by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana
In the wake-I suppose that's the
correct term-of my last column, I
can't tell you how cheered I've been by the masses of get-well-cards, letter-bombs (of a magnitude to make the poor postman virtually herniate getting up my front steps) and all those blankets of rare orchids and poison oak that have been FTD'd my way, because I had to mouth off about Decadence. I thought I might mention that, contrary to my rich and deep maunderings about that Indian Summer fiesta, I think it perfectly marvelous the way in which queers have utterly co-opted Halloween. It's just de-regal, it's de-royal, it's de-ritz the way they've done this to that holiday of the year that most seems to terrorize the Christan Go-To-Hell-alition and their frightful and frightened minions more than any other-Ramadan would probably scare them even more if they knew what it was. When one considers that Halloween used to mean the usual jack-o'-lanterns and kids in Superman and witch costumes from Woolworth's (ave atque vale!) and indigestion from sackfuls of candy corn and miniature Baby Ruth's, and now it means-at least in select and sophisticated urban centers-Drag For Days. In honor of Halloween, I thought I might retail some of my miss-adventures in costume on that night of nights, before it got so damned crowded on Bourbon Street that you'd think it was Mardi Gras.
I'll leave out such tidbits as a glorious winter afternoon spent trying on corsets with my little grand daughter in her former digs above the Eagle Shoe Hospital on Magazine Street (I was unemployed at the time and what else is there to do to get through those long days on the dole but try on lingerie?), or the occasion when I went to a Mardi Gras soiree at the house of the late and luscious Judy Latour in a green silk evening gown with exquisite appliques and a big Clara Ward Singers-size wig and, after dancing with Dr. Larry Hill and trying vainly to emulate my idol and former sparring partner Charlotte Greenwood by kicking my legs up over my head, I sat down in something absolutely disgusting and greasy on one of Old Lady Latour's Directoire settees (a cursory examination of the seat of the dress might lead someone who didn't know me to conclude that something untoward had happened), and thus had to bite the bullet and bring the dress in to Chetta's Cleaners on Burgundy Street near the DeLuxe Piety Bell.
Now, the ladies at Chetta's were a really hardboiled gang who could pop gum loud enough to blow out window-panes. I handed one of them the dress and she looked at the dress and she looked at me, and she looked at the dress and she looked at me and she looked at the other ladies and she looked at me and she looked at the dress and she looked at me, and finally with a magnificent sonic-boom-like pop of her Bazooka Joe, she said, lip curled, "This...is...YOUR...dress...ain't it?" Since she'd fished it out of me, what could I do but fess up, and declaim grandly like Marie Dressler in one of her vulgar-dowager roles, "Yes, why?" (I should have added, "my good woman," now that I think about it). Her manner softened, like a thousand-year-old egg. Tossing her shellacked curls at me, she snarled good-humoredly, "Well, I can't guarantee yuh bead-work!" Who CAN ever guarantee bead-work? And some of us work so hard at it-but I digress. Back to Halloween.
The first Halloween I remember in a dress was some thirty years ago. It was so long ago that the My-O-My was still out in the West End, and some friends of mine did me up, teased my hair for hours and hours and went through a case or two of All Set, swathed me in aqua raw silk and whisked me off to the West End. It was not a success. "I wouldn't give you fifty cents for THAT!" I recall some pit-viper hissing as I made my entrance.
Years and years passed. Leaves fly off the calendar and this dissolves to a montage of the Wall Street Crash, Depression bread-lines, headlines (Japs Bomb Pearl Harbor, Japan Surrenders, Dewey Defeats Truman, etc.), rocket landing on the moon, etc. Finally some ten or twelve years later, I decided to try it again. I put on my veils and widow's weeds and a coat or two of foundation and rouge, and made the crucial mistake of pinning several wigs together and slapping them on under my capacious bonnet, and took off with several friends to Le Bistro-a lovely third-world dance-hall located just where Oz is today (and tomorrow, hopefully). So, along with my friend Miss Comeaux, I was out on the dance-floor trying out the latest steps, like the Suzy-Q, the Big Apple, the Shag, the Lindy Hop, etc. and just adrift in a dream like any ballroom dancer worth her salt or pepper or coriander, when I felt a finger poking me right in the dress-shield, rather insistently. Brought back to a semblance of reality, I whirled around to find some sissy standing there, yelling above the music, "Girl! Girl! You lost your pussy!" I looked down and there between my feet-horror of horrors!-were the three Anna-Magnani-as-Serafina wiglets I'd lovingly bobby-pinned together looking like what you'd find in the dumpster at L&L Furs. I snatched (no pun intended) them up and instantly repaired to the powder room once more to slap them down beneath my hat.
