Driving down Canal Street this week, I was caught in a mammoth traffic
jam of tour buses and taxi cabs. The horns were a cacophony of noise, a
symphony for vehicular transportation in G sharp.
The sights along the sidewalk began to attract my attention: the perennial chess masters looking for their next scam; the young mothers with squalling children in tow; the Asian tourists with two cameras around their necks; the French sailors in port for an afternoon of r and r.
It was then that my eyes came to rest on an old landmark...a store that had stood guard over this particular corner of Canal Street for years. There it sat-temporarily-because in its bowels sat the ultimate virus: the wrecking ball. Soon, Walgreens would be no more and another shrine to memory would be history.
I was 9 and my Uncle Frank was gay. He drove taxis for a living and sometimes he fixed cars. He was my mother's younger and only brother in a family of 5 children. Uncle Frank might well have been the 5th female in the brood.
Uncle Frank was not big on family and no one knew why. But he loved me and decided that a weekly outing was in order. I suppose I was his key to being a "family man" and his plan benefited us both.
Each Sunday, Uncle Frank arrived at our house in his Yellow Cab. He'd have Sunday dinner with us and then would help my mom with the dishes. At 2 pm, he'd ceremoniously pack me into his taxi and off we would go to Canal Street to see the latest first run movie at the Saenger, the Lowe's State or the RKO Orpheum theater. I always wanted to sit in the balcony. He never said no, although he would make us sit in the very first row of the upstairs seating.
We saw all the best films: Ben Hur, The Bible, The Greatest Story Ever Told--all stories with heavy religious messages (I wonder about that now...it's probably best not to think about it). But the most fun was reserved until after the show. Then we would head over to Walgreens with its long soda fountain for chocolate malts.
Uncle Frank was well-known at the drug store. As soon as we walked in, all the regulars seated along the counter would hail him-"Hey Frankie, who's your pretty little date" was the usual question. "This here's my niece," Uncle Frank would say proudly as he hoisted me up on one of the revolving stools that were permanently attached to the floor. I had to sit right on the edge to reach the counter, my feet dangling from under my Sunday dress.
He'd order a chocolate malt and a cup of coffee. I'd sit listening to the Hamilton Beach whipping the brown sweet confection into a velvet mixture. The soda jerk was generally a woman in a white uniform (I know where the costume idea for Alice came from). She'd pour the malt into a tall, tall glass and she'd stick in a long straw and a long-handled spoon. She'd place the drink on the counter and with a wink she'd put the metal mixing cup next to the glass. "There's a little lagniappe in there," she'd say and I'd give her my biggest conspiratorial smile.
Uncle Frank would drink his coffee and talk with his friends. At Walgreens, the men were small and the women were always larger than life. Each time the door opened, another elegantly dressed female would come in and stroll over to the fountain. Uncle Frank would offer his cheek for their kisses and soon his face would be covered in shades of red lipstick. You see, Uncle Frank was very handsome and of course he had me there as a "conversation piece."
I remember the names of the beautiful, tall women who came into Walgreens on Sundays: Dixie, Melody Anne, Betty, Sugar... and I remember how glamorous they seemed. Each one wore high heeled shoes and tight, form-fitting dresses. Sometimes they wore "diamond" jewelry which my Uncle Frank called "a girl's best friend." They were always nice to me, but not necessarily to each other.
Dixie frequently bought me a second chocolate malt and she would sit between me and Uncle Frank at the counter. She smelled like the perfume department at Maison Blanche and her makeup was very theatrical-dark rouge, dramatic eye shadow, red-red lipstick. I thought she was beautiful.
Her hair was raven black and it was pulled back in a big French twist. She'd often take out her compact (it was just like my mom's) and she'd powder her nose and check her lips. "You're a natural beauty, honey," she'd tell me and then she'd advise that I stay that way. I thought how different she was from my mother and I asked Uncle Frank if Dixie was she his girlfriend.
"Sometimes," he replied and she let out a deep-throated laugh that resonated under the fluorescent lights of the drugstore.
I'll never forget those Sunday afternoons at Walgreens or the men and women who shared that long soda fountain counter with me and my uncle. The men were so dapper and well-groomed; the women were always tall and lovely like the two-story images I watched on the movie screens. Their hairdos were like those of the stars and their dresses just as glamorous. I think I believed that they might have followed us over from the theaters, having just descended from the screens where their movies played.
My Uncle Frank and I made the pilgrimage to Canal Street every Sunday for over 2 years. Then one day, my mother decided that it wasn't "proper" for me to be gobbling down all that ice cream. Besides, she said, I was almost a teenager and it was time for me to see movies with my friends. Uncle Frank took the news with a sad smile. He died a year later from cancer and I never saw Dixie or Melody Anne or Betty or Sugar again.
It wasn't until I was about 22 that I realized Uncle Frank was gay and that his girlfriends were drag queens.
What a revelation that was to me! Of course the women were tall...of course their voices were deep and resonant...of course their feet were large and their makeup heavy. The women of Walgreens were the men of the French Quarter who made their careers as performers on Bourbon Street, at the My-O-My, or in the other drag clubs of the district. Walgreens was their hang-out and Uncle Frank was my tour guide into the world of illusion.
I sat lost in those memories until a rude taxi driver started yelling at me through the open window of his cab to "move it, sister." I drove forward the 2 car-lengths available and looked sadly at the crumbling facade of the old drug store. The wrecking ball was making fast work of the demolition and without any regard to the ghosts of the past who dwelled there. Walgreens was disappearing and I was now nearly a 50 year old woman...but that soda fountain would live eternally in some parallel universe held in suspension by my memories.
Chocolate malts and drag queens are a word association pair forever linked in my psyche. Both remembrances are deliciously sweet and move like velvet through my mind. Let the wrecking ball do its worst; some things about New Orleans will never change and New Orleans will never let some things about itself change. The city is an illusion that shimmers in the summer heat along the banks of the Mississippi River. We live here with one foot in the present and one foot in the past...and our memories are the bridges between the two dimensions of time.