Reine Dugas Bouton
The crowd is light tonight—flat and white and mostly tourists. No regulars and no one interesting. Not yet. It’s going to be a long night. Glad I brought something to drink. I almost didn’t, but had a feeling that tonight I’d need a little something to get me through.
At least the place is cool. The only bar on the strip with a patio. Brick walls, iron tables and chairs, lots and lots of green—ferns in corners and hanging from stands, palm trees draping down—umbrella-covered tables, a cement fountain in the middle. A wrought iron gate leads to the street and out to my favorite two blocks in the entire French Quarter. Frenchmen Street. It’s being infested with tourists, but is hanging on to some of its raw appeal—in the way it feels and sounds, the streets rats still around. I love walking down here and listening, music like personal invitations, flying out of every bar’s open door.
I’ve finally gotten the band into this bar, which while not in the heart of Frenchmen, is still on the street, so I’m counting it. Only by the hardest, though. People like me who weren’t raised in the New Orleans music scene and have zero contacts with local musicians don’t stand much of a chance of making it. But I did it. Oh, it’s not exactly the big time. I mean, our first gig here, we made a whopping $32 each for the whole night. These bar owners pay a percent of the bar, and our first gig was on a rainy Sunday night. What could you expect? But whatever, at least it’s a start. Tonight I’m counting twenty-nine people out there, so we’ve already exceeded our all-time high.
“Hey, Lyd, you got any smokes?” Teddy, twirling a drumstick around, looked as charming as a little boy.
“Nah, I’m quitting.”
Ba-dap, sounded the snare as he tapped it in response. “Where’s the fun in that?”
I flip through my music book to see what I feel like starting the set with tonight. This crowd will be fine with standards—they came to hear New Orleans jazz, so any old song will do.
My poor fake book is crumbling with each gig, but it’s like an old friend,and I hate to replace it. Pages have been torn and taped, some even stapled so that they stay in. I’ve dragged it with me a lot of places, left it behind sometimes, too. But it always finds its way back. Rescued it with only a few other things when the house flooded. Booze and coffee stained pages, Post-it notes stuck here and there, messages and phone numbers scratched hastily in the margins, sketches of people I’ve found interesting—it’s become more than a song book. A transcript of my adult life, almost. This book helps me remember a person or place of a moment. When I sing, I don’t even look at the words much anymore; the security of the book in front of me, the surety of those scant black notes and chords make me feel as if I’ve got a guide should I lose my way.
Lou has come back and, like a giraffe, bends slowly down to pick up his upright.
Wearing a worn tweed jacket and frayed khaki pants, at 65, he’s the old man in the group. The other three of us together don’t even equal his age. But he’s alright. Quiet. Plays the tunes and then leaves. Never any trouble.
Teddy bobbles his head back and forth, black curls bouncing. “Let’s get it going, girlie.” He rims the cymbal with his stick. Tssssst it goes. He’s anxious, maybe strung out. He’s chewing his gum hard.
“Joe will be here in a minute,” I tell him. Teddy rolls his eyes, circles the cymbal some more. He’s compact and lean, and even in the only white oxford he owns, the muscles in his arms are visible, the veins stand out in his neck. Teddy and I met in the men’s room of a bar, when I was doing coke with an ex-boyfriend, and he just busted through the door. Looked at both of us and laughed.
“Hey, I just gotta piss, but you two carry on.” He went to the urinal and made the loudest pee, saying over his shoulder, “And if you feel like sharing, I’ll have some of that when I’m done.”
Somehow he and I spent the rest of that night out, and when we woke up in his bed later the next day, I couldn’t remember what had happened or where I’d lost my ex. Teddy and I have been playing music together ever since.
Joe is late, which is rare, and he’s holding us up. I spot the Cyril, the manager, giving me that look. But because Joe plays the guitar, there isn’t a hell of a lot we can do until he gets here. But then, just as I am about to text him, he rushes in, lugging an amp and his guitar with him.
“Sorry I’m late, guys,” he says, and starts setting up.
“Fuck sake, man. It’s not that deep—gig starts at 9,” Teddy tells him.
Within minutes, though, Joe is ready to go because even if he isn’t punctual, he’s a damn good musician. When I tell him, “So Nice,” his fingers easily pluck the strings, and then Teddy tickles the cymbal lightly, his anger gone. When Lou plunges into the deep notes, we are off. I touch the cold mic with my mouth and let my voice dip and slide its way through the lyrics. This is it. The sound of the music in my ears and the vibration in my throat, and I don’t care about anything for at least a little while.
The first set goes well; we’ve taken it light and played mostly trad jazz, which has left Cyril and his big broken nose nodding approvingly and getting his whisky refilled with the flick of a wrist. He either watches the front door or us from the corner seat at the bar, making sure we smile at the customers and don’t take too long between songs. The way he acts, you’d think this was Bourbon Street instead of some tiny joint on the edge of town.