The Whorehouse That Gave S & H Greenstamps

Posted on May 3, 2011

I don’t know that I ever told you all about my hometown. Make no mistakes, there were some mighty nice things about that place. For many folks who lived there…it was a good place to work and live, raise yer family. Folks kinda looked out for one another; in fact, some folks might claim that they looked out for one another too much sometimes….that they were downright nosy and gossipy. I suppose that just kinda comes with growing up in a small rural town in the south. For other folk, specifically those who were poor, or of color…well, I don’t think they got the same deal in that little town and I’m sure living and dying was much harder for them. You see, I grew up in the segregated south in a small rural town that many of my friends over the years have described as one that would make Peyton Place look tame. Let me see if I can explain that for you a bit….by paraphrasing the chorus of an Alan Jackson song a bit.

Where I come from
It was gamblin’ and drinkin’
Where I come from, there was fast, lawless livin’
Where I come from, there was politician’s skimmin’
And ladies of the evenin’
Workin’ hard to make their livin’
All prayin’ hard they’d be forgivin’.

The social strata in the town was pretty much based on the haves and the have nots, that’s for sure. It was pretty easy to come from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ both literally and figuratively and the economy there was mostly based on a rural farming. In fact, I’d say that there was something pretty close to a caste system in place.

Girls, who like me, were considered well-heeled, grew up being given ‘lessons’ of all kinds – dancing, singing, music, elocution…all of the things that were supposed to turn us out as perfectly lady-like southern women….and don’t you dare fail or slip from that pedestal, either. What you didn’t learn from formal lessons, well your mama, grandma, aunts and other prominent women in your life provided…things like flower arranging and propagating, how to set the table perfectly (I mean where you could measure those place settings and they were all the same), an eye for fashion and home decorating, needlework, art and music appreciation. They felt these were integral to us turning out to be southern ladies who gave credit to their forebears.

By the time you were ten to twelve years old, believe me…you had a rudimentary knowledge of how all of these things combined into the ideal of a southern woman – and you knew how to recognize another one by their similarities and tell the difference between them and those who had not been so fortunate and did not make it up onto the pedestal where you were perched.

I grew up a tomboy…my Papa’s son that he never had. I was quite content to be outside playing with the older boys and the one or two other girls who lived in my neighborhood….but we weren’t playing dolls. We were looking for adventure…or whatever came our way and we definitely were playing by the guys set of rules. Of course, I imagine part of that had not only to do with the fact they outnumbered us, but also the times we lived in.

Now, despite my affinity for snips, snails and puppy-dog tails…my Mama was unrelenting and insistent that in order to buy time for my more favored pursuits, I had to accommodate her demands and suffer the lessons…both those learned at home and formally. I can even remember getting hauled to the beauty parlor before I was old enough to attend school. I hated that place, it stunk of hair dyes and permanent wave solutions….and there were all those nosy, gossipy women there. More than that, the things they did to ya hurt your head as well as your pride and if you complained, they admonished you with this line, “You have to suffer to be beautiful”. Who came up with that idea…well, they must have been afflicted with some sorta disorder, IMHO.

I sat quietly, though…because you took less flak if you did…and I listened to all the nosy rosies and their gossip. If’n ya ask me…that was no place for a little girl to be, for some of those conversations…well, I think they forgot any children were around. Suffice it to say, that I heard plenty of the gossip that went around the town…and some of the things weren’t just tall tales, they were true.

I can vividly remember the first time I recall having encountered some of my home towns infamous ‘ladies of the evening’, who were no ladies, who the other ‘ladies’ said were worse than hussies and who didn’t really dress, walk, talk or act like any of the grown-up women I had ever encountered before. That’s what made ’em . . . interesting!

I think I was eleven or twelve years old….because I had ridden my bicycle to town with a friend to shop at the only large department store there. It was just about the only really ‘nice’ place we had to shop for clothes, shoes, fabrics, housewares and/or things needed and coveted by women, like makeup and perfumes.

