Before we begin: this is just a reminder that parts of this story have been fictionalized, names changed to protect innocents (and sometimes myself) from scandal, so on. Please enjoy it, but don’t take it too literally. I invoke artistic license on this story and on the people I met. In other words, this is largely a work of fiction based on some actual events.
Once upon a time, in a land not yet ravaged by nature, there was a city called New Orleans. It was a magical place in the American South, a vestige of a long gone era of succession, rebellion, and the French, who left behind their unique touch on the cuisine of the city, along with flair in architecture. It was that magical year 1998, before the Bush Administration and the 2000 election problems. Y2K was still two years off, paranoia had not yet gripped otherwise sane people, and everyone was living their lives.
July of that year was particularly hot and muggy in the city.
I remember because it was among my first impressions as I disembarked the bus with mymeager belongings. My companion, who is unimportant in terms of what I’mdiscussing, arrived as well. I had rented an apartment in the Middle Garden District with a friend I had met during a previous visit. Her name was Tracy, and she was one of the ‘famous’ Jackson Square Psychics, who set up shop all along the square all the time. Don’t ask me why I had befriended this woman (she was 31 then, eight years older than I was), it was probably a combination of sympathy for her life and the sense that I was doing something off-color: making friends with societal fringe. I was still young and naïve.
I grabbed a cab from the very dirty Bus terminal downtown and soon arrived at my apartment on Prytannia Street. It was an old building, three stories in height. Itwas my first time seeing it, I had gotten it through a man who owned the hotel I stayed at during my previous visits to the city. At that time it was painted a shade of lavender and the gardens were blooming with honeysuckle and wild jasmine, something I remember fondly. (I’ve collected some photos of New Orleans to illustrate the places I’m talking about. These are not my photos, and they remain the property of their respective owners.)
I got out of the cab and went to the front door, thinking it to be the main hall of the building. I was rather surprised when a large, oddly dressed black woman answered. She wore a purple velvet dress, something you would see in an old Victorian movie, with a black leather corset over it. She seemed rather put out over having to answer her own door, and I later found out that she rarely did it herself. This was Madame. She was the first “neighbor” I met, and what an interesting and strange relationship we would develop over the next few months.
She pointed me to the second floor, where I would find Room 17/18. It turned out to be directly above her, and had its own balcony overlooking Prytannia Street. It was rather large, considering the pittance I was paying for it. It had 4 bedrooms and a loft, with 2 bathrooms, and a very tiny kitchen. The ceilings were huge, 22 feet with windows that rose to the top, draped in old fashioned floral prints. It had a certain charm, I had to admit.
So why was I in this magical, once-upon-a-time city? That’s a good question, and probably one I don’t really have an answer to. Having been raised the most of my life in Florida, I wanted a different view. This happens from time to time with me. I get tired of looking out the window every day and seeing the same things. I wanted to look out and see something old, with history and culture all its own, for a change. I probably also wanted to escape my own hum-drum life. I certainly managed that for a while.
New Orleans was a city of fantasy. This was highly evident by not only Mardi Gras, but the other festivals that took place throughout the year (like Southern Decadence, which occurs around my birthday every year). It encouraged you to be someone different, someone who wasn’t afraid to jump in and see what the city had to offer in all of its seedy bars and in the underworld show folk who graced the city as though it were their permanent stage. It did not take long for me to indoctrinate myself into this sub-culture. Only a few hours, in fact.
As it turned out, the woman downstairs who had seemed so very put out over answering her door was a rather prominent figure in one of this city’s sub-cultures. She was Madame, a for-hire Dominatrix who ran her own family of “slaves” (people who had signed contracts of service to her) and even a few hanger-ons, the kind that develop in any situation where there is oddity and spectacle. I’m sure you’ve seen the type. She had a complete dungeon of tools used in her trade, housed in the room numbered 15.
We “officially” met the next morning. I was sitting on the balcony that faced Prytannia Street when she and her cadre of followers (I believe there were 3 or 4 people with her) exited her apartment downstairs. I happened to be standing literally at the balcony edge, drinking a cup of coffee made in the New Orleans fashion that had the sour, bitterness of chicory. She turned and waved to me as her people loaded some bags into her truck that was parked at the edge of the road, directly in front of our building.
“Welcome to New Orleans,” she said. “Have you been into the Quarter yet?”
“No,” I replied. “Not since I’ve gotten here this trip.”
“We are going out tonight, to the Dungeon. You are welcome to come.” Her people finished loading the bags into the truck, and without a word, climbed inside the vehicle themselves. “Be downstairs at my door at 9,” she said with a superior air. And without another word, she folder her large body behind the wheel of the truck, and drove off to some unknown destination.
I had never even heard of the Dungeon. At this point, my roommate Tracy had arrived and was unpacking her stuff in an adjoining room, and I knew if anyone would know what this place was, she would. I found her bending over a trunk in the small room she had claimed for herself, unpacking tarot cards and other accessories she used for reading down in Jackson Square.
“What is the Dungeon?” I asked her.
“A goth bar.” She said. “They are an after-hours club down in the quarter, we go there sometimes after we finish reading for the night. It’s the only place in town that serves a certain brand of Port wine, and not to mention they have Chartreuse. “ She tossed her dyed-black hair over her shoulder, and her moonstone earrings jingled. “Incidentally, if Dragon shows up, tell him I’m not here.”
