The reminder still pops up on my Google calendar each month in June. This would have been Clara’s 82st birthday. One of the “signs” we were given that it was time to close the New Orleans chapter of our life, and begin a new one, was when we lost our beloved friend a few years ago. Last summer I was back in my hometown of Iowa City visiting my family, during the acclaimed Iowa Writer’s workshop, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. So I enrolled in a humor writing workshop. And Clara was pretty much a given topic for me:
“What should I do with this?” Clara’s face was absolutely deadpan. Despite the fact that in her hand was a two-foot, two-headed dildo.
As it happened, this wouldn’t be the only time that one of our most frequent guests [we’ll call him Steve] would forget this “personal item” when he checked out from his stay at our New Orleans bed and breakfast. A personal item that we immediately nicknamed “The Anaconda.”
Clara wasn’t really expecting an answer from me. She’d already padded off to the storeroom where she found a discreet hiding place to store “Steve’s” oversight—until it was time to tuck it back under the pillow on his bed before his next visit.
I’ve never found an adequate title for this once very beautiful, still striking in her seventies woman, who sort of came along with the deal when we bought the B&B.
This purchase had been more of a wow-isn’t-this-place-fabulous impulse—than a well-considered investment. So we were more than grateful to be taken under the café au lait-colored wing of someone who’d worked for the previous owner and knew about the biz. And as we were to learn over the next few years, about so much more.
Some might have called her the housekeeper. But that would be like calling the Queen Mary a boat. And so she was just Clara. No adequate description possible.
Each morning she’d arrive long before we, and in most cases the guests, were awake. Outfitted in the blue scrubs she’d chosen as her work uniform, she’d start a pot of chicory-laced coffee and serve herself the first cup, while she read through that morning’s Times Picayune—a magnifying glass and dictionary at the ready. Clara embraced the notion of “lifelong learning” long before it became an overused expression in academia.
There would be much for us to learn from Clara as well, in the eight years that we knew her, as dribs and drabs of her colorful life story revealed themselves in brilliant flashes.
“People say they’ve read about me on the Internet,” she told me one morning. While a woman of many accomplishments, navigating the web was not among them.
“Let’s Google you,” I replied as I sat down at the keyboard. Up first came the responses that I’d expected. There are a number of places where guests could comment online about their experience at our B&B, and glowing reports about Clara featured prominently among those comments.
But then a bit further down the first page of results was another completely different hit.
“Well this is interesting,” I called out to Clara, who’d wandered off to dust something. “Someone with the same name as yours testified at the JFK assassination hearings!”
She stopped dusting. There was just a beat before she responded.
“That was me.”
As we were to learn in the conversation that ensued, Clara had once been the housekeeper for New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, one of those implicated in the investigation. And her “fly on the wall” testimony had been sought by the committee.
Another such conversation around the kitchen table revealed that Clara had also once been a “Madame” of sorts.
Back in the days when the Italian mob ran much of the business in the French Quarter, Clara had worked as a bartender in an establishment which offered something besides popcorn as a compliment to customer’s cocktails.
After the owner for whom Clara worked had bought the bar, he’d arranged for a bit of remodeling to be done. Full sized mirrors were installed on the back wall of both the men’s and women’s restrooms. Special mirrors.
Patrons would wander through the front door in search of a drink and the companionship strategically displayed on barstools around the room. There’d be a brief conversation with Clara. Both parties in the just negotiated transaction would adjourn to their respective bathrooms, whereupon she would reach beneath the bar and press a button. Which released the magnetic locks on the mirrors. Turning them into doors to a hidden room in back.
As it turned out, that previous employment would prove handy during her time with us.
We once rented the entire house to a group of guys planning a bachelor’s weekend for a buddy about to tie the knot—but only after an extensive interview process during which we’d determined that this was a somewhat older groom with a entourage of computer nerd buddies, who were unlikely to wreak havoc on our historic home. We did however get an unexpected call a week before their arrival from one of the group.
“I have a question,” he said, a bit sheepishly. “Do you know where we could hire a stripper?”
Not a question his gay hosts were well equipped to answer. At least not if they wanted a female stripper.
“Hold on,” I told him, cupping my hand over the receiver. “Clara? Do you know where these guys can hire a stripper?”
“Blonde or brunette?” she responded without hesitation.