by Taylor McGraw
The dirty stockings hustle had dried up—too many bitches catfighting and reporting each other on eBay. No more cash for a pair of stockings that I got at the thrift store, fresh out of some old woman’s mothballed dresser. I stuffed the foot-part into stinky shoes and waited a week, $65 please. No more fielding emails from men ranting about how my toes are “sukkable shrrimmps (that’s what I call toes that must be sukked).” I thought I could ride that one pretty far into the tide. But in the South, I’d need another gig.
Nobody hires non-teachers to be an “aide” or any other made-up sounding job in New Orleans. For teaching autistic kids, like I’d done in Missouri, you’d have to be licensed. I went to the psych ward. All I wanted was to serve by volunteering for one of the most unwanted jobs known to man, which I would cherish infinitely. “You? YOU wanna work at the psych ward?” The woman at the front desk laughed for at least three minutes.
I was like: chill, this is not Batman and I did not just hatch a plot, but in my head with no quotes around it. In real life, I sat blinking the sweat out of my eyes.
Then she became serious and leveled with me, pointing. “They’ll throw shit at you,” she snarled.
Ok, Katrina just happened, and I did apply at Charity Hospital. But I did want to do it. I slid the application to her through the window in the thick bullet proof glass. She probably threw it away.
When I finalized the list later, even I was astonished at the number. Seventy-four people had stayed with us—for a night, or a month, or more—in the year since my friend Kazi and I had impulsively drove down and rented a house in the Bywater. Stephen slept on the couch at the foot of my bed. He peed the bed so I wouldn’t let him share. Patrick lived here for a couple months; Jubilee came after him and stayed until the end.
Everyone else was transient, jobless, mess-making. I couldn’t pay my rent every month. Did any of the seventy-four houseguests help pay? Did that “film director” who lived in a tent in the backyard contribute a cent? Did the lad who always wore a wig and dumpster-dove at least three-hundred spice bottles contribute? Or was he hoping the bottles were his payment?
I consoled myself that I couldn’t properly get a job because New Orleans is hot. I was too poor to buy any clothes so I was still wearing Missouri-ass attire, fit for twenty degrees cooler, when I would ride my bike to an interview. I’d end up giving up halfway, crying in the heat or rain and turn around to come back home to lay naked in front of the fan. I sold the spice bottles to an Indian man down the street.
The first real job I landed, if I even remember right, was as an overnight receptionist for a hotel. It was in the French Quarter. I slept most of the time, curled up in the only place where there was a couch that the camera couldn’t see.
Once a man asked me to bring a new TV to his room. His was broken. Approaching the desk, he looked sketch and nervous, dressed in a leather jacket and leather pants. Minutes later, I hobbled to the room with a huge TV between my legs, not good form, to find the man and a woman in towels lying sultrily on the bed. I struggled with the TV, banging against everything in its path, and they removed their towels. I must have said “hmmmm,” or something similarly uncool. They looked at each other. She nodded. He shook his head, no. She looked charitable if not defeated and nodded again. He unfurled his arm to reveal a bill in his hand. I dropped the TV on its side and inched towards him. It was a $5. Thank God, not an invitation. I grabbed it and ran.
One day I called in sick. I was on acid still, somehow forty-eight hours after I’d taken it. Either that or I was going permanently crazy, finally. I legitimately thought I was growing a tail. My boyfriend Patrick was laying on top of me, had me wrapped in a blanket like a burrito, and was pressing my tailbone to keep the tail in.
“You said your friends were gonna be in town and asked off work. I said no, and now you’re calling in sick?” The woman who looked like the Venus of Willendorf yelled, “You’re fired.”
I didn’t want to tell her about the tail, so I was glad that was the end of it. I was prepared to tell her though, and for a clincher, I also thought my feet had no skin on them. No one can work with no skin on their feet and a tail. No one.