Ah, Dragon. Her older-than-dirt former boyfriend. He fancied himself the leader of a family of his own. This family, however, included only supposed psychics, miscreants and other ne’er-do-wells. She had decided to leave him, and had moved in with me in order to do so. This did not bode well, since Dragon was a possessive sort, and did not like that she had left him. He spent a lot of time banging about, being hateful to people. That’s where his nickname had come from. He frequently smoked and had a trick where he let smoke trickle from his nostrils in tufts, and snorted at his own bad jokes. He wasn’t really dangerous or difficult, he just seemed to think he was.
“Let’s not worry about him,” I said offhandedly. “I’ll hear him coming up the stairs. You can hide if you want, we’ll have plenty of warning. What should I wear to this place?”
“Why are you going there?” she inquired, “Doesn’t seem your kind of place.”
“I suppose it isn’t, but I was invited by the lady downstairs. I might as well get out and see some of the city, right?”
“What’s she like?” she asked, “I haven’t seen her yet.”
“Odd. Definitely odd.” I said. So far, everything was odd. Tracy dealt in oddity the way some people deal in Antiques. I suppose that’s what happens when you live in a fantasy realm where the real world rarely pokes its ugly head in. Tracy loved this world. I can understand why.
So that evening, I dressed in what I thought were “going out” clothes (Jeans, nice shirt) and went downstairs to knock on this Madame’s door. I knocked a couple of times and was finally greeted by a young woman with a shaved head (think Sinead O’Conner). She was another first for me: I had never seen a girl with so many piercings in my entire life so far, or probably since! Her ears were filled with hoops, studs and dangles, her lips with tiny silver hoops, her nose had two and her cheek, labret and a Marilyn Monroe completed the set.
“Madame will be out in just a moment, “ she said quietly. She had a very pretty smile, despite the piercings. Her accent was decidedly Cajun. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting on the porch?”
“Not at all,” I said. The porch was larger than our above balcony, and Madame had placed a table and a few chairs to the right side. I settled into a chair to wait. A few minutes later, a beautiful woman wearing a corset and tight black jeans approached the apartment. Her hair was both blonde and red, with huge streaks of the latter tumbling all the way down her back. It was a nice effect indeed. She smiled at me and knocked on the door, to be greeted by the same young woman I had talked to. She was asked to “wait if it pleases you, Madame will be down shortly” and the door closed again.
“Classy woman, this Madame, eh?” she said to me. I nodded.
“I’m Mistress Rage, but you can call me Sam,” she said. Rage indeed. It was tattooed across her wrist in flowing script. It was highly unlikely I would forget her name, nor would she. She stuck out a hand, which I shook in return. I introduced myself to her, and told her I lived upstairs. We were having a lively conversation for several minutes when the front door opened and Madame made her exit onto the porch.
She wore an elaborate velvet dress and corset, her hair and makeup flawless. It was easy to forget she was anything but some Fairy Tale Mistress. Incidentally, she was literally that. Her look, her entourage, everythingabout her lifestyle, seemed to have been inspired by the author Anne Rice’s Claiming of Sleeping Beauty erotica novels. On several occasions, Madame told me later that she was the inspiration herself for those characters, that Mrs. Rice had based them on her life. I do not know if that was true to this day, but anything is possible. We did live in the same general neighborhood as she (First Street was only 3 blocks away).
Rage, it turned out, was a sort-of rival Dominatrix in the area, and Madame had invited her along to get a feel for her, to see if they could work together or whether or not she was a threat to her business. Madame was classy, and carried herself with dignity and composure. Rage, while at times seeming unsophisticated, was sharp as a tack and as business-oriented, but with a much coarser, more uncouth-sounding way about her.
“I apologize for the wait,” Madame said in her sultry persona voice, every inch the Queen of the Night she envisioned herself to be. “Thank you for coming. I thought we might go to the Rubyfruit Jungle tonight first, since the Dungeon doesn’t open until midnight.” I glanced at my watch. It was 9:23 pm. I had a sudden feeling that this was going to be a long night. I was not accustomed at the time to going “clubbing”. Typically I had been a home body, but when in Rome, as they say, you do as the Romans do.
Following Madame out onto the porch were some of her family. I don’t mean blood relatives. This was a different sort of family. The bald girl, her boyfriend (who had as many piercings as she did), and another young man dressed in a formal waiters outfit arranged themselves behind her in a half-moon shape four steps away and stood.
“Introduce yourselves,” she said to them without a look. The bald girl was called Amelia. Her pierced boyfriend’s name was Curt. The waiter was named Carl. They seemed friendly enough, all were smiling. Carl put his hand on Madame’s shoulder and said something in her ear. He kissed her cheek and she squeezed his hand, and then he trotted down the steps and left, apparently going to work. Amelia and Curt were to join us at the club, but were riding in the back of the truck. Rage and myself would sit up front with her. I gave the front seat to Rage, and sat behind her in the extended cab.
Madame was not a small woman. Yet she carried herself with such grace and composure that it seemed she was merely a sprig of a lass. The corset she wore gave her an amazing hourglass figure. She was very beautiful, but much of this was pretense. This was an outing, a trip into the “public realm” where she had an image to maintain. At home, I would find, she was a different person.
Next Time: Name dropping at the Rubyfruit: A New Orleans fairytale part 2.