New Orleans characters
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.
I love Women like I love my food, and I love My Food- Mr Okra
One time I was driving on Frenchmen Street, it was about 2 in the afternoon, just bringing the bikes back home after a tour. Mr Okra was driving in front, of me right behind me was a random 20something, it was a sunny day and a nice spot for mind wandering right in front of Washington Square Park. In fact I was thinking about how Mr Okra always gave a wave to the folks I take out on tours, and they always remark how fun someone like him makes our city seem. Someone on the street, lured outside by the siren sound cadence of Mr Okra’s Banana call waved him down and vegetable deals were being made. One of those moments you just love New Orleans. My revelry was broken by a loud honk. And another, longer, this time… WTF?
I looked behind me and the hipster doofus was honking his horn. He looked disgusted. Did he just honk Mr Okra? I thought. I stuck my head out of the window; “Did you just oink Mr Okra”. Truth be told, I’m fuzzy on what happened next…one of those rages where everything goes red; but his point seemed to be that the street was for modern conveyance, the comings and goings of the industrial world. My counterpoint was that if I ever saw him in this town, any where, my 135 pounds of unpleasure would be unleashed upon him. YOU DO NOT HONK MR OKRA! is all I remember yelling. THIS IS HIS CITY, NOT YOURS. The fellow in the car, probably thinking I was way less sane than I am, backed down and sat there quietly the next 2 minutes until Mr Okra’s truck had less vegetables and his hands had more money.
Traffic started moving again, and I never thought again of that guy until today. Either he moved from New Orleans back to some bigger city where old men in hand painted trucks don’t drive through beautifully dilapidated neighborhoods selling fruits and vegetables and filling the city with catchy refrains; or he stayed here and slowly learned why we love New Orleans, why Mr Okra has the right of way at all times and normal traffic laws don’t apply to everyone in this city.
One day, I hope to be sitting in a bar…could be tomorrow, could be 20 years from now…the once hipster doofus who was in the car behind me will see me and recognize me. He will buy me a drink and say “Sir, you were right, You just don’t honk Mr. Okra”
All this came back to me because I just watched the best feel good New Orleans 10 minute movie I’ve ever seen, TG Herringtons, Mr. Okra. For those from elsewhere in the United States, watch, and listen. Mr Okra is New Orleans.
Mr Okra – A short Film. (I still can’t imbed video, this is a link to the Youtube video)
They say every era has a man. Also every man has a place. And every dog has it’s day. If the Saints day is 2010, the days that weren’t theirs would be the 60’s, 70’s, and most of the 80’s and 90’s. And parts of the 00’s. And for that long, torturous, unforgiving era of the Saints history, the man was Buddy D.
When I first started to take to the Saints during the horror of the Ditka era (and as a non-football fan at that time, it was only their god-awfullness that made them so endearing) it was exciting as the final seconds bumbled down and everyone who had “turned on the TV and turned down the sound” would go from the patient exasperation of the even keeled Jim Henderson to the Point After with Buddy D.
The man had passion, the man oozed both New Orleans and the Saints, and just as the Saints symbolically tortured the fans every year, Buddy D would torture the english language as he alternately begged, pleaded and eventually angrily degrded the team that wouldn’t lead him to the promised land. His mispronunciations were legendeary, my favorite always being Dante Stallworth morphing into Dunte Stallpepper spoken like through a mothfull of unchewed saltines. You couldn’t help but wonder how this man ended up on the radio…but as a newcomer to this city it crept up to me over the course of a few years…the truth of this cities nature, sports and otherwise, could only be represented by a man that was all heart and lumps.
The man invented the Baghead, the ‘Aints, and like a man looking for a cure that is worse than the disease, he was responsible for the Ditka era. He would jokingly swear that he would wear a dress on Bourbon Street when the Saints won the Superbowl, sure he would never have to don it. When he died in 2005 I was really sad. The deaths of famous people who I never met don’t move me, but Buddy D I listened to 3 hours a day. He taught me more about New Orleans than anyone else including a gaggle of my history teachers, and he wasn’t even trying.
I will be wearing my Buddy D shirt to the Dome Sunday, and waiting to see the thousands of folks marching down Bourbon Street in dresses the day after the Saints win the Superbowl. I’ve never organized anything, it’s not in my nature, but if that doesn’t happen spontaneously, that I will do.
As a bonus here is an awesome 3-some. Buddy D, NOLA native and 1980’s USA network late night hottie Rhonda Shear and Vince Marinello in the years before he donned a fake mustache and biked through the shopping centers of Metairie to shoot his cheating (and much younger wife). Notice him ogling Rhonda’s butt.All star line up.