Summer's here. The air is still, sultry, thick with the smells of rot and decay, sweet
jasmine blooming in the night, car exhaust. New Orleans in July: I sometimes
wonder if it isn't one of the levels in Dante's Inferno.
Lots of people do think of New Orleans as a place filled with sin and corruption. They don't see the beauty in the azaleas, the railroad daisies that spring up on the neutral grounds, or in the tantalizing smells at noon along any French Quarter street. At least we've made certain that we have plenty of beautiful and awe-inspiring places to atone for any transgressions against the Golden Rule. Look at St. Louis Cathedral or any one of the hundreds of other houses of God in this city. And if that ain't your cup of tea, there's always The House of Blues... they're on a mission from God.
Yes, our fair city does have her seamier side and nowhere is that more apparent than on Bourbon Street. The Street of Dreams...broken mostly...in a city that care forgot, or that forgot to care. It is interesting to work on the strip-in straight land as I call it-because you get to see all the highest and lowest forms of heterosexual mating techniques-you also get to meet and work with a lot of gay and lesbian people there.
And sometimes, you even get to fall in love on Bourbon Street. Let me tell you a story.
Years ago, I met a woman named Carol Weaver. She was one of those eccentric individuals who grew up very butch in the 1950's. She wore her hair in ducktails and her Levis were ironed with starched creases. She often wore men's shoes and sport coats...she was what they called a bull dagger.
I was what they called a babe in the woods...and I wanted to explore that forest in the worst way. Carol was my ticket to adventure, and she took me on a wild ride.
One night in the heat of summer, we traveled down to Bourbon Street. In those days, the street was never blocked off from traffic, so you could creep slowly from block to block in your car looking into the doorways of the strip joints, watching the men invite hookers to join them for the evening, smelling the odor of stale beer and human waste in the gutters. Bourbon Street was garish. It was loud. It was scary.
I asked Carol where we were headed. "We're going to meet Faye and Stella," was her reply. I wondered how we would be able to find anyone in the crowds along the street. She said we'd have no trouble finding them.
And find them we did. Stella was a stripper. She worked in one of the dingy clubs in the 500 block of Bourbon. You know the kind of place. The girls sit in the windows in skimpy outfits looking very bored while the barker calls out to all the men to come in for the show.
We walked up to the door and were immediately stopped by the bouncer. He looked Carol over from head to toe, noting her haircut, her man's belt, and her wallet bulging from her back pocket. "What you want in here, sister," he sneered. "We're friends of Stella's," she replied. That was all she had to say. The bouncer moved aside and we proceeded up the stairs leading into the dark smoky club.
Everything was either red or black. A huge stage with a pole in the center dominated the room. The lighting was dim...so dim that you couldn't see much of anything except the lighted stage. Carol led us to the bar where a blond haired man sat sipping a Dixie beer. He was dressed in painter's clothes-splattered with the colors of all his most recent jobs. We climbed up on the barstools and Carol introduced us. "Pam, this is Faye."
At first I thought she said "Ray" but as I reached out to shake the hand that was extended toward me, I realized from its size that this man was indeed a woman. I remember she had a warm handshake and an even warmer smile.
"'Bout time you came down to see Stella dance," Faye said to Carol, "being as she is retiring soon." This news surprised my friend. "Retiring?" she repeated. "Yeah, I don't want her to strip anymore. Besides, I make good money painting, so she can stay home like a good wife if she wants to."
I stared at them in amazement. I wondered how old Stella was. Retirement seemed so far away for me at age 23. Before we could say any more, the house lights were blacked out and an announcer's voice filled the room. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the one and only Queen of Rue Bourbon-direct from her world tour of Paris and Rome...our own hometown dream...Miss Stella."
About 6 people were there, so the applause was sparse. I joined in to be polite. It was then that the spotlight hit the center stage with a brilliant white light. I blinked my eyes for just a moment and when I again focused, someone was standing there in the pool of light.
Stella was drop dead gorgeous. Her hair was dark and silky. White and pink feathers covered her like a cloak. And she posed with one arm reaching high into the light beam while her up cast eyes followed the line of her arm and hand in an upward gaze. When the music started, she began to move.
I was mesmerized by Stella's motion, by her liquid moves around the stage. She must have known we were all watching her, but she acted unaware of our presence; it was just her and the light and the music.
She used her hands and her face in expressive ways. I watched her every move, waiting for her to strike the next pose and the next. Finally, she removed her outer garments to reveal the most perfect woman's body I had ever seen. Her breasts were full; her stomach flat. Her legs were long, long...and her skin glistened with a light sheen of perspiration. I felt that I was trapped in a bed of quicksand, trying desperately to "swim" for shore. The intensity of the moment left my arms and legs heavy... nearly paralyzed as I remained on my stool. I could not take my eyes off the vision that was Stella. She danced around the pole...on the pole...with the pole...she danced with the light, with the dark, with the air around her. She kept me in a dreamy state of intrigue and tension. Stella was quite extraordinary.
I think Carol and Faye got a big kick out of me that night. I was in love with the vision that had been conjured up from my dreams. A vision that would remain forever etched in my mind.
I don't know how long the show lasted. But I was finally aware of Stella being handed a black fur coat that cloaked her nakedness. I saw her black high-heeled feet step slowly down the stairs alongside the stage and I saw her moving toward us. I knew for certain that I could never speak to Stella, just the way one can never speak in one's dreams. Stella threw her arms around Carol's neck and planted a big red kiss on her cheek. "Well, stranger...long time no see. Are you here to say goodbye to me? Cause I'm giving up the stage, darlin', and becoming respectable."
What a pity, I thought, to lose the talents of this beautiful angel. I was smitten. Faye finally introduced me to Stella. She took my hand as I stammered a hello and she kissed the inside of my palm. "Keep this for me," she said of the kiss as she wrapped my fingers around the place where her lipstick still remained.
Faye wanted us to go back to Stella's dressing room, but I declined. Instead, Carol and I sat and talked about Faye and Stella. It seemed that Stella had been stripping for quite awhile when Faye had met her almost ten years ago. They had become lesbian lovers, just like so many other girls who worked the strip clubs. "No mixing business with pleasure" was a motto I repeatedly heard.
Six months after my first encounter with Faye and Stella, I found myself riding to Houston with Carol to visit the now retired Stella and the Painting Contractor Faye. They owned a house and they were doing very well. Stella wore a dainty peignoir set the morning we arrived and she fixed us coffee. Faye joined us soon afterwards and we all had a wonderful lunch prepared by Stella, "The Julia Childs of the Strip Tease," as she dubbed herself.
And no matter how "ordinary" Stella might have seemed, I knew that she could become that enchanting seductress of Bourbon Street at the snap of her fingers. Stella was going to beauty school now, she told us. Do you miss dancing, Carol asked her during one of our many conversations. Her reply was quick: "I miss the magic," she said.
Yes, the magic. It had touched me there on Bourbon Street. And even though Stella is no longer an exotic dancer, she still dances in my memory whenever I walk down the Street of Dreams. Much can be bought and sold on that street, but the sweet and unexpected pleasures of the flesh shared with a mysterious partner has a value that is beyond any form of payment. Because on that one night, I had captured Stella in my mind and she has lived there ever since...no, she is not a hairstylist in Beaumont...she's the girl of my dreams.