I love Mardi Gras and costuming. Not unusual, this is New Orleans. Sometimes I spend hours, sometimes weeks on my costume. I feel sad for the week after Mardi Gras when I see that nobody is wearing a costume anymore and wonder why we have to waste our lives dressed all normal-like. Masks are more fun than no masks, and it’s not even close. Of all the costumes I ever made, this years was the easiest and my favorite ever, not because of what I wore, but because of what it did. It made people in New Orleans light up…this year I laced up a wedding dress, donned a floppy hat, built some rollerskates and carried a string of stuffed ducks. For one day I got to live the dream, I was Ruthie the duck lady; and I got to see how much she meant to this city.
Ruthie Grace Moulon (1934-2008) wasn’t someone I understood. She wasn’t someone I knew well, I was just one of the many characters in the audience of her stage, the French Quarter. Her life and her performance was one and the same. She decided on her role and never broke character. Ruthie, to me when I first arrived in this city, was New Orleans. I was young, poor and loved the quarter. I would sit in Jackson Square and drink cans of Schlitz (2 for 89cents at the Unique Boutique…it was a tough find, the Schlitz, like bobbing for apples. I’d have to stick my arm elbow deep in the ice going past all the useless to me Milwaukee’s Best’s before I found the beers I was hunting for. My arm was usually numb by the time I was happy with my choice). She would walk by and kibitz. She would walk by and bum smokes. She would walk by and everyone said hello. She was tiny and wearing a dirty wedding dress. She would yell if she felt like it or smile radiantly. She made people happy.
Took me awhile to learn her story. It was simple…she was the Duck Lady (once the Duck Girl, but that was years ago). She had ducks, they followed her. She sometimes wore a wedding dress, she was once fearless and on rollerskates. And she owned the French Quarter. Nobody could walk into bars and demand a drink and get it so easily. Friends, bartenders, strangers…who could resist a raspy voice demanding free booze and cigarettes. You had to say yes, it was an affront to the French Quarter to do otherwise. Her early years are murky, but of all the stories I’ve heard, I always liked the one where her parents, knowing she might not have had what it takes to make it in the “real” world set her up with her schtick early. Train ducks to follow her and walk through French Quarter. Repeat. Such an easy solution in a complicated world.
Her story is told elsewhere on the web, but in the end she was disappeared. For better or worse, she was led out of the Quarter and into a nursing home. She lasted awhile, but a life without bumming Kools and Buds was not enough to keep her sickly self going and she passed away about a year and a half ago. Part of New Orleans died with her. Hew funeral was a happy, funny affair. There was a monkey puppet that danced at the end. (I was described by Chris Rose as a part of a smattering of 9th ward hipsters…that angered me. 8th ward, baby, 8th…and we don’t have hipsters in my neck of the hood)
She knew what she was, in her documentary she states about the passing of another Quarter character “There’s not many of us left” ‘Us’ being the ones who lived their lives out honestly on the streets of the Quarter. Nothing hidden, nothing fake.
So I decided to be her for a day. and it was awesome. Sure a smattering of tourists thought I was Little Bo Peep (i’d demand a few Kools from them, they probably remain perplexed) but 10% of the city saw gold. I could see their eyes light up. Offers of beers and cigarettes were doled out. People gushed their favorite Ruthie stories out (and everyone has one). Even when the punchline was ’so she decked my friend’ there was such joy in the tales. Old gay men and Y’ats of all types had stories. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to think of someone so universally loved in the city. And she was tiny, never held a job, drank as much as she wished and lived life on her own terms.
I really do get inspired when I think of her, but she was right, there really aren’t many of her left anymore. My new vow for every week is to try and buy a 6 pack for the most poetic vagrant I see (no poets, though, please). We’ve got to start encouraging new Ruthies. If everybody can pitch in and toss a few beers to keep the unworking unworking we can take a step in the right direction in the French Quarter. It’ll be a dull world if we can’t.