I can’t remember what I had purchased that day, but I can clearly remember being at the counter getting ready to sign a ‘charge’ slip for my purchase. This particular check-out counter was right next to ladies lingerie. I signed my name to the slip and was making my way outta the store with my friend when they caught my eyes and we froze dead in our tracks…because we’d never seen anything like ’em.

There they were…five or six of them. Their hair was colored like no one’s we had ever seen in any visit to the beauty parlor…they had way too much makeup on – I mean, they put on way more than we did in our inexperience when playing at it. Whatever fragrances they were wearing…well, the smell lingered in the air behind them as they sashayed amongst the displays. At that moment, they were examining some red high heeled satin bedroom slippers trimmed with marabou feathers dyed to the same loud color of red. My friend and I, both with eyes wide and big as saucers were staring at them by that time….and then we looked at one another as if to see if they other one was thinking the same thing. Are they? Do ya think so? Really….I mean right here in the middle of ‘our’ store?

We dared not say a word, because we didn’t wanna call attention to the fact we were staring, and risk that one of the sales ladies might come along and send us on our way. You see…those sales ladies, who were usually friendly and more than accommodating, seemed quite displeased with having to wait on these particular customers, despite receiving a commission on their sales. We moved along a little bit and hid behind a half-mannequin garbed in a pink brassiere and sitting on a table full of brassieres and girdles. There, we could whisper to one another if we were careful…and hid behind the mannequin with the pink brassiere. After a quick, whispered exchange, we were sure…these were some of the women from those ‘houses’ we had heard the older women talking about with disdain in the beauty parlor, at their luncheons to which we had been drug along, and in their homes…always in whispered tones, almost like it wasn’t even decent to talk about them. We watched as long as we dared, and after watching them go in and out of the dressing rooms with various bustiers, slippers and dressing gowns which were equally loud, gaudy and frequently trimmed with sequins and/or those marabou feathers…decided to make our way into ladies better dresses ‘fore we got caught gawking at them and suffered a fate worse than death – a saleslady calling our mothers.

We pretended to be browsing through those suits, cocktail dresses and ball gowns, but all the while we were sneaking a peak every chance we got to see what else they were up to. They finished in lingerie and made their way over to the make-up counter. We saw our chance for a closer look and darted to housewares and fabrics which was right next to the make-up counter so we could watch them. Those ladies were picking out make-up in shades we had never seen any other woman – lady or not – in our town wear. They were also were picking up some more perfumes. Though we couldn’t see which kind, we were sure that we were smelling it, because there was a heavy, cloying smell in the air from them busily sashaying around that area as well.

They finished there. We watched them pay and walk out the door. Times must have been good for the ‘houses’, because those ladies had loaded up and were carrying as many or more packages than we ever saw anyone with leaving the department store. We followed…in a move bolder than we usually could muster. If we got caught following ….hookers about…there would be some serious repercussions that were gonna be much worse than wearing white shoes after Labor Day, we were sure.

Those ladies just went parading down the street, drawing stares from those passing by in their cars. We lingered back, so as not to appear obvious about following them. By now, our curiousity about where they would go next overcame our good thinking and the admonitions of propriety steeped into our heads by the grand dames of the town. They were laughing and giggling, sorta like what girls would do – and they didn’t seem to mind at all if they were considered loud, or gaudy, or getting the ‘wrong’ kinda attention. We wondered why they hadn’t come to town in a car, as they were all old enough to drive and we certainly wouldn’t have ridden bikes to town if we were old enough to use the car.

We followed them only for a couple of blocks and watched them turn and go right into one of the big, older houses in town – right next to a church, less than half block away from the place where we took dancing lessons and on the same side of the street as the public library! OMG….we gasped. Were they going to someone’s home? Would they be received…or turned away? We could tell from the reception they got from the salesladies in the store that they also recognized these …floosies…and were displeased enough about having to wait on them, enough that some forgot about their commission and had gone on coffee breaks or to run errands elsewhere in the store.

We waited, expecting some big row when the folks who lived in that house went to the door as discovered ‘ladies of the evening’ in the bright daylight as the guests who were calling. To our surprise…they opened the door and walked right in. We waited for about fifteen minutes to see if they were trespassing and would be discovered and evicted. Nothing happened…no one came out. We wondered if this could possibly be…their home…or even worse, was it one of those ‘houses’ we’d heard tell of? We never found out that day and had to walk all the way back to where our bikes were.

