In 1986, I was graduating from Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business, and my trajectory was about as unspectacular as you can imagine. I was headed to a life with a boring job, a boring wife, 2.5 boring kids, in a boring house located on a boring cul-de-sac. In an effort to put off the inevitable, I stayed in New Orleans one last summer parking cars at “4141,” an uptown dance club. Parking cars is not glamourous work, but there was one perk, the sex.
Single, drunk women, would exit the club in the early morning hours to find me, a nice clean cut college kid standing there in my khakis and crisp white Izod. I’m sure I looked like a beacon of youth and hope, standing in stark contrast to the douchebags inside the club. For a broke college student, an offer of breakfast and sex made every day feel like Christmas.
It was a Thursday night around two in the morning when Bea Arthur and another Golden Girl stumbled out of the club, drunk and looking for trouble. Golden Girls was a huge hit in 1986, despite the controversy over senior citizens talking about sex, and these ladies were definitely enjoying the spoils of their recently acquired fame. Incidentally, the other Golden Girl asked that I withhold her name if I ever retold this story, so from here on out I’ll refer to her as “Rue.”
As we stood around waiting for their limo, they started flirting with me. Bea pointed her thumb in my direction, “Rue, what do you think this one weighs?” Rue replied, “I don’t know, but I bet he’d fit in my overnight bag.” It was corny, but I laughed. The ice was broken and soon they were begging me to show them around town. Unfortunately, I told them, I’m wasn’t off for another two hours, but I offered to draw them a map of where to go. Bea wasn’t used to being told she couldn’t have what she wanted, so she marched back into the club and told the manager she was taking me.
I wasn’t sure if that’s how it felt to be a prostitute, but if it was, I liked it.
Two minutes later, I was in the back of their limo and we were off looking for a bar.
We ended up in a seedy dive down in the French Quarter. The kind of joint you need a local to help you find. It was dark, the floors were sticky, and the bartender was missing fingers on both his hands (not to mention, an eye) but somehow he pulled off the best Mai Tai that has ever crossed my lips.
Bea and Rue started getting loose, and we all started dirty dancing to Kool and The Gang, which looked a lot like me dancing at my Bar Mitzvah, if I had ground my hips into my grandmother instead of Cindy Goldsmith. As I was doing my best white boy epileptic stripper impersonation this big, fat, old, guy came out of nowhere and started working Bea’s ass. I thought to myself, “Hey asshole, you don’t get a cock-block bye because you carry an AARP card.” Of course I didn’t say anything. He was bigger than me and I avoid confrontations because I bleed easily. And I cry. It’s fairly humiliating. So, I decided to move onto Rue. At 21, rubbing up against anything feels good, even an old woman. Especially with your eyes closed.
Afraid that if we continued to dance we might need to defibrillate the old guy, I suggested they sit down while I ran over to get another round of drinks. By the time I got back to the table, my eyes had adjusted to the darkness and I realized that the fat, sweaty, cock-blocker was Marlon fucking Brando. He was breathing heavy, like he had asthma or something (by the way, I don’t think it was asthma. I think it was the extra 185 pounds he was carrying around like a unitard filled with rice pudding). But there was no question, it was Marlon Brando. I put my out my hand and introduced myself and he asked me to call him “Uncle M”, which I found super creepy.
I’ve always loved Brando because he had big, brass balls. He didn’t take shit from anybody and he didn’t care what anyone thought of him. Prime evidence of this attitude is Oscar night, 1973. Brando wins the Academy Award for The Godfather, but instead of going up and accepting it, he sends Sacheen Littlefeather, dressed like an American Indian Princess, to turn it down because of the “mistreatment of American Indians by Hollywood.” Can you imagine Kevin Costner turning down his Oscar for Dances with Wolves because Hollywood portrayed American Indians disrespectfully? No fucking way. And you know why? Because Costner is a puss. Brando’s sack is so big he needs a special velvet pouch to keep it in. He’s a man. He doesn’t need a fucking award from some pansies to validate how awesome he is.
The second round of drinks were gone and Bea was itching to find a bigger crowd and live music, so we left the French Quarter and headed uptown to the Maple Leaf.
Back in the limo, Marlon lit up a joint and soon the car filled with the sweet smell of this Cambodian skunkweed he had snuck back into the States wedged inside a hollowed out stick of deodorant.
He exhaled a big plume of smoke, licked his lips and leaned forward, trying to focus on me through his beet red eyes, “So tell me college boy, how’d you end up with these two cunts?
