several looks from everyone. I felt myself blush, as the question went unanswered. Louie leaned in and whispered, “the premiere nasty drag queen of this state and probably a couple of others”
The Golden Lantern doors opened to a small bar with a big energy. Packed. Music was pulsing dance music loud. Louie and Clyde poked their heads in kind of parting a bit of the crowd in the doorway and then all of a sudden I heard this loud gravelly voice yelling, “Louie and Clyde, get your asses over here. Make room y’all”. said the voice demandingly. The sea of men parted and there was Blanche. I was in her bar for the first time and it was like I was having an audience with the Queen. I knew drag queens in San Francisco, but Blanche was from Alabama and she was on a whole different level.
She was thin, sinewy, a bit nelly, with long blonde hair and a good looking face, made up and wearing a sequined top with tight ass jeans and big boots. Drag, yes, but showing some man. She was fast with drinks and her orders. Blanche was a force of nature, a personality larger than the space she was confined in, with a tongue that could filet a redfish while leaving the bones.I was intimidated.
After kisses and greetings, Clyde said “Blanche this is Bobby Young, a new bartender at Lafitte’s, he’s staying at the house”. Blanche raised one eyebrow looking me up and down. “Nice!” she said. She put her hand out for me to kiss. “Any friend of Clyde’s is a friend of mine,” she said, while whispering to me “,,,until you cross me, you do understand that, darlin?” I nodded absolutely convinced.
“And what the hell is a Lafitte guy hanging with the Shah?” she asked. Louie gave her a devilish smile and Blanche raised an eyebrow again. “I see…..Shots!” She made us some concoction or another and next thing I knew we’d had a couple and I was on my way to getting drunk in the late morning.
Blanche was tough. She preferred her men fresh out of Parish Prison and still pretending to be straight, which is who I found myself standing next to. A tatooed hunk in a tank top sitting right next to me on the most preferred stool in the house with Blanche petting him at every chance. The guy was hot, kinda interested and cruisy. Louie gave me a warning look. This was getting interesting.
Next thing I knew I was all in Blanche’s family and under her protection—no small feat-—and she kept yelling “Miss Young, don’t you be making eyes at my husband, I’ll cut you.” I took her at her word. She was in complete control of that bar and everyone knew it. I was having a blast.
At some point it was decided we’d move on from the Lantern and head back to the house and Bourbon Street. The Bourbon Street Awards would be happening later that afternoon and the crowds were already building up right in front of the house. Clyde had built the supporting structures under the balconies of Lafitte’s to handle the crowds and he’d built the stage. “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Clyde said. This town was made up of characters. Block by block, everywhere we stopped I was introduced to people, because of who I was with and where I was working after only a long weekend.
It was now Tuesday, I had been working for five days and had an identity. I had become somebody and it was a revelation. I was at 1132 Bourbon. I was learning manners. I was learning a New Orleans style of life. I was making more roots in six days in New Orleans than I had ever made in California. I decided I was staying right then and there. This was beyond acceptance; it was freedom. The spirit they were encouraging me to show was exhilarating. I hungered for more of it and couldn’t wait to see what was next.
The Bourbon Street Awards: I hadn’t noticed above the inside doors of Lafitte’s there was a shelf all wired shut that contained the “silver”—the trophies to be given out on the stage for the best costumes. Clyde and his guys had constructed that stage overnight with a ramp up to that stage. The costumed guys would strut and preen on it to the shouts of the crowds. Emcee Ed Smith would announce them, the theme, the names, and the artist to the crowd. He would work the crowds into a frenzy. The contestants had worked all year on these costumes. From the Krewes who had just held their Mardi Gras balls and costumes that they’d worked on all year to anyone in costume who dared to come up and compete on stage.
The Bourbon Street Awards had been going on since 1963, when Jim Garrison had been the District Attorney and it was illegal for a man to wear makeup, except on Mardi Gras Day. These were the first gay pride parades, only no one thought of them as that. Their demands then were for ostrich feathers and rhinestones.
But, today, all that was a distant memory -walking up Bourbon Street 4 blocks could take an hour. This was the one day that men in costume could be anyone or anything they wanted. Makeup, dresses, feathers and beads, nearly naked, they paraded up Bourbon Street in their glory.. They didn’t care about recognition of themselves personally. They became their costumes, exulting in them, strutting and posing- accepting the adulation. As the costumes hit the stage, the roar of the crowds increased. This was the beginning of the culmination of this Mardi Gras. For me I was seeing sights previously unseen, a tribe that I never knew existed on this level and an opening to belong to this tribe that I would gladly jump through naked.