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A READER'S JOURNAL
Raising Our Children on Bourbon
A French Quarter Love Affair
ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
Published by Arthur Hardy Enterprises/LA in 2010
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2011
Raising Our Children on Bourbon
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When John Churchill Chase, beloved editorial cartoonist for Times-Picayune wrote his book on New Orleans Streets entitled, Frenchmen Desire Good Children, I never expected anyone to surpass that delicious title which concatenated the names of three streets into a full sentence, Frenchmen Street, Desire Street, and Good Children Street. Yet Bob Carr equaled or surpassed his literary predecessor with his titillating title which suggests using blended whiskey instead of milk for rearing kids. The droll artwork by Rolland Golden on the cover reveals the true meaning of the title as the word "Bourbon" is shown on a street sign, the four children Tammy, Timothy, Tom, and Tiffany are shown looking down through the wrought iron balcony railing at their parents Bob and Jan who are waving up at them as they enter the front door.
Whatever possessed a mild Midwestern couple to move from Charleston, West Virginia to Bourbon Street with small children to raise? Most New Orleanians would never consider such a thing. We've seen Bourbon Street at night with its drunk Midwestern visitors, who raucously trash the entire street as if it were a stag party inside their Elks Club back home. They do things most locals here wouldn't attempt in public and the City spends the wee hours of the morning cleaning up after them so the party can start the next day, and it goes on 24/7 year round. Ask any local and they would reply, "Raise kids on Bourbon Street? No freaking way! You'd have to be drunk to think of such a thing!"
Yet, it came to pass that two sober Midwesterners drove all the way from West Virginia and bought a house on Bourbon Street. Where they acting silly? No, they were acting on an impulse, an idea, and as Lord Acton once proclaimed, "Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come", and come it did to Bob Carr, planted as it was years earlier in his head by his great-grandmother Aupagnier who always said, "In Novelle Orléans there's only one place to live, Le Vieux Carré!" That meant the French Quarter, and Bourbon Street was slapdab in the middle of the action in the French Quarter.
They sold their house, packed up the moving van, and filled their car with stuff including Tammy and Tommy, and drove to New Orleans in early 1960s before there were Interstates, just a long trek along US Highway 11, ending with a climax as they drove across the newly opened Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, 24 miles long. Well, perhaps you will agree the climax came as they drove down the street where they would be soon living. But first they had to cope with a well-known obstacle course avoided like the plague by any native: Tulane Avenue.
[page 19,20] In the excitement of finally being in New Orleans, we lost our bearings and ended up on Tulane Avenue, one of the main commercial thoroughfares.
"Bob, we're on Tulane Avenue! I thought you said Ann and Bill told you not to get on Tulane Avenue because you can't turn left on Tulane Avenue!"
"Jan, that's silly. There's bound to be a left turn somewhere."
We kept driving toward the river, know the French Quarter was somewhere off to our left; sure enough, at each intersection, a traffic sign boldly instructed, No Left Turn. We continued on, more than twenty blocks, passing such interesting street names as Telemachus, Genois, Gayoso, Dorgenois, Derbigny, and Villere.
"Jan, I feel like I'm in a foreign country!"
"What worries me is how we'll ever learn to pronounce all these strange name."
"Look, look, Jan! We're free at last! There's a left turn arrow, and look at the name, Liberty Street!"
"Liberty, Hallelujah, free at last," we both chuckled, enjoying well-needed relief.
There was another obstacle course waiting for them know as driving down Bourbon Street. No one could have prepared them for what happened, no even Ann and Bill, as even natives can't predict what they'll find on a trip down Bourbon Street, but the ones the Carrs encountered will all seem familiar. In the 1960s the famous street was still open for one-way traffic from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue whereas a decade or so later, it is usually closed to auto traffic because of the abundance of pedestrian traffic. Tammy and Timmy still had red spots all over their faces due to developing chicken pox during the drive.
[page 20, 21] As we turned off Canal Street onto traffic, clogged Bourbon, I wasn't fully prepared for the effect the unfolding spectacle would have on the children. The sounds, the sights, and the smells along Bourbon Street were different from anything they had ever encountered. The experience was an incredible stimulation to their senses. They bounced from one side of the back seat to the other, trying to see it all at once.
"Daddy, look at the lady in that big picture," Tammy shrieked, totally forgetting about her thumb and blanket. "She's only got her panties on!"
The door next to the blow-up photo of Blaze Starr swung open revealing a gyrating stripper. Timmy yelped, flinging himself forward until he nearly fell out the window.
