Jessica was a sissy maid I knew in New Orleans. Through her, I got to know her Mistress Catherine, or Mrs. Thibodaux as most people called her, and I became friends with both. Catherine was a grand dame who had moved to the quarter in the 1940's as a young bride. She and her late husband had turned a dilapidated old mansion into a beautiful small hotel. She would regale me with stories of life in the VC in the old days, and she did have some corkers.
The French Quarter is called the Vieux Carré. That's French for "Old Square", but it's actually more of a rectangle. Then again, it could refer to the public park in front of the St. Louis Cathedral now called Jackson Square that really is a square. The Vieux Carré is the original City of New Orleans located on a natural levee about a hundred miles upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi River. Many people don't realize how far upriver it is thinking that it's on the coast. It's not. It's surrounded by swamps, which accounts for the stifling high humidity.
The city was named after the Duke of Orleans, the regent who ran the French government for a young king, and its street names, such as Bourbon (the king's family name) and Dauphine (the king's former title as crowned prince) allowed the city's founders to suck up to those in power. And of course Royal Street was a name that would stir the blood of any true monarchist. Some cross streets are named after saints keeping the Church happy as well. You've got to cover all the bases when sucking up. American names have crept in over time such as Decatur Street, but who wouldn't name a street after a dashing naval hero for whom ten cities are named. And sucking up to the new bosses, the Americans, couldn't hurt either.
It may seem counter intuitive, but the highest land along a river on a delta is the land closest to the river channel. Because of the tremendous kinetic energy of moving water the river carries particles of various sizes, but as it floods the water quickly slows down losing its ability to carry the largest particles, so they are dropped as soon as the water leaves the river channel, leaving sand, gravel, and larger particles in the soil closest to the river. Ever finer particles are dropped further from the channel as flood waters spread out and slow down so much that they can carry almost nothing, its energy having been expended. With time the finer sediments settle to the bottom, dewater and subsidence creates backwater swamps, but the natural levee with larger interlocking particles stands tall compared to the area behind it. But, when you build on land that was deposited by flood waters, that means it is still below the level of the flood that deposited it.
The city owes its origin to one of the largest financial swindles in history in which a Scott named John Law bankrupted almost the entire population of France selling stock in a company that did very little. The mentality of doing very little has remained in the population ever sense, earning it the nickname "the city that care forgot". When asked by their sponsors what they needed most, the early settlers replied "send whores". They did. I would add however that the unofficial motto, "Anything worth doing, is worth doing to excess" made it a great place for a single guy in his twenties with a good job to learn about human nature, including his own.
The street lay out and most street names are original to the old square, but there are only a few French buildings left. The big fire was in 1788 took almost everything. Spain ruled the city then and after that fire, they built the impressive Cabildo as the new seat of government on what is now Jackson Square. The French briefly owned it again but they needed money so they sold it to the Americans in 1803. They have had it ever since, if you don't count the Confederates, that is. So, most of the buildings were Federalist style built in the early half of 1800's under US rule.
The people spoke French, even when the Spanish ruled the city and it's called the French Quarter because that neighborhood and one downstream were where the French speaking Creoles (not to be confused with Cajuns) remained after the Americans moved in and built new neighborhoods upstream. Canal Street was the dividing line between the traditional Creoles and the brash new Americans. With time, as new waves of immigrants moved in the Creoles were less prevalent and by the 1920's it was an Italian neighborhood, but it was always cosmopolitan, charming, a little dirty, morally casual, and perhaps the most European city in the US.
I first met Jessica at the local A&P grocery store on the corner of Royal and St. Ann. She was in her full French maid uniform which while very pretty was not well suited for that store. If you ever saw the British TV series "Dr. Who" with his TARDIS, that's larger on the inside than it is on the outside, you could relate it to this store. It defied the laws of physics fitting anything we denizens of the French Quarter could possibly need in the way of groceries into a tiny space. Part of this was accomplished by having aisles only three foot wide.
Needless to say, passing a three foot wide satin covered petticoat in the aisle with a tiny grocery cart could be challenging, as well as thrilling. But, it was a feast for the eyes after you passed her and she was mincing away in her high heels and black stockings with that big white apron bow gracefully swaying from side to side as she walked. I guess she knew how to keep it from knocking stuff off the shelves, because that didn't seem to be a problem for her.
In most places seeing a uniformed French maid out in public would be considered an extraordinary event, but not in the Quarter. You'd just chalk it up to business as usual and you could be certain that would not be the most unusual thing you would see that day. Street performers and musicians dressed in colorful costumes vied for tourist's spare change along with shoe shine boys, guys in leather, scammers, muggers, bums, preachers and hookers of every persuasion. Or, should that be hookers and preachers of every persuasion? Either way, it fits.