But things weren't the same again that evening, even though I somehow remember climbing a wrought-iron fence in my new slingbacks. Later that evening, about 5 or 6am, not in pursuit of a man or even of drugs but just because I could, and besides I'd tasted long and deep of the fruit of the juniper berry, I was being egged on from the balcony of Lafitte's by my dear old sister, The Space Witch From Mobile, as well as a crowd of admirers and crass-thrill-seekers who wanted to watch someone of a certain age and avoirdupois perform such an athletic feat. (Why don't the Gay Games have an event like this?)
The wind was taken out of my sails, much in the same way once at the Petronius Ball, when Miss Letson and I went all dolled up (I in my old black as usual) and I was spotted by Fish Hickerson who told me, between peals of girlish laughter, "Oh, Miss Thing! Miss Newlin, girl, you wearin' everything you own, woman!" After that, I didn't even care, having indulged in a wee smidgen too many headache powders before the ball and a touch too much of the Bombay, that Miss Letson almost killed us several times on the ride home down Judge Perez. (Though I did have mental images of my obit, wherein I was described lying dead in a ditch in Chalmette in a dress with a blood-alcohol level somewhere around that of a very dry martini. Quel honte! as the French say.)
So it was some years later (leaves fly off the calendar, montage of Woodstock, women burning their bras, Watergate, etc.) before I did it again. I was talked into this by Miss Letson who said we should put on some glad rags-glad to be unhappy, as Larry Hart put it-and hit the bricks. Of course, I succumbed to her blandishments. After the necessary fortifications, we went to Bourbon Street where we were heckled by a great many lowlifes. "Miss Newlin, they gon' kill us, girl!" Miss Letson said.
I said, "Oh, old woman, don't worry, I've got my knife," pulling out a little mother-of-pearl job about three inches long.
"Sistuh, you cain't do nothin' with that but file your nails, old woman!"
It was decided, though not by me, that we should repair somewhere safe, i.e., the Golden Lantern. After a few potations and decoctions, feeling that old sportin' woman yawning and stretching inside my Merry Widow, I decided to try my luck on the corner outside, so finally I got in a passing car. We drove around for a bit and were getting further and further outside the Quarter, and you know how it is, it's a lady's prerogative to change her mind, and I decided I'd had enough of this guy and he said, "Awright, get out the car."
Well, I'd not been paying much attention to where we were. Quel desastre! There I was, right in the middle of St. Bernard Avenue as he sped away into the night. Not a soul or taxi in sight. It was late by this time; I thought, what the hell, I'll find a secluded and comfortable spot and catch a nap; thus, in my sumptuous frock and all my veils, I crawled under a nearby house. Ah, but no rest for the weary, you know, and I went to the rock to hide my face and the rock cried out, No Hiding Place!, etc. It seemed like hours passed; in fact, hours did pass. I smoked and fiddled with my veils and yearned for just one more lick at the teat of Mother Sapphire Bombay, but...no!
So that was the way that Halloween was spent, under a house in one of the worst neighborhoods in town, and alone at that. When the dawn came up like thunder, I got out of there but quick and skedaddled as fast as my sensible shoes would take me to the 3600 block of Rampart Street. I had to traverse a good bit of the city, and-not looking my best-was jeered by the occasional lowlife and hooligan. Fortunately, being all swathed in black like some devout widow-woman in Valladolid or Seville, on All Saints' Day morning, was a blessing of sorts-it wasn't like the stories I've heard from sisters who've had to walk home in drag after a night at Central Lock Up, not quite anyway-and I suppose most of those I encountered thought I was a disoriented haint or hoodoo. Just as well. I haven't even looked at a pair of stockings or a waist-cincher on Halloween since.
So, Happy Halloween to all and, as my old pal Judy Garland once put it, Meet Me In St. Louis Number One, Louie!
Lest I forget before taking my broom out of the garage, happy birthday-her thirtieth, I believe, we're the same age-to Halloween baby and jane-o'-lantern Becky Allen.