When I was 21 I walked into a restaurant on Decatur Street. I had never waited tables in my life. This was the last stop on my train to Brokesville, having already sold my car to pay our rent and bills. I handed a man who looked like a Las Vegas pit boss (his former job was, in fact, as a Las Vegas pit boss) my completely made-up resume. His face bore no discernible expression. “You know how to bartend?” he asked gruffly. “Yes,” I lied. “Can you start tomorrow?” he asked.
I trained under Miss Lorraine. Miss Lorraine was 68 with 8 kids and 18 grandchildren. She suffered no fools, and she saw through me immediately. Miss Lorraine actually taught me everything I ever learned about reverse psychology. She had her regulars, who bloomed under her verbal assaults. “Miss Lorraine, where are our beers?” they would holler, grinning. “I’LL BRING Y’ALLS BEER WHEN I’M GOOD GODDAMNED READY!!” she would shriek. She had a snappy ball-withering comeback for everything. They ate it up, left her twenties under their napkins. It was under her tutelage that I learned that for some people (mostly hardworking men who lived on shrimping boats) abuse equaled attention, and any attention was good attention. Anyone who could get Miss Lorraine to crack a smile would pump their fist triumphantly. She dropped out of school in 8th grade, but about 72% of my current operating wisdom in regards to respect comes from her.
Two thirds of the people who worked at this restaurant were in a band together. On Thursday nights the back room turned into a dimly lit, smoky music hall. I bartended, sneakily looking up drinks from my pocket-sized book under the bar light. People packed in to see the show, which was part carnival, part film festival, part singing like you’ve never heard singing before. It felt like magic was being made. Which, in fact: it was. That singer with the slicked back hair and saxophone who once rode his delivery bicycle through a hurricane to get me aspirin? He’s now the leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He may have gone on to win a Grammy, but I went on to win the only award I have ever won, at the “Best Bloody Mary in New Orleans” competition (the secret ingredient: I distilled my own Cajun-spiced vinegar. Under the watchful eye of Terrebonne Parish-bred Miss Lorraine, of course).
During Mardi Gras I made enough money to pay a month’s rent in one day. For thirty days in a row. My boyfriend, an alcoholic felon with a warrant out for his arrest in two states who I had moved with from San Francisco after only knowing for two weeks, did not believe in banks. So he kept all our money in a box under the bed in our haunted house. The day I left, I opened the box to take half the money. The box was empty. This is a very New Orleans story.
I fell in love with the cook. He knew who Will Oldham was and looked good in a grease-stained tank top and had huge, gentle brown eyes. On my last night in New Orleans, we drank at Molly’s across the street with everyone else from the restaurant. Until it was just the two of us. Believe it or not, it was the only time in three years I got drunk. We were listening to Neutral Milk Hotel. “And this is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you…” I whisper-sang to him. “Stop,” he whispered back with his eyes closed, and took my hand. He led me out into the humid pink June dawn and we began unlocking our bicycles. I had no idea where we were going, and I was supposed to get on a plane in five hours, but suddenly everything felt possible for the first time in forever. I looped a leg over my bike. We locked eyes and smiled. Which was precisely the moment the alcoholic felon ex-boyfriend emerged from around the corner. He had been looking for me. The cook looked at him, then looked down at the ground. Then he pedaled off, and he never looked back. Years later, I told a boyfriend this story. It bugged him, and he couldn’t figure out why. “Wait,” he said. “I think I know. It’s because of everyone you’ve ever loved, he’s the one with infinite potential. He’s the one that got away.” Which is actually what I think of when I think of New Orleans in general, now. That it is the one that got away.