New Orleans History
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.
One of the most twisted aspects when studying history is the fact that it is shaped, shaded, and written by the winners, meaning if truth is subjective, the subjects don’t get to give their version of the truth. Down here in New Orleans, most everyone can whistle along, if not sing along happily, to the Johnny Horton’s ‘The Battle of New Orleans’, a momentous, and rare, victory in our cities history. Obviously, we don’t have a song, or even a name, and hardly even mention the battle in 1862 in which the Union armies took over our city during The War of Northern Aggression (which as the losers, our name quickly gave way to the more unfortunate and fairly ironic ‘Civil War”. They even got to name the plundering that followed ‘Reconstruction’. Any modern Public Relations and Ad man can learn as much from history as from schooling, the game is always the same.
The Second Battle of New Orleans was another rare victory of the people over the power in New Orleans…The proposed highway overpass going right over Decatur street, with 18 wheelers shaking the foundation of the Saint Louis Cathedral was fought for decades before the smarter half of the city defeated the corporate class ( an awesome story I’ll tell in a later post). I’m fairly sure if Robert Moses and his sad followers won that, the battle would be called “The War Against Culture, Art and the Impovershed” and would be toasted in board rooms across the American Sector of our city.
Here we are in 2010, and once again, the good guys have won. I officially declare this weeks brouhaha of the Davie’s of New Orleans against the Goliath’s of the NFL the Third Battle of New Orleans. We win, we name the war…
Their lawyers came in full battle gear, $3000 suits and blackberries (actually, modern warfare gets more and more boring…the warriors of the NFL sat in their Park Avenue offices with views of Central Park dispatching missives through the internet while having their shoes shined and lunch brought up to their office, but I digress). Thinking they could outspend, if not out man our financially struggling city, they cried the battle cry of the brave, brave corporate executives that enjoy safely hiding behind unintelligible legalese. “Ceases and Desist” The battle was on…we never wanted this war, they drew first blood. That will be remembered.
Yes, local T-Shirt shops got the order. ‘Who Dat’ the chant of the hopeless Saints fans of the last 3 decades which had become something between a greeting and a battle cry of the city during this miracle year was no longer ours. It was being taken away (along with the Black and Gold fleur de lis first used by Louis the VII in 12150 as a family emblem) by outsiders; invaders to our culture, city slickers who wouldn’t know how to answer “Where Y’at” and would never deign to go to Chalmette to find out. But like an infant playing with his dads gun, the NFL had no idea of the force they were messing with.
The counter attack was swift and brutal. In a city where the citizens hadn’t been united on any single issue since the first flood waters rose bringing the decomposing bodies of our deceased to the surface and the demand for above ground tombs took root, the’r was not a single voice of dissent. From drunken Cajun ex football radio hosts to me to the nice lady at Gene’s selling me my beakfast Po Boy (Egg, ham and cheese-$5 with drink) it was unanimous. Fuck the NFL, they can pry our Who Dat’s from our cold dying fingers. When me and Davis Vitter agree on an issue (besides enjoying wearing diapers and being spanked by prostitutes) something big is going on. The NFL was suddenlt more hated than the Colts themselves. All stations were manned, old men figured out how to use email, people who would never call a politician manned the phones, lots of loud pointless threats were made at bars…the full gamut. Who knew if their antique fleur de lis fenceposts would become property of the NFL?
And in the end, just like in the first and second battles of New Orleans; out funded, out flanked, and against the odds, the disparate folks of New Orleans triumphed. Rascists from Metairie,, hoodlums from the Eighth ward, uptown doctors down town musicians and crooked politicians and preachers were able to hold their hands high and proud. We will go on to beat the Colts 35-24 in the Superbowl, brass bands will spontaneously hit the streets, Who Dats will be yelled like god intended…but in 1000 years what will be remembered is that New Orleans, through its sheer force of personality, and this city does have that, was the only group to ever beat back the corporate monolith of the NFL. Who Dat indeed.
Also need to get my hands on some wheels, a few stuffed and plastic animals; and rope, going to need rope, too. And tea.
Always fun to dress as historical New Orleans figures for Mardi Gras.
Haiti and New Orleans have more in common than most would guess. Both were ruled under the French, Spanish, and Americans; and both had sizable populations of free people of color mixing among the free whites in the 18th century and influencing their respective cultures. Most importantly for us, last night, at least, both places had a part in the invention of the Sazerac…New Orlean’s (and possibly America’s) first cocktail.
When Haiti was still known as Saint Domingue, it was the home of the first and only successful slave uprising in this hemisphere…the changes that caused were many, including the unfortunate financial straits Haiti still faces as after the European nations refused to recognize its independence it never regained its economic status. As the newly renamed nation of Haiti watched it’s finances collapse, both freed slaves and wealthy planters fled by the thousands to the French city of New Orleans. One of the many was Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a pharmacist who set up shop at 437 Royal Street.
His apothecary, like most places in the Quarter during that era, was also a gambling salon. With the concentration of heavy drinking gamblers in the backroom, Peychaud was selling more and more of his families “cure-all”- Peychaud Bitters, the kind of remedy that could take care of a cold, fever, depression, restlessness, and of course the most common affliction in New Orleans at the time, the hangover.
Peychaud, an inventive sort, found that the bitters did not always go down well, but when mixed with some Sazerac brand Cognac, not only did it taste a bit better, but could be sold in the back as a drink to keep the gamblers loose. He served his drink, the Sazerac, in French style double sided egg cups called “coquetiers”, which may have resulted in the first use of the term cocktail as the drunken Americans would never deign to use the correct French pronunciation. The Americans eventually changed the recipe to replace cognac with rye whiskey, and added absinthe and sugar, but the name remained the same.
Tonight as you sit in the Sazerac bar, Napoleon House, French 75 or Pirates Alley, (or sit in some far away city wishing you were here) order one for histories sake and remember that New Orleans would not be the city it is if not for the shared culture we have with Haiti.
By the way, since New Orleans history is everywhere, Peychaud’s building is still here in the French Quarter at 437 Royal. It is the home of the colorful and very awesome Cohen’s antiques, so you can still check it out.