Tammy burst forth with a piercing screech and then buried her head, ostrich-like, in her pillow. Moving at a snail's pace behind the ogling passengers in the car ahead of us, we passed several more strip places. Tammy kept her head nestled deep in her pillow. To Jan's consternation, Timmy had pulled himself out of the window and perched his derriere on the back seat windowsill so he could hang onto the topside luggage rack with both hands.
"Daddy, can I sit on top of the car?"
"No, indeed!" Jan quickly rebuked.
"Timmy, I think you can see enough from where you are. Just hold on tight to that luggage rack, please."
"Alright, daddy, but I can't see up on the balconies."
The traffic was bumper to bumper. The barkers in front of the various nightclubs were boldly trying to hustle pedestrians into their particular joints. We eased past the Famous Door and got a generous earful of New Orleans Dixieland Jazz. Suddenly, a midget sporting an overly tall top hat darted toward our car from the narrow sidewalk in front of the Old Absinthe Bar. He approached Jan's open window hawking a Night Club Tour. She said, "No, thanks." He persisted, so she rolled up her window. He then stuck his face in the back window, but when Tammy looked up at him with her pockmarked face, he immediately fled.
The traffic began to move a bit faster. Timmy was ecstatic. Still sitting on the windowsill, he was by now holding onto the luggage rack with one hand, the other arm fully extended with an open palm to catch the breeze. With his eyes darting hither and yon, Timmy's outstretched hand unexpectedly collided with the posterior of a buxom, peroxided prostitute.
Startled, she turned around. "What the shit do you think yer doin'?" she bellowed. "My ass is my bread and butter. Black and blue it don't sell!"
Timmy slithered down into the back seat and closed his window.
Just a typical day on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Soon they were ensconced in a home which was a short walk to the WWL radio studios where their morning show replaced the long-running Dawnbusters program, a New Orleans-style Breakfast Club. I missed the Carrs early years on New Orleans radio as I was in college, but I imagine this was typical of what they encountered in the international city.
[page 33] Our two-hour daily program consisted of chitchat on a wide range of child-rearing or marital topics, for which we did research or drew from our own experiences. We had a couple of regulars like Mrs. Francis Senter, "The Flower Lady," who gave advice about the planting and care of wonderful New Orleans subtropical flora.
One day we were anticipating an on, air visit from Coco Chanel, whose parfums were being touted at Masion Blanche on Canal Street. Mademoiselle Chanel did not appear but rather her representative, a flashy and gregarious woman dangling a diamond encrusted cross in her cleavage, with 'the' perfect French accent to do justice to the eau de toilette product line. She pushed a small (very small) vial of No. 5 in Jan's direction, mentioned Coco had introduced it in 1921, and asked her where she would wear it.
"Everywhere," Jan replied.
"Non, non, Madame, where would you place it on your bow-dy."
I suggested behind each ear.
"Oh, Monsieur, be more lavish. The ears, yes, but then the throat, de elbows, behind the knees everywhere you hope to be keest!"
Jan's Irish complexion fired up even brighter.
The house they bought on Bourbon was run-down, but elegant with its 13-foot high ceilings, so the Carrs began renovating it. Bob quickly learned how to survive the New Orleans summers. In Sweden they say there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. In New Orleans we say there is no such thing as too hot weather, only too much clothes, so we strip down to the bare essentials for doing any kind of work during the summer. There are even ladies in New Orleans who do the same thing in Air-Conditioned Night Clubs, and unbeknownst to Bob and Jan several of them lived next door and used their backyard, on the other side of the Carr's brick fence, as a tanning area to prevent any tan-lines.
When it came time to strip and re-varnish the wood floors, Bob told the kids to look for archaeological artifacts in the backyard, which were plentiful in an area lived in since the early 1600s, pieces of old pottery, etc. This kept them busy, but busy meant they ran in with each shard they found and tracked over the newly sanded sections of the flooring. So Bob insisted they remain outside all day and find something to do. Tammy and Timmy found a ladder and set it up against the brick fence and spent the day sitting on top the fence chatting with their neighbors. Over the next several days, the work on the floors was progressing and Bob noticed that other neighborhood kids had joined Timmy and Tammy on the fence talking to the neighbors. Concerned that the kids might be bothering the neighbors, Bob climbed up the ladder to take a look.
[page 73] Oh, my God! There were, at least three of the children's pals: Donner, Blitzen, and Mrs. Claus, perhaps? Not worrying about chilly arctic winds, they were stretched out full-length at pool's end in the only strip of sunshine left on the patio. I'd never seen so many luscious boobs at one time and nipples screaming for pasties! I felt flushed. They were clothed in nothing but Coppertone, or maybe Sea and Ski, or could it be Sun and Fun?
