After six decades of living as drag queens in New Orleans, many aging, skanky-assed, washed-up, tired bitch-queens relocated on top of a patchy spot of brown mud in Savoie, Louisiana. Savoie, population 12,534, a rural, agricultural area composed of little more than cotton, chicken poop and red dirt pastures served as an impressive self-sustaining retirement home. Not just your average “manufactured-on-the-golf-course” home for seniors, rather an 1893 pink Greek revival center-hall cottage adorned with a lacey turquoise ironwork fence. A wrap-around porch epitomizing lush Southern living plus orchard-colored bougainvillea’s draping over porch rails provided the perfect backdrop for a human-sized neon red stiletto anchored on top of the roof. In the front yard, mystical bronze peacocks and greyhounds hid among fountains and intoxicating gardenias. A basketball-sized pink glass ball glued to the top of a concrete fountain was placed directly in front center of the home. Now, there were some plastic pink roses stuck in the dirt greeting you all the way to the front door (with Woolworth labels still attached), but remember that the old queens had old spines with old hands and digging in the dirt just wasn’t a possibility. These previously callous bitch-queens softened in time as they decided to spend their late-life years residing at the Ruby Red Slipper Retirement Home. They all shared the same interests: complaining, shopping, criticizing people, complaining more, and squeezing tubes of glitter and hot glue guns. They had fled the frenzy of the French Quarter in search of peaceful surroundings where they could hang their marabou-lined chapeaus.
Located directly in the rear of The Ruby Red Slipper Retirement Home For Aging Drag Queens, past the circular gossip room, was an in-house restaurant where Cajun aromas of shrimp and grits wafted inside the hallways. It was imperative that aging drag queens counted on sustenance and continuous noshes in a most pleasant appetizing surrounding. Queenzie, (birth name: Joseph Rizzuto Borcato) and resident manager of the retirement home, decorated Screaming Mimi’s Café with a Spanish flair matching his Carmen Miranda alter-ego. Inside the dining room, things not real were real. The space was all about kitsch as part of its charm. A large dining room had dimmer switches — (“makes everyone lookin’ pretty, ya know” — and bright white stars hand-painted on the dark blue ceiling. Spanish shawls draped over fake balconies that Queenzie built himself with leftover plywood from his favorite Homo Depot store. He wanted his resident girls to fantasize they were dining inside a Spanish palace in Madrid. Murals of nude male flamenco dancers were painted on dark crimson red walls while salsa melodies played in the background. This was not just about digesting three meals a day; it was a glamorous place for retired drag folk who savored civilized Southern dining. And the food was “slap-yo-mama’s-ass” good!
Queenzie wanted familiar Southern food for his hefty ladies — like waffles with fried chicken, fried plantains, huevos rancheros, lox and bagels for the Jewish gays, and strong chicory coffee and beignets fried on the spot for the native Catholics. However, on special occasions, he made creative cocktails and penis cakes while offering lap dances to residents in his Carmen Miranda outfit. Lunch and dinner depended on the day of the week. Mondays was red beans and rice since the gays had to do their laundry all day; Tuesdays was spaghetti and meatballs; Wednesdays was fried chicken; Thursdays was meatloaf and mashed potatoes; and Fridays always a seafood dish plucked fresh out of Lake Pontchartrain. Weekends were “do-it-yourself” foods since the gals normally were out shopping and complaining. A chrome countertop was stacked with Hubig’s pies, Zapp’s potato chips, mixed-meat muffeletta sandwiches piled high with lunch meats, Italian cheeses and chopped olive spread all prepared by Queenzie, and crystal decanters of mint leaves floating peacefully in sweet tea. The girls sometimes played “Bitchy Missy Bingo” on weekends and couldn’t possibly skip meals. It didn’t matter how thick they became in the waist, they carefully wobbled in stilettos toward the dining room.
Two waitresses worked the restaurant each weekend. Stella Mae owned the mornings and Hairy Mary was the evening shift. Both were over six-foot four, aggressively rotund, at least a forty-six-inch waist, puffy auburn wigs, flip-flops, white nurses’ dresses and matching vintage nursing caps. Hairy Mary was known for her hairy toes and with flip-flops you best prepare for a buzz-kill appetite if you even think you were hungry. Both waitresses knew about quickly serving hungry old drag queens and both were excellent servers, but with major attitude. They especially loved the perk of having free food every day all day as much as the whalebones in their girdles could handle.