The moment after the word “cunts” left his mouth, my whole world stopped. I wasn’t sure if I should respond or wait for Bea to throat-punch him. The etiquette in these situations can be a little tricky.
Bea took a big drag off the joint as a smile curled up at the corners of her mouth. “You know the best thing about you Marlon?”
“Why don’t you tell me, sweetheart.”
You gotta love Marlon. Motherfucker is either the baddest dude alive or just too stoned to know when not to be an arrogant cock-sucker.
Bea handed the joint to Rue and exhaled through the open window, without even bothering to look in Brando’s direction , “You’re in perfect equilibrium, your bravado is offset by a cock the size of a light switch.”
Game. Set. Match.
And then Marlon, then Bea, then Rue, and finally me, laughed harder then I’ve ever heard four people laugh.
Old people rock.
Seated in a booth in the back of the Maple Leaf with the sounds of Cyril Neville and The Uptown Allstars swirling around us, Marlon and the Golden Girls held court. People stopped by, asking to take pictures and get autographs. Marlon ordered up a bottle of Korbel and we all toasted each other, taking big swigs out of plastic cups.
I was sitting next to Rue, who was caressing my thigh under the table while Marlon, eyes closed, bobbed his head to the bass line. Bea turned to me and said, “Tell me something about yourself.”
Knowing that “college grad, headed to dead-end job”, was a conversation killer, I went with my back-up: answer a question, with a question.
“What do you want to know?”
“Where’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been?”
“Excluding tonight?” I said, smiling.
Rue whispered in my ear, “Honey, we haven’t gone anywhere…yet.” Then she lightly flicked my ear with her tongue.
I swallowed and looked to Bea, who smiled like a black widow does, before eating its mate. I peed myself a little.
“I don’t know, maybe the Grand Canyon.” I said weakly.
Marlon, who still had his eyes closed, piped up, “The Grand Canyon is a deep gash about as interesting as a hole some five year old digs in his backyard.” He opened his eyes and locked them on me, “You know the best thing that ever happened to me on a trip?” He asked, but didn’t wait for an answer.
“I was on a five-day publicity tour in Sydney for some piece of crap movie I did to pay the bills. I was being shuffled from a hotel room, to the backseat of a car, to a TV studio everyday, being asked the same fucking asinine questions over and over. On the morning of day three, I woke up, grabbed some cash, walked out of the hotel, got in a cab, and told the driver, ‘Get Lost.’
“Poor fucking guy — I think he was Aborigines — he goes, ‘Get lost? How am I supposed to get lost, mister?’ So I told him, ‘I have no idea, we’ll figure it out together.’ Son of a bitch drove for about three hours and we ended up in this dust-covered town called Dubbo where I boxed a kangaroo, made out with the mayor’s wife and had the best meal I’ve ever eaten.”
“The food was that good?” Rue asked, suspicious.
“Oh, the food sucked, but this meal, these people…”
Marlon drifted off.
“…they were the nicest, most honest, open, funny, motherfuckers I’ve ever met. And you know what? I never would’ve had that meal if I hadn’t gotten lost. Getting lost is the best thing you can do for yourself.”
And with that he picked up the bottle of Korbel and drained it.
I leaned across the table towards Brando, “Help me get lost. You can’t leave me here knowing I’m never gonna taste that meal.” I looked at everyone. “Let’s all get lost.”
Bea patted my hand, “We are lost sweetheart. I don’t know where I am.” She looked around, “Just some bar, loud music, people dancing, I’m good right here.”
Brando smacked the table with his open palm, “I’m in.” He was on a roll, “Fate brought us together, now we gotta let it take us on an journey.”
Bea wasn’t having any part of it. “Well my ‘journey’ ends here.”
Rue downed her champagne, “I wanna do it. C’mon Bea.”
Bea, who doesn’t like being cornered, much less, feeling irrelevant, said, “Are you kidding me? You think this is some…some, Lewis Carroll story?” She pointed to Brando, “He’s stoned” and then me, “and this one’s dumb. Cute, but dumb.” She looked to me, “Sorry darling, but it’s true.”
“Quite alright.” And it was, mostly because it’s true.
Brando motioned for the bill, Rue gathered her stuff and I sat there with a shit-eating grin plastered across my face.
“I’m going potty, don’t leave without me.” She got up and winked at me.
