The Rat Nest
photo by Robert Rossetti
Part I. "A Night on the Town"
existence of voodoo and witchcraft in New Orleans today is questionable.
Experts say the effects of Black Magic are only a state of mind-Mind
over Matter. It is presumed that if a person believes in voodoo, then
it will work for him, but supposedly if one is a non-believer, the
assumption is that voodoo will have no effect on their life. Until
recently, I have been a non-believer of the Black Arts, however a
recent chain of events has caused me to scrutinize these beliefs.
This is my account of the turn of events that happened one hot New
The miserable steamy evening began
in a glaring brightly lit restaurant on Saint Charles Avenue, near
Canal Street. A friend and I dined on oysters on the half shell.
We washed the oysters down with whiskey and we washed the whiskey
down with beer. After dinner Oliver revealed a small but elaborate
tin of chocolate covered grasshoppers. Because I had never seen
chocolate covered bugs before, I thought they were only a joke,
something bought out of a trinket shop on Bourbon Street. However,
after the tin's lid had been popped off, we insipidly ate the little
black carcasses as though they were a new form of nihilistic dessert
reserved only for this posh occasion. The crunchy bodies tasted
delightful after the fifth shot of Jack Daniels. Our conversation
was as inconsistent as our diet---lethargic oysters; loud, harmonious
babble mixed with grasshoppers and beer, full of suds and dirty
jokes. While still sober enough to appreciate the air-conditioning
we left Pearl's Restaurant and headed for the French Quarter in
search of life, liberty and the pursuit of more alcohol.
As we approached the Quarter,
blue notes from a saxophone fell upon my head like the acid rains
in Canada, caused by the industrial smoke stacks in Gary, Indiana.
Like rats following the Pied Piper, the mystical, burning, baritone,
floating musical notes led us to a doorway in the one hundred block
of Bourbon Street. In the doorway stood a short balding jazzman
with a gold saxophone case lined with blue felt and discarded coins.
The jazzman's fingers danced up and own the tommy gun sounding sax,
like John Dillinger dancing with Ginger Rogers in the alley behind
the Biograph Theatre. The jazzman blew hard on his screaming saxophone,
but he never opened his eyes. I danced to his music, but I never
tapped my feet. Oliver uttered obscene remarks for no reason, but
he never opened his fly.
We entered the French Quarter
with visions of grandeur, like two brave adventurers in search of
gold for their king. That illusion only lasted for three fourths
of one city block, for a new reality hopped forth in the form of
a multi-colored jacket. On the corner of Iberville and Bourbon stood
three black prostitutes; transvestites, none of them shorter than
six foot four and all wearing matted rabbit fur jackets and brightly
colored afro style wigs---the type that sell at Woolworth's for
$19.99. The lack of electrolysis treatment was obvious as sweat
and whiskers protruded from large pores on their upper lips and
chins. The 100 degree heat and the many layers of clothing caused
their lips to expand and turn suffocation blue.
The scantily populated streets
were spotted with fast city people dancing to slow drags (and also
a few whited sepulchers--a Southern form of hypocrite generally
found in the New Orleans area and the surrounding suburbs). Almost
everyone on the street looked like a hustler of some sort and those
that didn't seemed in no position to be hustled. The pimps, prostitutes,
pick-pockets, street musicians, strip-tease dancers, cab drivers,
panhandlers, and bar and shop owners on Bourbon Street all heavily
depend on the tourist trade. However, on this summer night tourists
were far and few between and all businesses were empty. The Bourbon
Pub was closed. At the Paddock Lounge, James Davis was blowing his
horn full blast into a microphone, but the only things moved by
the music were the many photographs of race horses as they vibrated
against the walls. Rick Hardeman and his band at the Famous Door
may as well have been playing at a funeral--then more people would
have shown up. The Blue Angel, the Hotsy Totsy, and the 500 Club
all looked like part of the same ghost town. Three tourists stood
giggling in front of Big Daddy's as the tuxedo-clad doorman, with
matching slicked-back hair, swung one of the swinging doors open
and closed and routinely barked, "Boys and girls naked together,
no cover charge, always a continuous show." Big Daddy's plastic
mannequin, whose internal swinging legs have delighted tourists
for years, as they popped out a curtained window, was not working
this night. The swing was broken and the fake girl's legs were paralyzed
between the dirty, tattered red curtains.
