Monday, October 29, 2012

The Roxy Caution

According to adage, “A man never forgets a first love; he just replaces her.” Old adages usually reveal small truths, even when, in a strict way, they are wrong. It is why they stick around long enough to become old adages.

The term “love” in this context demands a sterner definition than it does in the counterculture lyric, “Love the one you’re with.” On the other hand, we needn’t get Shakespearean about it either. It is enough to say Karen qualified as a “first love” by a standard somewhere in between that of Woodstock and Stratford-on-Avon. Fittingly, we met in 1975, the year after the counterculture abruptly packed up its buckskins, headbands, and DayGlo posters, and closed shop.

For the better part of a year after my graduation from George Washington University in the spring of 1974, I felt oddly disoriented. For 17 years, school had provided built-in directions and goals. I wasn’t having much success finding a new direction of my own.

There is another old adage (this one traceable to Lewis Carroll): “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Early in 1975, I took this literally. I turned my 1973 tan Ford Maverick onto the entrance ramp of I-287 in Bedminster, snared a ticket 20 minutes later from a booth at the NJ Turnpike, and accelerated southward. My loose intention was to make a generally clockwise circuit to the West Coast and back again.

I spun miles on my odometer. I explored historic Williamsburg. I puttered around all the many Peachtree Lanes, Streets, and Avenues in Atlanta. I dallied in Jackson, which, against expectation, was a likable town full of genial and talkative people. Louisiana soon beckoned.

I reached the bayous of southern Louisiana at morning twilight. It was a spooky hour when mist drifted amid the trees rising out of the black water. The road had settled into the swamp, and my Maverick bounced and swayed on the uneven pavement. As the sun rose, I rolled into New Orleans.

I spent my first day in the city as a typical tourist. I admired the old architecture, snapped photos in Jackson Square, boarded a riverboat on the Mississippi, and wandered through curio shops. I visited the Old Absinthe House where Mark Twain had tippled a century earlier. The Dixiebelles’ 1963 song Papa Joe’s was popular when I was a kid, so the sign for the bar caught my eye. I walked inside and ordered a Hurricane. (By the mid-80s I would become a near-teetotaler, but that was a decade away.)

Even before leaving Papa Joe’s, I had decided to extend my visit for a few days. Afternoon turned to evening, and Bourbon Street lit up. An amazing variety of live music wafted out of the French Quarter clubs, including folk, blues, country, rock, and, of course, Dixieland. I barhopped along Bourbon from Ursulines to Canal, with occasional ventures into side streets.

Intermixed with the music clubs were strip clubs. These exist in every large city and quite a few small ones, but they never had been part of my scene or budget. So, at first I paid no attention to them in New Orleans. As I doubled back from Canal after an indeterminate number of drinks, however, the advice of a street barker to experience the female pulchritude inside sounded more reasonable than it had on the first pass-by.

I entered Chez Paris. (The club no longer exists.) It was a dark, narrow, and scruffy place with a raised stage located in back of the bartenders’ station. A short, cute, topless brunette strutted on stage to Please Mister Please. I sat down on a stool. Next to my knee, the largest beetle I ever saw was climbing vertically up the front of the bar. It ignored me, so I chose to ignore it.

The bartender introduced herself. She was one of the many women named "Roxy" in that industry. She is the only bartender ever actually to have asked me, “What’s your poison?” I ordered Southern Comfort and Coke, my favorite drink in those days. It was a slow night in Chez and there already was a substantial amount of alcohol in my system, so I over-tipped her. Roxy smiled, leaned on her forearms, and grew quite chatty. Fortyish, she was, she said, a veteran of burlesque. She lamented to me at length about how lame the whole business had become over the previous ten or fifteen years.

"It was much better in the old days," she said. "There were real shows and real acts, not these lazy babes prancing around."

I nodded but dismissed the remarks. Veterans of anything always think the old days were better and that modern times are lame. I owe Roxy an apology for this. DVDs of vintage burlesque shows featuring live bands, comedians, singers, and, of course, strippers, prove her right. In 1975, however, I hadn’t seen any of those, and I was more than content with the prancing on view.

Roxy was the only full-time bartender in Chez that night. The dancers doubled as bartenders when they were off stage. They also hustled overpriced drinks for themselves by chatting with customers. In the 1970s, lap dances were not yet part of the repertoire of clubs of this kind.

The dialogue with Roxy was pleasant, as was the scenery on view, but I had decided to finish my drink and leave. Then a new dancer climbed the steps to the stage and changed my mind. She was sandy-haired, trim, 5’5”, and in her mid-twenties. She wore no visible make-up, and sported a simple mono-color brown summer dress. The natural look worked perfectly for her. Even the slight crookedness of her front teeth made her smile cute rather than flawed. When she lost the dress in the second number, I ordered another drink. Few people truthfully look better out of their clothes than in them, but she did. For the final number, her dance consisted entirely of twitching her gluteus muscles. It’s hard to make that sound elegant, but it was intriguing.

Roxy, professional that she was, saw my reaction. “Want to buy Karen a drink?” she asked as Karen stepped off the stage.

“Yes, I believe I do.”

Roxy looked at Karen and nodded slightly in my direction. Karen sat down next to me. Roxy filled a shot glass from a Jack Daniels bottle and slid it in front of her. We introduced ourselves. We got along well, though I was aware it was her job to get along with customers. She said she was from Shreveport but had lived in New Orleans for several years. I told her loved her Louisiana accent.

“I take it with me everywhere,” she answered.

I don’t recall anything else I said during the next half hour, but she at least pretended to listen to whatever it was. She sipped rather than gulped her whiskies, but still ended up drinking a lot. Whether due to personal stamina or to the peculiar characteristics of her whisky, she showed no sign of inebriation at any time. She returned to the stage for her next set, and then came back to drink and talk some more.

