October 2008 / Ruthie the Duck Lady of New Orleans
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You regularly zoomed by us on roller skates, wearing a wedding veil, holding a big white duck and a rolled up poster of you roller skating, wearing a wedding veil, and holding a big white duck. You were existential infinity in motion.
Sometimes you spoke as we pedaled past on Featherbike, our yellow-feather-trimmed bicycle. Once we rode a gleaming French Motobécane, a bicycle we took with us to Sea, when we wore a younger man's clothes.
That French bike was stolen by a newly released ex-con you said you knew and hated. He noticed our casual, below Canal Street, lifestyle and jumped over the fence and plucked our Motobécane and its collage of travel stickers. We mourned those stickers -- an irreplaceable collection -- more than the bicycle.
You said, "Get a duck. I got a duck. Ain't nobody ever stole no duck."
Maybe, though sometimes they ran them over.
"You ought to know, Ruthie," we said. "Don't they call you the Duck Lady?"
Ruthie sometimes sat on her stoop, a traditional Downtown pastime, watching clouds ("gathering cotton"), contemplating the weather, Life and, maybe, her next Budweiser and Kool Cigarette.
"You got a little beer, for later? A little cigarette, for later" was Ruthie's way of offering to accept a beer and cigarette, but not that she expected to return the favor. Ruthie was a no-strings, free citizen of the French Quarter, a neighborhood long associated with free spirits.
She also enjoyed sitting atop bar stools. Pat O'Brien's, on Saint Peter, and Crazy Shirley's, on Bourbon, were two of her favorites. We met for the first time at Crazy Shirley's. It was that era when the fabled Sixties were morphing into the Seventies. Our best friend from college was a reporter for the Associated Press newly assigned to New Orleans. I came to visit from Illinois, and spent an early Spring exploring the French Quarter. One day I walked through a magical barroom door and there sat Ruthie and a big white duck.
She accepted a beer from the bartender. Complete with a saucer for the duck. She got "a little cigarette, for later" from a man, in a white-and-red striped shirt, standing just outside the barroom door selling Lucky Dogs. He also gave Ruthie's duck a piece of hot dog bun.
At dinner, that night, my reporter friend told me the story of Ruthie, the Duck Lady -- a proud marcher in New Orleans passing parade. After hearing that how could anyone want to live anywhere else? Within the year I signed up and moved in, next to Ruthie's world.
Many are the pure fallen to an earlier grave.
Ruthie befriended most people, and all ducks. Easter was a big day on her liturgical calender. Many ducklings began their relationship with Ruthie as an Easter offering from friends and tourists who passed the little balls of fluff into her welcoming hands, in Jackson Square, in front of Saint Louis Cathedral.
She lived a careless life, and so did her ducks. None of them lasted as long as she did. Most did not make it to the next Spring. But they all seemed happier for the company.
Any one who knew Ruthie knew some colorful version of her car-smashed-duck story. They all ended with Ms. Ruthie bending over the carcass in the street telling the fallen fowl to stay on the sidewalk, next time.
The sweetest version came from her friend, David Michel, a New Orleans Police Officer who was working off-duty detail, at Pat O'Brien's, when informed Ruthie's last duck had been flattened by an automobile, outside, on the corner. He immediately dispatched a driver to City Park to scoop up a replacement.
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We sometimes drank beer with Ruthie. And laughed with her. And, truth be told, at her. She was amusing, and -- dare we say it -- an odd duck we are better for knowing.
We met her boyfriend, Gary Moody, after we had all grown older, and she had moved Uptown, to the Saint Charles Health Care facility. It was from there she was evacuated to Baton Rouge.
Gary Moody had been a sailor on shore leave, in 1963. They met once, on Bourbon Street, and kept up a lifetime postcard correspondence.
Ruthie referred to him all the rest of her life as her boyfriend and, sometimes, her husband. Many felt she had made him up. Until he flew down from Minnesota to dance at her sixty-seventh birthday party, at Rock ‘N’ Bowl, on January 20, 2000. The party was organized by friends as dear as any on this side of Judgement Day.
Filmmaker and friend, Rick Delaup, has an excellent film of Ruthie, in a collection of filmographs he has done of free souls of old New Orleans. There you may again see Ruthie, her small body bent over roller skates, flying down Bourbon Street, wedding veil flying, a soul mate of a white duck cradled in her arms.
Once, my Mother, a stern Illinois-German, came to visit. On a walking tour of the French Quarter, we happened upon Ruthie, who asked for a little cigarette for later, then skated off.
My Mother listened to the story of Ruthie's admirable self reliance, and neighborhood colorization. Then said, "Someone should pick her up and put her in a home, where she can be taken care of."
The week after that visit, we saw Ruthie walking along Conti with a briefcase-bearing woman in a severe black suit. "A state social worker," I thought, "my Mother dropped a nickel on Ruthie!"
Later that same day, we again spotted Ruthie sitting at the bar at Crazy Shirley's. Over a beer we asked, "Ruthie, who was that woman we saw you with, earlier today?"
'What, who?" she said in her Donald Duck accent.
"I don't know who. Some woman in a black suit with a briefcase. You were crossing Conti, at Royal."
"Naw," she said, "must have been someone who looked like me." The bartender and two flies at the trough laughed. Ruthie smiled her flap jaw snaggle-toothed grin, and lifted her beer.
How we could use that laugh again today.
Both Shaw and Garrison are long gone to their reward. Do they sit somewhere in The Beyond chewing over who killed JFK? We wonder if any one has told them about The Hurricanes of '05?
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