This night, the city did not resemble
a romantic French Impressionist painting, as depicted on most postcards,
but rather it was twisted and suspended as part of a dream sequence
like Salvador Dali' s version of "The Anthropomorphic Cabinet. The
architecture had lost its majestic aura as the haunted buildings
leaned, smeared, cracked and crumbled apart. The lonely tourist
traps, and jazz bars, were silently filled with empty chairs like
a Baptist mission in a rich Jewish suburb. The rawboned musicians
resembled characters that had risen from the grave, as portrayed
in the film classic, "Night of the Living Dead." They stared at
the floor and played, "When the Saints go Marching In", while coughing
and reminiscing about the great days on 42nd Street.
Like tourists with "go" cups in
hand, we stood in front of Crazy Shirleys' and watched the band
play inconsonant jazz with the absence of intellect. With no motivation
for music, the piano players' hand crept toward a drink sitting
at the far right edge of the piano. His left hand shook at the ivory
keys, not really creating any sound, just going through the motions.
Without emotion, the bass players' fingers fell off his hand and
rolled off the stage. The clarinetist was blind and the trumpet
player had lost his lip. The trombonist had no nose and no spit
valve on his trombone. The drummer had no skin. He had shed it years
ago like a rattlesnake in spring and now he sat on stage like exposed
meat at a Mexican open market. I lost interest in the music and
focused my attention on the beautiful blond waitress; she drank
chocolate flavored coffee in between serving Hurricanes, while wearing
her autographed Shirley Temple dancing shoes which were too small.
The street stank of booze, urine
and Parish paid bug spray. The insecticide didn't kill the vicious
tiger mosquitos with their orange and black bodies, it only caused
their wings to turn blue. The mosquitos mixed well and added color
and flavor to any Pat O'Briens' Hurricane when they fell into the
souvenir go cups. It's easy to get confused in a city like New Orleans
with its blinking lights, cheap neons, old street lamps, loud music,
brassy strip shows and ancient architecture. It's surrounded by
dangerous housing projects and modern suburbs, and filled with cheap,
readily available alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. It all adds up
to an adult Disneyland, and like children, it can give adults an
animated false sense of reality with its historical and sexual parallels
to an amusement park. At Disneyland all is make-believe, but in
the French Quarter people never know what is fantasy and what is
reality. At Disneyland, a walking tree, a witch, or a zombie from
the grave are only people dressed up in costume, but in New Orleans
they could be and probably are for real. It's a city with mystique.
Often it's a commercial mystique where Bourbon Street is the epitome
of commercialism. None the less, the mystique of wild bacchanals,
sex orgies, and voodoo rituals are frequent and real. That blending
of myth, commercial illusions, and historical romanticism have caused
New Orleans to become a natural Disneyland.
Out of the bowels of the back
of the French Quarter came just such a fantasy creature--"The Bead
Lady." She is known by that name because she sells lucky beads.
Tourists think that she is the river witch placed in the Quarter
by the Chamber of Commerce to amuse them and to protect the city
from another invasion of Spanish pirates. Children cringe with fear,
while adults, convinced she is only a harmless side show, paid for
by the Better Business Bureau of Greater New Orleans, squeal with
delight when they see her dressed in her full length red silk dress,
dirty green sweater and snaggly wig.
Peeking out from under her sleazy
dress were two ragged, electric blue jogging shoes that curled upward
at the tips, while dirty-caked toes broke out of various holes.
Around her neck hung a large, blue crystal ball, about the size
of a baseball. Her jaded, pale, decomposed looking face is always
caked with cheap make-up and on her head sits a matted rat-nest
wig that slightly resembles the old bee-hive hair-do of the late
fifties. Her beads are supposed to be lucky, but most locals have
only had bad luck after purchasing one of them. Her chant,"You want
Lucky Bead? You need Lucky Bead!" is heard late at night above the
sound of ten thousand air- conditioners in the back streets of the
Quarter, where the most prevalent sight is the bored male prostitute
leaning against a prehistoric light pole, waiting for his twenty
Before she was in sight I heard
her muffled chant above the drudgery of proletarian jazz and the
vibrant sound of automobiles. She was trying to sell her lucky beads
as she slowly sauntered into sight. Nobody seemed interested in
her beads so she started talking to a wall. After a few moments
of conversation with the wall, the Bead Lady spun around delivering
her incoherent babble to nobody in particular. She then picked up
the receiver of a pay phone and started ranting in her unknown foreign
tongues. The fragmented words ricocheted off the wall and struck
pedestrians as they passed by in awe. Her sales technique was not
great, but her mysterious vocabulary was outstanding, enough that
she could capture the most elusive of audiences.
