AUDIO: "Not Exactly a Lady"
This piece is part of the Storyville series, a new collaboration between of the University of New Orleans and WWNO. These are true stories about New Orleans written by the students in the University’s Creative Writing Workshop — our next generation of writers. The stories are as diverse, original and colorful as the city itself.
I first visited New Orleans in the 1970s as a teenager with my father. He and four of his friends coordinated their business trips to meet here several times a year. They did not bring their wives. They wound up their various meetings by late afternoon and drifted into the courtyard at the Hotel Richelieu one by one. Loosening ties and dropping jackets on the backs of chairs, they ordered double bourbons. By dusk, they were blearily intoxicated and ready for dinner.
That first evening, they asked me to choose our restaurant. I suggested the only New Orleans name I knew: Brennan’s.
No, Darlin’, I was told. Brennan’s is for brunch.
We had dinner at Antoine’s that evening.
You never eat oysters in the summer, Sweetheart, one would say, reaching over to close my menu. She’ll have the soft-shell crab.
You go to neighborhood joints for music, they’d say. And we would pass by Al Hirt’s on our way to some nameless dive to hear serious jazz trumpet.
These handsome, tanned, forty-something fellows formed a sort of Texas Rat Pack. They thought themselves far too cool for what they deemed tourist activities. I was never to possess a souvenir hurricane glass.
As their mascot, I was schooled in how to embrace New Orleans their way, and I began to understand that this rare privilege came with a small price. I was not to report certain things back home. Things that were said: Honey, your father rolls the best joints west of the Mississippi. And things that were seen… like one of the men who kept a French Quarter apartment for his flight attendant mistress who joined us from time to time.
My awkward teen-aged presence kept their wives’ suspicions at bay, and my New Orleans education continued. They introduced me to cocktails: grasshoppers at Tujague’s and Vieuxs Carrés at the Carousel Bar. In those days the Carousel was topped with a red striped awning and frequented by well-dressed call girls. Some of them knew my father and his friends by name. One day, when I was with my father at the Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street, we ran into the strikingly beautiful Sandra Sexton. She was the star stripper at the 500 Club, long-limbed, dark-haired and sexy-classy. Sandra was shopping for cosmetics. My father introduced me. As he hurried me away by my elbow, I said, That lady is so-o-o pretty.
Well, she’s not exactly a lady, he said. I silently disagreed.
In the decades since, I have often thought of New Orleans as being just like Sandra Sexton — dark, beautiful, sultry, a little dangerous, and full of secrets — someone my younger self could never really get to know on her own.
I recently moved here, driving 1000 miles across Texas in a U-Haul filled with all I own. As I pulled up to my new Mid City address, a man on a second floor veranda shouted, New to the neighborhood?
New to New Orleans, I said.
Well, welcome home, Baby! he hollered.
I felt like New Orleans herself had patted the seat next to her and motioned for me to come over and sit down.
Phyllis Dunham is a graduate student in the Creative Writing Workshop at UNO. She recently moved to New Orleans from Texas, where she worked as a political activist, a gallery owner and a wine distributor. The mother of four now-grown boys, Phyllis returned to writing and school at the prompting of her youngest son who asked her why she had never been an English teacher. When she explained she’d been too busy with work and raising children, he reminded her, “Mom, you don’t have any of those things to do now.” Her work has appeared in theCenizo Jounal, Big Bend Sentinel, andwesttexasweekly.com.
Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer at WWNO, The Moth and Listening Post and cofounder of Bring Your Own.