Since I had no money and there were no grocery stores, I biked ten miles round trip to the Whole Foods Uptown, about once a week, to buy a bit of kale and bread. Stole the cheese every time. That’s all I ate. Roaches would try to get anything you left out anyway. It was no use.
You wouldn’t believe this place, even if you’ve “been there.” Everyone was a dirt-poor artist. Everyone dressed like Steamboat Willie. People had top hats on their damn heads! I had a friend with clown makeup permanently tattooed on his face. God bless me, I was never cool. I wanted to be a Steamboat Willie so bad, wanted a bike gang and a switch blade. Girls in black on black on black laughed at me on the street, calling me “American Apparel” for my colorful clothes, like I could afford the brand. It was cruel. It was hot. Roaches crawled out of the electric sockets. “Palmetto Bugs,” they all called them. Roaches fluttered everywhere in the streetlights, big as bats.
I thought nothing of riding thirty-five miles on a bike, following anyone from any bar at 5:00 AM, sun rising over the Mississippi. I spent a lot of time riding the free ferry back and forth, back and forth, cradling an ever-present bottle of $4 Andre champagne. This was the dream. The dream I dreamed since the first time I hitchhiked and rode a freight train to New Orleans with a human vertebra tied onto a string around my neck. I think I was, or am, the hobo king. I thought I was him, in any case.
I can see now that it’s true, human’s brains are not fully formed until age twenty-five. Mine must have been late though; I can think of plenty times past twenty-five where I was ready and chilling to die. Holding hands with my best friends in the backseat on a long, dark roads in other parishes, blasting Steely Dan, screaming the words, tears streaming. Ready to die, don’t care if I die, likely to die because the driver is very drunk. Probably until I was thirty, my brain wasn’t formed. On any dark road, if the song is right, I might be ready again.
The time I decided to try being a slut I got at least three people fired from the five-star Cajun restaurant. One divorced. Why they hired me, I have no idea. It was raining on my first day. The waiters who all wore tuxes would be trying new specials and wine pairings. As a hostess, I wasn’t even allowed to try them. I had a wet, wet ass because my bike had splashed brown sludge up into my crack and it looked 100% like I shit my pants, but I was convinced it didn’t smell that way and maybe that would save me
On my first day I must have tried to look real spiffy. I was wearing those 90’s Chinese Mary-Jane shoes, safety-pinned at each lost buckle. I had striped ones and black ones so faded they were gray. At some point I lost one of each and mixed them. “Oh ok, new hostess.” The owner was there. “Kid, hey, go get yourself some shoes, ok?” He stuffed $30 into my hand. I got five dollar shoes and spent the rest on, you guessed it, Andre champagne.
I don’t know how I made the head chef fall in love with me, or how Jubilee’s and my plan worked to get taken out to dinner by him so many times. At work, I would find reasons to go to his office and flirt. I don’t know why I even did that. He was very old, but we kissed in the “Voodoo Room” which was really a wine cellar where people could pay extra to eat with Marie Laveau’s ghost.
One time we needed food, just after my cousin had died. Jubilee and I were in the bath together. There wasn’t much hot water. “Well, you’re sad and I’m hungry. What if we call Pierre and tell him your cousin died and he should take us out for dinner?”
We had been planning lately to expand our Craigslist housecleaning business to perhaps a “providing company” business, where we offer to dress up real nice and hang out with men. That’s called an escort, I know now, and that’s not all escorts do. But back then it kind of worked because Pierre took us out and I only had to kiss him twice. He was sixty-five and married. Had a kid my age. His wife would come to the restaurant and glare at me, though I doubt she had any idea. She probably just didn’t like my mismatched shoes. I consider it a job well done if I get money or someone spends it on me, now that I’ve been a slut.