That was about the time I decided
I wanted that old witch's rat-nest wig for a souvenir, so I dared
the inebriated good old boy Oliver to make a wager. I proposed that
if he would bet me five dollars, I would steal the Bead Lady's wig.
He drunkenly accepted the offer,
gave me the cash in advance, and without further thought, I walked
right up to the Bead Lady and snatched that old infested wig from
her head. It came off easily, her real hair was too short to attach
it with bobby pins. I intended to run and listen to her sick cackle
chase me down the street, but to my amazement, I was stopped in
my tracks by a strong vibration of some kind. It wasn't a physical
vibration, but rather, an irregularity of thought. Osiris and other
demonic images wavered past my face in an oscillating manner. Perhaps
I was hypnotized, but for a few moments the Bead Ladys' green gray
eyes turned bright red and burst into flames like the fire that
burned down the old Duvic Hardware store that once stood at Algiers
It seemed like an eternity
while standing in the middle of deserted Bourbon Street with the
wig in my hand, however, I physically couldn't flee until the flames
burnt out and her eyes turned from red to green. I ran toward my
friend, but he was gone, I didn't know what happened to him or to
me. I scurried down the street, like a cockroach when the lights
have been turned on, looking for Oliver. I didn't want to run for
I already felt like an obvious criminal with the old woman's wig
in my hand. I didn't expect an arm to grab me from behind, but suddenly,
I was spun around and pushed up against the wall by a grody looking
hippie. The hippie pulled out a badge and a pair of hand-cuffs.
I handed him the wig. He looked at it with disgust, then he looked
at me with even more disgust.
Part II: A Night In Hell
As I stood in line with seven
hookers, the three hundred pound, fifty-plus year old sheriff with
knots and bright red protruding veins on his nose belted out, "NO
TALKING." I continued to whisper into the ear of the blonde lady who
stood in front of me, however, the sheriff didn't take kindly to my
mischievous decadence and his action should have been predictable.
The veins and broken blood vessels from many years of hard drinking
stood out on the back of his neck as he glared at me with cold steel
gray eyes. His hand rested listlessly on his hips in the same manner
as that of a discontent drill sergeant. And like a sergeant he didn't
give me a second warning, for without notice, other than his mannerisms
and the increasing blood flow to his neck and face, he quickly and
effortlessly raised his large freckled hand and slapped me along the
side of my head and said, "That means you, ASS-HOLE!"
He didn't hit me hard enough to fall down or even out of the line
formed in front of the fingerprint desk I was standing in. However,
my head stung and I felt like a naughty school boy who had been caught
disrupting the class. The question I was asking wasn't worth the embarrassment
and pain, especially since I could guess the answer. I was inquiring
as to where she had been picked up. I learned later, which coincided
with my previous beliefs, that she had been captured for doing her
disarticulating deed in the French Quarter, but that's another story.
The jovial atmosphere of the incident was quickly waning when the
sheriff insisted I follow him through a cell block consisting of dim,
barren, gray, metallic cages filled with souls allegedly guilty of
offending society. I wasn't expecting ornate grating lavishly placed
on an intricate erection of sophisticated engineering but this was
a landmark of desolation.
Home is where the heart is they say and "Home Sweet Home" for me that
night was a hot cell about eight feet long by six feet wide. It's
formal name was Central Lock-up and it was completely constructed
of steel; even the two planks used for sitting or sleeping that ran
the length of the wall were cold steel. The cage was at one time painted
gray but now, after years of continuous residency, most of the gray
had been chipped away and only the bare steel and graffiti artwork
of the bored tenants remained. Packed in the cell with me like a can
of sardines were five young black men and one old white wino, whose
favorite recreation was regurgitating next to the cracked leaky porcelain
toilet. He did this every five minutes and caused the overcrowded
cell to reek with the foul odor of recycled wine and red beans and
rice. Nobody seemed to know why he did this on the floor and not in
the toilet he was clutching, but after an hour of this ritual two
of the fellow lodgers grew testy with the heat, the stench and the
wino choking on his vomit, and proceeded to kick in the old souse's
ribs. This was done very informally with one man standing to the left
of the drunk and the other to the right, each ritualistically waiting
until the other finished his kick before proceeding with another of
his own. The beating caused the tattered drunk to lapse into a convulsion
of exaggerated spasms. Like a punctured aerosol can, he flopped around
the floor and sprayed everyone with a protein-enhanced alcoholic foam
that shot from his mouth. The kicking resumed at a faster pace along
with an increase of name calling. Soon,"Old Faithful" stiffened and
stopped his spasms and his spraying. The swearing and name calling
ceased, allowing only the thumping sound of a boot hitting dead weight
to echo throughout the desolate hallway of cages. When the thumping
stopped not a single word was uttered by anyone in our cell, only
occasional coughing, spitting and toilet flushing broke the silence
of the night.
