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You're never too young to be scared

My mother allowed nothing alive in the house that required nurturing.

For my 12th birthday party, my mother arranged the party to be held at her

Mardi Gras costume studio. Foundation garments, headwear, fabrics, hosiery and wigs on a half dozen folding tables acted as the centerpieces for the event. Ceiling-to-floor green-and-red floral curtains covered all walls.

I sat at the head of the table, totally confused as to why forty well-dressed

children, none of whom I recognized, were in attendance at this, my birthday party.

Who the hell were these children? God knows, I was the most unpopular

person in school. I whispered my question to one of the girls and she told me that Mother had sent out a mass mailing invitation to my entire school without my knowledge. Looking back, I now realize it was her attempt at “forced popularity.”

My mother’s “invitation” was the only way these children would come to any party in my honor. Boys? Forget it. Friends? Didn’t have any.

“You’re a bluebloodt and an aristocrat. You can’t schlep in ugly peoples,” my mother would constantly tell me. “Your bloodt es rare and refinedt. Don’t ever mix it, and

always wear this fogging necklace. You, my dear, are Viennese.” As much as my mother

would say this to me, that I was special, I never felt special. What was it about this having

supposed special blood in my veins? If that was the case, why was I the strangest child at

my own birthday party?

I looked at all the children. Why had they decided to come to this party?

Maybe it was curiosity about Grandma’s X-rated lingerie shop or perhaps because I went to school wearing dresses made of French-lace remnants.

Maybe they were interested to know why I wore a large gold Viennese medallion, the size of a fifty-cent piece, around my neck.

Just then, steaming Hungarian goulash, a moist stew of stringy dead animal

parts dangling in red puddles, arrived in huge aqua tureens. I prayed to God that I was

hallucinating and that hot dogs with chili would arrive on paper plates. I took a look around me and saw in the other children’s faces that they were filled with horror at the dripping red dish. I heard someone call it “Vampire Soup.”

My mother howled to no one in particular as she stammered down the long table

where the children were seated, “I heard dat. Vampire Soup, dey say? Dey shouldt be so

lucky to taste my soup.” This was not your typical ice cream and cake birthday fare. Along with the Hungarian Goulash was Chicken Paprikash, pasta-filled carp, and pickled cucumber salad. Shirley Temple cocktails with huge floating cherries and miniature paper umbrellas were served instead of punch.

“These kits never hadt it so goot in der life,” my mother protested. “Finally, they

get my Goulash and my Chicken Paprikash. They vant always to be cheap and eat only

American foodt? You shall see, I teach dem.”

“They don’t want to be cheap, Mother. But we all hate this shit.”

“They should get on der knees and beg me to servfe more! Dese peoples haf no idea vhat to eat dats goot,” Mother screamed.

The attendees at my party weren’t just children. My mothers eccentric, adult

friends were there, in full costume, to act as servers. They wandered up and down beside the tables, carrying vats of various peculiar dishes to the table. The children froze in terror as long red painted nails ladled the dishes onto their plates. Bleached blondes in mink stoles, sparkly dresses and sunglasses, some of them men, toted food to the table. Some of the servers were wearing penguin-like, stiff tuxedos, while Viceroy ashes hung from pouty lips.

My mother wore her hourglass-shaped lavender lace-and-pearl dress with its V-

neck plunging necklace. Clear stiletto heels and Aurora Borealis earrings completed her look.

Hands on hips, she shouted, “Where’s da band, dammit, son of a bitch! Goot think I dint pay up frondt for dese people. Never pay ‘til you see da whites of der Godtdamn eyes! No cash money for dese thiefs, I tell you. All thiefs.”

As soon as the food had been served, the bleached blondes and tuxedoed

servers distributed thin, gold-covered boxes with paper red roses on top. The boxes were

labeled “Joan’s Exotic French Lingerie Shop.” These were, obviously, the “party favors.” All

of us grappled with the boxes, ripping them open to see what was inside. Big, striped, wide men’s ties were the boys’ gifts. I recognized the ties. They matched ones Mother and

Grandma had given to the police force the prior Christmas. The girls received garter belts.

The room was filled with gasps, alternating with nervous snickers. I seriously doubted if these kids had ever received party favors like this. However, at least it was original—original in a creepy, icky sort of way.

The band arrived. It was the Leon Kelsey Orchestra playing “Alley Cat,” your

typical lounge music for all the better children’s birthday parties. My many “new best friends for the moment” hopped up from their chairs onto the dance floor and did the Twist . I danced by myself all around the place while wearing my mother’s stilettos and matching boa wrapped around my neck.

After a while, the music stopped and we sat down for dessert and presents.

Birthday dessert was Bananas Foster. Servers in everything from satin, sequins, and

brocade to tuxedos flicked their cigarette lighters and insisted this dish had to be “performed,” not just served.

They first placed the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a flambé pan. Then they

added the bananas, and on top of the bananas, banana rum. Mother stood to the side and held a fire extinguisher in her hand, “just in case” she said. Dese costumes burn easily, so shut the fog up!” And, with that, the rum was ignited. I thought to myself that it was so ironic that Mother considered herself a “just-in-case” person, yet everything she did was always over the edge.

Using a long, bent-handled ladle, the servers scooped up some of the warm

liquor from the flaming flambé pan. A column of flame poofed from the ladle into the dish, bananas pouring over vanilla ice cream as it all ignited with a marvelous red-hot flash! A huge, flaming inferno swept in and around the table. Thankfully, no children became human torches as everyone screamed with exhilaration. There was definitely something to be said for unorthodox birthday parties.

After all had survived our flaming dessert, it was time for birthday presents.

Being an unconventional only child, I wasn’t exactly energized by Etch-a-Sketch, Silly Putty eggs, Lego sets, Hula Hoops or Slinkys. More appealing to me would have been a mystical Ouija boards to predict my hellish future, a cash register for keeping track of the money I hoarded, and a Squirmin Mervin fur pet, since my mother allowed nothing alive in the house that required nurturing. If I couldn’t have any of those, maybe someone could spring for an airline ticket, so I could jump on a quick jet and get out of New Orleans forever.

However, I pretty much knew what my presents would be. Each year I could

expect anything from lace push-up bras, to very provocative nightgowns, to strong perfumes. One year I opened a huge box and, before me was a complete wedding trousseau set. I recognized it as a set that had been in Lay-Away at Grandma’s shop for a long time and the customers had never come in to get it. Birthday presents often included lots of makeup, especially blue eye shadow, something my mother considered a staple.

Thinking back, perhaps the children weren’t only puzzled and bewildered. They

were probably hammered. Due to the flowing Bananas Foster, parents who came to pick up their children found inebriated offspring they had to carry out. But, unlike other birthday parties, where their kids got hyper on sugar and party games, my guests left in a very low- maintenance condition—perhaps something the moms and dads secretly appreciated.

I never had warning about any birthday plans, but this birthday party was

actually a good memory, in a small way. Friends that I didn’t know had a marvelous time. For weeks after my party, I noticed girls at school wearing these as red and black lace

headbands. These were my few moments of feeling “popular,” especially seeing garter belts on the heads of school kids I didn’t even know.

My birthday parties were always pretty freaky. On the one hand, were the weird

and wacky foods. Add to that the always “interesting” cast of characters. One of my favorite memories was watching my mother’s hooker friends lighting their cigarettes while playing with Silly Putty and munching on strange leftovers. The whole experience was usually a sizzling combination, creating a multi-sensory birthday bash.

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