I assumed she was a girl, but this was the French Quarter, "where men are men, and so are many of the women". So, hoping not to offend, I asked. After she had a good laugh, it turned out she was a he. I couldn't even tell when she spoke to me. Regardless, she was very pretty and I told her so. We struck up a conversation because she knew I lived in the neighborhood. She had seen me walking to and from work. No, I'm not so handsome that people notice me walking down the street, but a guy in a business suit with a briefcase walking through the French Quarter at 6:30 am every weekday is just slightly less exotic than a uniformed French maid.
The French Quarter is at its very best at that time of day. Merchants (and maids) are sweeping and hosing down the sidewalk in front of their shops or houses, cleaning up from the previous night's debauchery. The drunks have all woken up and staggered away or been picked up out of the gutters. Tourists are still in bed. The temperature is as cool as it gets and the humidity is not as bad as it will be in a few hours. Best of all, it's quiet and peaceful. It's just you and the beautiful architecture which is perfectly suited for that climate.
Second floor galleries on many buildings cover the sidewalks completely and are supported on posts by the curb. Balconies cover the sidewalk less than half way out and are cantilevered from the building. Both sport beautiful wrought iron railings that add to the character of the neighborhood, and both provided shade from the relentless sunlight and protection from afternoon rainstorms that often accompanied my walk home from work. It was a perfect design for the climate, an umbrella being needed only to cross streets, for an occasional stretch of uncovered sidewalk or to cross Jackson Square in front of the Cathedral.
I knew where Jessica lived having occasionally seen her in her cute outfit sweeping the sidewalk in early mornings, but I was surprised that she knew who I was because I tended to keep to myself. But, it turned out that we had mutual friends. After that, if I were walking on the other side of the street from the building she lived in, I would occasionally see her up on the gallery sweeping and cleaning and I'd wave to her or even stand in the street and talk for a few minutes about the latest neighborhood news.
One day her mistress was on the gallery overhearing the conversation and invited me up. Jessica went down to open the massive wrought iron gate to their carriageway to let me in and show me the way up to the gallery. I guess Jessica had told her about meeting me. She too knew our mutual friends, Don and Ron, owners of a local curio shop.
Don did tarot card readings, psychic readings and other "spiritual" mumbo jumbo and his longtime partner, Ron, ran the shop. I don't believe in the supernatural and never had one of his readings, but I know he was very good at it and the service he provided, listening to people and advising them, was well worth the money. A psychiatrist would have cost twenty times as much and I doubt if the advice would have been as sound. Don had a very outgoing personality. He knew everybody and everything about everyone. You'd never know he was gay until you met his partner Ron who was a bit effeminate. Ron would sometimes intentionally lay it on thick, to test or embarrass people, including me, but they were very good friends to me and when they needed me, I was there for them, no questions asked.
I got to know them while I was walking to work one morning and there was a small crowd of people talking about a murder that had happened early that morning. I'm convinced that nothing good ever happens in that city between 1 and 5 am. I stopped to hear what they were saying and someone suggested that we ought to form a neighborhood watch type program, I volunteered, as did Don. We set up a time and place for a meeting and formed an organization to work with the local police, even giving an award to police officers who for specific acts were deemed exemplary. That's how I got to know the police captain, local media people and many others. If you don't count the people who can't read and write, New Orleans isn't very big.
Anyhow, Jessica let me in, closed the gate behind us and I ascended a spiral staircase behind her. She could have had me go first so she doubtlessly knew the show she was putting on for me. I thanked her for the entertainment and she smiled. I followed her through a large second floor parlor, arriving at the gallery where I was introduced to Catherine. Then she sent Jessica to get some ice tea with three glasses. That's how I met Catherine Thibodaux, the much beloved owner of a small, but exclusive hotel on Royal Street, the Auberge du Rue Royale, that was staffed mostly but not exclusively by sissy maids.
She asked how I liked the city and I told her that I loved being able to walk to work. In every other city in which I had job offers; I would have had to commute by car or bus. Being able to walk to work, especially in such beautiful surroundings steeped in so much history, was to me, a luxury. It was good exercise, less stressful and much cheaper than commuting. She then asked what I thought of her sissy maids. I had never heard that term before and all I could say was that it was a pretty outfit, and Jessica seemed to be a very hard worker, since every time I see her she's busy. I didn't know Jessica that well, but I said I knew she was a boy.