There was no reason for feeling rage, no sense in feeling pain and
no possibility of falling asleep. As difficult as it must have been
to sleep, my cellmates were all curled up on the two benches, each
giving the other just enough room to lay his head down. Some had shirts
under their heads while others lay with their faces on the base metal
or in their arms. I sat on the floor with my back against the bars,
for there was no room anywhere else. The glaring lights in the cages
had been off for hours so the only existing light was the bare lightbulb
in the hallway which cast various blue reflections across the dark
cage. The steel bars allowed for black striped shadows but all other
forms consisted of various tones of blue. The porcelain toilet was
a vivid reflective blue while the walls were a flat matte chilly blue.
The dead, beaten, grisly figure on the floor was shades of orchid
with black embellishments to enhance the tribulations and to coincide
with the blue black faces of the men crumpled up on the benches.
There was nothing to do except wait in silence and count each hour
as the guard made his rounds. For lack of imagination and fear of
it, I tried to keep my mind occupied and stabilized by counting inanimate
objects. I counted each cough and choke that came from the other cells.
I counted sounds that couldn't be identified. Sometimes the sound
of traffic could be heard. I counted those sounds also. The more sober
I became the more my vision seemed to waver as I stared at the starkness
of my filled cage. I watched with intensity as the vertical black
shadows of the bars would occasionally jerk or flutter.
I was afraid to close my eyes for I might envision even worse than
what lay in front of me, but my eyelids grew heavy as fatigue approached.
A dreamlike peace came over me after I closed my eyes and concentrated
on the criss-cross of their indigo blue eyelid veins. The veins wavered
and cracked and split apart until they weren't veins anymore. Maybe
they were bars, bars inside my head, I don't know, I let my mind drift.
I drifted into childhood and remembered my youthful fascination with
shampoo bottles. I don't know what brand it was, but at the grocery
store I remembered becoming enthralled with a bottle of aquamarine
blue shampoo which had one pearl-sized bubble imprisoned within the
thick soapy liquid. I felt sorry for the lonely bubble and wanted
it to pop or escape. In a gallant effort to free the little bubble
from its confining liquid mass I proceeded to tip the bottle upside
down then back up again but nothing happened, the bubble would not
pop, it only floated from one end of the bottle to the other. I shook
the bottle violently but still the perpetual bubble was unbroken.
In a last ditch effort I opened the plastic bottle and stuck my finger
into the moist shampoo but the perturbed bubbled dodged my finger
as if it had a brain. Like a fish in a fishbowl, the evasive bubble
swam away. I believed I was cursed, the Bead Lady cursed me, and now
I let madness take a new twist. I let my mind untangle an old knot,
I let my fallacious thoughts follow a new illusional wrinkle of anxiety.
With my eyelids locked shut my impetuous imagination envisioned that
my face was on that unbreakable bubble floating in dense shampoo.
My face was hideous. My deepest eye-sockets were greenish black causing
my face to have a grim forbidding death-like appearance. The black
eyes were shining like a rodent in the dark. The rodent's body can't
be seen but his eyes can. My thin sallow cheeks were pale blue with
streaks of sickly green to allow for envy. My penetrating forehead
swam with silty wrinkles. My lips; just a gaping dark hole for a mouth;
no teeth, no lips, just a dark hole called Sleep. The final sleep
I was afraid of never came and now sleep seems like a ludicrous thing
to fear. The change of sleep brought a new day and a different setting.
When I woke I found my situation to be the same, I was still in jail,
however many things had changed and I began to wonder how much of
the last night was an illusion. The dead drunk was sitting up and
talking to the very men that had killed him the night before. Within
moments, before I could grasp what had happened, the cell door opened
and I was led to a crowded courtroom w
here I waited until my case
was called.. I was charged with disorderly conduct but the charged
was dismissed when neither the arresting officer nor the Bead Lady
showed up to press charges. I was cut loose.
Of course I'll always wonder if the Bead Lady's eyes really did turn
red, or if it was just a hallucination of my distorted mind. I may
have been hypnotized, but the incident seemed real enough to convince
my that the Bead Lady is a real Halloween type witch. Incidently,
the next day I shaved my beloved pet poodle Pierre because his fur
continually reminded me of the Bead Lady's rat-nest wig. And I never
did find Oliver.
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