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glbt new orleans history

Volume 15/Issue 15

Madame John Dodt's Legacy #15

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

A Sequel Of Sorts, Or Nightmare On Frenchmen Street

Sweeties, I guess it's a bit like conjuring up the devil, you draw a circle on the floor and you put a "five-pernted" star inside and Viola! there he is. Except in this case all I did-and you know it's true, you know it-was write an article here in Ambush about the enormous, incalculable gratitude owed to the formation of a certain paper millennia ago, and how said gratitude is bigger than Germany's World War I debt, etc., and the rest of it.

Well! There I was, minding my own business, tossing my curls efficiently around the FM Bookstore one snowy June night, pencil behind my ear (right ear, and you know what that means) and drugstore cheaters perched in just-perfectly-officious can-I-help-you fashion on the tip of my quasi-Bourbon nose, and who walks-I guess that's the appropriate verb-into the place but Old Lady Letson [creator of Impact]. You could have knocked me over with an empty Tanqueray Sterling bottle. "Ohhh, girl," Miss Letson gasped, obviously winded en route to the Phoenix.

"Miss Letson!" I gasped, obviously winded on my way to hell in a hand-basket (thinking to add, "as I live and breathe!" only I wasn't sure about either, or Granny's favorite phrase for such occasions, "This is too much for a white woman!"). My tone changed abruptly; I knew this couldn't be a drug flashback so I asked, "What's going on here? I heard you were at death's door in Alabama, gettin' cut open," before being cut off with:

"I wuz!" (Forgive me if I make Miss Letson talk like Mammy Yokum and me like Noel Coward, but hey, who's writing this?) Miss Letson then explained, at some length, that indeed they had sliced her open twice and that she had an intestinal blockage. After I suggested a few things that might have lodged there without paying any rent over the years, she said, "And it's all your fault, girl!" I was utterly flummoxed by this. "I was hurtin', girl, and I remembered what you used to do when yo' liver hurt," a reference to my perennial distress thanks to hepatitis, drugs, young men, and Bombay, when I used to treat my foie gras with enormous pots of mustards or collards with a fair amount of side meat (French style, you know, they do nothing but hang out at spas fussing about their livers between carafes of wine), "so I ate me a big pot of greens and that just made it worse! Miss Newlin, your liver-pamperin' almost killed me!" Declining to follow in the mighty footsteps of Lyndon Johnson and show me her abdominal road-map, I decided to switch the conversation.

"Well, Miss Letson, I figured you were at death's door and I just wrote this sweet article about you for Ambush and now here you are, alive and well, and now next month I'm going to have to take it all back!"

"What?" This gave her pause. "Gimme dose papers!" And grabbing a handful, Miss Letson slipped off into the night.

Figuring that old songs embody the wisdom of the ages, or at least of Tin Pan Alley, and that your trouble ends out where the blue begins, I arrived at the bookshop early and bright-well, glazed at least (my metaphor is drawn from doughnuts, as Miss Prism would say, or was it Patrick Shannon?). The hours passed pleasantly as I sat working furiously on a sampler with a few "cherce" Biblical quotations (a surprise gift for Alan Robinson on his return from "The Islands," and I don't mean Scout or Ship or Grand) and occasionally getting up to make sure that Dragazine didn't end up where Black Inches was supposed to be and that Advocate Classifieds didn't meander over to the capacious bin that holds the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, as well as directing a few wayward or inquisitive customers ("there's the door, what's your hurry?" etc.).

And so, with the aid of several double espressos, the day wound on. Sure enough I was beginning to think you could set your watch by this like the people of Konigsberg, Germany, did when the philosopher Kant took his daily walk. In came Miss Letson. (I immediately thought of calling my personal swami to find out what planets were out of alignment and what Aztec deities I had offended. "Bust out those Tarot cards!" I was tempted to fax him.)

Without a word, she grabbed another fistful of Ambushes. "I guess those are for your attorney," I said, looking up from my needlepoint.

"No, girl, they for my family in Alabama! And for Miss Kiker!" (A great good sister of Miss Letson's in Tuscaloosa who is either a hair-burner or a dietitian in the state booby-hatch, or maybe both, I can never remember.) "And I guess you well remember what happened the last time I tried to sue a gay paper!"-mentioning an occasion not fit for discussion in a family newspaper like Ambush. Since she was grinning something like Carol Channing auditioning for the title role in the latest Jaws sequel, it seemed she enjoyed the article, as much as Miss Letson enjoys anything that's not potato-liqueur-based or a masculine appendage. And did I mention that the old woman looked pretty good? Like the desert fathers of the church, trials and tribulations apparently agree with her.

The only noted omission was "Why didn't you mention Gilbertine, sister?" I said I was saving Gilbertine for a lengthy think piece on race relations in the gay community possibly for Thanksgiving publication, but now that she's here sitting on the doorstep, howling to come inside out of the rain...what can I say?

Gilbertine, a tall, thin, always-depressed black queen, was Impact's long-time night-time typesetter. A Magnolia Projects debutante, Gilbertine was known for several things: having once gone to the fabled Brown Derby on LaSalle and Louisiana in hot pants and heavy makeup; for invariably ordering what Fish Hickerson (who has idolized Gilbertine since she was a little girl-Fish, not Gilbertine; her walls are covered with yellowing pictures of Gilbertine clipped out of ancient issues of Impact, Bronze Thrills, The Louisiana Weekly, and Scientific American) christened forever "A Project Martini," which consisted ecoutez-moi bien, gallons of scotch and Coca-Cola, with olives-a meal in itself. So is Gilbertine, though perhaps the single emblematic Gilbertine story is that one day she was on the Desire bus traveling to Impact's swank Montegut-and-Dauphine world headquarters, and she had eyes for a man on the bus and she kept creeping closer to him, trying to stare him down like a reticulated python with a baby goat and, finally getting close enough, she said, "Oh, mister, can't you help me? I'm soooo lonely!!" The gentleman's answer to this authentic cri de coeur was, "The way you look, sissy, you gonna stay lonely!" But as a typesetter, co-worker, cooker of the finest turkey wings in the known universe, Gilbertine was truly an ornament to Impact, not to mention Western civilization.

After being chided for cheating Gilbertine of her place in Gay History, I felt well and truly chastened. I closed up the shop at eight and Miss Letson and I caught up, as the saying is; fortunately, we weren't chasing Tanqueray or Bombay bottles, because you can never catch those suckers. The only thing left for me to do was get on a plane to Provincetown (the French Quarter as re-imagined by seventeenth-century Puritans) and abandon myself to the scrod, the steamer, and the Campari for a week. Of course, with my luck, Gilbertine will walk into the bookstore next...I'll just tell her Patrick Shannon wrote this and used my name.

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