She knew from our mutual friends that I was straight, so she knew my acquaintance with Jessica was not romantic. Catherine was extremely protective of her maids and had their complete trust. I told her how odd it was, knowing Jessica was a boy and still enjoying the view of her heels, legs and petticoats just the same as I followed her up the stairs, even though she did not have "perfect legs" in the classic sense. Catherine smiled, and almost laughed, she obviously had heard that old humorous definition of "perfect legs" as "feet at one end and a pu**y at the other". The comment went right over Jessica's head, and no explanation was offered.
She said that's because the French maid outfit has been so well established as an iconic feminine ideal that it was the concept itself that I was reacting too, not the person so I should not be embarrassed. She said her guests love it, and the women love it even more when they figure out the twist she has put on the theme. Many wives have had a good laugh at their husband's expense when the truth is revealed. She has many return guests and referrals just for that. She could see my fascination with the costume. She had, no doubt, seen that reaction many times before, but said nothing. Evidently, she wanted to tell me why she had sissy maids. She started by asking if I knew Jessica's history. I knew she had been a runaway, but nothing more. Jessica was right there and at her mistress's urging she sat down and they told me her harrowing story.
Sadly, it was an all too common tale. A young boy in the South or Midwest with a horrible home life is beaten, abused and constantly belittled, because some warped souls can only build themselves up by tearing others down. The child had the good sense to extricate himself from that situation, but having no money and no good options, runs away going downhill both literally and figuratively until he finally ended at the bottom, a city that is so low that it is partly below sea level. He ended up, at age fourteen; in the streets of the French Quarter broke, desperate and alone and to survive he became what my gay friends called a "street hustler" - a male prostitute.
Don and Ron had disdain for these kids, for drag queens and for certain other segments of their "gay community". There were certainly prejudices within the community and there was an established social hierarchy as well. I could see why shop keepers would have a problem with these kids who would steal things and frighten legitimate customers away. I never asked about their personal lives but they were happy to explain the meaning of various gay slag terms and other oddities about the gay community that were unfamiliar to me. Some of the terms and oddities were universal and some were local. One I think was a local term which I find humorous to this day was "a pensioner". No, it's not an old guy retired from a job. It's the gay son of a rich, small town southern family that was such an embarrassment to the family that they would pay him handsomely to go away and stay away. Because of their friendship and candor, I was much more sophisticated than I would have been otherwise.
It's called "the city that care forgot" but for Jessica and many other runaways it was the city that forgot to care. The hustlers would dress up in drag like female hookers and sell themselves on Rampart Street at the edge of the Quarter. They were children! They were uneducated, malnourished and susceptible to STD's, other diseases, violence, drugs, exploitation of every sort and eventually even AIDS. And, because they were not legally emancipated, they didn't even have police protection as an option. People of the same ilk as those whom they had fled were eager to exploit them and few seemed to know or care.
Catherine and her husband saw the problem decades before I got there and while they lacked the resources to solve it, they decided to do what they could one child at a time. They went out and bought them food so they could talk with some of these kids, and try to understand them. They volunteered at a shelter and decided that they could give some of these kids jobs, guidance and a place to live. But, child labor laws preclude that. Government policy says leave them in the street to die or bring them into the system so bureaucrats can deal with them at public expense. But, that's the very system that had already failed these kids and lost their trust. Some of them were crazy and some were on drugs, but some were just desperate and could still be saved.
If they were going to try to help some of them escape this death spiral, it would have to be done informally, off the books. And even then, how do you know which of these kids living in a world of exploitation, a world devoid of trust, ethics and morality can be trusted not to exploit you? Who can you trust in a dog eat dog world? Put your hand into a dog eat dog world and it will most likely be bitten. I know. I've tried and always failed.
They devised a series of questions that would reveal basic character traits to see who had potential for their plan, concentrating especially on new arrivals that were less jaded, not yet ruined and not yet into drugs. Because these kids already dressed in drag, the idea of the sissy maid uniform was hit upon early. The uniform would make them special, and yes, it did. They had pride in the uniform and justly so, based of the reaction it elicited. The fancy uniform with the hotel logo on it meant they were part of something, and that uniform had to be earned. A cheap common maid's uniform was worn by newbie's for a three month probationary period.
It was the classic social contract. They would surrender some freedom in exchange for order and security. And that introduced the classic gray line faced by every free society; how much freedom do you surrender and when does order become oppression? Freedom, when you are starving is of little value. And freedom unrestrained by law and ethics, in a civil society is crime.