Bob slipped and fell and one of the gals said, "I'll bet you're Timmy and Tammy's daddy, aren't you? They sure are cute kids. I hope you don't mind us talkin' to 'em." With that the Carrs soon got to meet the exotic dancers who worked at the Sho-Bar strip joint down the street. The Carrs had friends who lived way out in River Ridge who were always touting how great it was, and once Jan countered with, "Well, we may have a few strippers over the wall and in the Royal Street A&P, but at least there aren't any pimps in the block!" (Page 75)
They were soon discovering the many wildflowers who lived and worked in the French Quarter, the oldest urban center in the country, was full of wildflowers, some famous and some infamous. Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, and Chris Owens became good friends and work associates, Clay Shaw allowed the Carr's kids to swim in his pool, Lee Harvey Oswald was spouting kudos for Russia one day, and Truman Capote likely groped Bob in a Men's Room one night. Ruthie the Duck Girl, rolled by daily, dressed in a ballet costume, carrying her duck, and always said, "Hi, Mr. Cahr!" when she whizzed past on her skates. To locals the French Quarter became simply the Quarter and Jackson Square, the Square.
[page 88] Living in the Quarter could be likened to living in a field of varied wildflowers. Some are beautiful while some are not; some bloom brightly and of long duration, while others pale and fade quickly; but they all add to the uniqueness of the bouquet. The Square is the vase that, for a time, brings the blooms together in an ever-changing arrangement.
Not being Catholic, the Carrs eventually gave in to the kids request to go to Mass in the large church on the Square, St. Louis Cathedral. When it came time for communion, Tammy was ready to go.
[page 93] "When do we get in line, daddy?" Tammy asked quietly and confidently, her big brown eyes peeking up from under her hat.
"We aren't getting in line, honey."
"Just because, dear."
"Because we aren't Catholic, silly," Timmy whispered loudly in Tammy's ear. "Pierre said ya gotta be Catholic ta do that stuff, besides he said what ya get up there is a piece of bread that's suppose to be God's skin and when ya eat, it sticks to the roof of your mouth!"
Suddenly Timmy pointed to a lady whose walking up the aisle to receive communion.
[page 93, 94] Moving out of the pew, she had slung her grandchild over her shoulder while genuflecting — no easy balancing act on the slippery black and white marble floor. Unbeknownst to grandma, the flailing child had somehow gotten a firm hold on the hem of her rather loose fitting, rayon dress. The woman began to move reverently up the aisle, unaware that her grandbaby was tugging on the fabric of her skirt. The child kept pulling until the whole backside of granny's garment was in his tight little fist, exposing her rather scanty underpinnings, consisting merely of nylon hose supported by a black satin garter belt. The more-than-ample flesh of her derriére quivered with each innocent step toward the high altar. In a state of complete guilelessness, the unlikely Madonna strode with babe in arms toward the Lord's supper.
Jan asked Bob to pull down that lady's gown, but he demurred. Soon members of the congregation were tittering as she walked back. Bob was struggling to keep his composure, tears streaming down his eyes, as the following scene unfolded.
[page 94] Just as I glanced toward the front of the church, our lady was turning away from the priest. His reaction at seeing her backside so disoriented him that he bumped the altar boy, almost causing him to drop his paten. This was more than I could bear. I fell back onto the kneeler and wept openly.
Bob was rescued by the trumpet section in the choir loft which sounded like the Archangel Gabriel and restored him to sobriety. But there would be one more encounter with the gown lady who had sat down and restored her gown to its proper place. After the service was over, she approached Bob's pew with her two-year-old in tow.
[page 95] Passing our pew, she glance at me and smiled. She startled me as she leaned over and whispered, "I've hear you and Miss Jan on my radio and I've seen and your beautiful family in the neighborhood. Gawd Bless!"
I smiled back politely, but I was thinking, Lady, you have no idea where I've seen you!
Timmy at age 5 was asked to play a part in a play at Le Petit Theatre and so far as anyone could remember, he was the youngest person to ever have a speaking part in the long history of the theater. For his part in Life with Father he needed his hair dyed red and eye makeup. Not able to read yet, he also needed help with learning his lines, but he did a fine job. Got quite an education in the process.
[page 104] Timmy's life in "The Theatre" was grand. In fact, he looked forward to it so much that he would come home from school at noon and pop into bed for his nap without even being asked-a miracle in itself. He became a sort of mascot at the theatre. Everybody catered to him. On opening night he had cake and candy bars, even a nip of champagne. He spent much time in the Greenroom learning to play blackjack and poker and also adding theatrical jargon to his vocabulary: proscenium, flat, hit, wings, cue, upstage, downstage, gay, fag, queen, and queer.