I left the club in the small hours of the morning. Bourbon Street was still full of people. Most of them were drunk, but they were still there. I reaffirmed my earlier decision to remain in New Orleans for at least few days longer.

A few days stretched into a week, and every night I finished at Chez Paris, disappointed the two nights Karen was absent. Had you asked me if she was the reason I stayed in town, I probably would have denied it. New Orleans had many other attractions, and I was enjoying them all – all of the legal ones anyway. Yet, in truth, without Karen they wouldn’t have kept me there a week.

Roxy poured drinks for us and collected her tips, but one night, while Karen was on stage, she leaned over the bar and gave me a warning. “You be careful of her,” Roxy said. She then put a silencing finger to her lips. I still don’t know exactly what she meant by her admonition, or what motivated her to give it.

The next morning, I counted my available cash and decided it was time to move on. My time and money were not unlimited, after all, and there still was a big country to see. I planned to spend just one more night in New Orleans, and to end it, like the first, in Chez.

When I walked in near midnight, Karen was in a snit. She snapped at one of the other girls, who simply sighed and rolled her eyes. Karen huffily mounted the stage and performed without her usual fluidity. Instead, she broadcast irritation with every irregular gesture. Roxy shared with me an expression of sorely tried patience. She poured an SC & Coke for me and said it was on the house.

Karen ended her set and emerged from behind the bar. A customer touched her arm. He probably just wanted to offer her a drink, but Karen slapped the hand away. She slid onto the bar stool next to me. She was uncharacteristically taciturn, answering most of my questions and remarks with a nod or a monosyllable. I told her that I would be moving on to Texas the next morning.

She took her eyes off her drink and peered at me in the unblinkingly way a cat sometimes does.

“Is your car nearby?” she asked.

“A few blocks. It is in a garage.”

“Get it. Drive me home.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Hurry up. I won’t wait for you if you take too long. Roxy, you don’t need me tonight, I’m out of here.” Karen got up and strode to the ladies room.

Roxy looked as though she wanted to say something to me, but then changed her mind. She shook her head and said, “Here. Before you go, take this.”

Roxy reached under the bar and pulled out a trophy in the shape of an equine posterior. Normally a customer had to down at least six drinks at a sitting to win one of these statuettes. I never had done this at Chez, but Roxy apparently decided that I had earned it.

It took 15 minutes to retrieve my Maverick from the garage and to pull in front of Chez.

“I told you to be quick about it. I was about to get another ride,” Karen complained as she got in the car.

“Sorry. Where are we going?” I asked.

“Esplanade. That way.” She pointed straight ahead.

We drove out of the bright and lively stretch of Bourbon Street. At the intersection with Esplanade, a park-like divided road marking the boundary of the French Quarter, Karen pointed an index finger to the left. I turned left. We proceeded several blocks.

“Do you usually walk all this way?” I asked.

“I really don’t feel like talking.”

“OK.”

We continued away from the river.

“Stop over here,” she ordered.

She indicated an old frame two story building on an especially dark block. I pulled to the curb.

I was a normal 22-year-old male, so the thought of attempting to sweet-talk Karen into nocturnal activities was not altogether absent from my mind. However, I reckoned the attempt would have long odds of success at the best of times, and, given her current hostile mood, would be futile tonight.

It was time for goodbyes. I considered quipping, “We’ll always have Chez Paris,” but thought better of it.

“Well,” I began, rather less smoothly than Bogart, “I suppose I won’t see you again, but I enjoyed…”

“Coming up?” she interrupted.

The question stumped me. I thought I had misheard it.

Pausing after each word, she said, “Are you coming up? I won’t ask again.”

“Yes.”

We exited the car. I became aware of how alone we were. No pedestrian was in sight and traffic on Esplanade didn’t even rise to the level of light. We walked to the front door of the building, which was barely illuminated by a dim sconce light next to it. The door was off-lavender except where missing chips of paint exposed dark brown. The lock clicked loudly to her turn of the key.

The odor of moldy wood on the first floor was almost overwhelming. We climbed one flight of wooden stairs. The steps creaked under our feet and the banister wobbled under my hand. The coffee-stain wooden door to her apartment was scratched and battered. Karen opened it, and I followed her inside. The apartment was a small and cluttered space. An old misshapen sofa abutted one wall and an unmade mattress lay on the floor. The must was thicker in here than in the air downstairs. The window overlooked the back of the property.

The cause of Karen’s annoyance that night is a mystery to me to this day. Maybe it was a spat with a co-worker. Maybe it was money. Maybe her boyfriend cheated on her. Maybe her girlfriend cheated on her. I don’t know. I was grateful for it, whatever it was.

When morning came, Karen pushed me on the shoulder without looking up. “You can go now,” she said. It wasn’t a suggestion.

“Perhaps tonight…” I began.

“No. You’re going to Texas.”

That wasn’t a suggestion either.

“OK.”

Her face was still buried in the pillow when I left.

I stopped at my hotel long enough to check out, and then picked up Interstate 10. I drove west to Lake Charles and beyond. The statuette from Chez lay on the front seat next to me.

I’ve visited New Orleans more than a half dozen times since then. I never again encountered Karen – or Roxy for that matter. I still could drive to the correct door on Esplanade Avenue, but I’ve never done so. Karen, I suppose, moved on. I hope it was to a brighter future. True to the adage, I've replaced Karen a few times in the years since, with similar (if less rapid) results. I think the last time was, in fact, the last. But this would be a surer thing if I had forgotten the address on Esplanade.




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