Dolores Pepper was born on the Miracle Strip, the beaches of Okaloosa Island, behind the condominium where I lived with my mother and sister in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. It was spring break 1982, and my cousin Kelly and I, each of us covered in baby oil and holding a TAB, walked away from the umbrellas and families behind our building towards the boys and beer behind the Ramada Inn.
"What’s your name?” a towel of guys called out to my curvy cousin.
“Flower,” she replied.
The boys ogled her as we walked over. She flirted and made party plans while I stood behind, an invisible beanpole barely blocking their sun.
As we strolled back to our abandoned babysitting duty (my sister and her friends), I asked Kelly about the name. She explained to me that we’d have a lot more fun as other girls, namely Flower Anne and Dolores.
I couldn’t figure it out. My whole life I dreamed of another name, and she knew it: Emily, the name I gave to every Barbie, Madame Alexander doll and pet parakeet. (I named my goldfish, each one of them, George, but that’s another story).
“It sounds better when I call to you,” she explained: “Dolores, Doilin’! Come see!”
(…as in, “Dolores, Dahlin’! Over here!”…as in, “Dolores, Darling! Come with me!”)
She was correct, of course.
I considered an appropriate last name and looked around the beach for ideas. At last my eyes fell on my bathing suit cover-up, an oversized t-shirt featuring a bell pepper.
That night as the boys, a group from Lafayette, Louisiana, crowded Flower Anne, I tried out my new name. An Hebert (pronounced ‘a-bear’) with a big smile left his buddies and my beautiful cousin and took my hand for a walk. He was a good five inches shorter than me, but he didn’t seem to care as we chatted on while he called me Dolores. Later that week he bid me good-bye with a surprise on the beach —- a six-inch deep hole in the sand just large enough for my size ten feet. Hidden among the dunes, we stood eye-level for my first kiss.
Although born on the beach, it was in south Louisiana that Dolores Pepper bloomed. I moved to New Orleans full time in the summer of 1989 to be closer to my grandmothers, Granny Wolfe in Metairie and Grandma McClanahan in Gretna, and to study Art History in graduate school at Tulane University, residing in a newly restored carriage house on the corner of Magazine and Terpsichore in the Irish Channel. My landlord and neighbor, interior designer Judy Girod, kindly cut the rent to fit my limited budget, and I stayed for two years, spending my days in class and my evenings at Ann Taylor, where I sold women’s clothing. It was that weird period of life when one lives on no sleep, hitting the town until five a.m. and the library by seven.
It was during these years that I spent Wednesday nights at the long-gone Que Sera on St. Charles Avenue. I donned an Ann Taylor suit, a new one purchased each year with my employee discount during the after-Christmas sale, and trolled the three-for-one happy hour for trouble. We were kicked out for good when Kelly, standing on our table, showed off her ‘bump and grind it’ “Vogue” moves to a flock of men/birds circling her makeshift stage, as I watched her carefully from the floor, determined to catch her if she fell.
“Flower! Dolores! You’re out of here!” shouted the manager.
We returned only once, a few months later, in disguise, dressed the parts for a B-52’s concert as Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, our hair piled in bouffants. We didn’t get far, however, pulled over by a police officer as Kelly plowed through traffic signals, the red and blue lights on her father’s car (an oilman with 1980s good-ol’-boy connections) flashing as we ran through traffic lights illegally.
“Do you know who my daddy is?” asked Flower Anne, her hand on her hip as she cocked her head towards the angry officer.
It’s embarrassing, even humiliating, as I look back on it, remembering how I leaned my head out of the window and taunted the officer with siren sounds as we sped away towards the concert rather than central lock-up. In a bizarre twist of fate, Kelly ended up marrying a cop from Kenner. They live in Covington with their four children, and I know that her past taunts her as they approach their teenage years and their own rebellion.
It was as Dolores Pepper that I discovered clever, albeit airy and illegal, places to pee on Mardi Gras Day. The rest of the year I snuck out of the bathroom window of Fat City’s Gator’s Shuck-n-Jive, avoiding the creepy guys who bought us drinks and, just my luck, the only ones we ever met who had the hots for me.
It was as Dolores Pepper that I attended Flower Anne’s ‘Madonna Party’ dressed in nothing but my bra and short shorts (with stockings and gloves), no straight men allowed, and had the courage (or stupidity) to sing on stage at the Cat’s Meow, “Like a Virgin.” This resulted in a twenty-something’s dream supply of free drinks: Absolut and cranberry, a drink I haven’t had since, lined up in a row down the bar, and a real coup for my five dollar a night budget.
By the mid-1990s my mentor Flower Anne disappeared for a while, a conservative bastion of family life, trading in her fishnets and wigs for control-top pantyhose and having her hair ‘done.’ Since the party-girl Dolores petered out after only a few summers in favor of things like work, school, and a good night’s sleep, I pretty much forgot about Flower, aside from the occasional reminiscence of our wild summers.
And then one Washington Mardi Gras, as the young mother Kelly, away from her children for the first time, jumped on my hotel-room bed in the middle of the night and shouted, “The cat’s out of the cage!,” I thought, She’s back.
…or maybe she never left. And that’s what made me realize that Dolores is here too. She’s older, hopefully more responsible, and she turns in every night by 10:00 p.m. But she’s a part of me, taking chances and combating what’s left of my shyness.
“Boris, this is Dolores,” said my sister Heather immediately when I received this assignment.
“That’s Doris!” I reminded her.*
Another friend suggested I call myself Doctor Dolores Pepper! …still thinking about that one…
As Dolores Pepper I differentiate myself from “Musings of an Artist’s Wife,” my established blog of the past fifteen months. Gambit gives me the opportunity to share with you memories, travels, art, and thoughts —- a real honor for me, both that they would ask and that you might log on to read. In the coming weeks, now that the party-girl nostalgia is out of the way, I’ll write about (not necessarily in this order) New Orleans author Patty Friedmann and her book Taken Away; Julien Hudson, a free man of color in pre-Civil War New Orleans; Rosalea Murphy, a New Orleans native, chef, and artist who founded the Pink Adobe Restaurant and the Dragon Room Bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the New Orleans Museum of Art’s centennial celebration; and whatever other adventures and interests cross my path during this holiday season.
Dolores is back and all grown up. Thank you for reading-
D.P. (a.k.a. Wendy Rodrigue)
*From the movie True Lies (1994) with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger
For more by Wendy Rodrigue visit “Musings of an Artist’s Wife”