Once we got home, we went outside where we figured it would be ‘safe’ to discuss what we say without the housekeeper hearing anything or having to worry if my mother would walk in and hear us discussing ‘the forbidden’. We concluded that place must be one of those ‘houses’…but the only thing was…dare they…would they really dare to have one of those places…right downtown and next door to a church? We knew that liquor and cigarettes got sold to anyone who could reach the counter with the price of them. We knew there were gambling establishments in town for sure. Shucks…there were slot machines in the grocery stores, the filling stations…even at the bait stands if you went fishing. But this…this must surely be an even worse affront to the sensibilities of the town….how would they allow ‘that’?

We also were secretly kinda jealous of these women who didn’t seem to have to abide by any of the myriad of ‘rules’ that were imposed on the other women & girls of the town if they wanted to be considered ‘ladies’. They seemed to have a certain air of independence, confidence… a devil may care attitude that was alien to us, but still, well….interesting.

It wasn’t until perhaps six or seven years later, when we were considered sufficiently grown to hear such things that we learned some of those ‘ladies of the evening’ at times stumbled into that church on Sunday mornings. I heard that some of the congregants actually got up and moved so as not to sit next to them…but I reckon the Lord was glad to see them show up once in a while. That wasn’t the only ‘house’ in my home town. There were lots of others…and those weren’t the only ‘ladies of the evening’ that I encountered before I left the town.

When I was in high school, there was even an expose’ done in a major magazine about crime in the parish where I lived, and they talked about those ‘houses’ in that article. One of the highest elected officials there was interviewed about the rampant gambling and prostitution. I understand that he wiped his lips with his handkerchief before answering the reporter. Then, he came back with this reply, “Well, what’s wrong with a little ……..(now, you know I cannot come out and say it just like him)?

After that came out in the magazine, my Pa …away from my Mama, of course…he showed me a picture he’d taken. He always carried a camera with him, and once after a terrific storm, the S & H greenstamps sign that was in front of the neighborhood grocery across from that brothel blew across the street and into it’s yard. My Pa, always the clown…well, he sat that sign upright in the yard of that…house of ill repute…and snapped the picture. That’s when I learned that particular house was referred to as “Maggie’s”….I suppose named aptly for the one who ran it.

Once I got to college and out of that town, I learned more about prostitution and the ladies who entered ‘the oldest profession’. I even interviewed one once, at one of my first jobs. That made me kinda feel badly about the way we’d stared at those poor women and they way they’d been treated by the otherwise affable salesladies, who acted like they had the plague. I wished that I’d have had the gumption to talk to one of them, just to get to know them and more about them…just like they were anyone else.

Their crimes didn’t hurt anyone else – after all, it wasn’t them cheating on their spouses, nor sneaking behind anyone’s back. They figured they were entrepreneurs, just doing their jobs, and hoping every once in a while that even if the ‘good’ people of the town who weren’t their patrons judged ’em harshly…they might not be judged the same way when it came to the hereafter. Considering all the women I’ve know who had a ‘boyfriend’ or a ‘sugar daddy’ supporting them just because of their, er…relationship and still were deemed acceptable ladies, I’ve long since decided that at least those women were honest, they made no bones about what they were doing.

Soooo…this is dedicated to those painted, plumed and shady ladies of my home town, who looked something like this:

Last edited by katie on May 3, 2011, 3:47 pm

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2 responses to The Whorehouse That Gave S & H Greenstamps

  1. Another of your snapshots-in-time. Forgotten memories that linger still.
    Little did we know, eh?

    Nice style, nice read, absorbing for anybody that enjoys stepping out of their own skin and Time, and viewing this crazy world through a different lens.

    Enjoyed it.

  2. Very fun story Katie. You captured the feeling of pre-teen excitement so well with the scene in the department store. And the idea of a green stamp sign in the yard of the house – wish you could post that pic!!

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