Always look twice at a bride. That's probably the most valuable thing I learned from my six years in New Orleans, a city where children know what a drag queen is by age two and know which outfits Barbie and G.I. Joe can trade by age six. The ubiquity and charm of these ladies endear them to even the most unlikely people, such as my husband's grizzled, chain-smoking, Knight of Columbus grandfather. When we told Grandpa Starkey that we were moving to the Crescent City, he grinned and said: "I'll never forget going down to New Orleans when I was in the service during World War II. I was standing in front of a bar downtown and I saw the most beautiful dame ever -- I couldn't take my eyes off her. This guy from the bar sees me looking and says, 'How do ya like him?' I get confused and point to the dame and say, 'She's beautiful.' The guy laughs and says 'We got the most beautiful men in the world here.' How d'ya like that? I bet the place hasn't changed a bit."
Of course he was right. Like Grandpa Starkey, everyone in New Orleans has at least one drag queen story. The local tradition of dressing up for Mardi Gras means ultimately that even the straightest of men has more than a passing acquaintance with lip liner. Once you've seen the father of five from down the street sporting eyeshadow and a hot pink boa, you know that the rest of your life isn't going to hold very many surprises. And you will probably be able to find most of the surprises that remain down in the laissez faire world of the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny, where every day is Mardi Gras for someone.
One of my favorite drag queen stories comes from this area. Among the Ladies Who Shave, Big Tina towers, literally and figuratively, head and shoulders above the competition. Her host organism is a muscular black male who stands 6'4" in stocking feet, but Big Tina occupies even more vertical space once she puts on her high heels and sprays her teased blonde mane into place. More than anything else, her daily metamorphosis testifies to the transformative properties of Super Glue, which she uses in vast quantities to secure her trademark oversize accessories, including inches long nails and the cuff bracelets she wears as earrings. Big Tina's social life actually hangs on the strength of her epoxy because she is the kind of girl who goes home for repairs at the first sign of a broken nail or unsecured earring -- no one is going to catch her looking sorry and run-down.
So one morning Big Tina is out in full regalia, sweeping down Decatur Street with a majesty that would make RuPaul cry. My friend Michael sees her as she is bearing down on an oncoming mother and small child, and this being New Orleans, he doesn't think twice about waving hello to a nearly seven foot tall black man in a platinum wig, full makeup, tight red miniskirt, and Wonder Woman bracelets for earrings. Apparently the mother does, however, because as Michael reported between fits of laughter, "I have only read about what she did in books. The kid is only about three and he's staring at Big Tina and starting to pull on his mother's hand. The mother takes one look at Big Tina and jerks the kid across the street without even breaking stride. Big Tina thought it was hysterical."
I thought it was hysterical, too, but I was pretty sure I'd never see anything like it in my staid Uptown neighborhood, where shade trees are more plentiful than Big 'n' Tall Ladies stores. Naturally, I was wrong. One afternoon I was walking along the manicured sidewalks of State Street, a "way Uptown" enclave of enormous old houses with fresh paint, beautiful gardens, and silver tea sets in front windows. Near the corner of St. Charles Avenue, I passed a uniformed nanny flanked by a pair of wide-eyed, smiling six year-olds. Following their extended fingers, I found the source of their amusement: a beautiful young man walking towards us with a Dorothy Hammill haircut streaked blonde, tasteful makeup, tight short-shorts, and wedge heels.
The nanny spotted her at the same time I did and grabbed the hands of her charges with firm resignation, jerking them into a brisk walk as she scolded: "Come on here. I have told you before, that is not funny. It's sad, is what it is. It is a sad thing when a grown man goes to walking around like that. You don't need to be laughin'; you need to be prayin' for him with all your strength." Neither the concern for her soul nor the children's laughter seemed to faze Dorothy, who threw a withering glance at all of us as she hurried past to get the approaching street car.
Personally, I thought the nanny was on shaky ground with the prayer part of her speech. As a life-long Episcopalian, I know that men of God are supposed to wear dresses, the more embroidered and ornate, the holier. In fact, another of my favorite drag queen stories takes place in a church. It's probably an urban myth, but if you've ever been to a High Mass in an Episcopal or Catholic church, you can see how it could happen. The story goes that on some unnamed festival day, Tallulah Bankhead, drunk as usual, attended Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. A thurifer, a robed acolyte swinging a smoking gold pot of incense on a gold chain, preceded the procession of priests down the aisle, and when Bankhead spotted him, she yelled, "Love the drag, darling, but your purse is on fire!"
I always imagine myself re-enacting this scene when I see a thurifer at solemn masses, but these moments are rarer for me since I've moved away from New Orleans. The use of incense and attention to vestments appear regrettably lax everywhere else, and I have even found that many males appearing on altars will actually choose to wear too-short robes that show their suit pants underneath, thus negating the whole dress effect. I think that the holiness of their ministrations diminishes in direct proportion to the shortness of those robes, but I can't prove it.
What I can prove is that if you are male and you stay in New Orleans long enough, the native penchant for drag will probably rub off on you. What else would you expect in a city whose most powerful and connected men, the members of the Carnival krewes that parade during Mardi Gras, wear blonde pageboy wigs, pancake makeup, pantyhose, and bloomers as they ride on floats and horseback through the streets?
My friend Allys had lived in New Orleans for ten years and her boyfriend Geoff had lived there for eight when she called to report that he had borrowed her Alice In Wonderland costume to wear for Halloween. I was amazed, partly because I had recently had trouble getting my husband to wear even a toga to an "Ancient Rome" costume party. ("What ELSE are you going to wear?" I had wailed. To which he replied, "I'd be more comfortable going as one of those naked god statues.") Whose idea was that, I asked Allys, and she said, "Oh a bunch of guys he teaches with were doing it." This statement gets more interesting when you know that he teaches at a Catholic boys' school. The next time I talked to her, he was looking for a cocktail dress to wear "as a joke" to an artist friend's gallery opening.
I have begun to wonder how many more years it will be before Geoff, graduated from blue dresses with white pinafores to evening gowns and platinum wigs, becomes my drag queen story. Somehow, I know it's only a matter of time and Super Glue.