One night I pooped my pants at work from drinking too many Sparks. Remember Sparks? If not, picture this: the poop was wax-like, dripping like wax would, but was hard and contained and had a resin-y orange smell. I ran to the bathroom when I felt it, pulled my tights off and washed them in the sink. Patrons came and went; there was nothing I could do. There was no lock on the door. I threw away the underwear. All the rich patrons had always turned their noses up at me, but this evening one turned it up real high and leaned in, “What is that smell?” She sniffed again and again. “Umm orange. Perfume. I don’t know the name of it. Um, thank you.” Damn, this woman was aristocratic. Her gold bangles cost more than my life. “Excellent. Please do think of its name and tell me before I go.” This all really happened. I was drunk a lot but some things you can’t forget.
I learned to strip totally naked while riding a bike. I could take my shirt off easy, pants even, shoes. I could strip and dive into the Mississippi if I wanted to, as a final act. I remember vividly the abandoned docks, looking out across the dirty Mississippi. It seems so, so far away. Is this what it’s like to get old? To peer at your past through a thick fog? You have to close your eyes to see it, and it slips away so quickly. It also hides and is hiding in there waiting to be remembered. Thirty dollars is not enough to buy the caliber of shoes I deserve.
I cleaned houses for a while too, though it’s not the first thing I mentioned because house cleaning jobs were not as memorable as I’d anticipated for such a wild city. You steal; that’s for sure; that’s the usual. Small items so no one notices. Italian espressos in cans. ChapSticks. An unassuming silk scarf. The women always test you though. Leave one-hundred dollar bills under the bed. Ask if you’ve seen their wedding ring. They’re really suspicious of someone else and projecting it onto you. When they leave for indefinite vacations, their “executive” husbands build forts with couch cushions, filled with BB guns and rum. You’ll realize they never would have noticed the espresso cans when you see what really goes on, but by then it’s too late: you’re fired. But this time it wasn’t my fault.
Stealing a ladder from my landlord and breaking into his half of the shotgun house through his attic was my proudest moment. Maybe I can steal his lightbulbs or toilet paper, I thought. That was before I crashed through the open window, landing in piles of coins like Scrooge McDuck. He had tins and tins of that gross Christmas caramel popcorn, except they were filled with coins. I spent stifling hot evenings with cicadas droning like airstrike sirens by flip phone light, sifting through, taking the quarters and leaving the silver on top, copper on the bottom. I’d watched Forensic Files. I could cover my tracks. Later I went back for the dimes. I was too drunk the whole year to even remember if I went back for the nickels. But I did replace his light bulbs with all our burned-out ones, took the toilet paper. Drawers full of change were raided. I found a big Tupperware bin in a closet filled with tacky cheap Indian “gypsy” inspired ankle jewelry. I sold these on eBay for $10 a pop. At the end of the month, I paid him rent with socks full of his own change.
At night my more permanent roommates, Kazi, Pat, Jubilee, and I gathered on the back slab of concrete in our jungle back yard. Walnut trees. Banana trees. I’m too drunk now to remember what other trees. In the tungsten glow, we sat playing the same card game over and over, drinking who knows what. Once I weeded the back jungle to find two cast iron clawfoot tubs. Jubilee and I plugged the drains and filled them with the hose. Any respite from the heat.
Soul Asylum (the band) was our neighbor and one day we deduced from our tubs that they were having a wedding. We dressed up in our best (not good enough) and went around front, trying to crash, to steal booze or something else to sell. It was a dirty job and someone had to do it, but it wasn’t that kind of wedding. We were ejected immediately. They lived on St. Claude. You can’t imagine the potholes. You think you can, but you can’t.
Have you ever been mugged, but dissuaded the mugger by telling him you were just mugged, and he believed you because you look like utter shit? Well, I have.
For one job I rode twenty miles to Metairie to tutor a child. Everything was so far away, and jobs so far between; that’s why I was always biking so far. I never was interviewed or had my credentials checked. Never met any boss. I just showed up looking all crusty with mismatching shoes and a thin white tee with a black bra. Hair bleached so bad it snapped and often, I had a black eye. Mostly, I played made-up games with the kid, who was ten. I think I did teach him about life.