Rational people seek some middle ground. Unlike the real social contract, where any freedom surrendered is most likely gone forever; this one had a time limit. Despite the name of the little cottage in which they lived, they weren't slaves. They were always free to take off the uniform, put on their street clothes, collect their savings and leave. Either party could pull out. The uniforms were not expensive, but only because Catherine made them herself. They belonged to her, and she kept them when they left. They were distinctive, with the hotel's logo on them, and she made sure they could never be used in a way that would bring discredit on the hotel.
Many of these kids left home to rebel against authority. If they were resisting authority justly applied, then they, not the parents were the problem and they had the option to go home.
But if, like Jessica, they had escaped abuse and were simply trying to survive, they were not the problem. Mr. and Mrs. Thibodaux would talk to them about that freedom versus order tradeoff and discuss long term objectives. If a boy understood and could see that their objectives coincided with his objectives, then they could work together. Two years of very little freedom, could buy him room and board, education in a caring environment, work experience, a nest egg at the end, a highly regarded reference, a reputation for shouldering responsibility, acceptance in a community and a path to a better life - escape from life on the streets. It was a bargain and the smart ones jumped at it. They were very selective but even with that, I don't see how they pulled it off while protecting the best interests of their guests at the same time. But they did.
No drugs, no drinking, no hanging out with the street people they knew, and no second chances. They agreed to that and more up front. The first two rescue boys were given a small room in a "slave quarters" at the back of their property that had a separate entrance to a side street. They were given medical checkups before any agreement was reached, had work to do, got an allowance in lieu of a wage - most of which was banked, and they were kept busy. If not working there were books to read that would be discussed at dinner. They tried to get them back in school, but, that ushered in a host of new problems. So, informal home schooling for the sake of education rather than documentation became the goal and eventually documentation could catch up in the form of a GED. Often one maid was the teacher for the other. You never learn a subject as well as when you must teach it. But with each maid, they took a hit on their taxes, since this was all done out of pocket, not deductible and not legal. Eventually a non profit was set up to put it all on a sound legal and financial basis. There were details to be worked out and a competitor across the street undermined their effort at every turn, so there were legal fees.
It worked out. They had very few problems over the years and considering the risks, they were lucky. The kids were brought into a structured environment with good people who cared about them. Being in a clean French maid uniform living in a clean room with good meals was infinitely better than living in a flea infested drug den and turning tricks to survive, so nobody questioned the uniform and nobody doubted that it was a privilege to wear it.
When they finished their renovation, Mr. and Mrs. Thibodaux had more time to devote to their little project which eventually became self sustaining. It was never intended as long term employment but as a life raft to instill a work ethic, some sense of self worth and get these kids safely to age 16 when they legally could work elsewhere, by which time they had some money saved up and a safety network of former maids to help them. It gave them tools to survive and in some cases thrive. They were no longer alone and friendless. It became self sustaining when outgoing maids would find suitable replacements to nominate and to be interviewed for the jobs they were going to vacate. Then they would even train them, in many cases giving the outgoing maid their first taste on management responsibilities they had ever experienced. But, some did stay longer as full time employees and at times she would have as many as four maids in service, including girls. They couldn't save them all but she could save some and that was the origin of the sissy maid servants their little hotel became known for. The program survived her husband's death in the 1970's and Catherine was revered in the community.
To my surprise, Jessica was not gay. Some of the sissy maids were drag queens but others were like Jessica having been dragged into a gay lifestyle and even into cross-dressing as a matter of survival, a legacy of her time as a street hustler. Having become accustomed to dressing as a girl, the French maid gig seemed normal to her and she was tremendously grateful to Catherine. I instantly liked Catherine and we remained good friends for the rest of her life.
Don and Ron had an annual Druid Day celebration of the Summer Solstice. It was basically a cookout and party with about twenty people with a contrived ceremony to justify lots of drinking. It was always fun and since I wasn't driving, I could drink and walk home with friends. I rarely drank alcohol, the exception being one Hurricane at Pat Obrien's bar whenever I had out of town guests. It is one of those rare places where people could actually sit and talk.
The Druid Day celebration was usually held in the courtyard behind Don and Ron's shop, but one year their building was being eaten by termites so they had to move to a different building. This meant the loss of their beautiful courtyard behind the old shop.
That year Catherine volunteered her courtyard for the party. The longest and potentially hottest day of the year isn't peak tourist season in New Orleans. Don showed up in a wizard outfit, a few others were in robes they postulated to be in a style Druids might have worn. Maid Jessica, though a guest, was in her uniform and willing to serve. She was undoubtedly sweltering in the New Orleans heat and humidity with the heavy undergarments and pantyhose that were part of a uniform that was intended to be worn in air-conditioning.