Walter Persiveau, an acquaintance of ours reading for the next production, sashayed on gossamer wings into the Greenroom during a performance of Life With Father. According to Walter, Tim was so involved in putting together a puzzle while waiting for a cue that he didn't look up to see who had approached.
"Hi, Timmy, what're you doing?"
"Puttin' together a puzzle, sir."
"What're you doin', sir? Readin' for the next show?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am."
"Hope ya get the part."
Never looking up from his puzzle, Timmy added, "Well, just one thing, sir. If you get the part, don't let 'em put any of that eye makeup stuff on you. They put it on me — made me look like a little fag! It'll make you look like a bigger fag!"
Walter thought it was hilarious.
Soon Bob & Jan for Luzianne moved to television and they were an instant hit, comparable to Dick Van Dyke who had been on WDSU during the early 1950s doing an afternoon kiddie show which I watched when I visited at my friend Barbara's house. I remembered his antics some ten years later when he teamed up with Mary Tyler Moore in the Dick Van Dyke show. His signature entrance stumbling over an ottoman for that show harkened back to the daily stunts he did live on WDSU to an audience of sub-teens in New Orleans.
[page 118] One of the engineers remarked he seldom watched with interest what appeared in his viewfinder but stopped to watch us because we aroused his curiosity. "I haven't seen antic like that since Dick Van Dyke was on staff."
Timmy became a fount of information about the old days in New Orleans and the South. Once during a conversation about where people urinated during the night without bathrooms in those large rooms with four posters and large elaborate canopies, Timmy gave a simple answer.
[page 129] "There were no bathrooms in those days. Instead, they used beautiful potties, which were usually kept under their beds."
"Yuk!" came the reply from several of the girls.
Timmy butted in again. "My daddy says in the olden days, people had a canopy over their bed an a can-o-pee under their bed!"
The editor of the Times-Picayune disliked television from its beginning, seeing it as an unfit competitor, and the names of TV personalities were forbidden from the paper's columns. Bob and Jan were invited to join editor Healy and others on a European trade mission for the World Trade Center of New Orleans. While the Carrs hoped to enlighten the Healys about the virtues of television, Mr. Healy talked on and on about the importance of the Healy clan in Ireland during their visit to that country.
[page 180] While at breakfast in Galway, a couple traveling with us barged into the dining room, beseeching our group, along with the Healys, to follow them. Away we all went along the avenue, down a side street, into a lane. We stood in awe. Across the bog was a somewhat dilapidated sign proclaiming Healy's Manure Works.
"Hey, George, we always knew you were full of it, now it's in print!" rang out the mantra.
I grew up across the river from New Orleans and I thought everyone called the strip of concrete in front of their homes that were for people to walk on, banquettes. Here's how the Carr children found out the other name was sidewalks.
[page 274] "Hold on, he told us to wait about two minutes and then go out on the sidewalk."
"Daddy, you mean banquette," Tom corrected.
"Yes, the banquette and the sidewalk are the same thing."
"How come there's two words to mean the same thing, daddy?"
"Because they're simonims!"Tammy announced proudly.
"What a cinnamon?"
"That's two words that have the same meaning," Tammy replied. "Isn't that right, daddy?"
"Sounds silly to me. Don't see why we got so many extra words for the same thing, it jis gets ever'body 'fused."
"When you get older you'll see that synonyms make for a richer language."
"Daddy, maybe you're right, but it jis sounds like a lot of extra spellin' to me!"
On the day Bob had walked through the newsroom and heard Bill Slatter interviewing Lee Harvey Oswald, there was a tour group going through the courtyard of the TV station's offices in the French Quarter.
[page 320] The Oswald fellow was mesmerizing, but knowing Jan was waiting to go over tomorrow's show, I retreated to our office. We loved our view overlooking the famous Brulitour Courtyard, a tourist favorite. Birda, an elderly maid with the station for many years, took great delight in leaning over the third-floor balcony railing when tour guides brought groups into the patio. The guides would explain these were "the Quarters" where slaves lived and worked. Birda would bend over the rail and cry out, "An' dey still does!"
Bob and Jan Carr loved living and raising children on Bourbon Street in the middle of the French Quarter. They all enjoyed and made friends with the characters who lived in and frequented the area. They became the darlings of New Orleans radio and television over many decades and are instantly recognizable to older locals even in 2011. Del and I each have four children, and three of the four live in other parts of the country and one lives here. Same for Bob and Jan, and it is only fitting that I allow the Carr kids to have the last word about their parents who raised them on Bourbon:
[page 368] In addition, our grown children seem to be unanimous in some variation of the following remark: "Mom and Dad, you both love the crazy culture of New Orleans — it's in your blood — you love the French Quarter characters as friends and don't realize that you yourselves have become beloved French Quarter characters as well!"
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