“Wait, are you serious Rue?” As Bea chased after Rue, her voice disappeared into the mix of music and chatter all around us.
Brando took a look at the bill, dug into his pocket, and tossed some crumpled up bills on the table. We both stood up and he put his arm around me, pulling me in tight with his mouth next to my ear. He reeked of the sweet smell of cheap alcohol, “Two things. One, no matter what happens, you agree with me. This isn’t a democracy.” I nodded. “Two, if we end up fucking these broads, Bea is mine. You get in my way and I’ll twist your nuts off and shove’em up your ass.” Then he patted me on the shoulder, smiled, and headed for the door.
I wonder if it would’ve been pushing to ask if he’d adopt me.
We were standing outside of the Maple Leaf when Rue and Bea exited the bar. Brando motioned to Bea, “She in?”
Rue interlocked her arm with Bea’s, “She’s reconsidered, right Bea?”
Bea reached out and poked Marlon in the chest, “If I end up on some shit hole farm with a bunch of toothless idiots dancing around to Dueling Banjos, I will personally make sure that you will legally be able to use the handicapped parking spots at the mall.” Bea stepped back, satisfied.
Brando smiled back at her. “Honey, I’ve been parking in the handicapped spots since ’78, but it’d be nice to do it legally.” He turned and started walking down the block.
“Hey where are you going? We have a limo!” Bea screamed.
Marlon kept walking. Remembering rule one, I followed.
By the time we all caught up to Marlon he was standing on the corner of Oak and Carrolton, hands in his pockets, muttering to himself.
It had been two minutes and Bea was impatient, “Now what?”
Right on cue, a cab pulled up. The passenger window slid down. The driver, black and still wearing sunglasses, asked, “Where ya’ll going?”
Marlon turned and gave me a wink as he leaned down to look at the driver. “We don’t know.” And in that distinctive New Orleans drawl the driver said, “Well what y’all wanna do? Drink? Dance? Eat?”
Marlon straightened up and patted his stomach. “I look like I need to eat?”
“People eat all day n’ night. I once caught my sister, Agnes, at 3am, eating a bag of chicken wings my moms had frozed in the freezah. The girl’s got a set of teeth that can chew through chain link.”
This was our guy. If we had any chance of getting lost, this guy would help us.
Marlon rubbed his chin, “We’ve already been to the French Quarter, now we want to see the real New Orleans. Where should we go?”
“Some good places not far from here.”
“And suppose we weren’t…white?” Marlon lobbed the question out there.
The driver lowered his sunglasses to get a better look at us. “So you folks Asian? Latino?”
Marlon dropped a fifty dollar bill on the front seat and without a trace of sarcasm said, “We’re black.”
The driver pocketed the fifty, “Yeah, local black folks don’t go to the French Quarter, unless they working down there. I might got a place, but you on your own. I can’t take no responsibility for what happens.”
I looked to Rue and Bea, who looked pretty scared. Before I could say anything, Marlon barked, “Sounds perfect, everyone in the cab!”
The driver turned to check us out as we got in the backseat. “Hey ain’t you Maude?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake.” Bea muttered.
Twenty-five minutes later we were the only white people standing in a massive crowd of black. As a white person, I never thought about the color of my skin, but at that moment I was acutely aware that I was different. Remembering my father’s “dangerous situation” instructions, I separated my ID from my wallet and nonchalantly dropped it in my sock. My dad had said, “This way the coroner will be able to identify the body.” I come from a long line of optimists.
We were deep in the 9th ward. Prior to this, the closest I’d been to the “projects” was an after-school special on ABC. Twenty years from now, this whole place will be wiped out by Katrina, but on this night, at this small neighborhood club, New Orleans couldn’t have felt more alive.
A funk band was squeezed into the corner and it seemed like everyone had a cigarette and a drink in their hands. The air was thick with laughter and music and I don’t know how it was possible but the whole place, even the people standing still, seemed to be moving in rhythm.
I ordered four beers but when I turned around, my group had vanished. I figured it couldn’t be hard to find the only white people in the place, so I started to move through the crowd, finding the beat, easing my way closer to the band. It was there that I found Marlon with his arm around a skinny woman about 25 years old. She had a giant afro with a tiny pink bow that looked like it was holding on for it’s dear life. Their eyes were closed and his face had a look of total and complete serenity. I was overcome with jealousy. I wanted to feel like that, but I knew I wasn’t ready to just let go and enjoy. I turned to look for Bea and Rue.