Unlike most places that cool down after sunset, New Orleans in summer does not. Because of the high humidity, it stays hot long after dark. The uniform proved to be well worth the discomfort though. What they say about women being attracted to men in uniform must be true. I know he got lucky that night with a waitress from Bennigan's who probably had no idea she was cradle robbing. But the evening was far less successful for me. Catherine would not tolerate underage drinking by her maids - ever! Too bad I didn't follow Jessica's example of temperance. The music was a too loud, the drinks were too strong, I had too many, and I talked too much. Well, anything worth doing...
I was simply trying to be heard over the loud music while talking to Jessica across a table and I told her, "If I were your size, I'd love to put on a cute little French maid outfit like that, just to see what it feels like." Unfortunately, after the word "size", the music abruptly stopped, but my big alcohol enhanced mouth did not stop shouting and nobody else was talking. By the time my brain caught up with my mouth the entire sentence had come out clearly for everyone to hear. There was dead silence and everybody was looking at me - the most boring, squarest, straightest guy in the group. Almost immediately, Don treated it as a pronouncement and yelled out, "I know what you're wearing for Halloween!" And everyone cheered. I saw no need for a "Please don't throw me into the briar patch" plea. So I raised my glass of swill and agreed.
Catherine was looking at me smiling ear to ear. I think she had my number from the moment we met and I had just confirmed her long held suspicions. She was smiling at me for the rest of the evening, long after Jessica and the pretty waitress disappeared. She no doubt gave it plenty of thought before coming over to make her offer. "I'll put you in one of my uniforms, but I want your word that you will let me call all the shots and do it right; wig, makeup and all. Squeezing a 28 year old man into one of my uniforms while keeping it pretty isn't as easy as putting it on a 14 or 15 year old boy or girl. It will, however, cost you. You'll have to do some work for me. I'll wave the probation period. And, having worked at the hotel and having been awarded the coveted uniform, you will also be an alumnus with knowledge of our secret handshake."
She was joking about the secret handshake, but her little program had been going on since the mid fifties, so there were probably scores of alums already. Some had gone home or to other states but no doubt many were still in New Orleans and some successful. There was no secret handshake, but, I had gone to the theater with her several times and had been out to dinner with her when we would run into friends of hers. Whether it was a local businessman or a politician, there occasionally was a certain demeanor and deference that was unmistakable. It was the same deference for her I would see from Jessica. I would notice it and you know what I concluded.
I accepted her offer and thanked her. I wouldn't be changing sheets or doing laundry. She had seen my house many times. I had bought and was renovating an old building in my free time. It was not on the scale that she and her husband had done, but she knew the quality of my work was first rate. We all knew I would have done any repairs she wanted for free anyway and she would have made the outfit for me anyhow, but the quid pro quo was just her way.
In September she told me to bring my credit card and she took me shopping for everything I'd need. That Halloween and for several after that, I was a proper French maid, with all the underpinnings and all the trimmings. As far as I know, I was the only person ever allowed to keep the uniform with her hotel logo on it, a special tribute to her affection for me and the trust she had in me. I also wore it a few times, just for fun, when the four of us would play poker at Don and Ron's. I'd meet Catherine at the hotel and walk with her over to their place and escort her home after. I enjoyed wearing the uniform, and that pleased her.
I eventually married a girl I had gone to school with and we both knew New Orleans was not the place where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives. We stayed in New Orleans long enough to attend Jessica's, or I should say Jesse's, college graduation. I'm happy to say I still keep in touch with him and was his best man and I'm the God father to one of their children.
Don and Ron both died tragically together shortly after we moved away. We only found out about it when I tried to call them and the phone line was disconnected. Sadly, Catherine died at age 78 a short while before we left. I was with her at the end when I met her nephew, her only heir, for the first time. Her last words to him were; "Whatever you do, please don't sell my hotel to that bastard across the street".
The Thibodaux's blood, sweat and tears had gone into that hotel. It and saving the runaways were their life's work. It held a lifetime memories and stories and could have continues as a life saving legacy but all that meant nothing to him. That greedy shit sold it to the bastard who had undermined their efforts every step of the way and the day of the sale he left New Orleans as a very rich man. That was the end of the Auberge du Rue Royale. I know some of the alums do what they can, but nobody could do want she did. We attended her New Orleans style funeral. She would have been proud of all her boys who showed up for it.
People will never again see her maids in their pretty uniforms walking down Royal Street. I probably have the only surviving uniform in existence, the last vestige of this charming piece of local history of a city that no longer values its history, the city that forgot to care. Now the New Orleans I loved and hated exists only in memories. I will never go back.