“Where y’at dawlin’?” Stella Mae and Hairy Mary announced, taking orders.
“You want yer seafood in batta, dawlin’?” Hairy Mary mumbled with pen in hand scratching on a small tattered notebook. “You wants yer ersters dressed wit lots of mayo and a red drink? It’s good, baby!” She knew exactly how to work the room and what each resident wanted every day of the week.
“Awright, heart, gib me some of dem shrimps wit lots of mayo! An trow in one a dem alligator pears” (New Orleans avocados), one of the residents announced across the room.
“Whatever you ax for, sweet potato.”
And so the residents polished off their longshoreman-size meals, ending with a Creole sugary homemade praline and strong black Community House coffee. What could possibly be better than eating amongst fake balconies, Spanish lamps and chunky queens in vintage nurse’s uniforms?
If a resident had a birthday, Hairy Mary and Stella Mae would slam through the double chrome kitchen doors carrying the biggest sheet cake pyramid imaginable. Always chocolate with caramel icing, a dozen blond Ken dolls in long, red, sequined dresses would be perched in a circle on top of the cake. Each had a rhinestone tiara attached on their heads with the word “QUEEN” mounted just perfectly. Mary and Stella nervously knew that if they dropped that damn cake, some hormonally imbalanced queen might take hot candles from the candelabra on the table and gouge out some eyeballs. This was “sugar overload,” after all — a gift from the gods, even if it did make them crazy. Luckily, anything that is on time never involves queens, so Mary and Stella walked very, very slowly.
Following each decadent meal, the girls flowed into what was known as the “dance galley” for a little twist-and-shakin’-a-booty. This was almost always how each evening went down except for a teeny tiny minor emergency. Gawd forbid.
The minor emergency, well, maybe not that minor, occurred inside the dance room. One of Queenzie’s best friends, Edna Earl, while smashed on copious amounts of dirty martinis, had a chard of steak relocate inside her throat. All hell broke loose. The once giggly gals started screaming, but Queenzie remained calm. He sashayed behind Edna’s chair, wrapped his huge burly arms around her sequined dress and pushed hard. Out flung the charred piece of steak across the table! Edna Earl, most relieved, took a wee sip of martini (just to flush any remnants down), straightened his jewelry, and cleared his voice while dancing resumed.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, sweetie, I thought I was going on to my sweet rewards. I need to give big money to Saint Jude tomorrow,” said Edna Earl with relief. After all, he was a devout Catholic, attended Our Lady of Lourdes Church each morning of his life, and drank like a fish.
“Enough already with the Saint Jude. Look, bitch, hang on to your money; there’s lots of shopping in our future!” demanded Queenzie.
Queenzie decided to make a speech after saving Edna’s life on that particular Saturday night. It calmed the girls’ last nerves; and he wanted them to feel safe again.
“Ladies, thank ya so much for eatin’ and dancin’. You old bitches never know if I’ll be dead tomorrow, so chow down and enjoy yourselves. You’re gonna miss my lazy ass! Anyways, hearts, we’ll all be in the Saint Louis cemetery before you knows it.”
At the end of the evening, the girls dove into the cake with one last finger lick, smacked their lips and were as content as fat cats on a porch in the August heat of New Orleans. Eventually, all the retirees were in a sugar coma. It was time to return back to their rooms, slap wigs off sweaty scalps, unsnap bustiers, kick off stilettos, and fall into bed. Just another evening of fine dining at the Ruby Red Retirement Home. Under the bright lights of the lipstick red neon stiletto mounted high in the shadowy sky.
Since Hurricane Katrina, Cindy Small has relocated from New Orleans, Louisiana to N. Alabama and decided that instead of pursuing a PhD, creating short stories was far more critical. French Quarter drag queens became her best friends as her childhood centered on platinum bouffant wigs, spirit gum, sequins, eyebrow wax and lots of marabou. Preferably turquoise. Cindy graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans with an undergraduate degree in Journalism and Masters in Historic Preservation Studies. There was no Drag Queen 101 course being offered at the time.