"Well, this might be forward of me," I said to my customer, Brenda White, who was sitting beside me and enjoying the ride, "but your hair is simply fabulous. There's no other word for it."
I knew that compliment might come across as stereotypically gay, and I was fine with it. Under the right inspiration, I'd venture to say there's a gay man in every one of us, male and female alike. Brenda's hair was a whipped halo of beauty, simultaneously stylized and earthy as all get-out. I couldn't name the shade of red, only that it was as if a candy apple had exploded atop her head. Every woman has her signature element, and this was clearly Brenda's.
"Thank you for that, darlin'," Brenda said. "That's the thing about New Orleans — it's always humid, and that frizzes up my hair. And you can't wear anything made of wool. It would be like donning a wet blanket. When I moved there from Delaware 20 years ago, eventually I had to throw out every one of my beautiful wool dresses. But I considered it a small price to pay."
We were en route to Monkton, where Brenda would spend Christmas with her sister's family. The driving conditions were not ideal, but more slushy than icy, thank goodness. If New Orleans is the Big Easy, Vermont is the Big Not-So-Easy. Safety being the first priority of any cabbie worth his salt, I drove slowly and deliberately through the gray afternoon, all the while basking in my customer's sunny disposition. This woman was the opposite of a wet blanket.
"So tell me about your new life in New Orleans. What a change from the East Coast."
"Oh, you got that right, honey. I was born to live down there. It was always in my soul. I have a cute condo in the French Quarter, and I sell real estate for a living. And for Mardi Gras, I ride with an all-women krewe called the Muses."
"Awesome!" I said. "Are there other all-women krewes, or is yours the only one?"
"I think there's a new one started up called Isis. But we were the first. Our thing is throwing these elaborately decorated shoes. For months in advance, we all meet up to work on 'em. There's usually about 30 of us at any one of these get-togethers, and we have a ball, let me tell you. The basic shoe itself is manufactured in China, but we do all the embroidery and beadwork. On Mardi Gras, the crowds line up 10, 20 deep for a chance at one of our shoes. The things are coveted. Our floats are amazing pieces of art, too."
"Oh, man," I said. "I think New Orleans culture is America's jewel — the music, the food, the people. I once saw a show about the Mardi Gras Indian tribes, these groups of African American men who dress up and parade in their own fantastic take on Native Americans. It being New Orleans, a distinct musical tradition is also part of the whole performance. It's all so beautiful to me, and you couldn't make it up. It's like some gorgeous dream world."
Brenda was nodding her head. "We have mad love for the Mardi Gras Indians, and their thing is all done in homage, out of respect. You know their motto, right? 'Don't bow, don't know how.' That right there is the spirit of the Mardi Gras Indians."
"Do you also attend the famous jazz festival?"
"Are you kidding me, darlin'? My first one was during a chance visit in 1987, and I haven't missed it since. Certainly not since I moved there permanently in '95. That music is the air I breathe." Brenda paused to chuckle before adding, "Yes, sir — the hot, moist, humid air."
"Boy, I could use some of that moist, humid air right about now. The dry, freezing air is already beginning to wear me down, and it's still December."
Brenda said, "I'll see what I can do. I had a great talk with my cabdriver to the airport this morning. He referred to himself as an 'old-school, coon-ass driver.' I know the term 'coon-ass' sounds racist, but that's how many Cajun men refer to themselves, especially the older generation. I mean, it's not mine to say, but, to my ears, it feels like a point of pride, at least when used among the Cajuns."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. Every ethnic group has labels like that. It's cool to use one if you're a member of the tribe. If you're not, I wouldn't."
In Hinesburg, we took the diagonal onto Silver Street, 10 minutes — give or take — from our destination. Brenda turned to me to speak, and I could tell she was being thoughtful.
"Here's the thing about New Orleans," she said softly, "and the reason I love it so. There's space in that city for every type of person. You simply can't be too weird or eccentric for the Big Easy. That's why Katrina couldn't kill the place. We all need it too much to let it go."
We drove in relaxed silence the remainder of the way, just listening to the wet snow splashing under the wheels, gazing out at the weighted, white-coated evergreens lining the road. I thought about how lucky Brenda was to have found a place to live that so embodied and expressed her spirit. I'm lucky that way, too. I found Vermont 35 years ago — the Big Not-So-Easy.
I really like that nickname, I thought, and smiled to myself. But I won't be printing up any T-shirts. Nope, I think I'll keep it between me and Vermont.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.