I found them, backs to a wall, holding court. And like the well rehearsed comedy team they were , Bea hit the punch line of her story just as Rue turned around, hiked up her dress and stuck out her ass so we could see that written across her panties in beautiful gold script were the words, “Solid Gold.” Suddenly the scrum of people in front of her doubled over in hysterics, hugging each other, wiping tears from their eyes. I had no idea what the joke was, but it didn’t matter. You can’t go wrong with “Solid Gold” written across your ass.
“I got beers!” I said, holding up the cans of beer.
A size 24 black woman squeezed into a size 14 tube-top eyed me like a pork chop. “He wif you?”
Rue quickly wrapped her arms around me and drew me in, “Sorry ladies, he’s mine.”
The size 24 woman reached out and traced her finger down my arm, “Honey, you ever get tired of that white meat, you just give Carmel a call. When I’m done wif you, you’ll be all curled up like a baby, cryin ‘Mommy, the big black woman broke my little white dick in half.’”
And the whole crowd doubled over in laughter again.
It was an amazing night. I shared a joint with a guy who told me about having to use “Negro Only” water fountains. I watched Marlon as he mesmerized a crowd with the most soulful version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” I’ve ever heard. And I danced with Carmel, who, at one point, grabbed my dick and yelled over the music, “My pussy’s got a bigger dick than that.” And by the looks of Carmel, I’m sure it was true .
I drank Dixie beer, took random shots of liquor and at one point, I ate a MoonPie that this kind old lady sitting on a barstool held out to me.
A MoonPie is an incredibly simple food. Two round graham crackers sandwiching a marshmallow patty, dipped in chocolate, vanilla or banana coating. As I bit into it, I realized that this was my Best Meal. And it wasn’t because that chocolate MoonPie was perfect, it was because everything was perfect. The MoonPie just made it sweeter.
Hours later we stumbled out of there, jumped into a cab and everything got quiet. It was so bright outside that it felt like the sun had moved closer to the earth, and eventually they fell asleep.
I watched through the window as the cab glided past worn out neighborhoods and it occurred to me that I couldn’t find that bar again if I had to, which was probably a good thing. Some experiences shouldn’t be repeated.
Strange as this sounds, the night was so perfect that having sex almost felt like it would’ve ruined it. So we all stood there awkwardly, saying goodbye, hugging, kissing, promising to stay in touch. And then the ladies turned and disappeared into the hotel.
Marlon looked down at me, shading his eyes from the sun, “So kid, what’re you gonna do now?”
“Go home, shower, sleep, maybe get something to eat.”
“No, not now, now. I mean with your life, now.”
“Oh, well I have a job in Atlanta. My mom told me I had to graduate with a job so, y’know, I got one.” As soon as I said it, I realized how lame it sounded.
Brando sucked the moist air in through his teeth. “It’s good to listen to your parents, but at some point you gotta make your own decisions. Be your own man.”
“I’m not the best at making decisions. I usually wait for the decision to make itself.”
“That’s because you think these decisions are about life or death, but they’re not. Every decision is just about life, living. It’s when you stop making decisions that you die.”
Marlon put his hand out to hail a cab.
I stepped in front of him, “Can I ask you a question? And no bullshit, you gotta be honest.”
“That Oscar, why’d you really turn it down?”
He squinted, “I didn’t like how American Indians were being depicted by Hollywood.”
“Fuck you, I’m not buying it.”
His face lit up with a huge smile, “Okay, this is between you and me. Nobody else, unless I’m dead. Then I could give a rat’s ass who you tell.”
“That broad, Sacheen Littlefeather? Her real name is Marie Cruz, she wasn’t even Indian. I had my wardrobe guy steal that costume from Warner Brothers. Man, she was one hot piece of ass, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t nail her, so when I was nominated for the Oscar we cut a deal.” He paused while I caught up to what he was saying. “I won, then I won again.” He laughed to himself, a cab pulled up, and he reached out to shake my hand. I knew I’d never see him again, so I wrapped him in a big bear hug. Eventually, he pulled away and I think we were both a little surprised that I was crying.
He held me by my shoulders, “Hey, you want the secret to a happy life?”
Then he kissed me on my forehead and stepped into his cab.
After that night I knew I couldn’t wear a suit to work, punch a clock, or sit in a cubicle. Ten months later, I quit that shitty job. Marlon and Bea and Rue had changed my life, my direction. Fate is like that.
Without them, I’m not me.