Tag along with this sharp-eyed Southern writer, her widowed aunt and a very unlikely guide on a 1960s trip to Bourbon Street.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
The first time I laid big eyes on New Orleans, its famous French Quarter, Bourbon Street and, for that matter, Louisiana, I was with my Aunt Beulah Helen and her brother-in-law, a devout Baptist preacher.
I was 16, the year was 1969, and to get to this springboard of sin from rural South Georgia we had to drive along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, also a first for me, and view in silence and shock the recent devastation wrought by Camille.
The whole memorable tour was an accident, almost. The trip was a thank you from my aunt, a recent widow, whose hot tears in the cemetery had moved me so that when she said between sobs, “Why don’t you come live with me this summer?” I said, “Yes, yes, I will.”
And that meant working with her in an un-air-conditioned sewing plant where she was the honcho who kept the floor of seamstresses productive by breaking up catfights and discouraging idle chatter. I bundled patterns for minimum wage and wrote homesick letters back to Alabama. I was 16, remember, eager to embrace all that age promised, instead spending days wading in lint and evenings listening to my poor relative weep.
There were perks, however, including later being included in Aunt Beulah’s Christmas trip to New Orleans. Our host was the preacher, which wouldn’t have been my first choice, but, to his credit, he gave a grand tour of the Quarter.
He never once stopped the car, but slowly drove Bourbon Street as his carload of visiting rubes, including me, strained to see what was inside the dark doorways we’d heard so much about. It would be the next year that much of Bourbon was designated pedestrian only at night, but in 1969 the burlesques and peep shows and raunchy bars rolled by just outside the car windows.
It wasn’t that I had never seen drinking or carousing before. One uncle on my mother’s side was a major tippler, and my own father, drunk from the hunt, once shot a hole in the den ceiling with a shotgun he swore was unloaded.
We also had our share of philandering friends that fueled late-night conferences, and even high school girlfriends who went away for a few months to hide unplanned pregnancies, the babies vanishing like dew on grass. There was sin, but we usually kept it in the car trunk or under wraps.
The difference here, as registered that first night by my undimpled brain, was the concentration of major, flamboyant, in-your-face decadence, with nobody clucking or hiding or scolding, including my host, the preacher.
Here, drunken revelry was expected. Here, sex was a commodity swinging in and out of second store windows into the street. Here, music blared and bleated, and so did the people, weaving in and out of the places I would not darken – not this trip anyhow.
I wore that car trip like a badge of honor, until I began to notice that many of my classmates I bragged to were underwhelmed, simply because they already had been to the Quarter, and by themselves or with buddies, completing the rite of Southern passage long before I did, and without benefit of Baptist guide.
“We practiced what we’d say to the bartenders before we went,” my late husband told me, describing a French Quarter visit he made at age 16. “What’s the legal age here in Louisiana,” I’d say, “and when they told us 18, I’d said, ‘Oh, good. It’s 21 at home.’”
But when Don and his friends carefully followed their playbook and asked, “What’s the legal age?” the bartender simply said, “Can you reach a quarter up to the bar?”
Yes, everyone had better stories than mine, which would remain the case for a long time. Once, with two friends from Memphis, a married couple, the obligatory walk down Bourbon got particularly interesting for the man who spotted in a doorway a poster of an exotic dancer he’d been especially taken with as a teen.
“Can’t believe she’s still dancing,” he said admiringly. The barker at the door didn’t miss a beat, looked straight ahead and said to no one in particular: “Yep. He’s still dancing.”
The wife laughed till we left the city.
It would be 20 years after my virgin trip – virgin in every sense – before alcohol would pass my lips in the Quarter, but that was because it took me two decades to return. All my acquaintances were far too jaded to drink Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s before I ever had the opportunity. Not me. I loved the sing-alongs at the piano and saved my photos from the bar and somewhere, for a while, the hurricane glasses.
But no trip made more of an impression than the first. Something about seeing the Quarter with the preacher made it fabulously forbidden in a Golden Calf kind of way. People were breaking the commandments and not apologizing. The preacher, I believe, was as interested as his naïve guests. It was, after all, his car, his choice. Now that I know a lot more about preachers, it makes perfect sense.
I now have friends who live in or near the Quarter and won’t walk on Bourbon because it has too many tourists and predictable made-in-China gee-gaws and frozen drinks with more syrup than alcohol. They are snobs in that way.
But I say probably there is someone visiting for the first time who needs the full treatment, the Bourbon bacchanalia afforded only one time, one place in life. Act as escort. Be a guide. Or at least don’t look down your nose at girls who just want to have fun.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a veteran reporter and former syndicated columnist for King Features Syndicate of New York. She is the author of eight books, including "Poor Man's Provence; Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana" and "Good Grief," the only authorized biography of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. She is the recipient of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award and the National Headliner Award for commentary. Contact her at email@example.com.