Every morning before the long ride, I pulled up on my bike to pick up a Bloody Mary from Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Ghost Bar or something, but one day I had to throw it at a bum who called me a whore. I cried. Oh, let me tell you, was I ever covered in sweat after these rides. I crouched behind the bodega across the street for fifteen minutes, before every time I went into work, to gain my composure and dry off. I probably couldn’t afford a water. Once I was so hungover, I could only lay on the floor. Get me some water, I ordered the child! He went into the kitchen, which I was forbidden to enter as it was used by a caterer or private chef. There are no cups, Miss T! Bring me something child! He brought me a flat, flat Tupperware for a sandwich or something, spilling the water all over the carpet on the way there. Ohhh no!
I never saw a mother of any of the kids I tutored either; it was a sordid secretive affair. Never saw one until that day, when she decided to come to the door. Her kid and I were laying on the floor, heads touching with our feet going in opposite directions, throwing one of those toy cows back and forth, the kind that when you squeeze it his poop comes out. Come along William or whatever.
Next, she told my “boss” that she was mad because the child failed a class. “You told him pronouns were the capital nouns. Those are proper nouns,” the boss I’d never seen told me over the phone. Well, she never asked me if I knew that before she hired me.
“I was too smart and fast at learning, so I was put in advanced classes by myself. But then I didn’t really learn or practice. They just let me write books about the Donner Party and shit. They had them bound and published—looking even, with my name on it, embossed and all. Same with math. Don’t know it.”
Another fun job I had was Car Check. That’s where you get to check the doors of any and all cars you pass and if they’re open, you may steal anything inside. To sell. Going to the French Quarter after parades is great too, sometimes you can find billfolds or credit cards, sticky five-dollar bills under a crushed beer can. One time I found a Gameboy. Sold it.
Somehow, one day out of nowhere, Kazi bought a car; I don’t know how. Maybe someone gave it to her. Instead of riding twenty-five miles by the river like usual, we drove that day, to the west bank Barnes & Noble, to steal. We had some sort of ploy that included stealing books then returning them for store credit, or at least selling the books on Amazon. That was a job.
Oh god, I don’t even remember the ploy. We’ll go joyriding! Past the Gretna jail I spent forty-eight hours in a cell with a woman coming down off crack. We had to pee on each other’s feet, smashed in a one-man cell they wouldn’t let us out of to urinate. Past all the people in stores, strip malls, lines of reputable businesses, people with jobs. Nothing but people, cars, jobs. New Orleans is so lawless. The outside areas are too, but there’s some semblance of reason. There’s some normalcy that makes you feel like a permanent outcast. A freak. A useless member of society. All for not having a job, for stealing change.
How long is the longest job ever kept in New Orleans? One guy at the five-star restaurant was homeless, lived in Jackson Square right outside the restaurant, on a bench. I used to go hang out with him—Bill. I’m sure he’s dead now. I’d bring him booze and talk to him. I knew he was gay, so I was safe to hang out with him. Any straight man bum gets weird. It’s a given. Bill’s the one that told me, months later, how the employees at the restaurant fared after I got fired. There had been rumors, firings. Pierre was fired and so was Alex, the bartender, who told me the pregnant woman that came in all the time was his jealous roommate. I went out with him. It was his wife.
“Watch out around here, everyone hates you!” Bill slurred. “You broke up two marriages and got so many people fired! You’re not even pretty. But here I am. I was fired too!” One day at a table his front tooth fell out onto a woman’s plate.
Most of these aren’t jobs, but they’re the ones I had anyway.
Taylor McGraw is an artist and writer from St. Louis, Missouri. She has been published in a few university literary journals, is always “working on a book,” and currently lives in the Hudson River Valley.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · March 2022
Header image by Eric Wittman.